Friday, February 29, 2008


Alright, I'm finally ready to admit it - it's cold outside. I'm not quite sure I'd say uncomfortable yet, but cold it is.

The other night, after a long day's work, it was time for another fairly tired 3am trudge back to the station. I hadn't really noticed, but since the weather cleared a couple of days ago, the temperature has been dropping like a stone.

The windchill on the walk back was under -100F, and for the first time since I got here - probably in part because I was tired - I got a little bit cold in Big Red (the traditional name for the large red parka you're given to wear down here). Most of that cold came from the high winds, which, in addition to being cold, make amazing patterns in snow drifts.

The ground was carpeted in what looked to be streams or rivers of blowing snow. They flowed and swirled, always keeping low, within a couple of inches of ground level. It made for a mesmerizing show, and a couple of times I had to stop to watch the snow dancing. As always, things here are an amazing blend of harsh and beautiful.

Monday, February 25, 2008


With the population down from 264 to 60, the station since close is much emptier. In addition to the general quiet which pervades the area, there is now quite suddenly free space. While we were crammed in like sardines through the summer, now everyone has room to stretch out.

There are 50 "winterover berths" on station, basically bigger rooms for winter folks to live in. All summer I was living in one of the summer rooms, which contained a bed, a 2' walkway next to it, a miniature desk straight out of elementary school, and a chair which completely blocked the walkway. If you sat at the desk, you had to climb over the bed to get past the chair and to the door. I like tight spaces, but even I'll admit, calling the summer rooms cozy is generous. Winterovers affectionately refer to them as "coffins". I can see why.

Anyway, with 60 winterovers and only 50 large rooms, there was some competition for them. I finally got one three days after station close, and after the coffin, it seems like a luxury suite. I can get from my desk to the door without climbing over anything, I can put on a shirt without scraping my knuckles, and I have enough desk space for a laptop AND a pencil. There's even a window with a view of the old dome station. I love my new room.

We've rearranged the galley to include a little cafe at one end, science lab has been cleaned out and reorganized to give us all the space we need, there is no longer the ongoing struggle for desks at DSL, and generally everything has gone from cramped to spacious.

A friend back in Chicago referred to the summer population as tourists, commenting that I should be glad to finally be rid of them. In a funny way, nothing could be truer. Of course, it's going to get a little lonely here sooner or later, but so far, I quite prefer the smaller population.

Friday, February 22, 2008


Since station close, the weather down here has been terrible. Actually, for a normal person, quite pleasant, but from an experimental cosmologist's standpoint, terrible.

It's been completely overcast for days, with only brief glimpses of clear sky, and several times now has actually snowed - not just ice crystals condensing from the atmosphere, but full-on snow. It's not supposed to snow at the South Pole, and the veteran polies are fairly confused by the strange weather. Today the temperature flopped several times between -32C and -43C; normally a 2 degree change is considered extreme.

The winds have also been picking up, and coupled with the snow, often make seeing anything at all quite difficult. The ground is entirely made of snow, and when light becomes so diffuse, all contrast from shadows is lost. The world takes on a uniform (and I mean completely uniform) shade of grayish white. Your eyes struggle to find something to focus on, but can't. Structures are still visible in the distance, but the ground, horizon and sky all blend into one single white void.

I really have to emphasize how little contrast there is. You honestly can't distinguish the ground under your feet from the sky, except by direction. It's like having your eyes closed, except they're wide open, and your brain is still struggling to identify something - anything - in your surroundings. You exist in a field of completely uniform color, without any sense of where or what anything is. Buildings appear to be floating in a mist of nothingness. It's tremendously disorienting, surreal, and, like everything else down here, surprisingly beautiful.

All in all, the weather's been fascinating since station close, but completely useless for observations. I guess we'll have lots of good weather later in the season, so I might as well enjoy the strangeness while it lasts.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


WARNING: This post includes discussion of my bloody knuckles.

The cold and incredibly dry air here does funny things to your skin. For the first month, I didn't have any real trouble with it. Over the past two weeks, however, my hands have started to degrade. It began with some slightly rough skin on the knuckles. The roughness spread along my fingers, and over the backs of my hands. My hand have now taken on a funny sort of parchment feel, and their skin doesn't seem to work very well any more.

By that, I mean it's not very tough, resilient, or even flexible. Whenever I bump something - be it climbing around in the telescope or just reaching into a drawer - the skin tears and splits. My left index finger somehow has 6 distinct cuts on the first knuckle, and my hands are generally turning into a bloody mess. It seems that the nerves don't seem to work very well in these conditions either, because although my knuckles have all been cut, scraped or torn, they never seem to hurt.

I've been avoiding skin cream so far because of the oily residue it leaves, but I think it's time to give in.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Peace & Quiet

The station feels very different since close. We're now down to 60 people, from a summer peak of 264, and you can tell. The hallways are generally empty, the science lab is quiet and dimly lit, the galley is never more than half full, and a surprising feeling of peace reigns over it all.

The day after station close, it snowed. Not just ice condensing from the air, but full on snow, 2 inches of it, and with it came warm temperatures. The air shot up from -46C one day to -33C the next. By south pole standards, it was practically balmy out.

Most machinery has been stored for winter, and very few people are out these days. On the walk out to DSL, all you could hear was the wind and your footsteps crunching in the snow. Today, even the wind died off, and if you stood still, there wasn't a sound to heard. After the hectic 36-hour-a-day schedule of the summer, it's a nice relaxing change of pace. (Don't get me wrong - we're still working 18 hours/day and have our hands more than full; the environment is just completely different.)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Station Close

Midday Wednesday, a rumor began to circulate that due to weather, station close had been pushed up a day to Thursday. Few rumors spread as fast as a station close rumor, and within half an hour, everyone knew about it. At 4pm, an all-call went out, telling everyone their bags had to be packed and ready at cargo by 7pm, and to be ready for an early morning flight the following day.

