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Weminuche, South Pole linked

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

With llamas Hawkeye and Dollar Bill, wilderness ranger Ann Dal Vera heads down Purgatory Creek Trail earlier this month on a nine-day patrol into the Weminuche Wilderness.

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer


Anne Dal Vera works two pretty similar jobs. She simply trades one wilderness for another.

As a U.S. Forest Service ranger, she patrols the Weminuche Wilderness from April through September.

Earlier this month, with llamas Hawkeye and Dollar Bill carrying gear, including a crosscut saw, she headed into the Weminuche for nine days. There, she and Traci Hall would repair trails, pick up and bundle trash and remind any backcountry visitors they came across about respecting the environment.

In October, Dal Vera heads off for Antarctica where, until mid-February, she’ll be support staff for research scientists at McMurdo Sound.

It’s no whim. This is her 14th season in the Weminuche, and it will be season number 18 coming up down south.

The Antarctic weather ranges from calm to raging blizzards, Dal Vera said.

“I keep a field camp five miles outside McMurdo running,” Dal Vera said. “I help launch small balloons that gather weather information, and I inspect our camp daily to make sure it’s safe – no water leaks, no heating problems.”

McMurdo is one of three U.S. science research centers in Antarctica. There, members of international consortiums – through NASA grants – do research into such esoteric fields as cosmic rays, neutrinos and the origin of stars, Dal Vera said.

Researchers gather data by sending long-duration balloons loaded with 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of equipment as high as 129,000 feet, Dal Vera said. The balloons stay aloft 10 to 54 days (a record), circling the continent on the wind.

The balloons Dal Vera helps launch provide critical weather information for the research center. They carry a theodolite that measures azimuth and elevation and relays the data to a computer that calculates wind speed and direction.

“Wind speed and direction are important,” Dal Vera said. “The wind should be blowing at less than 6 mph and in a steady direction for the long-duration balloons to launch.”

It requires two to three hours to launch a long-duration balloon, she said.

Dal Vera, 59, earned a degree in recreation at Utah State University and since has worked 26 years with the U.S. Forest Service, the last 14 in the San Juan National Forest.

In Antarctica, the scientific community at McMurdo has an international flavor, Dal Vera said. France, Germany, Japan, Russia and Italy are often represented. Last year, the Women’s University of South Korea sent a researcher, she said.

Scientific teams compete for grants from NASA to do research. The data is analyzed when the teams return home.

McMurdo researchers and support staff members, who number about 1,000, live at a camp that contains dormitories, coffee shop, two bars, gymnasium with weights and aerobic equipment, laundry, cafeteria and chapel. Lodging and food are provided free.

A strict solid-waste management plan prevails, Dal Vera said. All trash has to be separated into 26 categories to be recycled.

“It’s not easy to get bored because we work a minimum of 54 hours a week over six days,” Dal Vera said. “But in spare time, movies are available, we have an Internet connection, and we have a scientific lecture on Wednesday and Sunday nights.”

In Antarctica, Dal Vera is employed by a Lockheed Martin subcontractor.

United States researchers also work in Antarctica at the Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole and the Palmer station on Anvers Island near the tip of the peninsula. Among their areas of interest are microscopic creatures that live in valleys with little water, core samples of ice that shield gas deposited up to 2,000 years ago, and animal life, including seals, penguins and fish.

An estimated 60 nations have researchers in Antarctica.


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