On the value of communications

Staying in touch is very important, and it is hard to over-emphasize how much we rely upon the modern technology when working over these huge geographic areas. People need to know about the schedules, delays, arrivals and plans, forecasts and instrument issues, and all of this is being communicated via the internet and cell phones. We probably could operate without the mobile connectivity on the global project but it would be a lot more difficult and so many things would not get done (right) that it is better not to try to imagine.

Our phones work (for the most part) everywhere we go. It amazes me how far the technology has reached: you take your phone put of your pocket, push on the desired contact (in the U.S.) while you are in Tasmania and voilà, their phone just miraculously rings over there. Mind you, it can be well past midnight but the phone thinks you know what you are doing.

Our spouses and colleagues can chat with us while we are flying and send us updated weather and satellite maps. People can watch our Gulfstream “fly” on Google Earth and, by the way, these tools are free for all and you can get access to them here. Seeing your loved one as a moving dot on the other side of the Earth must give a bit of peace of mind to our significant others and can be either fun or an important work duty for many more people interested in the project.

Of course there is a flip side to this coin as well. This morning my phone rang at 5:30 am while I was sound asleep in my hotel room in Hobart. Since the phone was on my bedside table and had vibrate On, it made enough ruckus that I bolted upright and grabbed it and pushed everywhere just wishing for it to stop. Guess who it was? “I know you probably hate pre-recorded calls as much as I do but this one is different…”. It is different all right, it posted as if it was from the U.S. number 1-347-504-4345, probably cost the taxpayers $5 in connectivity charges and made me jump, but otherwise it deserves being hated as much as any other such call. It amazes me that a business would use such a practice hoping to attract a customer, it would seem that negativity would be the only result. Sometimes I wish I had the patience to listen to the end and make sure I never ever buy anything from a company advertising in this fashion…

As the upside I never went back to sleep and had extra time in the morning so you can enjoy this early bird and rather philosophical, posting.

Part five: Hobart, Tasmania

We were asked by people not to tell anyone that Tasmania is nice, so we will not. Please don’t read any further.

We are getting used to the fact that for some reason on this trip the instruments are playing more practical jokes on us than usual. Two more issues surfaced today, providing for a long work day on the airplane. Still, the determined crew wanted to see the island and was able to finish what had to be done in daylight, leaving a couple of hours for exploration.

Surf on the Seven Mile Beach
Surf on the Seven Mile Beach

We visited the Seven Mile Beach, located within minutes of the airport and our hotel. The endless beach, whose end hides in the haze of the salt spray from the breaking waves, certainly lives to its name. The slow surf was amazing: its character must be related to the shape of the shoreline but the waves didn’t come in at an angle as they usually do on beaches, rolling along as the crest of the wave reaches the shore. Instead, the surf would splash quietly three or four times, building up the strength, and then a wave would form along some 1,000 foot length of the shore and then come crashing down on the sand along the entire shore all at once, making a thunderous boom that came from both left and right with a very subtle delay, like a rolling stereo effect. The sound was a lot more powerful than I have ever heard from just a 1.5 foot surf, and it was very surprising and interesting.

The one Tasmanian Devil we did see
The one Tasmanian Devil we did see

Once the daylight faded and our camera cards filled with images we decided it was time to eat and look at Hobart itself. A 20-min drive takes yo across the beautiful bridge into the busy downtown area, where we parked and wandered around, looking at restaurants, buildings and cobblestone paved streets. All of a sudden we heard someone calling for us, and, turning, discovered three more people from our crew, who just have arrived to the same place by taxi, looking for food. What a coincidence! We discussed it and started off just to see the rest of our crew coming down the street with sandwiches for tomorrow’s flight. All 10 of us ended up on the same road, without making any prior arrangements! Now that is really quite a coincidence, makes you wonder if we are getting used to each other enough to even independently want to go to the same place. Of course it could also be that Hobart is not very large so we ran into each other, but it is not that small.

The enjoyable dinner, livened up by recollections from various past projects by veteran field researchers, ended our second day in Hobart. We will be leaving tomorrow for Darwin, Australia.

