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Astrophysics Science Division | Sciences and Exploration

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TIGER in Antarctica, November 16, 2003

A Busy Day Off

Inside the Firehouse It may be a day off, but there's a lot I want to do today. First thing is sleep late (Yeah!). On Sunday, they have a brunch that goes from 10 am till 2 PM. Before 10, all you can get is cold cereal. I wake up about 8:30 (instead of my usual 5:30) and take a really long shower. McMurdo used to have regulated short showers (one minute to wet down, turn off the water and soap up, then one minute to rinse). Now a new water plant has made that a thing of the past. The pole is still under those water restrictions, however. At the brunch, I have a waffle with strawberries and fresh whipped cream. Waffles are only made on Sunday here.

Open House at the Fire Station

Eric with axe At noon, the fire station is having an open house. Despite the brunch, I eat some of the Firehouse Chili (very good). I then head over to where they have the red hood of a truck on the ground. It starts off looking in very good shape, but implements of destruction are at hand. They have both a rescue axe (which can make smallish holes in the hood), and then jaws-of-life. I used the jaws-of-life last year (see A Day Off), so this time I wield the axe for a while, which pierces the hood pretty easily.

Eric swinging a rescue axe at a truck hood

Then there is a maze. The maze would be trivially easy if you didn't have to put on full firefighter gear first, including an oxygen tank. First up some stairs and then across rafters like you would find in an attic. Then through vertical 2x4 joists as in a typical wall, including "electrical wires" which prevent you from having a full vertical extent. I am not exactly small, and getting my shoulders, plus the full insulated raincoat and the oxygen tank through these joists took quite a bit of manuevering. Then there is an L-shaped box with cross bars that I didn't find too difficult, followed by a section of the corrugated tube that is used for culverts. This was a very close fit for me and actually propelling oneself is difficult. You need to stretch your arms above your head, and crawl on your belly using your fingers and toes to squirm you forward. Getting through a diagonal sections under the rafters finishes the maze.

Eric in Firegear Since I've got all the gear already on, they send me directly to the search and rescue challenge. I get a partner (a woman who I never see very well because she's got full gear on too) and we're sent upstairs to rescue a "downed fireman". His alarm (which sounds if a fireman is motionless for thirty seconds) is going off, and there's a firehose that leads to him. But they've filled the upstairs of the firehouse (which is their living quarters) with smoke. You have to go up the stairs on your hands and knees, pounding on every step to make sure that it is still there. Visibility, even if you stay low, is not good, and the gear makes it even worse. Plus you have one hand holding the flashlight, and one on the fire hose, and one on your partner.

After making it up the stairs, and having a side excursion through a men's room (I'm really not used to crawling around on the floor of men's rooms), we end up in one of the bedrooms. Bunkbeds have fallen over and there is a dummy "trapped" underneath it. We get it out, but it is awkward. It weighs considerably less than a real human (maybe 70 lbs), but is full sized and not easy to drag. I end up throwing it over my shoulder (using my fourth hand, if you're counting) and get it to the stairs. Then down the stairs carefully (carefully for me, not the dummy: drag, thump, drag, thump ...). Between the maze and the rescue I have gotten a real workout. The gear is heavy and very hot. I am sweating profusely and quite tired.
Eric in full firegear

Aquarium But the day is far from over. At 2 PM they have a tour of the Crary lab, the main science building here in town. The Mt. Erebus crater cam is not working at the moment, so the aquarium is the most interesting part of the tour. They don't have a touch-me tank this year, but there are a lot of interesting specimens in holding tanks. I've got some pictures on the wildlife webpage.

One of the holding tanks in the Aquarium

After dinner, there is a science talk on the sub-glacial lakes (such as Lake Vostok) which occur under the ice cap. It's hard to believe that these have only really been taken seriously in the last 10 years. Now it looks as though there are more than 100 of them, including one only about 10 km from the south pole. These are 3000-4000 meters under the ice, and geothermal energy may play a part in keeping them liquid. There is also evidence that they have bacterial life. There is an international plan to study and even sample some of these lakes, but they are doing things slowly to try and be as careful as possible. Lake Vostok was discovered when a deep drill hole from the Russians entered a region of ice that was different than glacial. This turns out to be the refreezing of the lake on the glacier above it. It is lucky that they didn't break through into the lake, but the kerosene that was used as a lubricant and pressure relief in the drill hole may contaminate things unless they are very careful. For more information, you can see

NASA is also very interested in these sub-glacial lakes because they may be analogs to the under-ice sea that may be on Europa.


Dr. Eric R. Christian
Washington, DC 20546 USA
This page was last modified on November 17, 2003