The South Pole Station celebrated Christmas yesterday, but we had a little bit of work to do before letting loose for the holiday. We leave tomorrow for our first field trip so the pilots had to fly one last load of advance cargo out for us.
After our work was done, the day started with an annual South Pole Christmas tradition, the Race Around the World. Participants dress up and race a lap around the station.
Some people raced in style. Obviously some even are a bit more used to the cold than others.
After the race folks just relaxed and enjoyed the holiday.
Everyone was in a festive mood, even the king himself.
We had a fantastic Christmas dinner put on by the galley.
The food was absolutely delicious. Somehow they managed to get lobster and prime rib flown in for the event.
For those that might have been concerned, Santa was able to find us even all the way down here.
After enjoying the holiday with the South Pole family and friends, it’s back to business as usual. Assuming weather holds we will fly out to our first site this weekend. I won’t be able to post from the field but I’ll be sure to update everyone on our progress as soon as we get back.
The plane we have been waiting for finally arrived yesterday. Now we have to wait a few more days while the plane makes some advance trips to drop off cargo at our field site prior to our arrival. Since we’ve been waiting so long already we have time to squeeze in a few more tours. Today the ice core group, SpiceCore, let us check out their operation.
South Pole Station is a little short on snowmobiles we have to share when we can. A bunch of people were interested so we filled up a sled and headed out.
The drill camp is about a mile out from the main building. The whole drill system is contained in the white tent on the left edge of the camp.
The drill is lowered by a winch down to depths about a mile below the surface. They’ve just started this season so they’re only about 500 feet down so far. The booth on the right contains the controls for the system.
It will take two full seasons to get down as far as they want to go. This core will only go down a mile but the company running this drill has systems in Antarctica that drill down two and a half miles into the ice.
The drill takes out a core of ice about 4 inches in diameter, 2 meters at a time. The drill bit is a long tube with sharp teeth at the end to chip away the ice. As the drill works down, the ice chips are fed up along the outside of the tube along the black rubber spiral, like a normal drill bit. After the cores are removed from the hole, they are packaged and shipped back to the US for study.
On our way back we stopped at the South Pole Telescope since they are doing some work installing a new ground shield for another telescope on the roof. The old ground shield is on the ground next to the crane.
We were able to get up on the roof to get a close up look at the new shield. There wasn’t much to see of the heat shield but it turns out there is a really good view of SPT from up there. The new heat shield looks just like the old one but it’s a little bigger and the sides are at a different angle. Since they were a bit busy on the roof we were able to get a much closer look at the old one.
Over the weekend we had mostly whiteout conditions at the South Pole. Whiteout (not necessarily a blizzard) is caused by a uniformly gray or white cloud cover over a snow surface and can cause a loss of depth perception and surface definition (i.e. no visible horizon). It’s easy to trip over the smallest ridge in the snow as you walk since there are no shadows. More importantly, whiteout conditions make it dangerous for a plane to land. As a result we got to sit and wait for our field transport that is currently stuck in McMurdo. While we wait, I thought I would share a little more about what the weather is like here.
The South Pole is a cold place as you may have guessed by now. Antarctica is technically the world’s largest and driest desert. The South Pole Station lies on the interior plateau of the continent, which is over 97% covered with ice. During the summer months (November-February) temperatures usually remain above -58F, and may even approach 0F during the warmest weeks of late December and early January. When the sun sets in March, temperatures cool rapidly, usually dipping below -100F at least once during the austral winter. The coldest temperature ever recorded at South Pole is -117.0F, while the warmest is +7.5F. The average annual temperature is -56.9F. Temperatures begin to climb rapidly after sunrise in late September.
Antarctica is cold for a lot of reasons. One reason is due to the low sun angle in the sky, which never gets above 23.5 degrees at the South Pole. That means solar rays have to travel through a lot more atmosphere to get here in the summer and as a result are much weaker than at the equator. Once the solar rays get to the surface they are mostly reflected away because the surface is almost completely covered by snow and ice, the opposite effect of what it feels like to wear a black t-shirt in the summer sun.