Over the Southern Ocean to Hobart, Tasmania

Volcanic ash never really cooperated and caused a great deal of grief when we were trying to juggle a decision between major schedule changes and missing the scientific objectives for which we came here in the first place vs. the risk of muti-million dollar damage to the aircraft engines. Such choices are not easy to make but when you have great people on the team, it helps to come to the most educated and safe decision, and so we have. We are going to Tasmania today.

It was pouring rain in Christchurch, which wasn’t able to soak our elated spirits much. An instrument computer that would not boot was more successful at that but we were not going to give up that easily, and managed to replace it and boot the replacement in a half usable configuration to allow to limp along, collecting data. As it turned out later, finding where in the world did the replacement CPU store the data that it collected on this flight was just about as difficult as to replace it in the first place. But finally we were ready to take off, only an hour later than planned.

New Zealand South Island from 16,000 feet
New Zealand South Island from 16,000 feet

For the first two hours we flew low, at 16,000 feet, above the South Island of New Zealand, staying below the ash cloud warning area. The scenery was amazing, and the crew was plastered to the windows, taking pictures of the snowy mountain ranges and shimmering blue lakes below our wings. The day was clear and visibility was great but I guess nowadays you can never have 100 mile visibility with no haze: there is too much aerosol in the air, some natural but I am sure that people are adding to the mess as well. Nonetheless, the views were spectacular. From all the places I was lucky enough to visit, New Zealand stands out as probably the most beautiful country in my eyes with the most diverse scenery in closer proximity than elsewhere. There are mountains in the Rockies too, for example, but their foothills are at 6,000 feet so in effect the 14-ers are only 8,000 feet high. Here the 12,000-ers start at sea level, so they are actually 12,000 feet high and therefore look a lot more imposing. Nice humidity levels from the ocean provide for lush green vegetation, lacking in the high deserts. The only place in the U.S. I can think of that compares is probably Washington State or Oregon but I have not been there enough to judge.

Our Gulfstream is more fuel efficient at high altitudes, so we were anxious to get up high. We were able to safely do that once we crossed 158ºE longitude. While climbing to 43,000 feet we looked over the vast clouded area underneath that started soon off the shore of New Zealand and extended as far as one could see. This is the edge of the Polar Jet, the windy periphery of the high pressure system currently located over Australia and Tasmania. Wind speeds in the jet can exceed 180 miles per hour and on occasion, these wind speeds can extend to very low altitudes, sometimes to the ocean surface. On this  flight we saw only 95 knot winds (49 m/s or 109 mph) and the forecast wind speed was even lower. The cloud cover extended as far South as we flew, and was nearly continuous, with the upper cloud surface that would remind you of hard boiling milk. All you could see was the endless convective bubbles of clouds, ridges and troughs that slowly and continually changed as we flew over.

Clouds over the Southern Ocean
Clouds over the Southern Ocean

I have noticed that at a certain angle, about 100º angle of view with respect to the sun that was slightly to the left of our heading, the sun lit the cloud tops beneath us in a way that brought out sharp contrast along a narrow strip of clouds perpendicular to our direction of flight, while the rest of the cloud cover looked washed out and devoid of detail. This interesting illumination was not immediately obvious but jumped out at you if you happened to look blankly out of the window in one direction. I discovered this effect inadvertently by staring in front of myself being in a dazed state, half dreaming, half awake, trying to pay attention but too tired to concentrate. A cat nap and curiosity helped regain acuteness again and I observed this high contrast, moving, highlight of cloud tops for a long time.

At 58 degrees South latitude
At 58 degrees South latitude

At 58ºS we made our first descent. The pilots took the jet to 500 ft above the water, and the ocean was stormy. I have not seen it as threatening as this before. We flew over rough water in previous missions but in the middle latitudes of the Northern hemisphere, and the Pacific was roiling but still bluish and the clouds were puffier and lighter-looking. Here, the ominous gray cloud deck, nearly connecting to the ocean surface, was about touched by the swells, with foam caps blown off by the wind, clearly visible from our 500 foot altitude. The wind buffeted the airplane, lifting us up and dropping down, and at 500 feet it looks like you are way too close to the water to keep doing that, especially when flying at 250 knots (290 mph). It would be a fair statement though that we were much better off on the airplane that one might have been on a ship in the same area; although it is very difficult to judge the height of swells with nothing on the surface for reference, I am sure they were easily 20-30 feet high. Even though we knew we were safe, just the proximity of the unforgiving massive swells made us all uneasy. We stayed low just enough to collect the samples, and ascended higher.

