Friday, July 08, 2005

Chapter 16 - Dear Washington Junior High...

08 February 90
Dear Washington Junior High 6th Grade Class,

My name is Dave Gallas. I am originally from Clarendon Hills, but when I'm back in the U.S. I now live in Naperville. I first came down here to Palmer in October 1988. I have had a couple of small vacations since then, but only on our resupply ship the R/V Polar Duke and also one week in Chile this last October.

My job here at Palmer Station is Communications Technician. This involves working with the stations radios and computers. We send traffic daily via satellite into the main computer in Florida and also receive traffic over the satellite. Radio communications are made with the Polar Duke on a daily basis except when she is in port in Punta Arenas. For the past month, the Polar Duke has been at McMurdo Station on the other side of the continent and so we have not kept a daily schedule with her.

We also contact science groups in remote areas to make sure they are alright. One group is on King George Island on the Arktowski Peninsula studying penguins. Another group is on Seal Island studying birds and seals. On Palmer now, there are two different groups studying birds. One group is studying kelp gulls, south polar skuas and sheathbills and another group is studying Adelie penguins.

Since we do not have a meteorological person here, the communications also does the weather observations. These weather observations are passed onto the British Antarctic Survey Station at Faraday in the Argentine Islands. They are located about 30 miles from Palmer. Faraday collects weather observations from all stations in our area. This information is passed along by radio and then onto the Chilean station on King George Island, Marsh Base so they can draw up their weather maps and make weather predictions for the planes and ships in the area. The weather information is also passed along to the U.S. National Weather service in Washington D.C.

January and February are the busiest part of the austral summer for us. The weather is as nice as it will get to be and we have many visits by tourist ships and private yachts. This letter will be hand-carried back to the U.S. by a tourist. The summer is also a busy time for the scientists since all of the wildlife comes back to breed and raise their young. On station right now we have only 38 people, but we are able to hold up to 43. There are 10 women and the rest men.

During the austral winter, from May until October, the station population is much smaller. Not so much science is conducted during the winter here at Palmer. Most of the science that was conducted this last winter (June-September) was conducted on the ship. The Polar Duke would take the different science groups out to gather specimens and then drop them off to take the other group or groups out.

During the austral winter the sun does not even rise above the glacier behind the station. Most days were overcast and when we did have sunlight, it was only from about 10:30 until 1:30-2:00 p.m. With the clear winter skies and clean cold air the stars are easy to see. I wish I knew more about the Southern Constellations. Having never been south of the equator before, I never realized that many of the common constellations we look for and know are not always visible.

I have really enjoyed living in Antarctica for the past 17 months. I have had the chance to see many different things. The wildlife is beautiful. In our area we have Adelie penguins, chinstrap penguins, some gentoo penguins in the winter, blue eyed shags (cormorants), giant petrels, Wilson storm petrels, south polar and brown skuas, sheathbills, Antarctic terns, kelp gulls, elephant seals in the summer, fur seals in the winter, crab eater seals, leopard seals, Weddell seals, humpback whales, minke whales and orcas. I know this isn't all that is here, but as many as I can remember now. The humpback whales are always passing through in the summer. Three weeks ago we had three humpbacks that were only about 100 feet off of the station. They were feeding on krill and uninterested entertaining us on station.

Along with the abundant wildlife, we also see the predator and prey. With so many penguins, it is only natural that we would also have leopard seals. I have more than once seen a leopard seal capture a penguin from the window here and shake the penguin out of its skin. I also had the chance to see a two-week old baby penguin snatched out from under its parent by a skua. These are not the kind of scenes that can be seen at the zoo!

Unlike many other parts of Antarctica, the peninsula has a warmer climate and more precipitation. Among many of the people here and on other stations on the continent it is know as the banana belt because of our "warm climate". Our summer temperatures this year have gone as high as 8.7 degrees Celsius. During the past couple of weeks we have also had quite a bit of rain. I am sending along a chart that I have made about the weather here. I hope it gives you all an idea of the type of climate we live in on this part of the large continent of Antarctica.

The coldest temperature on record at Palmer is minus 40 degrees Celsius. This last winter we came nowhere near that. According to the records of the British Antarctic Survey, this last June and July we had the warmest recorded temperatures since the 1950's. We had no lower temperatures than -11.1 Celsius. We did have a lot of windstorms and snow, but after growing up in Chicago, this was not cold at all. This winter we did do some snowmobiling on the glacier and many of the station personnel skied on the glacier. Some boating in Zodiac type boats was also done to the nearby islands.

I have read through the letters you have sent Brent and feel I should answer some of your questions.

1) We do not have any dogs on station. There are still some dogs on Rothera Station (Adelaide Island, British Antarctic Survey), and from what I hear on the Kiwi (New Zealand) stations on the other side. The NSF (American National Science Foundation) has done away with dogs here due to the threat of diseases from the dogs being passed onto and killing seals and other wildlife.

