Search This Blog

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Epilogue of One Year at the South Pole

I have been back home for one month now and it is time to close this blog with the last few reflections of my year spent at the bottom of the world.  The memories and emotions are still fresh in my mind, and it is difficult at this point to sort through them and say what will be the legacy of this amazing experience.  As the days and weeks go by, some memories fade away; others become more vivid.  It will be those memories that are vivified by the passing of time that will define the legacy of these twelve months at the Pole.  Since returning home, a day has not passed without me thinking about the South Pole, thinking about my friends still there, imagining what it would be like to still be there.  Of all my memories, the ones that are most deeply etched in my mind are those of the polar night.  The going out to ski in the middle of winter, when it is pitch black, when it is even hard to follow a flag line, only to see the path suddenly illuminated by an aurora.  And then stopping breathless for a few minutes to look at the ephemeral display of lights, only as long as the -80F chill allows me to stop.  Or the going out with the full moon to enjoy the clear view of the plateau extending forever, while imagining myself occupying a unique location in the cosmos, in relation to our planet and the stars, hundreds of miles away from the closest living organisms, where the only noise that can be heard is the screeching sound of the skis on the crusty ice.  And then there are the memories of the people, some of the most unique and extraordinary characters in the world, who challenge the common wisdom and reject the roads already travelled to seek the novelty, the unknown, and the adventure.  And so it is that I want to close this blog with a few photos taken with some of my fellow Polies, friends for life, and, because I don't ever want to lose it, with my exercise log.

I owe it all to Al, the South Pole Science Manager, my boss, who called me out of the blue in the spring of 2010 and made me the offer that I could not refuse. In this photo we are standing in front of the electronics rack in the Space Weather Laboratory at the South Pole Station in December 2010, a few days before Al went back home and left us behind to watch over the instruments for the winter.  

Another special person that I enjoyed working with is Martin, the South Pole Summer Station Manager.  We took this photo together on the deck of the station in November, a few days before I went back home.  To me Martin symbolizes the spirit of the South Pole.  I believe he loves the station more than anyone else in the world and he cares about each of us as if we all were his children.  He is a role model that I can only aspire to.  I hope I will see Martin again, and I hope it will be at the South Pole Station again one day.

We all pass the baton to someone else before we leave the station.  This is formally called the turnover, when we train our replacement, typically for about one week.  My replacement was the same person who had trained me the year before, so I did not really have to train him.  My real turnover was with Carlos, the ice cube scientist who wants to run outside all winter long, like I did.  We had exchanged email before he arrived, and it was a great pleasure to finally meet him on the ice and pass onto him my little experience and few tricks learnt from running outside in the middle of winter.  We took this photo in the Science Lab on Nov 8, before we went out to run the length of the skiway together, my last run at the Pole; Carlos' first.  Unfortunately it was a windy day, and we had to fight a bone chilling 15-knot headwind for the 2.5-mile trip back to the station, but it was our one and only opportunity to run together, as I was due to fly out only a few hours later.  Good luck, Carlos!  I wish you a great winter!

The summer was a very busy period for me and for most of us on station, but winter is typically pretty mellow.  When all of the scientific instruments were working fine, I could do my work in just a couple of hours per day.  That left a lot of time to kill.  Most of us winterovers develop personal projects to fill that time.  For some the project is picking up a new hobby, for other it is learning a new skill, like making movies, taking and editing photos, knitting, learning some new software, playing games, or just watching lots of movies and reading books.  My winter project developed quite unexpectedly.  It turned out to be my outdoor exercise.  I have never kept a log of my exercise but, for some reason, I started one at the South Pole.  Initially I was just happy to be able to run on the ice a few miles while training for the race around the world on Christmas day.  I started a ski club in the summer just to make friends and have fun, with no ambition, as I am not really a skier.  I had no idea that I would continue running and skiing through the winter.  As temperatures got colder and colder towards the end of summer every day I thought that I was doing my last run and that I wouldn't be able to go the next day if it got colder, but then every day it got a bit colder I learnt a new trick.  Every time that I would get a little frostbite I would learn how to protect that area better, and by the beginning of April I figured that there was no stopping, and I would make the outdoor exercise my winter project.  It turned out to be a very demanding project, as I would spend an average of three hours a day outside, one hour running and two hours skiing.  Considering the time it takes to get ready to go out in -80F in the winter, and the time it takes to warm back up and to eat enough food to replace the calories lost during the workout, I ended up devoting a good six hours a day to my exercise.  I ended up traveling a total of 2,916 miles (4,692 km) on the ice: 1,552 miles on skis, 1,297 miles running, and 66 miles on the bicycle.