The South Pole is extra cold due to the high elevation, just over 9,300 feet above sea level. The air is naturally thinner at high altitudes, but the air is actually thinner here than it would be at the same altitude at the equator. This is partly due to the cold air, which naturally compresses to lower altitudes leaving less air pressure than normal up here. Another reason is because the atmosphere actually bulges at the equator due to the spinning earth, resulting in a denser atmosphere at the equator than at the poles. All of this means that it feels like we’re at a higher altitude, which the weather reports give as the pressure altitude.
Many people think Antarctica is a windy place and that is true near the coast at places like McMurdo. The South Pole typically is not super windy but does experience a steady flow of wind off the Antarctic Plateau. Average wind speeds at the pole are just over 10 mph with a maximum recorded speed of 55 mph. These relatively mild winds pick up steam as they head across the continent toward the coast where they interact with the warmer ocean air, creating some of the windiest places on earth.
South Pole does not get much snow on an annual basis like you might think. The air actually too cold for snow to fall most of the year. Instead ice crystals form when the air becomes saturated with moisture and fall even when there are no clouds in the sky. The precipitation is usually light, and the average annual accumulation is less than a foot. The problem is that the snow never really melts so it drifts and piles up, which has kept us busy the past week.
This week I got a chance to see some of the cosmological research facilities on station. Several research groups here study the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). The South Pole is a great place for observing the night sky. The air is dry, the atmosphere is clean and thinner than at sea level, there’s a LOT of darkness in the winter, and the closest light-polluting city is thousands of miles away.
The Keck Array is one of the experiments at the South Pole looking at the CMB. The telescope scans a small patch of the sky looking for signatures from the earliest times in the universe, almost like the baby pictures of the universe. The big wooden bowl structure on the roof contains the telescope itself. The bowl is basically a big baffle coated on the inside with highly reflective material that looks like aluminum foil to shield the telescope from stray ground radiation. Even the icy ground here is too warm and emits radiation that would interfere with the telescope.
The telescope itself actually contains 5 smaller telescopes working together to produce better image than one telescope by itself could do. The individual telescopes have a simple two-lens refracting design, not much different than the simplest telescopes you could buy at home. One notable difference is that typical glass lenses are not useful for microwave radiation.
The lenses for a microwave telescope are actually made out of plastic, similar to a plastic milk jug. The lenses and detectors are kept extremely cold while in operation, only a fraction of a degree above absolute zero (-459 F).
Another major cosmological facility here is the South Pole Telescope (clever name, I know). The big white structure on the left is the primary mirror that basically acts like a massive satellite dish but is 10 meters in diameter. The smaller white box structure contains the secondary mirror and the instruments used to measure the incoming signal. This telescope is also looking at the CMB but in much finer detail than Keck.
When the telescope is docked, like it was when we visited, the secondary housing rests on top of the building. Giant refrigerator doors mounted on the ceiling allow researchers to work on the inner structure of the telescope from inside the building. This allows them to perform maintenance and upgrades without having to stand outside.
The whole structure tips back to lift the secondary housing off the building as it points at the sky. The entire structure rotates, allowing the telescope to track objects across the sky. It can rotate a full 360 degrees in about a minute and a half, which is pretty incredible considering both the size of the structure and the pointing accuracy it has to maintain while moving.
Just the rotating assembly alone is an impressive engineering feat. The whole structure requires constant attention and maintenance just to continue running. Researchers spend a lot of the summer adding upgrades to the facility and getting everything ready to run as painlessly as possible. Once winter sets in there’s only one engineer on station to fix problems.
In addition to the copious amounts of space science and cosmology research conducted at the South Pole Station, a lot of different research is done as well, including glaciology, atmospheric science, and seismology. I hope to see plenty more while I’m down here and I’ll be sure to share when I do.
We’ve been plenty busy digging holes in the snow and getting the first field system ready to deploy. So far we’ve been pretty lucky with good weather, days have been mostly clear with temperatures somewhere between -15 F and -20 F, and a wind chill under -30 F. I’m keeping my fingers crossed the weather holds up.
We had to carefully disassemble each component, making sure not to damage anything. It’s not easy to acquire replacement parts down here and our spares are limited so everything had to remain intact.
After carefully disconnecting each component, it all had to come out of the snow.
Piece by piece we lifted each part out by hand and boxed or crated it for transport.
The system contains of a LOT of equipment, much more than we could fit on the snowmobile for the mile or so trip back to the flight line. In fact, we have over 2,000 lbs of equipment, so we asked for some assistance.
