Search This Blog

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Winter Over

The winter season at the South Pole ended this week with the arrival of two planes carrying some of the people who will replace us and take care of the station for the next year. 
The end of the winter season was delayed by bad weather, which is the way it usually goes every year, although this year we seemed to have worse luck than before.  Nevertheless, we are now fully caught up and back on schedule; actually we are a little ahead of schedule.  A landing at the South Pole requires a combination of weather conditions that is hard to achieve this early in the season.  Three conditions must be met both in McMurdo (where the flights originate), and here at Pole.  Those conditions are wind, visibility, and temperature.  For a C-130 the wind needs to be less than 20 knots, temperature greater than -59 F (-50.5 C), and visibility more than 2 miles.  A Basler can operate under slightly less restrictive parameters, which is the reason why the Baslers are the first to arrive.  After the first two Baslers landed here on Oct 17 to refuel on their way across the continent from Rothera to McMurdo, it took a full week for those weather conditions to allow the next landing at Pole.  Then the weather closed again, putting us further and further behind in the station opening activities.  At the same time, people were piling up, sitting idle in McMurdo waiting for an opportunity to fly here.  So, a decision was made to substitute two Basler flights with a single C-130 flight (a Basler carries 16 people, while a C-130 can take 40), and we lucked out.  The first C-130 landed here yesterday, Oct 29, just hours before a storm would have prevented a landing for who knows how much longer.  So, with 40 more new people on station, we are now in full summer season.  The weather can only get better from now on, as the temperature is unlikely to be a limitation any more, and winds in McMurdo tend to be less strong as the season progresses.  The next C-130 is scheduled to get here on Tuesday.  It will carry my replacement.

As a result of these two flights, our population, in less than one week, has ballooned from 46 to 105 people.  We already knew most of the new people from having spent the last summer together here at Pole.  So, we are having a great time exchanging stories, hearing what they have been doing while we were wintering in isolation, and reciprocating with our winter stories.  We can feel the energy that all these new people are bringing with them, and it is shaking us up from our winter torpor.  It feels invigorating.  Today we had brunch, which is tradition for Sundays at the South Pole during the summer season. It felt like a big reunion with old friends.  It was also wonderful to have fresh bagels, salmon, cream cheese, omelets and, most of all, fresh fruit.  It was overwhelming, though, to walk into the galley and find it so full of people.  I had not seen 100 people all at once in more than 8 months.  Wow!  I had to stand in line to get my coffee.  I had not stood in a line in more than 8 months!  How many more things am I going to have to get used to again, now that I am about to return home!

A Basler landed at the South Pole on Oct 24 with the first new people who arrived to prepare the station for the summer season.  It also carried our mail and some freshies, including peaches and strawberries.  It was a cold but clear day.  The station is visible in the background.

The next plane to be able to land was a Hercules (C-130), on Oct 29.  The weather was just starting to deteriorate, with clouds moving in.  Within a few hours the visibility would drop to less than 1/2 mile.  It has not yet cleared as I am writing.

40 people arrived on the C-130, re-enacting a routine familiar to the summer season, when many people come and go on a regular basis.

Two twin otters arrived on Oct 29 as well, shortly after the Herc, on their way across the continent from Rothera to McMurdo.  They were supposed to just spend a night here and take off today, but 20-knot winds, with 30-knot gusts this morning, and no visibility, are forcing them to stay put here for a while.  Two twin otters had landed the day before, on Oct 28, the first such planes this season, and were able to take off for McMurdo before the storm.  It was nice to see Travis again, the Twin Otter pilot who took me to one of the Autonomous Geophysical Observatory (AGO) sites, in the middle of the continent, last summer.  He will spend another season ferrying people and cargo to the various field camps across the continent.  What a job!

