Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas everyone!

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas, hopefully as merry as ours

The evening started with champagne and strawberry wine apéritif, then went on to a gargantuan dinner (carpaccio, snails, salmon tagliatelle, poire wiliam sorbet, capriolo with potato gratin, nougat mousse) and an evening of dancing.

Maybe the dinner, maybe the alcohol, maybe the dancing, I'm not sure what it was, but I ended up sleeping until well into the afternoon the next day, completely missing another gargantuan meal for Christmas lunch !!

This is going to be a short post, as tomorrow is our first field visit to the CASE stations (no such thing as Boxing Day out here...). We leave in the morning, and shall stay out the whole day. We have finished preparations, and are all getting an early night to be fit and ready for tomorrow.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Gearing up for Christmas...

Two days to Christmas, and the nose is still firmly to the grindstone. It looks like we might finally be centering in on the problem with the datalogger, and that it might be caused by a faulty component. A replacement is being sent to us via another person from my lab, who is leaving France to come here on December 30th. We are keeping our fingers crossed that they will both arrive ok.

Christmas seems to be a big affair out here. We have two trees covered with tinsel in the dining room (trees?? on the Antarctic plateau?), and plenty of foil-based decorations strewn on the walls and dropping from the ceiling, accumulating static electricity and zapping every other person than walks by. Someone has decided that Christmas music should be played during meals... personally, I think that is going a bit too far...

We are going to have a special Christmas dinner tomorrow night. We are supposed to stop work at 4pm, in order to get ourselves washed and prettified for the evening (the cooks have requested that we be smartly dressed, which given the effort they are putting into making the dinner is only fair). We start with an apéritif at 7:30 (we have been strongly encouraged to attend - maybe that means they will break out the last of the Champagne ??), then go on to dinner and a Christmas Eve party.

I'm charging my camera batteries this evening so as to be able to send you pictures of the event. For now you will have to make do with this picture of me walking back from the seismic shelter (the yellow blob in the background). The sky is blue and featureless, the snow is white, featureless and flat, and there is a lot of both. That's Dome C for you: nothing as far as the eye can see... spectacular!

Monday, December 22, 2008

A data logger with a problem

You may recall from my descriptions of the seismic observatory at Concordia in last year's blog posts, that we have two seismometers down there, each connected to a different data logger. Both have worked reasonably well over the course of 2008, considering the conditions they run in (those of you who have kept up to date with know this already).

However, on December 10th, for no apparent reason, one of the data loggers (a Q4120) stopped working. We have been trying to deal with the problem remotely (i.e. sitting warmly in our lab at the base, and working over a wireless connection to the seismology shelter that is 1km away) since we got here on the 18th, but have had little success. Last Saturday, the machine decided it no longer wanted to talk to us over the network, so we strolled over to the shelter (err... trudged would be more appropriate in my case, I'm not yet fully acclimatized to the altitude) to try to fix the problem. To no avail.

It was obvious that we would not be able to fix the recording system at the shelter, and that it needed to be brought back to the lab. However, carrying it over that distance by hand was not a viable proposition, so we simply prepared it for transport and left it there, knowing we would have to come back with some transport system to pick it up.

The route to the seismic shelter goes past several other scientific shelters, including one in which the air is continually filtered and its composition measured. Because of this particular experiment, we are not permitted to take a vehicle along the route, and so (in all but exceptional circumstances) have to carry equipment to and from our shelter on foot, either in backpacks or on sledges.

We went back to the shelter this morning, in order to pick up the faulty data logger. The photo above was taken this morning, and shows the Q4120 being pulled along by a volunteer Sherpa, a glaciologist by the name of Bruno who is much better acclimatized than either my colleague Maxime or myself. The data logger is now sitting on a table our the lab at the base, with all its innards visible, and cables strung across the room to various other bits of equipment. We have made some small progress to getting it working again, thanks mainly to valuable suggestions from our colleagues in Europe and the the manufacturer himself, but we're not finished yet!

PS: I must still have been over-tired when writing yesterday's post. Of course the picture in that post is not of Mount Ross (which is on Kerguelen Island in the sub-Antarctic) but of Mount Erebus, on Ross Island in Antarctica.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunday insomnia

Days of the week swiftly loose their meaning when you are cut off from the rest of the world. Just as we try to keep a normal 24 hour daily schedule, we also try to keep a normal weekly schedule. Sundays are set up to be a day of rest: breakfast is from 8 to 10 am instead of from 7 to 8 am on weekdays, the evening meal is a buffet of the previous week's left-overs to give the cooks a half-day off duty.

It is very hard to stop working during a summer campaign, as there is a great deal to do in the limited time we have up here. It is common for most people to work 7 days a week, with the only change being a slightly later start on Sundays. Although this rhythm cannot be sustained eternally, most of us try to keep it up for the 4 to 6 weeks of our campaigns.

However, if you add to this situation fatigue caused by insufficient adaptation to altitude, by sickness, or simply by lack of sleep, then you can end up in trouble, as I found out to my expense this morning.

After lying awake from 2 to 5 AM unable to get back to sleep, I thought I would get up and start my day. I've not had a decent night's sleep since arriving here. This morning, instead of doing something harmless - like doing some TaiChi or Yoga, or simply browsing the comic book collection in the common room - I decided that I should get started on some of the work that had been buzzing around my brain all those hours.

