Antarctic conditions still punishing notebook PCs

While the climate-controlled comfort of most Antarctic research stations makes administration and proper operation of computer equipment and networks a relative non-event, the situation is much different for researchers making the trek into the field. There, plummeting temperatures, teeth-chattering wind, ever-present grit and snow and the inescapable tendency to get very, very wet all contribute to an extremely hostile environment for the notebook PCs that researchers depend upon every day.

Most Antarctic teams have their fair share of horror stories: $4000 laptops drenched with salt water, frozen solid, or shaken to pieces after being strapped onto the luggage rack for a long Ski-Doo ride over bone-jarring snow and ice. Although it has interrupted the work of many researchers and caused untold headaches for logistical staff charged with keeping healthy notebooks supplied, such damage comes as no surprise: cold is perhaps the worst enemy of the notebook PC.

Even the most hardy laptops are only rated to -20°C, which on Antarctica can be the maximum temperature on a sunny day with a stiff breeze. But the further below freezing the temperature goes, the more likely notebook PC components are to fail. Freezing slows down the liquid crystal in notebook displays and all but stops the chemical reaction that produces electricity within the batteries of computers and digital cameras -- slashing battery life to a matter of seconds and forcing many researchers to run the devices off of DC-AC transformers plugged into idling Ski-Doos.

Cold also locks up mechanical parts "such as the zoom in digital cameras" and increases the viscosity of the lubricants in hard drives, increasing friction and substantially increasing the chances of a fatal head crash. Such was the experience of Jim Johnson, IT manager with Raytheon Polar Services, which handles logistics for the United States Office of Polar Programs.

"We haven't had a lot of luck on any hard drives until recently," says Johnson, who says until recently notebook manufacturers simply weren't building their machines for durability in any sense of the word. "Heads would crash onto platters, and we'd lose hard drives right and left. I'd order 100 hard drives and within five months, 30 would be dead. We started buying a bit of everything until we found out what drives survived."

Raytheon finally standardised on the PanasonicToughBook, a weatherproofed system that has performed much better in extremely wet, cold and high-vibration environments: "for $6000 you have a hardened laptop that's good for two to three years on the ice," says Johnson.

In more temperate parts of Antarctica, off-the-shelf notebooks often fare better. Such was the experience of Ewan McIvor, a project officer with the Australian Antarctic Division's Environmental Management and Audit Unit, a standard Hewlett-Packard OmnibookXE3 was more than up to the task of supporting his work in developing a management plan for the Larsemann Hills region.

'It was lovely in terms of Antarctic weather, but at night, the temperature would drop substantially," says McIvor, who spent 10 weeks at Law Base in the eastern part of the continent and used his system for writing reports, storing images from his digital camera and interfacing with a portable GPS unit he used to survey the area. "Due to the conditions, we didn't take our notebooks out in the field. The system worked well; the only problem was that three days before I got back to Hobart a dozen of the keys on the keyboard stopped working."

Not all notebooks are operating in such fortuitous conditions, however. Because they operate a variety of remote monitoring stations utilising notebook computers, researchers with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have been weatherising portable computers for some time. To protect notebooks left on the snow to collect data for days and weeks on end, BAS scientists used Zargesboxes as the basis for self-contained, solar-powered monitors that include enough thermal insulation and heating to keep the notebooks comfortable.

Chemical hand warmers are a common fixture among researchers doing notebook-based work in the field, many of whom have been known to warm PCs by sealing them in a bag with one of the ferrous-based packets for an hour or so. With in-tent temperatures hovering well below zero for much of the day, still others keep notebook PCs with them in their sleeping bags.

"You can't normally read the hard drive below +5°C, but it's about -10°C in the tent," says Julie Ferris, an airborne geophysicist whose work with the BAS involves regular radar mapping from a plane flying sorties over the Antarctic snow. "If you're trying to do computing work where you're sitting still for a long period of time, it's nice to get it a bit warmer. If you need to get something warm or keep it warm, you just put it on the plane."

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