2) We live in regular buildings that have dormitory type bedrooms, bathrooms, showers, a kitchen, and laboratories for the scientists, etc.

3) The food is great here. We have a cook and a cook's assistant who are responsible for keeping us well-fed. That's why I have gained five pounds since I've been here. Their menus are better than some of the fancy restaurants I've been to. The only hard part for us is the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. We only have "freshies" whenever a ship comes in. At times we go up to three or four weeks without freshies. You really learn to appreciate a banana, peach, lettuce and tomatoes when you taste them for the first time again.

4) Yes, we do get lonely and miss our families during the holidays, but being such a small station makes the people a little closer. Everyone here is kind of like your family away from home. At times it is like having 30 other brothers and sisters (which can be good or bad at times!)

5) We haven't had the chance to see any of the Transantarctic people. During the winter in August, a resupply airplane landed on the glacier and visited Palmer. We had the chance to see one of the dogs, Razor who was being flown in to join the rest of the team when they were in the middle of the peninsula. It was great to see a dog since at that time; I hadn't seen any domestic animal in almost 11 months.

6) We have crevasses in our glacier behind the station. For that reason, a safe path has been marked with trail markers. So we are still able to walk up on the glacier with some safety. During the winter months all the snow had filled in, and covered up and frozen over the crevasses, so there wasn't so much worry of falling in. We were still required to stay within certain boundaries for our own safety even during the winter.

7) What's it like here at night? Well, that depends on whether it is summer or winter. During the summer the sun only sets for about two hours here. Even after it has set, it is still light out. So we don't see many stars in the summer! In the winter nights are dark and days are short.

8) It takes about 3-1/2 to 4 days to get to Palmer by ship from Punta Arenas, Chile. That could be faster with a more powerful ship, but the weather across the Drake Passage also plays a part in how long the trip will be. On my one week vacation north to Chile, we hit a storm crossing the Drake that turned the ship at a 45 degree angle three times. The ship has a ballast system to right itself, so there is no worry about flipping over. It still makes sleeping and staying in bed very difficult. I had a roommate on that trip up that was seriously seasick, but I felt ok. I was seasick on the nice trip coming back. You never know if you'll be sick or to what extent.

9) No we don't ice skate down here. Unfortunately, the only fresh water we do have is covered by snow in the winter. In the summer the fresh water melt ponds are our backup fresh water supply. Most of our fresh water supply during the winter is made with the desalinators. This creates fresh water from salt water.

10) Pollution is a very big concern of all the treaty nations here in Antarctica. The U.S. is by no means any more innocent of polluting the pristine continent than is for example the Argentine government whose ship the Bahia Paraiso sunk about one mile from Palmer. The National Science Foundation is trying to initiate cleanup efforts at all the U.S. stations, but at the moment there is still much that needs to be done on our part. Cleaning up old sites and old dumps, some up to twenty years old, whether in Antarctica or your backyard will require an enormous amount of money and support from the public. The oil barrel left in Antarctica does not rust away and disappear in the same time as one might in a dump back home. The idea of cleaning up pollution starts where you live.

Scientists are very lucky to have an area as this to study animals in a habitat that has not been dramatically changed by humans. I think world pressure and groups like Greenpeace has caused some nations to start to clean up their act here in Antarctica. I hope as time goes by that stations can operate in a way that will lessen their detrimental effects on the environment that they are trying to study. I knew very little about Antarctica until I came to work down here. I have grown to appreciate the experiences I have had and hope that some of you can someday have this type of chance too.

I hope when I get back home in May or June I can visit and answer any other questions you have. Although I will be leaving Palmer in March, I will be doing a lot of traveling through South America and Central America. I hope you have enjoyed my letter and look forward to seeing you in May or June.

Dave Gallas
Communications Technician
Palmer Station, Antarctica

11 February 90

Lots of things going on here. This week is the last of the tour ships. The World Disco(verer) and the Illiria will be in the week on Thursday and Friday. The last time the Illiria was in, most of us got to go out for the drinks and the show. They have been on a tighter schedule this year, so we haven't had the number of chances to get out on the tour ships that we did last year.

Things on the station seem to be going well this season. You probably wouldn't believe how well Al and I are getting along this season. It has been a busy season with the reskinning of Biolab. We have had to move cables all over the place and have run a bunch under the building now. It has kept me out of trouble. We now have windows in the stairwells of Bio! It really brightens up the stairs--now we can see all the dirt on the steps.

Well, it's a great day out and I should try to soak up some of the sunshine. The temp today is about 46.5 and the sun is out and it kind of reminds me of home in the Spring-time.

