Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Wall

By J.P.
"Sent to McMurdo research station in August of 1998.
When we weren't busy de-icing the aircraft and working on them, we had time to hang out with the scientists at the research station.
The military unit attached to McMurdo was small and we didn't have our own separate facilities. We didn't have a PX, or a media center. There was no chapel or Chaplin. And we didn't have or our own separate mail room. We just had to share the same facilities with the scientists and researchers. So over time I got to be friends with a few of them.
They had two different kinds of ice that they worked on and studied. One kind of ice was the normal kind that we've all seen. They took cores of it out of bore holes in the ground. Just like normal ice it was mostly clear or sometimes white, and it would melt into liquid water if it got warm. The whole area of Antarctica is covered in this kind of ice. But that wasn't their main kind of ice. The only time I ever saw them actually studying normal ice was when a film crew from National Geographic came by.
The rest of the time, which was most of the time, the scientists were studying something they called sky ice.
This stuff was totally different.
We were never allowed to go into the laboratory areas of the station, because the labs had to be kept super clean and they said it would mess up their work if they risked letting too many people in the lab. But one time one of the researchers that I was friends with showed me a piece of sky ice. You couldn't touch the stuff with your bare hands because it was so cold.
And it wasn't clear or white like normal ice. It was solid blue. He said that's why they call it sky ice, because it was the exact same color as the sky.
We had to wear our thick heavy "going outside" gloves to handle it. The stuff was so cold it would instantly freeze your skin if you touched it. I don't remember what temperature he said it was. But it was something like hundreds of degrees below zero. WAY colder than the normal ice that was outside.
He had to carry it in a metal bottle that was kinda like a thermos. He let me play with a piece of it for a while. It felt lighter than a piece of normal ice of the same size, like it wasn't very heavy at all. It almost felt like you could throw it up in the air and it would just float back down, but I didn't try that. And it was also a little flexible when I tried to bend it. It didn't break like normal ice would. And even for a small piece, you couldn't see through it. It was solid blue right from the surface.
And here's the really weird part. It didn't melt into water. When it got warm, because we had it inside, it just started to shrink. It got smaller and smaller, but my glove never got wet. And there was no water on the floor. The stuff just turned into thin air when it got warm, and vaporized.
He said that was the reason why they had to study the stuff right there in Antarctica. You couldn't take sky ice back to America to study it, because it was almost impossible to keep it cold enough during transit. It would always vaporize into air and you'd have nothing left when you got back to the US. He said Russian scientists had discovered the same problem when they tried to take sky ice back to Russia. So that was why they all had research stations in Antarctica.
After maybe 15 minutes of handling the piece of sky ice, it was almost completely gone. Just a tiny little bit was left. And my glove was dry the whole time.
I'd never seen anything like it before or since. And that's unusual because I've always had an interest in scientific things. I think that's even why I got selected to go to Antarctica, because a big part of the interview was about science and what I believed about things. So I really thought it was cool to see something I'd never heard of before.
The whole time I was at McMurdo I heard people talk about "the wall" like that was a special place. It's pretty common to find ice walls and ice cliffs all over Antarctica. The whole place is ice. But it's all just normal white or clear ice, so I asked my friend where they get the sky ice from, and he said it comes from "the wall".
I don't remember exactly how he described it, but apparently there's a huge wall of sky ice in Antarctica. He said it was hundreds of miles inland from the coast. I never got to see it myself because I was only stationed to McMurdo. I didn't get to go out on expeditions. He said it was the biggest natural structure in the world.
He said that in the 1960's the US Army had a plan to bore a tunnel into the wall. But they didn't have a boring machine that could handle super cold temperatures. So they had a whole testing project in Greenland where they developed ice tunnels and invented new boring machines that could operate in super cold temperatures. Like they did this whole big thing in Greenland just for practice. I'm not an expert on that but that's just what he told me. Then once they had the new boring machine figured out, they brought it to the wall in Antarctica.
He said that the machine bored a tunnel, I don't remember exactly, like 5 or 10 miles into the wall, but that they never broke through the other side of the wall, and that they still don't know how thick the wall is even to this day.
And I'm probably not remembering this part correctly, but I think he said that at first, the floor of the tunnel was solid rock, but after a mile or two in, the floor was sky ice. Like it was sky ice underneath after a certain point. Or something like that.
And apparently the wall slowly builds itself back up after you cut it, because after a year or so, the tunnel had shrunk smaller all by itself. They had to leave the boring machine inside the wall because the tunnel shrunk too small to get it back out. And after a few decades the tunnel was completely gone.
Like, that part of the wall was solid again.
He said that now the scientists were trying to use technology to figure out how thick the wall is. He said something about putting earthquake sensors all along the wall, and that somehow you could measure the signal from an earthquake to see how thick the wall is, but he kinda lost me on that part.
I never really thought about any of that after I left. It was really weird stuff, but I didn't think it was a big deal at the time. But then a few weeks ago I saw a map of the wall in Antarctica. Except the map was all flat and crazy looking, and it showed the wall going all the way up over the whole earth.
So since then I've been trying to learn more about the sky ice that I saw, and the wall that I heard about, but I can't find anything at all."

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