Wednesday, February 29, 2012

book review: "1Q84" by haruki murakami

This blog isn't just about life in Antarctica; it's about life in general, so time to change things up a bit!

I'm an avid reader (a self-proclaimed bibliophile, if you please), and I generally devour books like they're a particularly good chocolate: quickly and with no guilt. But every so often I find a book that needs to be savored, read slowly so that every word has time to sink into my soul.

1Q84, the newest novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, was not a book that I originally wanted to read. I'd read Murakami before (A Wild Sheep Chase), and enjoyed it. But at a whopping 944 pages, and weighing in at almost 3 lbs, this book seemed more like a bludgeoning weapon than something I wanted to spend my time on. But thanks to the insistence of some friends, and a few very positive book reviews, I decided to give it a shot.

In short, the novel follows Aomame, a young woman with a special talent for killing men, and Tengo, a man who teaches math but wants to be a novelist, as they live their lives without knowing that their lives are constantly overlapping. Aomame finds herself in a strange new world, a world with two moons, which she dubs 1Q84-- the Q is for Question, because she's not sure where she is, or how she got to this world from her own 1984. Meanwhile, Tengo agrees to act as a ghostwriter for a novel by a young woman, Fuka-Eri, only the novel may not be fiction after all.

I was captivated by this book within the first five minutes of picking it up. The plot is intriguing and original, the characters are fresh and quirky. The translators did an excellent job of keeping things Japanese, but making them understandable to an American audience. And the plot never gets stagnant; while there were times that I found myself skipping a paragraph or two of non-essential narrative, I never once found myself bored, which is rare in a book of this size! Every chapter leaves you eager for the next, and more than once I found myself sacrificing sleep to get through a few more pages.

To summarize this review, A+ read, and highly recommended! As NPR puts it, "1Q84 is a gorgeous festival of words arranged for maximum comprehension and delicious satisfaction".

Sunday, February 26, 2012

rest in peace

Over the weekend, tragedy struck another Antarctic station. The Brazillian station Comandante Ferraz caught fire and was almost completely destroyed, taking two lives. As my co-worker Michael put it, "it's a grim reminder of how fragile our existence is down here".

Two killed after fire breaks out at Brazilian research station in Antarctica (via Daily Mail UK)

Fire is our biggest enemy on the Ice, because everything is very dry and we almost always face very high winds. McMurdo has faced a few fires in recent years, but thankfully none have resulted in loss of life. Antarctica can be a dangerous place, as I've said a dozen times before, and people die or are seriously injured here almost every year. This story is a reminder of how careful we need to be, and exactly how dangerous this beautiful continent can be if we're not.

Monday, February 20, 2012

vessel offload, part one

The biggest event of the year for the Supply Department (where I work) is the annual Cargo Vessel Offload.

This year's cargo ship is the Green Wave, as I previously posted about. It's currently in port and in the process of offloading almost 300 shipping containers of supplies and food, as well as several new vehicles for our station!

Between the bad weather (it's not offload if it's not blowing snow!) and the long hours (12-hour shifts for day and night crews), it's definitely a challenge. But the team I'm working with is fantastic, and the work is really interesting!

On February 19, I did a "Day in the Life", where I recorded my entire day from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to bed. Here are a few highlights from that day:

6 AM, and the dayshift crew assembles in our warming hut at the Ballpark (our work site).

We dive into work right away. The entire morning is spent moving drums from shipping containers to their locations nearby.

These first drums are on pallets at least... much easier to use a forklift than to move them by hand!

Shortly before lunch, we finally move on to boxes of cargo. This is all stuff for our store and recreation department.

It's finally noon, and off to lunch!

After lunch, it's back to work. This is "Fat Cat", a huge forklift that can handle up to 50,000 lbs of cargo at a time!

The weather starts to get worse in the afternoon, and a Condition 2 is called. This means visibility is dropping and unsafe conditions may be present... we keep working, but are extra cautious. Not even a blizzard can stop vessel offload! Another forklift takes away empty containers, which are quickly replaced by full ones.

Until finally it's 6 PM, and we're relieved by the night shift! No ride this time... it's a long walk down the hill to dinner.

I usually crash by about 8:30 PM, so I can get a full night of sleep before being up the next morning. After a long day in the snow, it's all I can do to keep my eyes open through dinner and make it back to my room!

Tomorrow, hopefully, I'll post more pictures off offload. It's a really interesting process, and I've had the chance to see it from several different angles.

There is a lovely news story from TVNZ that can be found at this link, showing offload from the New Zealand side of things, as we deliver many supplies to the nearby Scott Base, and many New Zealand Defense Force workers come down to help us out during this busy time!

You can also follow live still-frame video from our three webcams to see Vessel Offload in real time!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

four ships in mcmurdo harbor

This February, McMurdo Station has been visited by four ships. Three of them are regular visitors each summer: an ice breaker, which comes in to break up the winter ice in the bay; a refueling vessel, which brings the winter supply of fuel; and a cargo vessel, which is loaded with shipping containers of supplies for the winter and upcoming summer seasons. And this year, we also had a visit from the Palmer, as I previously posted about.

the Vladimir Ignatyuk. picture by unknown.

The I/B Vladimir Ignatyuk. is a Russian ice-breaker on lease to the NSF this year. Previously, we had a Norwegian ship called the Oden. This ship has cut a huge path through the ice in the harbor to allow the other ships to come through, and also dragged our (now-disconnected from the land) Ice Pier away.

the Maersk Perry. picture by me.

The Maersk Perry is our refueling ship this season. It brings down enough fuel to power the station for the entire winter, plus extra for emergencies. It also brought down special fuel for the ice-breaker, and other types of fuel that we use for some of our vehicles on station.

the Nathaniel B. Palmer. picture by me.