Before the winter was over, on October 1, as tradition obliges, we all went out on the ice to take the winterover photo: the photo of all the people who wintered over together at the South Pole Station.  This year, in theme with the 100th anniversary of the first people reaching the Pole, we took the photo at the very South Pole, where we also had set up a tent, similar to the tent that the Amundsen party set up and left here 100 years ago, and made a photo composition to include the historical photo of the Amundsen party.  We also took the Norwegian and British flags, in honor of both the Amundsen (Norwegian) and the Scott (British) expeditions, who arrived at the Pole within days of each other 100 years ago.  Photo and composition by Robert.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The title of this blog could have been “The first plane” or “End of Isolation”, but I decided it should be what most of all I was waiting for during the last eight months of isolation at the South Pole: freshies.  Freshies is Antarctica jargon for fresh fruit and vegetables, of which, as anybody can imagine, there is very limited supply, if any at all.  We have been blessed this year with good harvests from our greenhouse, which have provided lettuce, tomatoes, kale, eggplants, cucumbers, etc. but, with the exception of half an orange for each one of us that was airdropped here at the South Pole on Aug 29, we had not seen a fresh piece of fruit since we ate the last of the apples back in March. 
Apart from the freshies, the real big event yesterday was the landing of the first planes of the season.  Two of them arrived.  Their primary reason for landing here was not to bring us freshies, but to refuel on their way across the continent from Rothera, the British research station on the Antarctic Peninsula, to McMurdo.  They are Baslers, vintage DC-3 airplanes that have been refurbished for polar travel.  They are chartered to the US Antarctic Program from Kenn Borek, a Canadian company.  It took them about two weeks to arrive, coming all the way from Calgary, in Canada, hopping from airport to airport along the American continent, and then across Antarctica.  They will be stationed at McMurdo for the rest of the season, carrying passengers and cargo to the South Pole first, and then to field camps in Antarctica.  While they were refueling today, they also picked up three of us who had urgent needs to get back to the US, leaving only 46 of us to run the station until the summer crew arrives in a few days.

The pilots and mechanics of the two Baslers took the time, on their last stop in Punta Arena in Chile, to go to the store and, out of their own good heart and pockets, buy some fresh fruit and vegetables for us.  They handed us large grocery store bags full of apples, oranges, pears, and lettuce.  It is not the first time that these pilots come to the South Pole, and they know what we most long for after 8 months of isolation.  There was enough for a big apple for each of us, an orange and a large bowl of lettuce.  We love you, Kenn Borek pilots and mechanics!

The planes were on the ground only 45 minutes: just the time to taxi to our pit, refuel, and taxi back out the skiway for takeoff.  Several of us worked hard in the previous days to groom the skiway, prepare the fuel pit, and, today, to deliver the precious juice. 

At home we always have to stop the engine before we refuel our cars.  Not at the South Pole.  The weather, although gorgeous yesterday, with very good visibility and almost no wind, was a chilly -59 C (-74 F), which is colder than what the Baslers are rated for.  The oil in the engine can freeze very quickly if the engine stops, so the pilots kept the propellers turning all the time while refueling, and the operation had to be carried out as quickly as possible.  The cloud seen in the picture is ice that is lifted in the air by the action of the propellers. 
The sun was already 9 degrees above the horizon, and, with the reflection from the snow, it is very bright out.
In this photo we can see the flight engineer sitting on the right wing of the airplane, pumping fuel into it. 
Ready for takeoff.  As the pilot revs up the propellers, the cloud of snow becomes gigantic.

This photo was taken on Aug 30.  As I mentioned earlier in this blog, we had some oranges air dropped to us by the Air Force on Aug 29.  It is not that the Air Force made a special mission to the South Pole just to send us some oranges.  Rather, this was a special mission to deliver some critical medical supplies, the first winter air drop at the South Pole in the last 10 years.  Because the medical supplies were not heavy enough for the parachutes to operate properly, the Air Force added to the packages some mail and, what they knew we mostly desired, some freshies.  When we divided them up, we each got half an orange – probably the most expensive piece of food that ever will have passed through my mouth.

Preparing for the Aug 29 air drop, in the middle of the polar night, was not a simple task.  We were given four-day notice to get ready.  We had to groom 160 acres of ice (0.6 Sq Km) to provide a smooth landing for the packages.  Within this area we had to set on fire barrels full of jet fuel to mark the point of impact.  The barrels had to be positioned in very specific locations to form a pattern that would be recognized by the pilots.  Lighting up fuel at -80 F is not easy because the cold does not allow the fuel to vaporize and burn.  We used special tricks that we had learned when we trained during the summer, and it all worked very well.  My primary responsibility was to calculate the locations of the barrels based on a sketch provided by the Air Force, and navigate to the calculated locations using a GPS.  Once the packages landed, we had to quickly find them – not an easy task in the middle of the night – and then bring them into the station as quickly as possible before the medical supplies would freeze.  Almost every single one of the 49 of us was involved in one way or another in this operation.  In this photo by Robert we see the burn barrels on the ground, and the airplane (a massive 4-jet-engine C-17) making a pass over the drop zone.  The long exposure reveals the path of the aircraft.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Where is Polheim?