Ocean at 58 South
Ocean at 58º South from 500 feet

It was warmer today in the cabin than usual. The Gulfstream’s air conditioners are continually pumping 35ºF air into the cabin, and to say that the rear part of it stays cool is a major understatement. People put in foot warmers while still on the ground, and I suspect part of the reason is that they want to do it while their fingers still can bend, the ability they lose in the fist hour of the flight (just kidding). You can judge for yourself from one the pictures, or believe that “this is good for the instruments”. While I certainly know that is true, I wonder sometimes how good will it be if we freeze the scientists to death for the benefit of instrument thermal balance? They looked very cold to me, and I hid in the cockpit where the pilots made the temperature quite comfortable.

It is about 62 degrees F in the cabin
It is about 62 degrees F in the cabin

We proceeded alternating between 28,000 and 500 feet altitudes four more times along the way but for the rest of these dips the seas were not nearly as rough, even though on one of the 500 foot legs we never saw the ocean, the clouds extended all the way down to the ocean surface. Only by looking at the instruments could you tell that we are that low, outside the windows it looked like you are immersed in the 1% milk, solid grayish white color with zero visibility (sorry dilute milk lovers). We  landed in Hobart in late afternoon. The sun already was touching the horizon, and all we could think about was going to the hotel to take a rest.

Winter and tears in Christchurch

It is winter in Christchurch.

The sky is gray and every once in a while it rains, and in the second half of the day a few blotches of blue sky appeared all of a sudden, and just as quickly disappeared as if worried to be caught. Then the rain started again. This went on for most of the day under 8ºC temperature, so the weather was not the nicest for most people. I didn’t suffer much discomfort, having been busy with instrument work, catching up on loose ends and trying to help the pilots prepare flight plans and monitor the ash cloud progress. The day was not without the usual ration of stress: in the mid day forecast the ash returned to New Zealand and a lot of planning went on that was unnecessary, just causing extra work and fatigue. I have learned many times over already that planning too early is as bad as planning too late: you will have to plan again, and you will be tired and irritated. It is best to do it once at the right time but the temptation of making some progress right now is too high.

We drove on the edge of the downtown. I was going not to write about the earthquakes, there are so many pictures and stories about it that I was not going to try to add my cup of water to the ocean. But the feeling from driving past and seeing flat slabs of concrete where the houses once stood, and the collapsed walls and innards of people’s rooms, exposed to the world with pictures still on the walls, was surreal. I could not help but think that with one shrug of its shoulder, the Earth could just shed every trace of the human effort to create a comfortable habitat, the place we all call home. In a blink of an eye, without warning – just gone, collapsed in a pile of rubble.

I really hope nobody has to experience this. I can’t describe how sorry it makes you feel to see the devastation in Christchurch, and I have not seen the worst of it in the Red Zone. I can only imagine the destruction in Japan, where a stronger earthquake was also followed by the tsunami. Seeing it on TV is absolutely different; the bloodthirsty Hollywood movies taught us to be tolerant of television violence and even seeing a real tragedy feels cynically mundane when viewed on TV. But seeing it in the streets, drive past it is altogether different. It is for real now, and it takes effort not to cry.

...But the life goes on.
...But the life goes on.

There will be no pictures of ruins here. I didn’t feel I can go peering into the rudely exposed lives of other people who can’t defend their destroyed privacy. I suggest you take a look at the links I included above, which were sent to me by a Christchurch local whom I talked with a lot and who described the current life to me as “yeah, it shook again last night some three or four times but it wasn’t bad, it was probably 4.5 or so and it was away along the fault line so we weren’t worried. It just rocked gently and didn’t roar. My house didn’t suffer but at the end of my block the poor neighbors had some nasty liquefaction on their property”.