The R/VIB Nathaniel B. Palmer was only in port for one night, as I previously posted about. It plays a huge role in USAP operations: not only is it home to many scientists who are studying the oceans around Antarctica, but it also regularly crosses the Drake Passage between Chile and Antarctica to transport people to Palmer Station and various field camps on the peninsula.

the Green Wave. picture by unknown.

The Green Wave is our cargo vessel this year. After a rocky start and a couple of problems on the way, it finally arrived into port last night, and vessel offload is due to begin tomorrow. Offload is a week-long (or more) operation, where we work in teams to pull cargo containers off of the ship and get them unloaded so they can be filled with outgoing cargo and trash and sent back to the US.

The three ships (the ice breaker, fuel vessel, and cargo vessel) are essential to the continued survival of McMurdo Station, the South Pole station, and the various field camps that these stations support. They bring us fuel to power the station and to make clean drinking water, food for us to eat, and science cargo for the various grantees to utilize in the field.

Also, in a town where outside visitors are rare, boats are pretty exciting to see!

And just to add to my previous post about the Ice Pier explosion, a video that I found on the Common Drive of the explosion:

Sunday, February 12, 2012

blowing stuff up, mcmurdo style

Is an explanation really necessary for this post? On Saturday night, McMurdo Station blew up a bunch of ice, and it was awesome.

disclaimer: I don't know who took these pictures, they were found on the common picture drive. If these are yours, please let me know!

Okay, the long story: McMurdo generally relies on an Ice Pier to handle the docking of the various ships that visit our harbor. This past winter, though, the pier didn't freeze enough, and it was declared too unstable to use this season. The decision was made to separate it from the mainland (hence the explosion) and drag it to the end of Hut Point (with the help of our Ice Breaker), where it's out of the way, but where it can be reached this coming winter when crews will attempt to salvage it.

Friday, February 10, 2012

all aboard the nathaniel b. palmer!

The research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer came into port at McMurdo Station yesterday! Named after the first American to lay eyes on Antarctica, the Palmer is a combination ice-breaker/research platform that is run by the NSF. It was only in port for one night, but a few lucky townies got to go aboard for a top-to-bottom tour of the ship!

the palmer, docked at the ice pier

our tour guide, an oceanographer who's done several tours on the palmer

the science labs

the galley, which was stocked with tasty-looking chilean treats!

very cramped living quarters... and you thought south pole jamesways were small!

up on the bridge, looking out into the harbor

looking out at beautiful blue water, and whales!

saying goodbye to the ship

Now I just need to get out to Palmer Station to complete the set! Thanks to the crew and scientists of the R/V Palmer for a great tour, and safe journey ahead of you!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

whale watching and delta driving

The end of last week was full of new and exciting things, and made me remember why I love Antarctica so much.

First, on Friday, there was excitement at Hut Point, the peninsula that borders McMurdo on one side. My co-worker and I watched from our window as a crowd of people gathered at the point in the middle of the afternoon, so we decided to shrug on our coats and hats and dash out to join them!

Nature in Antarctica is amazing to behold, and whales are the main focus at this time of the year. Orcas and Minkes can be seen every day as the ice in the harbor breaks out to sea. On this day, a group of orcas was attacking a few seals on the ice edge.

Alas, by the time we got out there, most of the whales were gone. We relaxed in the nice, warm (relative, by Antarctic standards) weather, and watched the ice and waves instead.

a whale fin, one of about half a dozen breaches we saw

the ice edge, just outside of town

some interestesting ice melt

we passed 'discovery hut' on our way back into town

we also passed the loading bay for the cargo vessel, which is due to arrive in ten days

Then on Saturday, I receiving training on the Delta vehicles, which are monster trucks that can carry a few dozen passengers. The wheels alone are almost as tall as I am!

heading out on the ice road for some practice

behind the wheel. driving something this big is a bit terrifying!

The next week should have more fun stuff in it. There's an ice breaker in dock right now, the second of five ships we expect to have in McMurdo Harbor this month (and an upcoming post unto itself), and the Nathaniel B. Palmer, one of the U.S.A.P. research vessel's, is due into town for a short docking period on Feb. 10. Our cargo vessel is due in between the 14 and the 16, and a cruise ship with tourists may make an appearance soon as well!

Add to that the usual everyday adventures of Antarctica, and I think some interesting things are in my future!

Friday, February 3, 2012

a room with a view

This post is for my sister Sarah, who told me that I need to blog more often about the things I do in Antarctica! Miss you, sis!

My boss called me into his office last week and asked, "Michelle, are you interested in going to Room With a View? There's an open spot for tonight's trip."

"What on earth is Room With a View?" I asked, picturing a small house on a cliff somewhere, overlooking the water, quaint and cheerful.

I was half right. Room With a View, I was informed, is a four hour boondoggle trip outside of town, accessible only by snowmobiles on a thirteen-mile-long snow road. It's not a room at all, and it's not quaint or cheerful, but it does have one heck of a view overlooking the water! The Room sits about 1,400 feet on the slope of Mount Erebus (an active volcano on the other side of Ross Island), and has a 360 degree view with some amazing scenery!

a quick pic in front of Mt. Erebus... it was a warm enough day that I didn't really need the jacket! (you can faintly see the volcano smoking)

our skidoo caravan, speeding along the snow

there was a faint sundog (light ring around the sun) right over the open water in the bay

some of the islands are seal colonies where scientists go to do research. you can also make out the Erebus ice tongue, which is a huge glacier that flows into the sea!

Boondoggles are fairly rare on station, but every so often we get the chance to escape from town for a few hours and go somewhere new, whether it's Room With a View, or a quick "sleigh ride" to the South Pole, or maybe a helicopter ride to one of the field camps!