On Dec 10 Pablo, who was working at the IT helpdesk at the South Pole Station during the summer, invited me to his house in Palo Alto for a gathering of some of his musician friends.  What a surprise to see Rickey, fellow marathoner, the winner of the race around the world, and of the South Pole Contingency Marathon.  I had not seen them since they had left the station in mid-February.  Pablo has now gone back to his job at Google, while Rickey has turned into an ultramarathoner, having already won a 75-mile race in Canada as well as the race up Mt. Washington.  He has moved to San Francisco, where he is training for his next races.  I am sure there will be more of these reunions.  Left to right Rickey, me, and Pablo.

On December 18 there was another reunion, this time with Linda, with whom I spent so many hours skiing during the summer.  She was our HR manager.  She sent me an email that she was in the area, so we got together for dinner in Newbury Park with some of her girlfriends.  She just came back from the Annapurna trek in Nepal, and she is now on a roadtrip with her motor home to visit her children and grandchildren for the holidays.  We had a wonderful time.  As far as me, I found a dream job, working with a great team of people on a fascinating technology in Camarillo, halfway between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.  I will be enjoying warm climates, and the soft sand of Southern California beaches will replace the polar plateau for my morning runs.  Will I ever go back to the South Pole?  I always say that life is long enough to spend one year of it at the South Pole, but too short to do the same thing twice, yet ... something deep in my heart tells me that I will be back one day.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Out of Antarctica

The trip from the South Pole to New Zealand requires two flights (there is a change of plane in McMurdo) and can take anywhere from 24 hrs to two weeks, depending on flight connections and weather.  We were lucky and made it out on schedule in 2 days under ideal weather conditions.  The days preceding the departure were full of mixed emotions.  On the one hand the desire to be back in warm weather, see liquid bodies of water, smell the grass, eat lots of fruit and vegetables; on the other hand the sadness of leaving the South Pole, my ski trails, my morning runs on the skiway.  I spent the last few days savoring those experiences one last time, skiing to the farthest visibility markers or to the last wind turbine, from where no more flags, no more building, no more antennas can be seen.  I stared at the vastness of the plateau, and listened to the silence of nothingness one more time.  At times I wished the plane would be delayed, so I could spend one more day at the Pole, but then, once my room was cleaned up, the bags packed, and the good-byes said, it started to feel like the time was right to leave and make room for the new crew.  We were the largest group of winterover to leave at once: 18 of us, on November 8.  The flight to McMurdo had great significance, now that I had read the classics from Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen, now that I had learnt so much more about the geography of the continent, and now that I had lived on the ice for 12 months. 
We arrived in McMurdo at 9 PM on November 8 and spent the next morning there, waiting for the flight to New Zealand.  McMurdo was wonderful.  First of all it was warm (29 F or -2 C) when we arrived.  That allowed us to  be outside without gloves, hats, and balaclava for the first time in 12 months.  Also, for the first time in 12 months we saw mountains: the beautiful glaciated slopes of the Royal Society Mountain Range, across the McMurdo sound from us.  For the first time we were able to walk in and out of a building through a regular door, as opposed to the 8-inch thick refrigerator doors at the South Pole station that serve as a constant reminder of the harsh conditions outside, and of the requirement to double check our clothing before going out, to prevent frostbite. 
After spending the night in McMurdo in a dorm room with two other traveller, in the morning, I went out for one of the most beautiful runs in my life, first on solid ground from McMurdo to Scott base, and then on the Ross Ice Shelf all the way to Willy field and the McMurdo balloon inflation facility.  A 15-mile round trip in sunny 23 F (-5 C) temperature, with spectacular views of Mt. Erebus, with its plume of smoke and majestic glaciers flowing down to meet the ice shelf in a jumble of pressure ridges, Castle rock, Observation hill, and the Royal Society Mountains across the sound.  It felt good to have good traction both on the dirt road to Scott base and on the well groomed road to Willy field on the ice shelf.  I felt light, after shedding all my layers of thermal underwears, fleeces, hats, and thick gloves that had been the companions of my runs for the past several months. 
In the afternoon we flew out of McMurdo in very clear skies, which allowed spectacular views of Victoria Land, Oates Land, and the sea ice.  It got cloudy once we reached the open water of the Southern Ocean, and by the time we got to Christchurch it was raining: the first rain we had felt in more than 12 months. 

The LC-130 that would take us to McMurdo arrived at the South Pole around 5 PM on November 8, on a terse but windy day, after a 5-hr mechanical delay.