My heart is with the New Zealanders and the Japanese, the hard working people spending countless days trying to rebuild their turned upside down lives and just hoping to return back to the kind of life we, the unaffected, take for granted.

I invite you to reflect for a minute on how fragile our small happy lives and comfort zones are, and be thankful for them. It can all change any second, just like it did for them.

Willowbank, Christchurch

This was one beautiful day in Christchurch. Sunny and warm, it was apparently a great contrast to the preceding weeks of overcast and rainy weather. As it turns out the weather changed as we arrived and taxied to a stop, splashing the puddles on the ramp with the landing gear tires. We brought the good weather with us, as I have jokingly promised the people in Christchurch that helped me so much in organizing our work here. Again, it is not who you are, it is whom you know that make a difference. A project of this scale can’t be organized and operated successfully by any single individual without the help of a great many excellent people, and I am so fortunate to work with them.

Even if tainted a bit by our testing of Nikon optics in a way not intended by the manufacturer, the day was great. An issue with the instrument apparently got resolved; we paid a visit to KnitWorks, a place that sells the finest knitwear that I have ever come across, the Lothlorian’s merino-possum sweaters, among other wool products. I already brought home nearly 10 of them and still can’t seem to get away from that store without leaving a substantial amount of money there in support of the New Zealand’s wool industry. Unfortunately for my wallet I probably single-handedly keep the place in business, even though we are visiting only once or twice a year. However, the quality of the Lothlorians is such that my family have never regretted spending enough money on them to buy a mid size car. This year they have introduced a sweater in a new color so of course, I got in trouble again.

At home in Willowbank
At home in Willowbank

Later in the day we were able to break away from work and stop by the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve. This place is probably my favorite spot in Christchurch, and took a very special place in my heart. Not all that much to the superficial observer, it holds a magic in it that is hard to describe. You just need to slow down (isn’t this sort of a common thread in many of my notes?) and quietly walk along its wooden planked paths, and a quaint and peaceful life of its inhabitants will accept you, relieve you of your stress and remind you that things are not so bad after all. Unkempt geese with feathers sticking out of them in all directions, as if recently electrocuted, rushed to us like escapees to a breach in the prison gates. As funny as they were, I got a bit worried about being pecked to death since it appears that Willowbank didn’t have too many visitors today and the beggars were all hungry. Narrowly escaping their clicking beaks we just about got within reach of the ostrich that nearly ate my fingers off the last time I visited and tried to do it again this time, with a better success actually. Two of the wallabies escaped from their usual area and were lazily walking along our path, picking up blades of grass. The rest of their compatriots were still penned up in their half-football-field size yard, where they curiously looked at us and tried to sniff our hands from a distance, figuring out if we had brought treats or not. Discovering that we didn’t the wallabies returned to their routines of grooming, blinking dreamily with their inch-long eyelashes and munching on whatever they happen to see around them at the moment.

The silly lemurs, monkeys, farm animals; peacocks and guinea foul walking on the same trails as you are; numerous birds, including the herons that always look at you suspiciously as if they are hiding something they just stole and are worried that you will discover it right here and catch them red-handed – all these wonderful creatures were there, and we walked through their world, thankful that we had this chance.

The magical kiwi
The magical kiwi

And then, of course, the kiwi. Brownish and fairly nondescript, the kiwis are somehow charming and win your heart without even trying. Maybe it is their unassuming manner with which they quietly move along in the dark, making subtle noises and poking their long noses everywhere they can think of. Or maybe it is their funny round shape of a football with two feet and a beak. Or maybe it is the fact that they lay eggs 2/3 the size of their body. Or that they are endangered and you know it. Whatever the reason, I can stand there for an hour without noticing the time and look and look at them, endlessly moving in the dark and purring, peeping, creaking and splashing in the little creek they have there and always sticking their nose everywhere. Do not take pictures with a flash: this scares the birds, harms them and is illegal and punishable by the law with a severe penalty and possible jail time. If you are patient, you can still take a decent photo with a fast lens.

We only had one hour to visit this evening but Willowbank again let me in its quiet small world. And I was very glad to visit, taking nothing away from it other than a little piece of happiness and sadness.