On a Sunday morning... At 5 AM... After fewer than 3 hours sleep...

Well, the obvious happened, and I messed up. I was overly confident in my abilities, did not take enough care to check all the premises of the line of thought I was pursuing, and eventually made a big mistake. It was not an extremely serious mistake, and it was corrected easily enough later in the day, but it did lead to the loss of about 10 hours of secondary data from the only working seismometer at the CCD observatory. Not the end of the world, granted, but I should have known better!

Lesson to be learned: lack of oxygen, lack of sleep and excess confidence are a disastrous combination! I shall have to work hard on the third element in the next few days, at least until I develop a regular and restorative sleeping pattern.

PS: The image is of Mount Ross, taken from the airport at McMurdo.

Friday, December 19, 2008

First full day at work

We all know it takes a while to get used to the conditions up here at Dome C, so we gave ourselves a good... err... 36 hours rest and planning time before getting down to the nitty-gritty stuff.

Yesterday we spent the day reviewing the status of both the CCD observatory station and the autonomous CASE field stations, and digging up lots of information that somehow never made it to Strasbourg. We had a number of surprises, some good, some less good, but by the end of the day we had an adequate mental picture of the current status and the work ahead.

Today we have worked on improving the radio connection to the CASE stations, and updating the firmware on the Q330 acquisition system at the observatory station. I shall spare you the technical details (they are being written up for our collaborators back home) and just say we should see the results of these changes in the next day or so.

The snow and ice around Concordia are flat for as far as the eye can see, which makes for poor photographic opportunities. In order to spice things up a bit, I've posted above a picture I took on the flight from Christchurch to McMurdo, in which you can see a stunning mountain range framed by the C-130's window.

What surprised me was the sharpness of the features, with the mountain crests standing out like knife edges. In some places we could see huge glaciers snaking their way down from the crests, with sets of curved crevasses showing the direction of flow. The excellent visibility made for a superb show, which went a long way to easing the boredom of the noisy 7 1/2 hour flight!!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Jet lag and then some !

Greetings from Concordia!!

We arrived safe and sound last night, in the aircraft shown above (a very comfortable DC3). The journey to get here has been long and tiring (3.5 days of flying), with a lot of waiting around between planes and little sleep, but it has been otherwise uneventful. There are a great many people here this year who were also here last year, which made for a good reunion.

We are now happily installed at Dome C. It will take a few days to get over the jet lag (we've changed time-zones so often in the past four days we're totally confused) and to get used to the altitude (sleeping is difficult, any physical activity makes my head spin right now) and the 24 hour sunlight.

Dome C hasn't changed much from last year: it's still as flat and white as ever! Little has changed at Concordia base itself either, except that women now have a proper toilet they can use, and no longer have to rely on buckets: hooray for civilization !!

I should go start my day now. A quiet one as far as work goes, as it is important not do overdo things for the first few days. My task for the day: figure out where everything has moved to during the winter, and what the status of all our instruments is.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Stopover in Hong Kong

Having been traveling now for a little over 24 hours, we have now completed the second of the six legs of the trip that will take us to Concordia. There are 7 of us on this trip, though only 2 from Strasbourg. We met up at the airport in Paris, and shall travel as a group all the way to Concordia.

The voyage has been good so far, with a comfortable aircraft and good weather for our morning walkabout in Hong Kong today. This year's impressions of Hong Kong reflect those I had a year ago: a very disturbing place by virtue of the juxtaposition of poverty and squalor with luxury and modernity.

Three of us have come back to the airport early, leaving the others to explore more widely. In the lounge we have been given access to thanks to IPEV, we are enjoying comfortable armchairs, internet, food, and even the access to showers. We are stocking up on comfort for the next two legs of the trip: another long haul flight to Auckland, then on to Christchurch.

Next update from New Zealand!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

30kg for six weeks

Less than one day left, and I have just finished packing my bags for 6 weeks in Antarctica. All the cold weather gear is supplied by IPEV (the French polar institute) and should be waiting for me in Christchurch NZ. I go through Paris, Hong Kong and Auckland to Christchurch, then fly to McMurdo, and then on to Concordia, so there will be no seasick posts from the Astrolabe this year - yay! The rest of the stuff I am taking is shown below:

And here is what it all packs down to:

Not bad, eh? It all weighs in at under 30kg (of which 9kg are scientific material we shall need in the first two weeks at Concordia): so whoever said girls cannot travel light should think again.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not quite finished packing: I am still missing the warm socks I got during last year's trip and my pocket knife, both of which are probably in my office. At least I hope they are, for I don't much fancy leaving without them!

PS: Found the socks. Still no knife...

PPS: Phew! Finally found the knife! It was at home after all...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sunday Seismometer digest

Just a quick post to announce the appearance of the Sunday seismometer digest, a pdf version of the Sunday Seismometer series.

Heads up

Hello everyone!

Yes, I'm still here... although you would be pardoned for thinking
I'd dropped off the planet somewhere... I can't believe it has been
three months since I last posted anything!

Just a quick heads up to let you know I'm off to Antarctica again,
and leaving this Sunday. This year's trip won't be quite the
adventure it was last year, as I know what I'm getting into this time
round! I shall keep you posted...

In the meantime, in keeping with the current Wordle craze, here is
one of the projects that has kept me from blogging over the past
three months (my latest contribution to the technical literature in

Any guesses on the topic of this paper??