We ended up stranded at the South Pole for a week after finishing all our work. An unfortunate combination of bad weather and mechanical issues meant flights were cancelled daily. The South Pole may sound like a great place to be stuck, but cabin fever sets in rather quickly with no work to do. The NSF finally pulled together support and got a Basler to retrieve 12 of us who had been waiting for a while.
The Basler is smaller than a C-130 but much roomier than the Twin Otter, especially without all the extra camping equipment. The best part is that the windows are plenty big.
The first couple hours of flying looked like the South Pole, just a whole lot of flat white horizon. Eventually we came upon the Trans-Antarctic mountains.
The Basler doesn’t fly over the mountains very well so instead it navigates a pass through the mountains. Before long we were looking out the window directly at rock faces.
This went on for more than an hour before we got through the pass and past the range. Before we got out of the mountains, the clouds started to roll in.
The clouds made for incredible photos but proved to be an issue when we got close to McMurdo and wanted to land. The pilots had to wait for the clouds to clear up so we circled the area for about half an hour. We had plenty of fuel so there was nothing to worry about except keeping ourselves occupied.
Once the clouds cleared we got a good view of the base before coming in for final approach. We landed safely a little over a month after we left for the South Pole. There is 12 hours before the next C-130 leaves for New Zealand, so our time here is short.
I better get out and look for penguins, I don’t have much time left!
Our last few days at the South Pole have gone by pretty fast since we returned from the field. The first day back we mostly just slept to recover. Once we were well rested, we had to re-install a system outside the station since we were unable to get out to the field for a second trip as planned.
We’ve had plenty of practice so the installation was done in about a day’s worth of work, even with extra components for the newer model. We made a slight change this time, however, by stringing the sensor cables a couple feet above the ground so they will hopefully be easier to recover whenever someone returns to retrieve it.
The last part of the station I had heard about but I hadn’t gotten to see yet was the ice tunnels. Most of the infrastructure for water and power is buried underground in ice access tunnels. As long as you ask one of the facilities workers nicely they will show you around, so that’s what we did.
This tour was actually the coldest I’ve been since we arrived on the continent.
Super low temperatures and dry air mean that any water vapor that gets released into the air crystallizes very easily. Above some of the release points in the system where water vapor is allowed to escape you see can see crystals on the ceiling like this.
The tunnels are by no means a danger free area, however, which is why we were required to find an escort. The tunnels are an average of about 30 feet below the surface. Since the ice is always moving the tunnels must be constantly watched and maintained. If things are not monitored closely enough, tunnels and even escape hatches can fill in.
Other facilities buried under the surface include the power plant and fuel storage area. Tunnels always need escape routes for safety and the rear exit out of the fuel storage area is the escape hatch I’ve had my eye on since we arrived.
With our work at the South Pole now complete, we now just have to wait for a ride back to McMurdo. Logistics are always a challenge here and no one is immune. Dealing with the harsh weather conditions causes delays every season, it’s just a part of working on the continent.
After letting the system run for a day we discovered we had some difficulty keeping the sensor level. In order to fix this problem, we decided to anchor the sensor by turning the base to solid ice.
With the sensor level and firmly in place, we had a couple days remaining before the plane could pick us up. This meant we had some time to kill so we found lots of ways to keep ourselves entertained. The first and most important was grooming the ski-way for the plane.
We also decided to take advantage of the skills we learned at happy camper. By that, of course, I mean we built an igloo.
Building an igloo requires excellent masonry. A solid base is necessary to support the weight of the rest of the structure. Once the dome was capped we excavated the interior of the structure.
The igloo made a nice addition to camp. Plus moving all that snow around is an excellent way to keep the blood moving.
Another way to keep warm and pass the time was to simply go for a walk. Getting away from camp was a great reminder of just how isolated we really were.
Once we got word on the radio that the plane was on its way to pick us up, fun time was over. We quickly got to work dismantling camp. Everything except the main tent came down until we sighted the plane, just in case something went wrong and the plane had to return the South Pole.
The Twin Otters in Antarctica are extremely busy and we were lucky our plane and its crew finished their other commitments a day early. The pilots were very generous working a long day to come get us. Finally, late on day five of our camping trip, we spotted a very welcome sight on the horizon.
Very quickly the main tent was down, packed up and ready to go. All that remained of our camp was a couple wind walls, an igloo, and the solar panel sticking up out of the snow.
