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Thursday, February 17, 2011

The last plane

The winter season at the South Pole station starts the day the last Hercules C-130 leaves the station, taking on board the last of the summer support personnel, and leaving the station isolated until the next summer crew shows up towards the end of October.  This year this happened on February 15.  The temperature had been dropping in the previous days down to -40 F (-40 C), quickly approaching the -59 F (-50.5 C) limit at which the Hercs can no longer land. 
The day of the last plane is an important date, full of anticipations and emotions.  On the one hand we are sad to see our summer friends leave; on the other we are eager to move on with the new rhythm and the perks afforded by the smaller population. 
One of the nicest perks is that we have more room.  The station is built to house 150 people, so there is plenty of space now for the 49 of us, 35 men and 14 women.  The wing were I was sleeping before is being closed down to save energy and it is being turned into our cold storage (for food, etc).  So, I moved into a new wing, with an unobstructed view over the plateau.  My winter room is a formidable 12 sq ft (1 square meter) larger than the summer room, bringing my personal space up to 72 sq ft, or 7 square meters.  It does not look like much, but the extra room allows me to fit a 6 ft desk, so now I can comfortably work on my computer from my room.
Another perk is that we have more free time, at least for us in science.  The summer has been a very busy period, as many scientists came from the mainland to bring new equipment and start new science projects.  I had about a dozen professors, researchers, and graduate students to assist and to learn from, every one staying about one week or so, with just a few days between the departure of one group and the arrival of the next.  I also had to perform a number of tasks in the summer, primarily calibrations and maintenance, which cannot be done in the winter, when the cold temperatures make access to some of the equipment on the ice very difficult or impossible.  We were also busy receiving, inspecting, and sorting a large amount of new laboratory supplies for the winter, from new power supplies, oscilloscopes, computer spare parts and consumables, to gloves, headlights, helmets, batteries, nuts and bolts and tool sets, to paper clips, tapes, adhesives, chemicals, and the list goes on and on.  In addition, as I have described in earlier blogs, we had numerous training sessions to attend with the fire brigade, the air drop, the emergency power plant operation, etc, all to be as prepared as we could for the winter in isolation.
Now things are slowly getting less busy, as we are primarily practicing the skills that we learnt and operating the science equipment and the station.  We still have a number of chores to do, such as closing the summer quarters, preparing our emergency gear (ready to use in case we lose the station to some calamity), moving stuff around, but that should be accomplished within the next two weeks.  Due to our limited staff, we also take turns to work in the kitchen once a month.  One new skill for winter that I recently learnt is flight following, so I occasionally get to work in the control tower.  Although no planes land at the South Pole, we still follow flights to and from Antarctica to provide emergency radio communications to airplanes.  I learnt how to relay information from air traffic control to an airplane and vice-versa, how to decipher and read a weather report, how to interpret the location of an aircraft, all in the proper lingo.
With the approaching sunset, due in just 32 days, the sun is decidedly lower on the horizon and less warm.  The temperatures started to drop down to -45 C (-49.9 F was our lowest a few days ago), with windchills down into the -70s F.  However there has been a warming trend that started yesterday, as moist air has arrived and, condensing into fog, has raised the temperature into the -30 C (-22 F).  Fog can form at temperatures down to -40 C, which is the typical limit for supercooled water.  This means that, although water freezes at 0 C, it can remain in liquid form down to -40 C, if left undisturbed.  When this fog hits a surface, however, it is no longer undisturbed, and solidifies instantaneously into frost.  So, yesterday we had a very unique and rare phenomenon, where the ground and all the surfaces were covered by an extra layer of ice crystals.  Skiing in the dense fog was a treat, even though I had to bring along the GPS, in addition to the radio, to make sure I could find my way back to the station, which became invisible less than one mile away (I didn't have to use either).  Today, Feb 18, it is a fine day, overcast, but with unrestricted visibility, low winds, and temperatures still up in the -28 C (-18 F), so I plan on going on one more bike ride (probably my last one, as the grease in the drive train freezes at lower temperatures, and I have found it impossible to ride in temperatures below -35 C (-30 F).
As winter approaches, there are many uncertainties and expectations.  What will the sunset be like?  How long will the twilight last before it gets pitch black?  How bright will the full moon and auroras be?  Will we really have beautiful auroras this winter, as we are approaching a solar maximum?  Hopefully I will be able to satisfy this curiosity and describe the upcoming changes in future blogs ... stay tuned.

The last Hercules on the ground at the South Pole, delivering the last load of fuel that will keep us warm for the winter.  We now have more than enough fuel in storage for the winter. 

Most of the winterovers came out to the skiway to say the last good-byes to the summer people leaving.

After the fuel is unloaded the flight engineer invites the passengers to board, and the population splits: the summer people walking in a line to the airplane, with the winterover remaining behind the flag line, facing the next 8 months of winter isolation.

The last plane on the ground, ready to take off, with a few winterorovers watching.  I walked back to the station to take some photos of this emotional moment from the second floor deck.

As tradition goes, the last plane performs a flyover on the station upon departure and tips its wings to signal a good bye.  We will not see another Hercules until October, and there will be no way out of here until then.  The closest people to us are now the dozen or so winterovers in the Russian station of Vostok, several hundred miles away, or, at the right time of day, the astronauts circling the earth in the International Space Station.

I took this photo in the afternoon of Feb 15, and sent it to the University of Colorado to be part of a project to document in photos the world weather on one particular day.  They were looking for photos from Antarctica.  They wanted the photo to show land and sky.  Well, it was not that hard here.  It looks pretty much the same here, anywhere you look, just white ice and blue skies ... nothing else.

The weather changed dramatically a couple of days later, as we got the rare phenomenon of fog at the South Pole, which covered everything in frost.  Here are some of our meteorological instruments on the roof of the Atmospheric Research Observatory.  The station, only 1/4-mile away is invisible, with the Cosmic Ray Platform barely visible on the ice 1/10 of a mile away.  It looks cold, but it is actually not, at -28 C (-18 F).


  1. Marco, I received your post card today. No one else in the office had ever received a post card from the South Pole. Thanks for including your blog site. I enjoyed reading about your adventures!

  2. Wow, I just love reading about the science project. I wonder if someday I could gather some laboratory equipments and begin my own research with a bunch of my partners. Thank you for sharing this project report with us.

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  3. I found that site very usefull and this survey is very cirious, I ' ve never seen a blog that demand a survey for this actions, very curious...
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