Tuesday, January 29, 2008


One of my favorite things so far about being down here is the frost. Everywhere you look, everything is coated with ice.

Walking anywhere outside, for any length of time, guarantees a nice frosty beard. If you're out for long, solid ice blocks form around your mouth. If you're not wearing goggles, your eyebrows and any stray hairs will frost up. Even your eyelashes will coat themselves in a super-fine layer of ice crystals, which - on the off chance you blink while outside - sometimes fuse together, freezing your eyes shut.

There are lots of tunnels which connect the various support structures (power plant, garages, etc) to the station, none of which are heated. People walking through them tend to exhale quite a lot of water into them, which forms spectacular structures of frost all along the walls.

While this is one of the driest places on earth in absolute humidity, the air is usually saturated (100% relative humidity), so once ice forms somewhere, it never sublimates away. Anything outside colder than ambient (in a shadow or something like that) will condense water from the air, and slowly but inexorably grow an enormous ice block. The telescope has heaters all the primary mirror to hold it just a degree or two above the air temperature to make sure it never ices up.

Ice is a big part of south pole life.

Friday, January 25, 2008

That Sinking Feeling

It doesn't snow at the south pole. Small quantities of ice crystals fall from a clear blue sky, but the vast majority of the snow here blows in from the rest of the continent. To put that in perspective, and give an idea of the winds here, the station sits on 2+1/2 km of ice. Yes, kilometers, yes, I mean 2+1/2 straight down, and yes, it all blew here from somewhere else.

The old station, a geodesic dome 50' high, is now largely covered by snow. It's hasn't sunk at all, snow has accumulated to the point that it's no longer above ground. The previous station is completely covered, with not sign it ever existed visible from the surface.

The new station is on stilts, and angled to coax the wind to clean out any accumulation beneath it. ASTRO, a building in the dark sector from the early 90s, was also placed in stilts, 20 feet off the ground (comparable to the ones the station stands on). The snow now covers its windows, and yesterday a crew was busily trying to dig it out. A couple more years and it will be gone.

That's the fate of every building across the antarctic - to slowly sink beneath the ice. The continent is peppered with old US and Soviet stations, frozen in time and preserved beneath the surface. From time to time, people explore the old bases, provided they can find them and dig a tunnel in. They're still full of supplies, old magazines, food, and personal items. According to everyone who's been in them, they're utterly surreal, something out of a movie.

It's odd to work in and with the SPT, knowing that it's only got a 10-20 year life before it, too, disappears beneath the ice. For all its beauty, this is a strange place, with shifting snows like the sands of an Arabian fairytale.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The 10m

The primary reason I've been sent down here is to operate and maintain the new 10m radio telescope, built by the SPT (South Pole Telescope) collaboration, through the long antarctic winter.

The 10m (so-called because it uses a 10m dish as it's primary mirror) is really a hell of a machine. My thesis work was on a 7m dish, so the size isn't really unfamiliar (particularly down here where there are no visual queues to tell size by), though the speed and power of this telescope are. When you get half a million pounds of steel swinging around overhead, it can be a bit intimidating.

It was built during the 2006-2007 austral summer (Nov-Feb), and more or less continuously improved since then. This summer (again, austral: Nov 07 - Feb 08) has been spent fixing all the little problems that were discovered during the first year of use. I've somehow managed to show up at the perfect time, when everything's still new (still has that new-telescope smell), but after the major bugs have been worked out. Frankly, it's been a delight crawling around the telescope and working with it.

The 10m, along with several older telescopes, lies about a kilometer away from the station, in the so-called "Dark Sector", where radio communications are discourage/disallowed. The DSL (dark sector lab) is a large building attached to the telescope mount, and where I spend most of my time. Every day (twice or three times most days), I walk 15 minutes each way through the cold & snow. In the summer, that's not too bad, since visibility is good, the road to DSL is well trod and flattened, and the windchills don't fall much below -45C. The winter can be another story: temperatures plummet to -75C, windchills to -95C, visibility can be poor, and large snow drifts form along the path. Haven't quite figured our how to deal with all that yet...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


The new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station has been under construction for almost a decade now, to replace the old geodesic dome which has been slowly swallowed by the snow over the past 30 years. The official opening/commissioning was schedule for the day after I arrived, which meant the station was being overrun with DVs (Distinguished Visitors, like VIPs, but with a different name) flown in from DC for the occasion.

The speeches were a little dull and given in the gymnasium, lending the air a of high school assembly, after which flags were raised over the station, subtly telling the world that the US owns Antarctica. One upside to the whole event was that we got a wonderful celebratory meal (duck, beef tenderloin, lobster, etc). We also got goodie bags, including posters, patches, and a commemorative coin. Sweet.

To give it that "finished" feel, half of the station was finally covered in siding. The rear is still bare plywood, but it sure looks nice from the front. It was also scrubbed clean inside and out, making life here even nicer.