11 February 90

In the past few weeks we have hit 47 a few times and we are getting some nice clear days too. The glacier has making a lot of noise lately and we have had some beautiful views of ice falling off the glacier. With all the rumbling it makes, it sounds like constant thunder.

I just read over your letters again. I don't think people realize the size of the Antarctic continent. It is probably hard for anyone to believe that from where Palmer is on the peninsula, we are about 1500 miles from the South Pole and double that from McMurdo which is under New Zealand. We just got hit up with 90 letters from grade-school kids who are studying a unit about Antarctica. They just happened to be from Naperville, so I wrote a letter to answer some of their questions. Last fall we had a group of letters from a class in a Downers Grove grade school. I think kids are becoming more aware that there is something down here with things like the Bahia Paraiso sinking/oil spill, the Transantarctic Expedition and Greenpeace pushing for Antarctica to be a world park.

12 February 90
We have had high winds since yesterday evening steady at about 35-40 knots with gusting up to 55 knots. It is funny to feel the walls and bed shaking all through the night. Kind of reminds me of riding overnight on the train. Seems like the bad weather is starting about a month early. This is normally what March weather is like down here.

If you know any Ham operators, our call sign is KC4AAC and they are normally up on 14289 or 21325 USB starting at around 2300Z.

With not too many more ships coming in between now and the time I leave, it will probably be better not to send anymore mail to the Chilean address. I'll be seeing everyone again once I get home.

12 February 90

When we speak on the phone over the radio, please refer to the marsgrams as e-mail or electronic mail messages. Rick has been getting a hard time from other Mars operators who don't do their messages over the satellite and he asked us to pass that on to everyone. Thanks.

I'm glad you liked the picture of me. I have long since cut off the beard. I still have the moustache though.

All yesterday and today we have been having high winds. They have been steady at about 35 knots with gusting up to 55 knots. Most of the weather has been snotty the past two weeks anyway. The temps have been consistently in the 40's, but not too much sunshine. Rachel said Sunday that you guys had some nice warm weather. I am dreading the hot weather in a way after being spoiled with such comfortable seasons here (and no biting insects!) So I'll be home just in time for all the fun.

This week we have our last two tourist ships coming in. The end of the tourist season is already upon us. Last year it was prematurely cut by the sinking of the Bahia Paraiso. It hasn't been too bad though. We are supposed to get some mail in on Friday too. The Illiria is coming in on Friday, so I may get to talk with Hans some more about my plans up to Guatemala. He wasn't sure when he left the last time if he would be on a break for that cruise or not.

12 February 90

As March gets closer, I am getting more excited about leaving. I am looking forward to going up to Guatemala. As quiet and secluded as you say it is, it will be nice to experience the jungle and ruins. I am not looking forward to getting carried away by the mosquitoes. Bugs will be the hardest thing to learn to deal with again. I haven't even thought about being bit by insects for a long time. Our idea of bugs in the Antarctic is seeing a fruit fly or a spider when the freshies come in.

The weather during the past couple of weeks has not been too good. We have had a lot of rain. Yesterday and today we have had high winds up in the fifty knot range and averaging around 30-35 knots. It seems like the bad weather is starting earlier than last year. The metal workers are replacing my wall this week. I should say were, because once the winds picked up, they had to stop. So they put the window back in, but patched all the holes around it with duct tape (America's fix all!). With all the wind we have been having blowing at my wall, the whole wall is like a water sprinkler. Right now we have water dripping all over the place from this reskinning of the building. It has left all kinds of cracks and crevices all over the place where they never were. At least my bed is warm and dry though.

14 February 90

Just got word yesterday that the Illiria will be in for a visit next week instead of this week. I still am not sure which ship you will be on. I developed the slides that were taken of us and also one with Eduardo. I am going to try my hand at Cibakrome and try to make a couple of prints. If they turn out well, I'll send them along. If not, you won't see them till I get to Guatemala. I was afraid the lighting was going to be bad.

15 February 90

The prints didn't turn out too good. I either had them overexposed or too dark. I may play with them more by using different filters and exposure times, but for now I made Polaroid prints from the slides. They don't look too bad, but they don't have the color quality that the original has. Cibakrome sometimes is the same way.

19 February 90

Thanks for the letter and the Marsgram. I finally received the letter you sent to me in Naperville. My sister sent down some of my mail, but sent it through Paramus, so it took quite awhile to get here. I'm starting to get a little, no, a lot anxious about going home in another three weeks! I have a bunch of traveling planned, but I am looking forward to getting away from Palmer. It isn't any better or worse than it was, I am just ready to settle into a different life now.

This week is the last week for tour ships. I can't believe the tourist season is finally over. This summer season is winding down quickly. It will seem strange to drive again and have to pay for everything I eat. Yes, I am still going to travel a little before heading home in April.