Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Eclipse Team’s Life on Enewetak

by Beverly Lynn-Wilson
Member of the Friends of the Institute for Astronomy

The Institute for Astronomy (IfA) eclipse team, officially known as the Solar Wind Sherpas, spent a week on Enewetak, in the Marshall Islands, to study the eclipse. (Please see entries below for descriptions of the eclipse, the science, and our trip.) Here are some snapshots of our activities on Enewetak:

Meals were a highlight of the day. The nutritionist at the Wellness Center in the hospital on Majuro planned our meals and sent along one of his cooks, Joni Lang. She served us gourmet dishes of chicken, fresh vegetables, tofu, pancakes, grilled cheese sandwiches on homemade bread, salad, beans, and tuna caught by local residents. Oranges, brown rice, peanut butter, nuts, raisins, tahini dressing, and honey were available at most meals. We drank bottled water and fruit juice. Most of the meat and some of our other food shipped on the boat never reached us.

Cook Joni Lang served us delicious meals. Favorites were a pineapple cake and carrot cookies (so good several asked for the recipe).

European team members agreed that melted cheese is a dietary essential but failed to grasp the love affair Americans have with peanut butter. (Although some Americans talked about giving up peanut butter for a while after eating it three times a day on this trip.)

Our chief engineer, Judd Johnson, re-engineered the coffee machine at our first breakfast. He found a coffee-maker, but it had no carafe or filters. A carafe was essential to release a mechanism that let the coffee drip through. Judd taped the mechanism into position, used a paper towel as a filter, and dripped the coffee into a saucepan. Some team members had brought instant coffee or coffee bags (like tea bags) so that they wouldn’t be caught in the unthinkable circumstance of having no coffee to drink.

Each of us washed our foam plates and plasticware to reuse them and reduce the amount of trash we created.

Five of us survived (well, sort of) a two-hour boat trip across the huge lagoon and back to visit the islet of Runit, where the radiation from the 1940s and 1950s atomic testing was buried after the U.S. cleaned up Enewetak in 1979. The small fishing boat had fish guts floating in the bottom and no real seats. We zigged and zagged between underwater rocks, and twice heard the sickening sound of the outboard motor prop hitting those rocks, fortunately with no major damage. We fried in the sun and got drenched by waves and a squall. As we slammed into swells, I kept my tongue behind my teeth so that I wouldn’t accidentally bite it. The foot and hand cramps from bracing so hard cleared up soon after the trip was over. For the next day or two, though, we wanted to sit on something soft.

The fishing boat we took to Runit, the small one in front, was docked at the beach where many of us swam every day.

While we were on Runit, we checked constantly with Judd as he measured radiation. He found barely more than the usual background radiation. We hiked up a concrete dome that is 9 meters (29 feet) high and 115 meters (374 feet) wide, under which the radioactive materials from the atomic testing are buried in a crater left by one of the bomb blasts. The half-life of the plutonium buried there is 24,000 years.
Most of the vegetation near the dome is dead; the other part of Runit is green. Dozens of birds live here.

The rest of the team took the trip the next day in a larger boat. They were only fried by the intense sun. Even frequent applications of sunblock can’t provide complete protection in this place 11 degrees above the equator.

We swam in the lagoon’s warm, clear water and played Frisbee. One evening we had a fly-swatting contest in the workroom. Dr. Martina Arndt won, with over 50 to her credit.

This shows our sleeping and workroom with some of the equipment packed up after the eclipse.

Grad student Emily Mount taught local children how to play Frisbee--and how to get a Frisbee off a roof.

Many activities that we consider a normal part of everyday life weren’t available to us. Enewetak has no stores, no ATMs, no post office, no high school, no hospital or clinic. It has no phones or faxes, no TV, no Internet. Our group had a satellite phone for emergencies.

Each Enewetak family has a feezer in this warehouse.

Locals raise pigs for food. Before a plane lands, police drive around asking people to get their pigs off the runway and into their pens.

This is a typical scene. The island also has many concrete buildings.

Shortly after arriving I appointed myself plumbing czar and spent a portion of most days dealing with cleanliness and malfunction issues. The second big excitement of eclipse day happened when Dr. Isabelle Scholl walked into the dorm at bedtime. Water was pouring out from her room into the hallway. The toilet tank in her room—the same tank that hadn’t managed to fill automatically for days because the pump malfunctioned—had overflowed. She shut off the water valve and I helped her move her air mattress and personal items into my room. (Her room contained only two thin mats instead of a wooden bed with a standard mattress that other rooms had, so Isabelle used one of the air mattresses we had brought.) European team member Peter Aniol went in search of the maintenance man, since the water was now seeping into his room.

Most of us slept indoors in a room like this, but a few chose to sleep in small tents erected where they had great views of both the lagoon and the ocean.

We gave up expecting anything to be thoroughly dry. The room air-conditioners helped somewhat, but with daily squalls and drizzles and otherwise constant high humidity, everything remained damp. Tossing clothes and towels into the dryer helped for only minutes or hours. I stored my paperback books upright between a wall and a suitcase. Otherwise, the covers curled into tubes.

We accepted the ear-splitting noise of the large generator, because that was the only thing that kept the air-conditioners, scientific instruments, and kitchen appliances running.

We admired the beautiful turquoise, teal, and royal blue colors of the lagoon. We saw rainbows daily. We watched lovely sunrises and sunsets, enjoying the coolness of those times—meaning that the temperature had dropped into the 80s.

Grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation funded this solar research.