My Embassy colleague Mike accompanied me to Antarctica this time. Mike is an economics officer, and he also handles the Embassy’s science, technology, and environment portfolios. US interests in Antarctica are based on promoting three core objectives: scientific advancement, environmental protection, and peace and stability, and our permanent stations are research facilities. Thus, what occurs on the Ice falls directly within Mike’s work.

That's Mike, about to board the C-17 in Christchurch.

Because Mike had not been to the continent before, I thought it might be interesting to hear (and share) his thoughts and impressions. So, I asked him to do a guest post for me, and he readily agreed. He came up with the topic and selected the photos. And, as you’ll see below, he had help from a few collaborators. Mike, take it away.

*  *  *

ML: Thanks, Ambassador.

I never in my life imagined I would have the opportunity to visit Antarctica.  As I looked out the window of the C-17 winging my way to the world’s driest, coldest, windiest, and fifth-largest continent, I strained to see in the distance a mountain — or I should say volcano — that first piqued my curiosity about this remote land.

Growing up, I had a love of all things volcano and spent endless Saturdays in the back yard molding clay volcanoes and concocting mixtures of baking soda, vinegar, and red food dye to create the eruption. (My mom always wondered what happened to all her baking supplies when it came time to bake goodies.)

I also voraciously devoured all the books about volcanoes that I could get my hands on at the small public library in Bozeman, Montana.  I recall coming across a book that described Mount Erebus, a volcano in Antarctica named after the primordial Greek god of darkness.  How could a volcano exist in such a cold place on the bottom of the world?

Mt Erebus.

My reading encounter with Mount Erebus only sparked my appetite to learn more about Antarctica. Ross, Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton, and other Antarctic explorers soon became part of my boyhood imagination.  I could scarcely conceive that I would one day see the same stunning vistas that greeted these intrepid adventurers as they explored and traversed the southernmost continent.  To me that is really the essence of science…satisfying that insatiable, exciting, childlike curiosity about what makes the world tick.

Motivated by my own childhood learning experience about Antarctica, I decided before leaving home on this trip that I was going help “facilitate” a similar epiphany for my own four kids, who range in age from six to fourteen.  When I corralled them to quiz them about what they knew of Antarctica, they reacted as they normally do to “another one of dad’s hair-brained schemes.”

In the end, I was able to extract a question from each about Antarctica. I promised to talk to the experts down here and answer the questions by doing a guest post on the Ambassador’s blog.  I figure maybe someone else just might be interested as well.

One of Antarctica's vast glaciers.

My straight shooting six-year old, threw out the first question:  “Dad, how big is Antarctica?” That’s an easy one, but the tricky part is figuring out how to put the answer in terms she can relate to.

The short answer is 13,829,430 square kilometers (5,339,573 square miles).  That’s 51 times bigger than New Zealand and 1.4 times bigger than the United States.  Of course about 98 percent of that area is covered by ice that averages about 1.6 kilometers in thickness.  To boot, the Ross Ice Shelf is about the size of France.

McMurdo Station, viewed from Hut Point.

My eight-year-old deep thinker came out with the next question:  “How do people survive the winter in Antarctica?” I asked for help on this one from my new friends at the National Science Foundation who have worked at McMurdo throughout the Austral winter.

According to most estimates there are only about a thousand hardy souls who hunker down in various facilities throughout Antarctica in winter.  At McMurdo, the peak population in the austral summer can swell to as many as 1,500 people, which includes scientists, technicians, and support.  That number dwindles significantly to about 200 in the austral winter. At the South Pole Station, about 50 winter over, plus another 40 at Palmer Station.

They get through by planning ahead, storing enough food, being careful about about safety and clothing, and making sure that they have the right kinds of emergency equipment and personnel, including doctors and repairmen. And, although it is dark and cold, they keep busy conducting research and making sure the facilities run.

The joint wind farm on the hill between McMurdo Station and Scott Base.

My eleven-year-old technophile son, as I predicted, tossed me a question completely out of my league:  “How does McMurdo Station get its power?”

McMurdo is primarily powered by diesel-driven generators, but the United States has been steadily moving to more environmentally friendly energy sources.  In January 2010, the US and New Zealand inaugurated the operation of a shared wind-turbine farm that now provides electricity to both McMurdo and Ross Stations – just another example of our extensive, continuing cooperation on Ice. The turbines now provide 100% of Scott Base’s electricity and about 20% of McMurdo’s.