I spent most of the day wandering around checking out the station and environs. The candy-striped ceremonial South Pole was probably the highlight, but equally interesting were the skiers. People ski either across the continent, or just the last degree of latitude, as some sort of twisted holiday. I say this having ridden a bicycle - for fun - across North America: the skiers are all mad.

Later that day, I decided to switch over from "day" (8am-6pm workday) shift to "swing" (2pm-midnight) shift to get better overlaps with the other SPT workers. Shift names here are completely arbitrary, since every day the sun just circles overhead, only rising and setting once per year. My fourth day on station, I switched to a 28-hour day, with 20 hours of work followed by 8 hours of sleep - with the sun always up, things like that are not just possible, but often easier than a standard 24-hour day. My weeks are only 6 days long, but it makes for very productive days, and regular overlaps with everyone else here.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Our second day in McMurdo, Joaquin sent me and Steve an email, urging us to hurry so as not to miss Ladies Night at the telescope. That's right - ladies night, in a telescope, at the South Pole. Complete with junior-high slow dancing. Awesome.

By the time we finally boarded a plane, the party had already started. We landed around midnight, and Joaquin met us on the runway with a skidoo to ferry us over and make sure we caught the tail end. All in all, not a bad introduction to the culture here.

It is cold at the pole, but not uncomfortably so. When we landed, it was about -25C, with a windchill of about -40C. The sun was high overhead, and the air was sparkling with ice crystals. Coming off the plane, most people - unfamiliar with freezing temperatures - ducked their heads and made a B-line for the station. I stood around, took some photos, and drank in the crisp clear air for a couple of minutes before hopping on Joaquin's skidoo and hurrying off to the party.

Frankly, it's beautiful here. Maybe not everyone's cup of tea - there is no scenery other than the station & associated buildings; just clear flat white to the horizon - but with 24/7 daylight, the almost perpetual "sundog" (like a rainbow, but due to ice crystals, a bit smaller, and usually a complete ring) which encircles the sun, and everything glittering, I simply don't see how anyone would find it bleak here.

A couple of hours later, once the party had died down, I made my way back to the station for midrats (the midnight meal for nightshift workers), after which I went in search of my room and stuff. I spent the rest of the night unpacking and trying to settle in a bit. Thankfully, I avoided being stuck in summer camp, a collection of tents behind station to house the excess summer population. The summer rooms on station are pretty tight (there's a tiny desk next to my bed, and you can't leave the room without climbing over the chair), but remarkably well designed. I'd say they're cozy, not cramped.

I did learn one important lesson while unpacking: never carry your vitamin pills in a plastic baggie. The smell leaks out, and it's powerful. All my clothing (and, after unpacking, my entire room) smells overwhelmingly of that musty, slightly sharp, vitamin pill smell. I've now got them quadruple bagged and hidden in my laundry drawer, but my clothes still smell when they come out of the wash. Sigh...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

To The Pole

Getting from my hometown of Fredericton (a relative backwater in eastern Canada) to the South Pole (an extreme backwater in the middle of Antarctica) is not a simple task. I did finally make it, 10 days after leaving home.

My first stop was Chicago, where I visited my graduate advisor for dinner, then stayed the night with Steve, with whom I would be traveling the rest of the way south.

The nominal schedule for our travel was via LA to New Zealand, where we would pick up our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear, and catch the military flight to Antarctica. Of course, nothing is ever as simple as scheduled. The flight to LA was delayed by an hour, then boarded, then delayed another hour. By the time we landed, our flight to Auckland had already left. We were told to see the Qantas specialist, an unfortunately dim lady who decided we should be booked through to Sydney instead. We tried to explain to her that Sydney and Auckland were quite different places, but our pleas fell on deaf ears.

We, along with a gaggle of about 20 Kiwis, followed her (outside, through the rain) to the ticketing counter where a pair of shocked agents asked what the hell we were doing there. Apparently the flight to Auckland had been holding for us for the past 2+1/2 hours. So, we rushed back through security, ran aboard the plane, and then sat, delayed, for another hour before finally taking off.

New Zealand is a bit different from the US or Canada. As the plane descends, the cabin begins to flood with humid, fragrant air, as if you were landing in a greenhouse. The baggage claims urge passengers to "uplift the correct baggage," and the beer bottles come with those little aluminum-can opening tabs to help get their caps off. So similar, but so very different.

Steve and I landed in Auckland too late to catch our flight to Christchurch, so we got seats on a flight later that day. We sat around for a while in the airport garden (well, on a bench under several trees along a path somewhere in the airport) and enjoyed the greenery while we could. By the time we got to Christchurch, we were both pretty exhausted, had a quick dinner, and went to bed.

The following day, we wandered out to the CDC - Clothing Distribution Center, not Center for Disease Control - and grabbed our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear for the year. As a winterover, I had 3 large orange bags of clothes to go through, none of which fit. We spent two hours trading in clothes for bigger, smaller, nicer, less worn, and otherwise better versions.