Everyone was exhausted as we headed back to the station. We were all pretty satisfied with the result of the trip. The system is in place and running well, and we made it back safe and sound. Our trip wasn’t quite over yet at that point but it was certainly a good job done.
Our first morning at camp “dawned” almost exactly the same as the previous day, eighteen below with a light wind. In fact we were lucky with good weather, we had almost exactly the same weather every day.
We had a warm breakfast to start each day. The tent wasn’t enormous but we had room to sit and enjoy our meals.
Our mountaineer, Carrie, spent the majority of the trip keeping us supplied with hot water. Not only is hot water important for cooking meals, it also really helps you warm up when the outside temperatures get to you. Staying hydrated is important both because the camp was at about 11,500 feet in altitude and because your body works so hard to stay warm.
After breakfast we got right to work. When assembling the system, the first thing to do was to put together the tower. That was one of the worst (i.e. coldest) parts of the assembly since it required dealing with very small parts, which was difficult to do with mittens on.
With all the solar panels and the antennas attached we raised the tower and anchored it in a small pit.
The rest of the day was spent digging the main pit and filling it with the electronics and battery boxes. The big blue box contains almost all of the electronic components for the system. The box is so large mostly because it’s lined with lots of insulation. The wooden crate contains 16 large, car-size batteries for storing the energy collected by the solar panels. With everything hooked up we were almost done, but exhausted, so we called it a day.
The next morning all we had left to do was dig a small hole for the sensor, the fluxgate magnetometer. This sensor is the whole reason for the system installation so we took our time to get it right.
With everything completely hooked up we filled the main pit with the remainder of the extra equipment and materials.
All the pits are covered with plywood to prevent everything inside from getting saturated with snow. With the pit covered we were pretty much done. It was a pretty tiring couple of days.
All that remained for work after the third day was to let the system run for a day to make sure it worked properly. We still had to wait a few more days before the plane could make it back and pick us up but since we were basically done with work, we found ways to entertain ourselves.
Two days after Christmas we finally headed out for the field camp installation. We got all our gear packed up and ready to go early that morning. Once the plane was fueled and ready to go, we were on our way.
Inside the Twin Otter, it was cozy with all of our camping equipment and survival gear strapped in, but there was still plenty of room for the four of us in the back.
Shortly after takeoff we circled around for a nice view of the station, almost like a last goodbye before heading out to the field.
Our field camp site was farther than a Twin Otter can reach on a normal tank of fuel, so we had to stop along the way to fill up. There aren’t any gas stations in the middle of the plateau, so prior to taking us out to the field the pilots had staged some barrels about halfway to the site. That gave us a chance to get out and stretch our legs.
Most of the three hour flight out to the camp site looked almost exactly the same. The terrain is basically a featureless plateau between the South Pole Station and our field camp about 380 miles away.
After a short flight, we arrived early in the afternoon to find the rest of our cargo intact. The temperature when we landed was around -17 degrees Fahrenheit with a light wind of a few knots. Before a flight crew leaves any field party, you have to establish communication with McMurdo, get the main tent set up, and demonstrate that a stove works.
When the pilots saw we had camp initialized, the plane was off and we got to work setting up the rest of camp. The first day is all about survival, getting tents and equipment set up.
It only took a few hours for us to get the majority of camp set up, but the finishing details took the rest of the day. Each of us had our own tent in addition to the main tent, which served as kitchen, dining area, and general warm-up spot.
It took a lot out of us getting camp established so we hit the rack pretty early after a quick dinner. We were exhausted from the travel, the cold, and the additional elevation so no one had any trouble falling asleep. The next day the real work would begin.
Happy 2015!!! We made it back from our little camping trip with only minutes to spare before the clock struck midnight on the 31st. The folks at the station were already busy celebrating so after unloading our cargo we joined in for a quick toast.
The next day, on the first of the year, the South Pole held a quick ceremony to mark the new geographic South Pole. Since the ice sheet we’re sitting on moves about 33 feet every year, the station marks the location with a new marker each year. In fact, the movement of the ice sheet is a much larger factor than the precession of the earth I mentioned in a previous post.
The station manager said a few words to honor the occasion. Then all the members formed a semi-circle and we passed the American flag person by person from last year’s location to the new mark.
With the flag in place the station manager unveiled the new marker, which every year is designed by the winter-over crew at the South Pole Station.
The 2015 marker is pretty awesome, the designers did a great job. I have lots of pictures and details from our field camp that I will post in the coming days but I wanted to take the time to first wish everyone a Happy New Year and best of luck in 2015.
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.