McMurdo memorial to Admiral Byrd, one of the driving forces behind the Antarctic Treaty as well as the first person to fly over the Pole, in 1929.

After threatening my cantankerous teen-aged daughter with being grounded for week, she also coughed up a question:  “Okay, so like what country does Antarctica belong to?” Finally, a question a policy wonk like myself can sink his teeth into.

Actually, a number of countries, including New Zealand, have made sovereignty claims over certain regions of Antarctica, but these claims are not universally recognized. As a matter of policy, the United States and many other countries don’t recognize territorial claims on Antarctica, and instead view the continent as a boundary-free common space for everyone.

The issue of territorial claims doesn’t keep us from getting along though. In fact, we all get on very well on the Ice, particularly Americans and Kiwis.  American and Kiwi scientists have been working in Antarctica for more than 50 years, and that science and technology partnership has been the bedrock of our bilateral relationship.

Mike at the South Pole.

That’s it for questions today. I’ll be answering more directly with school classes when I get back to New Zealand. Now, my kids will probably never confess that they read my blog, and there is even less of chance they will admit to having learned something. But I’m sure they did.

As for me, visiting the Antarctic is the experience of a lifetime.  It rekindled in me a thirst for that process of experimental investigation … also known as science.  It’s a shame that so many of us grow into adulthood and forget that indescribable joy of assembling your first bug collection, recreating the solar system on your bedroom ceiling with fluorescent stickers, or figuring out the best way to create static electricity to shock your siblings.

Seeing the cool and exciting work that the US National Science Foundation scientists are doing in the Antarctic made me think. Since when does science have to be about slogging through some dry analytical paper instead of building a mud volcano in the back yard … or climbing into a real one to see what it’s up to?

*  *  *

Thanks, Mike, for sharing your thoughts and answering a few questions.

If anyone reading my series of Antarctica posts has questions about the continent, the various science projects there, or bilateral US-NZ cooperation on the Ice, please let me know. I’ll ask Mike to do another Q&A post next week when we’re back in Wellington.

It was a pleasure to welcome Dr. Annmarie Eldering to Wellington last week. A scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Dr Eldering is working on the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) project. She came to Wellington to attend a conference organized to review current standards for measuring levels of carbon dioxide and other gases, in an effort to standardize such metrics worldwide.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which conducted the first-ever stand-up rocket engine test in 1936. Located with CalTech in Pasadena, California, JPL is a major research, development, and exploration hub with a long string of “firsts” to its credit. JPL was led for more than 20 years by Kiwi-American Dr William Hayward Pickering.

I have always had a strong interest in space travel and space sciences, so having someone from NASA nearby is a great temptation. Rather than pepper Dr Eldering with questions, however, I asked her to just talk a bit about the highlights of her visit to New Zealand.

*  *  *

Dr Annmarie Eldering

Dr Annmarie Eldering.

Dr Annmarie Eldering:

Ambassador, thank you for asking me to write a few paragraphs about my trip.

As you know, the purpose of my visit was to attend a weeklong conference on Greenhouse Gas Measurements, but I did have time to get out and explore a bit.

I’ve never visited New Zealand, so I was impressed by the beautiful scenery of Wellington. I love hiking and getting outside, so on the afternoon of my arrival, I walked all along the waterfront and enjoyed the scenery and beautiful architecture.

The conference is a very interesting meeting of about 100 experts from around the world who take detailed measurements of greenhouse gases. There are measurements being made all over the world – in Antarctica, New Zealand, Australia, throughout the continents of Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and Africa, and in many small island nations. The goal is to make sure that all of these measurements can be compared to one another, and that they are precise enough that we can see small trends (i.e., changes over time) in greenhouse gases.

At this meeting, people share comparisons of their data, talk about things they have learned about how the instruments operate, and plan for next steps to improve and continue the measurements. More details about the meeting can be found at: http://www.niwa.co.nz/node/103049

NIWA’s Atmospheric monitoring station at Baring Head.

NIWA’s Atmospheric monitoring station at Baring Head.