There were eighteen of us Polies and a couple of other passengers on the aircraft, and almost no cargo, making for a very comfortable flight.  The seats are not cushy, but offer plenty of legroom for the short 3-hr flight to McMurdo.  I would trade a first class seat for one on a C-130 any time I could.

The flight path follows the route taken by Scott, Shackleton, and most modern-day adventurers walking to the South Pole from McMurdo.  The journey can be divided into three sections of approximately equal length: the plateau, the Transantarctic mountains, and the ice shelf.  Here we are at the transition from the plateau to the mountains, where the two-mile thick ice of the polar cap starts to break up into crevasses under the tremendous pressure exerted against the barrier of the mountains.

There are only a few small portholes on a C-130 from where we can enjoy the views.  Here we are flying over the Transantarctic mountains.

One of the most spectacular views is that of the Beardmore glacier, one of the largest in the world.  100 miles long and 25 miles wide, it descends 7,000 feet (2,200 meters) from the plateau down to the ice shelf.  Although it does not appear to be steep from the air, it is a hard climb for those people pulling a sled on their way up to the South Pole.  It is also heavily crevassed, as can be seen in this photo.

Amphitheaters of ice.

The ice flows around the mountains just like a river, as it descends the mountains from right to left in this photo, first breaking up into crevasse fields at the beginning of the descent, then reassembling into a smoother surface, like frosting on a cake.

After crossing the Transantarctic mountains the landscape becomes flat for the last hour of the flight as we fly over the ice shelf, until, close to McMurdo, we come into view of White Island.  This island is permanently surrounded by the ice shelf, which is hundreds of feet thick and floats on the ocean.  Soon after passing White Island we see Ross Island, a much larger island on which McMurdo is situated.

After lunch on November 9, a group of us walked to Scott Base, the New Zealand research station on Ross Island, just 2 miles across a hill from McMurdo, to visit their gift shop.  No more red parkas, balaclava, and thick gloves.  It was nice to be able to have a conversation while walking, which is very difficult at the South Pole, where we always breathe heavily through our protective layers.  Left to right: Andrew, Joselyn, Weeks, Kevin, Shannon, Kevin, and Bill.

We boarded the C-17 on the sea ice runway around 4 PM.  The sea ice is hard enough for this aircraft to land on wheels, unlike airplanes at the South Pole which must land on skis because of the softness of the surface on the polar plateau.

The C-17 is cavernous.  As big as a 747.  With only the 20 of us or so occupying it, we had plenty of room again for the 5-hr flight to Christchurch.
The flight path takes us across another piece of the continent: Victoria Land and Oates Land.  Here are the mountains of Oates Land.  They reach a maximum elevation around 11,500 ft (3,500 mt) and, as everything else in Antarctica, are heavily glaciated.

This is my last view of the Antarctic continent, at the edge of Oates Land.  The sea ice is starting to break up into wide leads.  The small platforms of ice visible at the edge of the sea ice are actually gigantic icebergs that broke off an ice shelf during the summer and started floating around the continent, until they were locked in place when the sea froze last winter.  As the sea ice melt, the icebergs will be freed, and will continue their random journey in the Southern Ocean until they in turn will melt away. 

The transition from sea ice to open water is very gradual, as the ice gets thinner, and wider and wider leads open up in the ice as we move north.  This was one of the last views, before the fog and the clouds shrouded the ocean all the way to Christchurch.

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.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


After 6 months of darkness, the sun has finally and officially risen on September 21 ... but where is it?

We are having the stormiest weather of the entire season these days, and of the sun we have only been able to see a mirage on Sep 16, and a few rays on Sep 24, when the storm subsided for a few hours.  This storm has brought record-setting winds, very close to the strongest wind ever recorded at the South Pole of 55 mph (88 km/h), dating back to1989.  The wind lifts snow grains from the ground and blows them high across the featureless polar plateau, reducing the visibility to nil.  In the proximity of our buildings, then, it creates turbulence and massive amounts of snowdrift that can pile up to form ice cliffs that can be difficult to negotiate on the way up and treacherous to descend from.  Another effect of the wind is the creation of static charge.  When we walk in these conditions, the snow grains rubbing against our insulated clothes leave static electricity, so our bodies charge up without us noticing it, and when we finally arrive at our destination and open the metal door the enter a building, we receive strong electric shocks, even through the three pairs of gloves that we wear.  Many of our science projects are suffering, either by the direct impact of the force of the wind, or by the creation of static electricity, and we have been quite busy troubleshooting and fixing equipment.  Some is hard to access in these conditions, and we will have to wait until the weather allows us to safely visit the sites on the ice.  All in all, going out in this extreme weather, has been quite an exciting, fun, and unique experience, one that cannot be safely experienced anywhere else in the world.  It is, after all, one of he reason that we signed up to spend a year at the South Pole.

