Glenn “Bubba” Gateley is not a physicist. However, the first thing he does upon awakening is to check a physical experiment. The take-home tablet from work provides continuous updates about the HVAC system at the Laser Gravitational Wave Observatory or LIGO Hanford Observatory, in Richland, Washington.

Before heading to work, Gateley checks his phone to make sure he hasn’t missed calls about tumbleweed, porcupines, crows, or any other desert dwellers causing problems for the LIGO facility.

Along with its dual location in Livingston, Louisiana, the LIGO Hanford Observatory — funded by the National Science Foundation — detects gravitational waves. In fact, in 2015, this pair of identical detectors was the first to confirm the existence of these ripples in space-time caused by catastrophic astronomical events billions of light years away.

Detectors at both LIGO sites are L-shaped structures with 2.5-mile-long arms. The subtle movements of sensitive instruments within these arms signal the arrival of gravitational waves, which carry information about events that led to them, such as supernova explosions, black hole mergers, and the collision of neutron stars.

LIGO Hanford Observatory lives in a unique environment. Richland’s low seismic activity makes it a quiet and ideal place to spot weak signals. But a trifecta of fluctuating temperatures, perennial vegetation, and resourceful fauna makes it difficult to maintain the exact equipment scientists use to do so.

As director of observatory facilities since 2014, Gateley is one of the people who must take on this challenge. With his small crew of six, he is responsible for most of the facility’s logistics, including water, electricity, roads, cleaning, and the aforementioned HVAC system.

“I keep the facility up and running on just about everything except the tool itself,” he says. “There are definitely some interesting situations here, to say the least.”

Overcoming the heat (and cold)

Richland lies east of the Cascade Mountains, Washington, in an arid shrub-steppe ecosystem.

Usually when people think of Washington, they think of the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, exactly in Seattle. That’s not the case in Richland,” said Michael Landry, head of the LIGO Hanford Observatory and a physicist at Caltech. “It’s very beautiful.”

Of course, deserts mean high temperatures. In the summer, the temperature in Richland is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit on many days, sometimes as high as 118 degrees. But at night, the temperature can drop significantly. And in the colder months of the year, it can drop to zero. There are even snow days.

These extreme temperature fluctuations outside make it difficult to maintain the temperature inside LIGO’s large vacuum equipment areas, which must remain within 67 degrees Fahrenheit.

“If the temperatures start to vary a lot in the areas of the vacuum equipment, the optics for the device start to change dramatically and the scientists are alarmed,” Gatelli says. “And then I get a lot of calls.”

To keep the temperature constant, he does a lot of monitoring, tuning and optimization of the HVAC system. That’s why each day begins with Gateley checking his condition.

Falling off a wall of weeds

While temperature control is a 24/7 concern, Gateley also regularly wrestles with another hallmark of the desert, tumbleweeds.

A weed might seem harmless enough, but at the LIGO Hanford Observatory, these dust bunnies of the Wild West are a nuisance. “Tumbleweeds are one of our biggest natural challenges,” Gateley says.

Tumbleweeds are actually plants that have evolved to dry out and separate from their root system and spread their seeds as they are rolled. Strong desert winds blow these dried balls into the arms of the observatory’s detector, where they get stuck. They pile up quickly, forming walls that can be up to 10 feet high.

These drop walls block the 2.5 miles of roads that run along the arms, completely obscuring the detector.

However, the tanks along the detector’s arms must be accessed on a weekly basis. The tanks contain liquid nitrogen operating at minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit, which is what the detector needs to ensure its arms are under vacuum.

To clear these methods for the semitruck that transports liquid nitrogen, observatory maintenance personnel used to weed out these weeds like hay, and feed the plunger manually. “It was a very slow process,” Gatelli says. “I started thinking and thinking, trying to figure out a way to speed it up.”

In the end, think about farm equipment. Specifically, a reaper, which walks through fields of corn or wheat and pulls the stalks.

But if you drive a reaper on a plot, it pushes it forward. Five years ago, Gateley purchased a reaper and added a modified hay reel to the front, creating the LIGO Franken reaper.

Its pinwheel grabs weeds and pulls them into the threshing drum, which grinds them up and releases them. “With a reaper, we can drive on the road 10 times faster than the speed of a baler,” Gateley says.

Coexistence with creatures

Plants aren’t the only living things that have asked Gately to innovate in his job. In addition to being an HVAC expert, weed destroyer, and general handyman, Gatele also has to deal with animals that live in the desert. There are many different creatures roaming the grounds of LIGO Hanford. Some, such as coyotes and deer, do no harm. Others cause trouble.

Gately removed scorpions and poisonous spiders from buildings. He fixed the wires that rabbits chew on. The porcupine who took a nap was expelled on top of a trellis next to a building on the observatory’s campus.

The porcupine was climbing wisteria vines threaded through the trellis and sleeping on top. Although the animals are nocturnal, when the daytime public rides leave the building, they will occasionally awaken the porcupine, at which point they relax themselves before settling back in to sleep.

Fortunately, Gately noticed stains on the concrete before any passersby received an unpleasant surprise from above.

At first, he just tried to drive away the porcupine, but they came back unchecked. So, once again, Gately turned to another area to find a solution. This time, it was charging.

Workers attach discs to ropes that connect boats to docks to prevent rats from using them to board. “I made some and installed them around the wisteria vines so the porcupine couldn’t climb in there,” Gateley says.

The problem has been resolved.

However, another animal proved to be more troublesome. The crows have torn seals from windows in new buildings and even malfunctioned in the detector during a hot summer when they pecked at ice accumulating on liquid nitrogen pipes.

The birds also began to take out the plug that connects the concrete sections that surround the detector’s arms. The holes they created allow rainwater to seep through. “It doesn’t rain much here, but we don’t like any moisture getting under this place because it can end up causing problems,” Gateley says.

A biologist helped him figure out what the crows were trying to do: get to the mice under the concrete enclosure. So Gately covered the dam with thin aluminum metal strips.

“It deterred them to some extent,” he says. “I hesitate to say it stopped them completely.”

Despite all the trouble it causes him, Gately says he prefers the desert much more than the climate of Louisiana, the home of another LIGO detector, where he grew up by chance.

“I don’t miss the humidity,” he says. “And the desert is interesting.”

Although he’s lived near Richland for more than 40 years now, Gately says he never knows what the desert will throw at him next. History indicates that he will be able to find a solution in any case.

“It’s one of the toughest jobs I’ve ever had,” he says. “But definitely the most interesting. I enjoy it a lot.”

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