It's worth pointing out that we were trying on Extreme Cold Weather gear in the middle of the New Zealand summer: 30C (80F) and 98% humidity, and we were dressing ourselves (repeatedly) for -80C (-120F). It's also worth mentioning that for the flight down, you're required to wear your ECW, meaning you have to stand around for 2-3 hours in the NZ summer, bundled for the South Pole winter. (Many people strip down to undies under their ECW while waiting for the flight.)

That evening, we went downtown and wandered around the fantastic botanic gardens for a couple of hours. I felt one last hurrah of greenery was in order before my long dark winter, and took enough photos of flowers and shrubbery to last at least 10 months, probably 20.

We reported for our flight an hour early, and Steve pointed out that not once in his decade of Antarctic work had his plane left Christchurch the day it was scheduled to. Christchurch is a pretty nice place to be stranded, particularly in the swanky hotel we were staying at. Of course, as soon as a flight delay becomes a pleasant proposal, everything runs on time, like clockwork.

Our flight to Antarctica was 4 hours on a C-17, a military cargo jet. For some reason, all the standard screening procedures - no liquids or gels, no knives, baggage x-rayed, ourselves metal-detector-ed (which went off for EVERYONE because all the ECW has metal bits all over it) - occur when boarding a military flight to Antarctica. It struck me as particularly odd when, after boarding, I noticed the easily accessible axes attached to the plane walls. I guess they're only worried about people brushing their teeth in flight, not axe murderers.

McMurdo station is a US base with a summer population of about 1000 people on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, just off the coast of Antarctica. It acts as a staging ground for all polar operations - people, equipment and fuel destined for the South Pole all pass through McMurdo. The downside to this system is that people, equipment and fuel can all get stranded there if there weather turns.

Steve and I arrived in McMurdo late in the afternoon, with a flight to the Pole scheduled for the following morning. Because we were only supposed to be there for 12 hours, we were crammed into a 10'x10' room with 4 other guys, our bags were packed onto a cargo pallet and carried off to the runway, and we were only allowed to keep our carry-ons.

Remember now: we were required to wear our ECW, had stripped down to underwear under them to cope with the NZ summer, and all our bags had just been taken away.That would have been fine, but for the snowstorm which delayed our flight to Pole by 3 days. No, you don't get your baggage back when your flight is delayed in Antarctica.

To make matters worse, our flight was never actually cancelled - only delayed - so we had to be awake and prepared for departure anywhere between 6am and midnight, and watch the flight schedules constantly. When we finally did make it out, it was with only an hour notice.

McMurdo is not a resort town. It looks more like some sort of run down frontier mining-town. Everything is dirty or muddy, the ground is a mix of dark brown and black, and consists entirely of pulverized volcanic rock. You have to wear eye protection outside or sharp little grains blowing everywhere will scratch up your cornea. All the buildings are painted some shade of brown or dull cream, and frankly, the whole place is fairly run-down.

On the second day in McMurdo, Steve and I decided to wander off into the storm and hike around Ob Hill. It was a two hour trudge through driving snow, along steep hillsides, but helped alleviate the boredom. The third day, we wandered off to hike the ridge out by Discovery Hut, the 100 year old building (complete with 100 year old preseves, and dessicated seal carcass) that Scott built on his first visit to Antarctica.

The second walk was a little more interesting, by virtue of our being able to see more than 5 feet ahead of us. Some of the highlights include the biodiversity study (a 5'x10' patch of barren earth), the large catholic shrine with a Mary in it, and fact that the path led into the explosives storage area (which is, understandably, off limits). After a couple of hours trying to figure out how we were supposed to get around the off-limits bits, we consulted my incredibly low-resolution map of the station, then turned around and backtracked the whole way.

Thankfully, not long after we returned, one of the other polies (we had met most everyone scheduled to be on our flight, and formed a tightly-knit bitch-about-McMurdo clique) mentioned that the flight was back on, and leaving in an hour. We quickly grabbed our stuff, caught Ivan the Terrabus to the runway, and soon enough were on our way.

I should mention that the flight to Pole was beautiful, and surprisingly pleasant. We paralleled the Transantarctic Mountains, got some amazing views of glaciers hundreds of miles long, and landed safely a mere 2+1/2 hours after takeoff.

Monday, January 14, 2008


I've already been at the pole for a couple of days as I write this, so there's a bit of backstory I should catch you up on. Actually, there's quite a lot, but I'll leave most of it for another day.

I'm a cosmologist, which means I study the universe. Not planets, stars or galaxies - the universe as a whole. How it works, what it's made of, when it began, what it's doing, and ultimately, where it's going from here.

Last summer, through the prodding of a friend/colleague, I started talking to people on the South Pole Telescope team about being their winterover. I should explain - a "winterover" is the poor sap who they leave running & repairing the telescope through the south pole winter, when it's too cold to land planes, and physical contact with the outside world is completely cut off.

Well, to make a long story short, I got the job, spent the next 3 months madly finishing up my PhD (and defended - successfully - Dec 7th, 2007. Hurrah!), and after an oh-so-brief Christmas vacation with family, I left on Jan 3rd, 2008, poleward-bound.