It just keeps getting better down here. Early this morning we suited up in our extreme-cold survival gear, followed our friend Dr. Lisa Clough of the National Science Foundation down to the ice airstrip, boarded an LC-130 Hercules, and flew 3 hours inland to the South Pole. For decades the Hercules fleet has been the dependable backbone of the U.S. Antarctic Program, and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting on the flight deck of the old workhorse with the pilot and co-pilot as we soared into the Antarctic interior.
We used the ski landing gear to touch down at the amazing new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the southernmost scientific research base on Earth, where we were met by Martin Lewis (Acting South Pole Area Director) and Paul Sullivan (Science Support Manager). Dedicated, highly experienced, and funny long-time veterans of the Pole, Martin and Paul would prove to be superbly informative and enthusiastic guides for the day.
Named for the two polar explorers – Roald Amundsen of Norway and Robert Falcon Scott of Great Britain — who raced to be the first to set foot on the South Pole in 1911, the base was first constructed by the United States in 1956 just prior to International Geophysical Year (IGY). American scientists have been continuously present at the Pole since then.
Fifty-two years later, in 2008, the brand new South Pole Station was dedicated. An engineering and environmental marvel, the new Station is elevated to mitigate the impact of the drifting snow which accumulates at the Pole at the rate of about a foot per annum and can bury buildings in a few short years. In fact, the original Station is now completely buried under the snow.
South Pole Station is built on the 9,000-foot- (2,750-meter-) thick polar ice sheet and is drifiting along on the flowing ice at about 30 feet (9 meters) per year. The geographical South Pole marker must be relocated each New Year’s Day to accommodate for the shifting ice.
About 150 scientists and support personnel live at the Station during the austral summer season, which runs from October until the beginning of February. The population drops to approximately 50 people in the winter. Essentially cut off from the rest of the world, the winter crews experience extreme isolation from mid-February until the resumption of flights in late September or early October. Food, fuel, and other supplies are stored up in advance to get the team through the long winter.
The Station is all about science, which is why I have been so looking forward to visiting. Antarctica provides a perfect science lab for studying a wide range of phenomena because of its isolation, weather patterns, pristine ice layers, and low interference from human-produced signals or distortions. There is particularly exciting astro-physics work being done, and I heard today that the majority of the scientists now at the Station are working on such projects.
We made it a point to spend as much time as possible today with the guys constructing and running IceCube, a square-kilometer array of strings of light detectors buried as deep as 8,000 feet (2,450 meters) beneath the clear ice to track the paths of neutrinos shooting through the Earth from the Northern Hemisphere.
We drove out to look at the bore holes and drilling operation …
… and later talked with the guys at the Station using the detectors to monitor and record the neutrino collisions in the array.
We also spent a good bit of the day visiting other observatories, labs, bore holes, and testing stations in and around South Pole Station. I thoroughly enjoyed the presentations, site inspections, and theoretical discussions. It was an invigorating experience, and I am tempted to recount at length the various stops we made and the topics we discussed with the resident scientists.
Doing so at this late hour after a very busy day, though, would risk giving the work and the scientists short shrift. So, instead, I am going to leave the science projects sit for now. I will draft a couple of supplemental blog posts when I get back to Wellington next week and have the time to do the science justice.
So, what surprised or impressed me today?
Well, I was both surprised and impressed with the temperature. It’s technically summer here, but the digital thermometer I saw in the dining hall during one of our rest breaks said it was -47 degrees Celsius (-53 degrees Fahrenheit) outside. I believed it. Within seconds after stepping out of the airplane, I had felt the inside of my nose starting to freeze.
I was surprised that I didn’t experience altitude sickness. The Station sits at 9,301 feet (2,835 meters) above sea level, and initial discomfort in the form of headaches, dizziness, fatigue, sleep disruption, and nausea is to be expected. Arriving crews usually take a week or so to get acclimated. We seemed to do fine, perhaps because of the preemptive focus on staying very well hydrated and walking slowly.
I was impressed with how much I really liked everyone that I met, from drivers to scientists to the Station doctors and the Station chef. The operation has a warm family feel to it, and people seem to very much like each other and the work they are doing.
I was surprised at how easy it was to lose track of the horizon line. When the wind kicked up or cloud cover thickened on the Antarctic plateau, the sky and ground became indistinguishable. At a couple of points when we were out in the field, I felt as though I were standing inside a marshmallow. The sense of disorientation was, well, disorienting.
I was impressed — and not at all surprised — with the extraordinary skill, dedication, and professionalism of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs and the United States Antarctic Program in maintaining a vibrant and visionary science focus at the Pole and elsewhere in Antarctica. The steady hand and forceful intellect of Dr. Karl Erb, longtime Director of the Office of Polar Programs, was clearly evident throughout the operation. Americans and non-Americans alike are fortunate to have people like Dr. Erb and his team maintaining the proper sense of priority and collegiality on the ice.
Before wrapping up for the day we of course visited the ceremonial marker of the geographic South Pole … a silver ball surrounded by the flags of the twelve original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty — Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Negotiated at the invitation of the United States in the late 1950s by the nations with significant scientific interests on the continent, the treaty sets Antarctica aside as a scientific preserve, establishes freedom of scientific investigation, and bans military activity. The treaty was the first, and perhaps the most successful, arms control agreement reached during the Cold War.
Because of the previously mentioned ice drift, the actual geographic South Pole is about 20 meters away from the ceremonial site. We walked over and took turns posing at the marker. Ola and I ran around the marker several times, which we were told is a tradition in the nature of “running around the world.” In an apparent departure from tradition, we did not disrobe.
I certainly liked the idea of standing in a spot from which a step in any direction would be heading north.
Without a doubt, today was a fascinating adventure of the first magnitude. I’m looking forward to what tomorrow brings.