I flew in for the meeting because the data that are being collected are critical to the project that I work on. I am one of the science leads of a JPL/NASA project called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2. We are building a satellite instrument that will make precise measurements of the carbon dioxide all around the globe.

We will measure the column of carbon dioxide — i.e., the total amount between the surface and the top of the atmosphere. It will be important to check that our measurements are correct, so we will rely on data that is collected by a set of special ground-based measurements like those being discussed at the meeting here in Wellington.

OCO-2 computer model.

Computer model of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2.

Scientists from NIWA are operating a special ground-based measurements site in Lauder and collaborating with us on checking our satellite measurements. I was very happy to meet those scientists in person after all our past communications via email and telephone.

Of course we spent most of our time in meetings at the Convention Center, but one evening we had dinner at the Te Papa museum. We were fortunate that the museum is open late on Thursday, so I had a couple of hours to explore the exhibits before the dinner started. I especially enjoyed the display called “Passports,” where I learned about the waves of immigration to New Zealand. The photos of recent immigrants who came as refugees from other countries were very powerful and certainly resonate with me as an American.

One afternoon, I took some time away from the conference to talk to students at two colleges in Wellington. I always enjoy having the opportunity to talk to students about the project I work on, and also about how I got interested in working in the area of atmospheric sciences and greenhouse gases in the first place.

The first school that we visited was Wellington Girls College. I was quite pleased to see that there was a room full of students who were interested to hear what I had to say. I talked about the path of training and work that I took to end up where I am today, in a science leadership position for the OCO-2 mission.

Dr Eldering at Wellington Girls College.

Dr Eldering at Wellington Girls College.

The girls had great questions — asking about other missions that NASA is building, how air pollution has changed over time, and how our understanding of climate change is improving. They were a very thoughtful audience, attentive, well-mannered, and appreciative. In fact, I left with a nice gift of a local Pinot Gris.

The next stop was Scots College. I was impressed again by the attentiveness of the students and the excellent questions that they asked. Again, it was clear that students had been learning about climate and the carbon cycle, so it was easy to have a good conversation with them. In fact, one of the students had just written an essay about climate change, won a contest, and will be traveling to New York to participate in meetings in the coming weeks.

Dr Eldering at Scots College.

Dr Eldering at Scots College.

It has been an interesting and productive visit, and good progress was made on a very important topic. Ambassador, I’ll keep you informed about how OBO-2 is proceeding.

*  *  *

Thanks to Dr Eldering for taking time out of her busy schedule to meet some of Wellington’s future scientists during her time here. I always deeply appreciate when visiting VIPs are so gracious and enthusiastic about meeting with students.

Dr Eldering’s visit prompted me to do a bit of additional research, and I came across a great video from the State Department about the importance of women in science. I urge you to take a look by clicking here.

The motto of the US Coast Guard is Semper Paratus, which translates as “Always Ready” or “Always Prepared.” That ethic was certainly in evidence last week when the USCG Cutter Walnut diverted from a planned mission and instead transported urgently needed water supplies to Tokelau.

WALNUT off shore of Atafu.

USCGC Walnut, after arriving at Atafu atoll.

As I discussed in a previous post on October 5th, severe drought conditions in Tokelau created critical shortages, leaving Tokelau’s residents with less than a week’s worth of drinking water. Walnut was well placed to assist because it is outfitted with an onboard water desalination plant, routinely carries emergency water supplies, and was already nearby, en route to a port call in Pago Pago.

Some of the Walnut's crew.

A few Walnut Coasties.

As we had arranged with our Kiwi friends, Walnut onloaded in Pago Pago several large, empty military water storage containers and a relief team flown up from New Zealand by the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The cutter then made for Tokelau at full speed, stopping at each of the small nation’s three populated coral atolls to deliver tanks and water.

Preparing water tanks in Fakaofo.

Delivering water tanks to Fakaofo atoll.

Walnut‘s captain, Lieutenant Commander Brian Huff, tells me that the crew worked hard, and that shifts were arranged so that everyone went ashore to assist on at least one of the atolls. Tokelau residents welcomed the crew with singing, dancing, traditional gifts made from shells and flax, and effusive hospitality. From all the stories I’ve heard, it is clear that the crew was profoundly moved by the beauty of Tokelau, the warmth of the people, and the opportunity to assist in such a powerful way.