Well, no one really knows.  Polheim means “house of the pole” in Norwegian, and is the name that the Amundsen party gave the tent they set up at the South Pole when they arrived on Dec 14, 1911.  It was a spare tent that they had carried all the way from the coast, and because they no longer needed it for the trip back, they left it standing at the Pole.  Inside the tent they left items that they also did not need for the trip back, including two sextants and some clothes.  When Scott arrived at the Pole a month later he found the tent still standing. 
Polheim on Dec 14, 1911.  From left, Amundsen, Hanssen, Hassel, and Wisting.  Photo by Olav Bjaalland.
Scott was the last person to see the tent.  The next people to set foot at the South Pole were members of the US Navy when they came to establish the first South Pole Station in 1956.  At that time the tent would have been buried under several feet of ice, due to the constant accumulation of snow grains that fall from the sky and never melt.  Today the tent is estimated to be under 65 ft (20 mt) of ice.  Supposedly, the tent was located at the exact South Pole, but because the navigational instruments used by Amundsen only had an accuracy of about 2 km, there is quite a bit of uncertainty as to the exact location of Polheim.  In addition, the plateau moves over time, so the tent would have moved approximately 1 km in the 100 years that have passed since it was erected.   Researchers, using handwritten notes from Amundsen, and studying the instruments that he used, have estimated the current location.  There are two such estimates.  They differ from each other by 700 meters.  The first one puts Polheim at 2 km from the current location of the South Pole; the second at 2.7 km. 
A few days ago Robert, one of our astronomers, invited me on a pilgrimage to these sites.  Robert had studied the literature, drawn maps, and programmed a GPS to take us there.  Our destination lied within the boundaries of the clean air sector, an area that is off limits even to us researchers because it is located upwind of very sensitive instruments that continuously monitor the air quality of our planet.  The instruments are so sensitive that they can detect the presence of a single person breathing one mile away.  So, we had to wait for the winds to shift to a grid East direction, so that our travel would be downwind of the instruments and, with proper permission from NOAA, after dinner on October 11, we were allowed to enter the area. 
Skiing in the clean air sector towards Polheim .  The surface, sculpted by the wind into small sastrugi, is very hard.  Skis hardly make an indentation as they glide over the bumps.  The temperature was a chilly -60 C (-76 F), which is several degrees colder than the mean temperature for this time of year, but winds were moderate at under 10 knots, which made for a pleasant trip (Photo by Robert).
Robert checking the GPS coordinates.  Yes, we are at the correct location: this is where the first of the two estimates puts Polheim, 20 mt under where Robert is standing.  Note how Robert uses a 100-year old technique of tying his bear paw mittens to a rope and hanging them around his neck, so that he can easily take them on and off without losing them, when he needs to use his hands.
Robert took this photo of me at the first estimated Polheim location.  We never remove our dark goggles, not even for a photo.  Although the sun is only 7 degrees above the horizon, the UV radiation is intense under the ozone hole.  Our friends Johan and Christy from NOAA have been monitoring the ozone hole here at the Pole all year long by launching balloons that reach into the stratosphere, up to around 100,000 ft (30 km) of height.  They have increased the frequency of their measurements now that the hole is forming.   At the beginning of October, the total integrated column of ozone reaches a minimum, at around one third the normal values.  After the middle of October the ozone hole starts to fill in again.  This year we actually reached the minimum on October 9.
At the second estimated Polheim location we found a flag, which was put in place by one of last year's winterovers with an interest in the history of Polheim.  We found the flag in very good conditions.  Here Robert is savoring the moment.  Could he be standing just 20 mt above Polheim?  Nobody knows.
This is the view from Polheim into the clean air sector, not at all different from what Amundsen first and then Scott must have seen 100 years ago.  A thin fog was appearing and disappearing on the horizon, but never obscured the dark blue skies above us.  It was a wonderful 2-hr trip on the ice, full of emotions, as we walked in the steps of the great polar explorers that our station is named after.