T -8.5 Months and Counting

A cold winter day in Minnesota.  The weather makes staying inside working on Heard Island expedition planning easier.  Image credit: Bill Mitchell.
A cold winter day in Minnesota. The weather makes staying inside working on Heard Island expedition planning easier. Image credit: Bill Mitchell.

We are more than eight months away from departing Fremantle bound for Heard Island, but there is a lot happening behind the scenes. Here is a sampling of what I have been up to for the last week or so.

I have been appointed the on-island IT czar for the expedition. Making sure the expedition computers run, and that the network interfaces properly to the satellite equipment for phone/data links to the rest of the world, fall under my responsibilities. Despite the satellite phones, we have to plan for having no or nearly no data connection with the outside world. Any software we need has to be installed before we go. Manuals need to be saved locally, because the standard “just ask Google” method of tech support will not work.

The amateur radio operations (VK0EK) will need some fairly complicated software and networking. Data needs to be saved redundantly, and shared across computers in near-real-time. We also intend to have custom software sending some of that data back to the outside world. So this week, I have been installing software on a laptop I will use for testing everything. I met with the software developer of our custom software via Skype to get an idea of how it works and what the trouble spots may be. Documentation is important, so I am taking notes on how the computer is being set up. Once it’s working, we may need to replicate it on another 10 computers.

Some of the programs I am installing are new to me, so I have also been learning how to use them. This weekend, I will have a chance to test my understanding of them more thoroughly. There are several different programs which all need to function in concert with each other, and we need for things to be very reliable.

One consideration that goes into the decisions on technology for Heard Island is that with the high winds, volcanic ash and dust tends to get picked up and blown about absolutely everywhere. This is not only a problem in terms of keeping the insides of the shelters clean, but can also do quite a number on moving parts such as motors, fans, and hard drives. In creating our technology plan, we need to plan for multiple hardware failures, and devise a resilient solution. With guidance from the many experienced team members (both on- and off-island folks), I think we will do well in creating a computer system to support the expedition. It looks to be coming together well so far.

In addition to the IT work, I have been working on my plans for scientific work on the island (mini-spoiler: I’m not ready to disclose details of the plans; the following will be abstract). Scientific activities this week have included trading a few emails with a potential collaborator, continuing to track down as much Heard Island research in the peer-reviewed literature as possible, and even reading some of that literature.

Here are some of the questions I’m wrestling with:

  • Where are the best places to sample?
  • What equipment will best balance scientific value of samples with cost, size, and the number of personnel needed to operate it?
  • What are the likely difficulties I will encounter?
  • What am I likely to find?
  • In what ways will the simple model I have in my head differ from the more complicated reality on Heard Island?
  • How close are the sampling locations to the base camp?
  • Would any of the work I intend to do be replicating what has already been done?
  • Are there ways to make my work help guide interpretation of previous research or other research being done on this expedition?
  • How much time is needed for carrying out the scientific work, and in what size blocks?

Many of these questions are interconnected. Sampling locations need to be close enough to the base camps that I can reach them easily, no multi-day hiking trips will work for me, and water transportation is unreliable due to the weather. They need to be in a location which has the kind of rocks/other stuff I want to study. I need to have the tools to sample or measure well, but they can’t be so large or bulky that they require a 4-person team to haul and operate. All of the equipment has to be landed by zodiac, after all. The overall budget for my research is not very large, so equipment choice will need to bear that in mind.

But the biggest thing is figuring out what to expect. Will the sample of rock I get be a few years old? A few decades? Tens of thousands of years old? More? Will vegetation, ice, or fauna block access to the sampling location? If I were to sample sedimentary rocks, would processes such as mass wasting (e.g. landslides), glacial movement, or animal burrowing have disrupted the even bedding of my ideal sediment? The equipment which is best suited for the work, and the amount of interest from collaborators, could vary greatly depending on what the expected results are.

So in the mean time, I read all that I can, talk with other scientists, and prepare a plan of action. Decisions need to be made soon, because equipment needs to be acquired either in Australia by some of the local team there, or here in the US in time for the Bay Area team to load it into the container to be shipped in the early (northern hemisphere) fall.

Back to work!