A Tokelau elder shaking hands with a USCG crewman.

The Honorable Foua Toloa, Ulu O Tokelau, welcoming Captain Huff.

One of my favorite stories recounted by the crew concerns a bell. Village elders told Lieutenant Andrea Holt that the Coast Guard had been to Tokelau before, to protect the islands during World War II. They also stated that a Coastie had violated protocol one day by ringing a church bell that was only supposed to be used for calls to prayer. It turned out that the Coastie had just received word of Japan’s surrender, and he rang the bell to celebrate the end of the Pacific War.

USCG Bell in Atafu.

USCG bell on Atafu.

Walnut‘s crew was unaware of a Coast Guard presence in the South Pacific during the war, and Lieutenant Holt thought that the elders had confused the Coast Guard with the Navy. Later, however, after completing their work on Atafu, one of the Walnut teams visited the local church. Curious, they looked closely at the church’s main bell and discovered engraving at the very top, readable only through the lens of a digital camera, that said “USCG 1942″.

Angelica Geracitano and SGT Peter Baker working to transfer water.

American Angelica Geracitano and Kiwi Peter Baker working to transfer water on Nukunonu atoll.

It remains a mystery how a US Coast Guard bell found new life as a church bell on a South Pacific atoll. The details, though, don’t really matter. The bell’s there … and it’s meaningful … a real goose-bump moment for the crew, encounting a piece of their own history in such a distant place, seventy years after other Coasties had rendered assistance during another time of need.

Mission accomplished.

Crew, residents, and local officials celebrating the success of the mission.

The several days of relief activity in Tokelau demonstrated the power and importance of practical, flexible collaboration among friends. Desperately needed water was delivered because the US and New Zealand pooled assets and were prepared to interoperate. Plans were made for addressing systemic water shortages going forward. And new friendships were enriched by working together, celebrating cultural touchstones, and rediscovering prior ties.

Semper Paratus.

I was delighted this morning to learn that Victoria University of Wellington’s First Light team placed 3rd overall in the 2011 Solar Decathlon. That’s an impressive and exceptional result.

The First Light House team celebrate after their 3rd place announcement

First Light team members celebrating after the final scores were announced.

Sponsored by the US Department of Energy, the Solar Decathlon is a biennial competition that challenges entrants to build an environmentally friendly house which is then judged on ten different sets of aesthetic, efficiency, conservation, and comfort criteria. You can read all about the competition in my previous post of November 2010.

Last year the First Light crew became the first New Zealand team ever to make the Solar Decathlon finals. That entitled them to reconstruct their house this year on the National Mall in Washington DC,  to compete head-to-head against the other 19 finalists from around the United States and several other countries.

Folks queue up to check out 3rd place winners, New Zealand’s First Light House.

Washingtonians and tourists queue up to tour the First Light house.

My Embassy colleagues and I have been tracking First Light’s journey since the very beginning, and we had the great pleasure of touring the house a few months ago, just before it was shipped to DC.

I can tell you first-hand that the First Light bach is a truly impressive building structurally, aesthetically, and functionally. I knew it would impress the judges. Take another look to see what I mean:

My DC friends tell me that the Kiwi bach was very popular among the hundreds of thousands of people who visited the various houses during the competition. You can get a flavor of the energy and adventure in Washington from the First Light team’s blog.

Like First Light, the other top winners were inspired by the natural environment in their home locales. A team from Maryland University won first prize in the competition with its WaterShed house inspired by Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem.

University of Maryland took 1st place with their WaterShed house.

The 1st place WaterShed house created by the University of Maryland team.

Second place went to the team from Purdue University for its Midwestern-inspired INhome (short for “Indiana home”).

The entry from Appalachian State University won the People’s Choice award for its Solar Homestead inspired by traditional Appalachian settlements.

Purdue University’s 2nd place-winning INhouse

Purdue University’s 2nd place INhouse.

All of the teams worked long and hard to create impressive structures. Check out the final scores to see how the teams did in each of the ten challenges in the competition. Take a look at the Department of Energy 2011 Solar Decathlon Flickr pages to see photos of all of the entrants as well as more shots of the crowds of viewers.

Congrats again to my friends from Victoria University on the great First Light showing, and thanks to my colleagues at the Department of Energy for developing and running such an important, impactful, and exciting program.