Saturday, February 7, 2009

Erika Blumenfeld Interview Part III

Continuing my conversation with Erika Blumenfeld, who is more than a few subway stops south of here:

JW:  As you know, I am a fan of extreme architecture of a utilitarian nature.  Tell us a bit about ITASC's mobile base structure, ICEPAC, their UMTHOMBO WOMLILO solar and wind power unit, and other green aspects of the expedition.  And will you get to see Ernest Shackleton's hut (still intact after more than 100 years)?

EB:  I am quite far from Shackleton's hut, in fact I am on the opposite side of Antarctica from Ross Island, and so will not get to see it on this trip.  To tell you a bit about our expedition, and our structures, I will need to go into some detail.

ITASC describes itself as a "decentralized network of individuals and organizations working collaboratively in the fields of art, engineering, science and technology on the interdisciplinary development and tactical deployment of renewable energy, waste recycling systems, sustainable architecture and open-format, open-source media."

This year's expedition is the third ITASC expedition to Antarctica, and is codenamed ITASC: FIRE (Field Installation and Research Expedition).  It follows the first expedition ITASC RECE (Reconnaissance and Communications Expedition) in 2006/2007 during which they installed the solar and wind powered GROUNDHOG Automated Weather Station.  The system provides weather data in order to predict the conditions we will operate in.

In 2007/2008 the second expedition, codenamed ITASC SITE (Systems Installation and Testing Expedition) installed their UMTHOMBO WOMLILO solar and wind powered sled at the GROUNDHOG site to test the feasibility of producing sufficient electrical power and water for a hypothetical crew of six using photovoltaic panels and wind turbines.  Water and power are essential for the safety and comfort of the crew in remote environments.  the UMTHOMBO WOMLILO unit produces 2.5kw of energy, enough to run a small suburban house.  UMTHOMBO WOMLILO is a Zulu phrase meaning "Well of Fire."

This expedition that we are now embarking on, ITASC FIRE, will install and test the prototype mobile ITASC IPY base called ICEPAC (ITASC Catabatic Experimental Platform for Antarctic Culture).  It is designed to provide basic living and working systems to support a crew of up to six artists, scientists and engineers in the field for up to six weeks.  In addition to installing and running ICEPAC, the ITASC crew will also use any excess energy generated by the UMTHOMBO WOMLILO unit to try to melt a CATABATIC CELL, which is a habitable void beneath the ice using heating elements which apparently look a bit like stainless steel light sabers. 

The idea is to use solar and wind power to create a livable space, which does not require any other architectural support, thereby creating a mobile transitory shelter in the ice, which will be returned to its original condition by the natural forces of Antarctica after we have left.  ICEPAC and the CATABATIC CELL were designed and produced in collaboration with Pol Taylor of ARQZE (Arqitecturas por Zonas Extremas) in Valpariso, Chile, who also produced the Chilean remote filed station EPTAP, at Patriot Hills (80 degrees south).

JW:  I'm told you have to take out everything you bring with you to Antarctica, including human waste.

EB:  Yes, the Antarctic Treaty requires that all field research and movement on the continent follow strict regulations in order to protect the environment – to date, forty six countries have signed it.  No waste may be left behind, including all trash and human excrement.  All waste that is produced here at the base is stored in containers in the utility rooms and returned to South Africa at the end of the season for final disposal.

JW:  As it is summer down there and daylight pretty much 24/7, how do you decide when to sleep?

EB:  Darkness deprivation is actually a rather big issue down here, and insomnia is prevalent.  Since I'm not at the South Pole exactly, we have just reached the point in the seasonal shifting where the sun does actually dip below the horizon for about an hour.  This certainly isn't enough time for one to feel like sleeping, and in fact it has the opposite effect on me.  I actually stay up to watch the sunset and sunrise because it is so phenomenal!  I've made some Light Recordings of it, and have also seen some beautiful atmospheric optics due to the extended low sun rays.  As a result, I'm not sleeping very much, but I figure I can catch up when I'm back in the US.

Tomorrow is the final installment of our interview.  Erika demystifies Antarctic food, tells us a bit about her next expedition, this time to the top of the world, and reveals when and where The Polar Project and related works can be seen.  More on Erika's expedition blog.

Photo of ICEPAC and the UMTHOMBO WOMLILO power sled by Thomas Mulcaire of ITASC, from the International Polar Year (IPY) website.

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