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Brent Folmer

South Pole wire: Janesville electrician helps maintain equipment at Antarctica research station

Written by This article originally appeared in The Gazette . VIEW IT HERE.

JANESVILLE — Temperatures are dropping in Janesville, but this cold weather is nothing Brent Folmer can’t handle.
Folmer is currently on his way to the South Pole.
Folmer, from Indianford, is an electrician with Westphal Electric in Madison. He is going to work with the UW scientists in the Ice Cube project for the next six to eight weeks.

Scientists will be drilling into the ice searching for neutrinos — subatomic space particles that will help people learn more about the inner workings of black holes and the origins of the universe. The energy that’s created is recorded from sensors that are embedded in ice at the South Pole in Antarctica.

Then sensors are able to detect which direction the neutrinos came from, and then scientists can aim a telescope that direction into space.

This is not Folmer’s first venture into the cold. He has worked with UW scientists in Greenland and has been to Antarctica several times before.

He said working as an electrician can involve a lot of mundane tasks, and he decided he needed more adventure in his life.

Around 2004, Westphal got a call that scientists had built equipment but didn’t know how to connect the wires to make it run.

Folmer asked what they were going to do if it broke down and no one knew how to fix it. That’s when the scientists asked if he could come to Greenland to help make sure the equipment kept running.

“I have managed to get myself on a shortlist where when they need an electrician, they reach out and they always tend to ask if I’m still doing the electrical thing,” he said. “It’s like ‘of course I’m still doing the electrical thing.’”

While winter is approaching here in the northern hemisphere, in the South Pole it is almost summertime. However, it won’t be warm, with a tolerable temperature of -28 degrees celsius.

Folmer said the cold doesn’t bother him; he actually prefers it. The scientists and others are provided with weather-safe clothing and sleeping bags but he said that he did learn some tricks and tips to survive the frigid nights .

One trick is to keep a warm water bottle near his feet while he sleeps. The second is to eat lots of chocolate and sugar. The elevation is over 9,000 feet which makes the air thin. Folmer said eating chocolate helps keep a person’s metabolism up, which can help you stay warm.

There work has risks. He and the others are stationed at McMurdo, an isolated former military base, not close to a hospital or first aid station. Arctic temperatures can exacerbate injuries, he said.

“You wouldn’t believe the extensive dental work and medical check up I get to go on trips like these,” he said. “There is a tremendous amount of planning that goes into this to make sure people are mentally and physically healthy.”

He has a sense of accomplishment in being part of something as important as this, knowing he is a necessary part of the project.

“It’s definitely a pride thing,” he said. “I am needed to help run the machines and to troubleshoot. It’s an honor to be a part of it.”

“I mean not many people can say that they have been to Antarctica,” he added.

Folmer said he had never considered before connecting with the project, where being an electrician could take him. He said he likes to talk to young people just getting involved in the trades, sharing that their “capabilities are only limited by their willingness to do things.”

“You want to get involved in random things that you’re unsure about, do it, you want to volunteer for the things that scare you do it, because you never know where it leads,” he said. 

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