Here are some photos to show what it has been like around here in the last few weeks.

Our last full moon of the winter occurred on Sep 11.  Here the station is seen from the Atmospheric Research Observatory, about 1/3 of a mile (half a kilometer) away.  What illuminates the snow is not the full moon, but the twilight from the sun, located only 4 degrees below the horizon, opposite the moon.

On Sep 13 the fire team, of which I am a proud member, went out to take a photo at the ceremonial South Pole.  Pointing the camera towards the rising sun, clear skies, and a flash, provided some spectacular morning colors.  A windchill of -130 F (-90 C), though, was bitter, and some of us came back with frostbitten noses after uncovering our faces just a few seconds for the photo. (Photo courtesy of Christy)

On Sep 16 we saw the sun for the first time, even though this is only a mirage.  The sun was still 2 degrees below the horizon, but a thermal inversion near the surface of the ice caused the rays of the sun to refract down towards the earth.  On that day, the temperature at the surface was -96 F (-71 C), while the temperature just a few hundred feet above the ice was -40 F (-40 C), as measured with a weather balloon.  The next day a series of strong storms would start lashing at us and would prevent any further sightings of the sun, except for a few hours on the 24th.

On Sep 24 the wind dropped to 10 mph and allowed me to put on my skis for the first time in a week and go inspect our wind turbines to see if the wind of the previous week had caused any damage (luckily it had not).  I took this photo of the rising sun from the Atmospheric Research Observatory.  When the skies had cleared, the temperature had dropped down to -91 F (-68 C), so I was happy to return to the station, where a sumptuous sunrise dinner awaited me.

The South Pole is the only place in the world where one can have dinner at sunrise.  It is one of the three major celebrations that mark the passing of the season here, together with the sunset dinner on March 21 and the mid-winter dinner on June 21.  This time the chef came around a few weeks before the event with a form soliciting our suggestions for a menu.  We each wrote down our favorite dishes.  What a surprise when the cooks presented us each with our own selection, like an a la carte restauant, and so it is that I enjoyed a delicious piece of grilled salmon with steamed broccoli.

A stronger storm has been pounding us since Sep 25, with winds up to 52 mph (84 km/h).  I took this photo today, Sep 27, at the geographical South Pole, where the axis of rotation of the earth is indicated by a short pole barely visible to the left of the flag.  We erected a tent at this location in mid-September for anyone who dared spend the night out on the ice, but with these strong winds, no one has dared, yet.

This is the ceremonial South Pole, the same location where we took the fire team pictures two weeks ago, now pounded by 40 mph winds.  The station, less than 100 yards away, is barely visible through the drifting snow.

The North West corner of the station early in the morning of Sep 27.  The length of the station is 400 ft (120 mt), but not even half of it is visible through the snowdrift, yet we see blue skies overhead.

Sep 11, 2011

Sep 27, 2011 

What a difference 2 weeks make!  This is the underneath of the station.  The station has an airfoil design, like an airplane wing, that causes the predominant North winds to accelerate as they pass through, scouring the surface and preventing snow accumulation under the station.  This provides a hard surface that I have used for running all winter long, when the darkness prevented me from venturing far from the station.  I even left a track on the ice along my running path, visible in the photo on the left.  This winter we have rarely had winds in excess of 15 mph, but this last few stormy days have put the design of the station to a test.  A steep cliff has formed at the edge of the station, about 15 feet tall, looking like a giant ocean wave about to crash, and is now starting to encroach on the northernmost set of columns supporting the station.  My running tack has been erased, but the snow has not yet accumulated under the station.  So far the design has proved to be effective, but the storm is not over, yet.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Polar Night

We are in the middle of the polar night: the single, 6-month long night that only occurs at the Earth’s poles.  Today, July 23, one month after the winter solstice, the sun is still 20 degrees below the horizon.  We all studied in school that at the Poles there is a 6-month long day and a 6-month long night.  We often associate that notion with the polar regions in general, but in reality the 6-month night only happens at the very pole.  Even at Vostok, the Russian station which is the closest inhabited location to the South Pole, at 78 degrees of latitude, twilight will show up every day of the winter, as the sun will be less than 12 degrees below the horizon at least for some time every day even in the deepest of winter.  So, it is an incredible and unique privilege to experience the polar night at the South Pole Station, where we live in complete darkness, without even the faintest of the twilight, for 80 days in a row, from May 12 to Aug 1. 