These guys may not be built for speed but they sure do make our lives a whole lot easier. It’s just a shame they wouldn’t let me drive.
We loaded the pallet and the fantastic cargo crew here at the South Pole did the rest. They put the pallet where the Twin Otter can easily load it for deployment.
With crew and camping supplies included, we have to get over 4500 lbs out to the field. The plane has to re-locate here from McMurdo and as soon as it gets here we’ll start loading it up for trips out to the first field site.
The South Pole Station is a little smaller than McMurdo Station, both in size and population. There are a bunch of buildings here to support science, logistics, power generation, and the ski-way (i.e. runway). The main building holds the living facilities and is enormous. The living facilities were completely overhauled a few years ago so everything is very new and up to date.
Aside from dormitories, the main building houses the dining hall, a small medical clinic, and just about everything else needed to live at the South Pole. The main part of the building is two stories. The wings off the main hallway are the berthing quarters (i.e. dorm rooms). The rooms are small but it is nice to have my own space.
The main hallway is where you find everything else needed to sustain life year round. The galley is open 24/7 and the food is really good.
A large science lab facilitates many of the groups that come here to do research, although most groups also have facilities outside of the main building where much of their work is done.
Some folks spend a full year here, so they need plenty to keep themselves occupied. There is a weight room and even a full gym.
There are a ton of movies and books on hand to help pass the free time. There’s a game room with a pool table and a music room with a whole bunch of instruments. Theres an arts and crafts room for the artists in the building. There’s even a growing room for the green thumbs.
It’s a small community but everyone here is friendly and welcoming. The relatively small population means everyone has to chip in where they can. The residents clean their own rooms and bathrooms. Volunteers help out in the kitchen and running part time facilities, like the store and the post office. Living is a bit cozy, but it has everything you could need. The summer season is done before you know it and the population is down to a few dozen to keep the station running during the long dark winter. The sun sets for 6 months, but the views in the winter aren’t always so bad .
On our first full day at South Pole we wasted no time getting right to work. The primary task for this trip is actually not the work I did at McMurdo; that was just a ”nice-to-have” since I was there already. I was brought to the South Pole with a Virginia Tech group to install a different type of magnetometer system deep in the field, a system we refer to as AAL-PIP. This is why I needed the cold weather camping training. The intent is to have a string of systems at different lines of latitude, and this trip we will be extending that coverage.
The PGx sites marked in black text are the locations of systems already in the field. The black dotted lines are geographic coordinates (geographic latitude and longitude). The blue dashed lines are magnetic coordinates (magnetic latitude and longitude) measured from the magnetic south pole, indicated by the blue star. The green text indicates sites in Greenland that have conjugate magnetic coordinates (same magnetic longitude, flip the magnetic latitude north to south). We will be installing sites that correspond to UPN and GHB, called PG0 and PG5 respectively.
Last year a group came down and installed two systems near the South Pole Station to test them in the field somewhere easily accessible. These are the systems that will be installed deep in the field, so our first job is to pack them up for transport to the deep field location. One of the systems is quite a hike from the building, so our first order of business today was to get snow mobiles for transport out to the site.
To protect our systems against the harsh conditions in Antarctica we bury them. When we get to the system site all that’s visible is the solar panel. The location of the rest of the system is marked out by flags.
There was no use in waiting around, so we got right to digging. Luckily the first pit was only a couple feet deep.
The plywood is used to create a hollow cavity. Under this plywood a fluxgate magnetometer was buried. A fluxgate magnetometer is configured a little differently than the search coil magnetometer I installed in McMurdo but they ultimately measure the same thing.
The next pit was a little deeper than we had anticipated, so we didn’t get it all uncovered on the first day. It will only take a couple of hours tomorrow to uncover. Digging in this snow is certainly harder work than shoveling snow off the sidewalk, especially since the elevation is over 9,000 feet. Most of the snow is hard pack and often we cut the snow into blocks with a saw and remove them in big chunks rather than chip at the hard snow with a shovel.
Once everything is dug up and packed in crates, we will be ready to load it onto an airplane. The next week or so will mostly be filled with digging and packing. I won’t bore you with details of digging every day, but this gives a taste of what I’m doing down here.