Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Waiting for that Vortex

I like winter - it's when I continue with backyard ice-photography, capturing images such as this ...

... but there's a limit! We're battening down the hatches for the Polar Vortex here in Minnesota, with the thermometer expected to hit -25 F in the next two days. A blast of wind will bring the chill down another twenty degrees.

I experienced occasional temps of -60 F while living in Fairbanks, Alaska, but the air was dead-still, so it was tolerable. I preferred to walk to work on such days (less than a half mile) because I had surplus Alyeska Pipeline cold-weather gear like this parka:

... and because such temperatures are pretty hard on cars. My apartment offered each parking spot a plug-in for block heaters, which helped to start the engines but didn't warm the running gear.

If there's a website to nominate cold-weather survivors, I'd like to name the Russians of Ice Station Vostok, which experienced a disastrous fire and loss of generator power at the onset of winter in 1982, setting off a six-month-long emergency.

Vostok is near the South Magnetic Pole, and sits at an elevation of 11,000 feet. The following winter, Vostok posted the lowest ground temperature ever recorded:  -128.6 F (Photo, Wiki commons:)

The fire originated in an electrical short. It killed one man and destroyed the main generators plus the backup sets in one stroke.

Since new equipment and supplies could only reach them by tractor train and that wouldn't happen for 227 days, the crew of Ice Station Vostok saved themselves by setting up wick-fed heaters fueled with diesel, and fixing two scrapped generators.

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