Winter at the South Pole feels like a long tunnel.  We entered the tunnel on March 21, when we switched from day to night.  But for several weeks we were able to still see the light at the entrance of the tunnel in the form of twilight getting fainter and fainter every day.  That was a time of slight apprehension for me, as I did not know what to expect as we went deeper and deeper into the night: would I still be able to navigate outside, on foot and on ski?  Would it get even colder and windier?  How big would the snowdrifts get?  Would I go insane without sunlight for so long?  Then, on May 12, we left behind the last of the twilight, and we could not see the entrance of the tunnel any more.  We have now been in the middle of this dark tunnel of the polar night for 70 days, and it has been beautiful, as I have learned how to cope with the lack of light first, and then how to truly enjoy it, to the point that I now regret that this very special time will soon come to an end.

The South Pole in winter is the most pristine environment that I have ever experienced, with no air pollution, no light pollution, and no noise pollution.  In the summer we have the noise of the airplanes and of the snowmobile, but not in the winter.  To reduce interference to the scientific instruments that look at the sky and at the auroras, we do not have lights on the buildings, and we cover all the windows, so all our buildings appear as black boxes against the glare of the snow, and we are thousands of miles away from any source of atmospheric pollution, provided we stay upwind of our power plant. 
In winter we do not have to wear goggles to protect our eyes from the solar radiation, as we do in the summer, so we enjoy much clearer views, unobstructed by the fogging that always forms on the goggles.  Unfortunately, because I do not wear my glasses outside, I do not fully enjoy the night sky, but I still can see many different stars, and even use them as navigational aid.

Soon our eyes will be pointed at the horizon, looking for the end of the tunnel in the form of a faint twilight which will get bigger and bigger as the days will progress.  We often look forward to that moment that will signal the return of the sun, without thinking that it will also mark the beginning of the end of this wonderful polar night and polar experience, so I try to go out every day and enjoy the little that is left of this mystic polar night, with its stars, its auroras, and its silence.

No photographs can make justice to the magic of the polar night, but I have selected a few, taken this winter by Dana, the scientist who operates the South Pole Telescope.  Dana is spending his sixth winter at the Pole this year.  He has done scientific work both at the North Pole and at the South Pole, a very rare distinction, and is probably the most experienced winter traveler.  During his six winters at the Pole he has walked a total of 5 ~7,000 miles on the ice, probably more than any other human being has on the Polar Plateau.  I have learnt a great deal from him on how to stay safe outside in the middle of the night.  I often meet him outside while I am skiing and he is walking back from the telescope.  If I don’t see him on the ice, there is always a chance around dinner time to exchange our impressions of the night sky that we experienced while outside, as every day the night sky is a little different.  One big difference between Dana and I is that Dana does not like it when the moon is out, because it washes away the stars, whereas I really do enjoy the moon and how it reflects on the ice.  More photos from Dana are posted on his website

We see different portions of the sky from the Northern and Southern hemispheres.  This is a photo of the Milky Way, which is our own galaxy.  We can see it both from the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern, although we see different portions of it in each.  The small blob in the upper left quadrant of the photo is the Large Magellanic Cloud: a galaxy orbiting our own Milky Way.  We cannot see it from the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.  From the Northern Hemisphere instead we can see the Andromeda Galaxy, which is 100 times larger and 15 times farther than the Large Magellanic Cloud.  Andromeda is not visible from the South Pole.

This photo shows both the Large Magellanic Cloud (Lower left) and the Small Magellanic Cloud (Upper Right) in the same frame.  The Small Magellanic Cloud is also a Galaxy, slightly smaller and farther away than the Large Magellanic Cloud.

On June 16 our full moon was obscured for a few hours by an eclipse.  This is a photo of the moon partially eclipsed just a few minutes before it became completely dark.  I decided to enjoy the eclipse from the ice, so I went out running when the moon was still full and providing good visibility, and kept running for about 1 hour until it got so dark that I could not see well any more, at which point I came back into the station to watch the last few minutes of the moon eclipsing.  It was one of the highlights of my winter so far.
The moon at the South Pole does not have the daily cycle that it has at intermediate latitudes, where it rises and sets every day.  Here at the South Pole, instead, it stays up in the sky continuously for two weeks, then it sets and remains below the horizon for the following two weeks.  I like the moonlight because it allows me to roam around farther from the station without the risk of getting lost, and I can much easier navigate around the snow drifts when I go out running or skiing.  Therefore I have created this chart to display the brightness of the moon through the winter.  The brightness is calculated based on the elevation of the moon on the horizon, the phase of the moon, and the distance of the earth from the moon.  I look at this chart almost daily to plan my outdoor activities.

Silhouette of the South Pole Telescope against the moon ...

... and against an aurora.