This of course caused a mixture of joy and panic to bubble up through the community. The SPT crew went into panic mode and started filing complaints with the chain of command. Rooms were madly being packed and cleaned, and there was a general frenzy throughout the station. By dinner, things had settled down a bit, and everyone had brought out the last of their liquor stores. Several bottles of wine, champagne, and whisky later, I went to bed while the rest of SPT went to the science lab to put in one last heroic night's work.

The following morning, there was a peculiar vibe through the station. Excitement mixed with exhaustion mixed with sorrow and giddiness. SPT folks were madly dashing about putting out one last fire, then quite suddenly, it was time for the last flight. Everyone said their farewells, and the winterovers gathered beside the runway to watch it depart.

It's a tradition for the last flight to do a low-altitude flyby after takeoff, buzz the station, then wave its wings goodbye. The plane taxied to the far end of the runway, skied past us and took off, disappearing behind its contrail. About 5 minutes later, it returned, accidentally flying through the clean air sector's no-fly zone, missing the crowd by about 1/2 mile. They circled again, and this time flew directly over us, giving an impressive wave.

We're all alone now. No way out until November.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Hero Shots

Everyone who makes it to the South Pole - be it by skiing in, or just hitching a flight to work on station - wants a picture with the pole. There are actually two poles - the "ceremonial" candy striped one surrounded by the flags of all nations who signed he Antarctic Treaty, and the real pole, a bare metal rod, which moves relative to the station by about 10m every year. (Actually, it might be more reasonable to say that the station moves relative to the pole, since it - along with the glacier it rests upon - is fairly rapidly slipping off the continent.)

The Hero Picture is a hallmark of Antarctic Travel. Everyone has to pose with the pole, or with their telescope, or something - to prove they were here. I haven't yet done my photo shoot with the pole, but since station close was rapidly approaching, all wakeful members of SPT decided to have a photo shoot on the telescope. We all climbed up on the secondary support (the arm that holds stuff out in front of the large dish), and posed for a group photo. It's hard to tell from a distance, but up close and personal, the 10m really is a big machine.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Record Cold

It's always fairly cold at the south pole - the all time high is -15C, set in 1958. Still, the speed with which the temperature can drop in late summer can catch you off guard. Two weeks ago, it was a balmy -30C, today it hit -46C. For the past 8 days, we've been setting record lows for this time of year.

Cold snaps happen during calm weather here. If there's weather of any sort, it's likely to bring warm air with it. Wind, fog or clouds all mean warmer weather's coming. We haven't had any of that - it's been clear and calm for weeks now, and without injections of warmth, the temperature plummets about a degree C per day, just radiating off into space.

Below about -42C, the air takes on a different feel. It's not just a colder version of -30C air, it's distinctly different. It gets a strange sort of sharp stickiness to it which is fairly hard to describe. Thankfully, the ECW gear handles these temperatures easily. Unfortunately, machinery doesn't.

The planes bringing people and supplies in leave their engines on while on the runway, or else risk freezing up. As the temperature drops, larger and larger clouds of condensing water vapor form behind the planes, making operations behind them (such as loading and unloading cargo) impossible. Contrails sit on the horizon for hours on end, and generally make a mess of the place. Below -50C, the planes don't fly, which can lead to an early station closing. We've got a week before scheduled closing, and only 4 degrees left - rumors have begun to circulate.

Yesterday, we had an 85% solar eclipse. It was quite a spectacle, to finally see the light outside dim, after living a month in perpetual sunlight. The station was quite abuzz with people running around snapping photos and starting out the windows. Start to finish, it lasted about 1+1/2 hours, during which time the temperature dropped another 2 degrees C. At that rate, station close could come at any moment.

While I'm on the subject of the cold, there's one more aspect of life here I want to mention. Out at DSL, where I work all day with the rest of the SPT team, there are no toilets. It's a kilometer walk through the -60C windchill to get back to the station, but we have an alternative. A small black box on skis sits just to the side of the building, and serves as an outdoor port-a-potty. It has no plumbing, no insulation, and no electric, steam or gas heating. Through the summer, it's heated by the sun, and most of the time somehow manages to stay above freezing. Now that the sun's a little lower, the solar heating doesn't work so well, and it's starting to get pretty frigid in there. In winter, you make damn sure you hit the washroom on your way out of the station every day.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Rumor Mill

Because of both the relative isolation of the station, and the extremely tight-lipped nature of the Raytheon hierarchy, everyone on station is more or less in the dark about most things. Good information is hard to come by, and so to compensate, Antarctica has developed a thriving rumor mill.

It's pervasive enough that the [mandatory] introductory video warns new arrivals against believing anything anyone says. The most popular topics are who's doing what to who (usually dating and/or fighting), how far behind the station is on food or fuel resupplies for winter, and who/what's coming or going on the next flight.

Recent rumors have involved the station closing early due to the extreme cold lately (more on that soon), and some of my coworkers were told to "consult the rumor mill" so many times that they began to believe it was a tangible thing, posted on a wall or webpage somewhere.

Actually, most of station social life resembles junior high school. Discussion topics are similar, relationships follow similar paths, and the interpersonal rumor mill is just as active. It's kind of surreal to be in junior high with a couple hundred 30-year-olds. Does keep life interesting, though.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Down Time

The other day, we decided to replace some of the bolometers in the SPT receiver. I'm not going to go into what exactly that means, but the offshoot is that we had to wait for the cryostat to warm up, giving the entire receiver team (who I'd been shadowing) about 24h of downtime.

There's a lot of entertainment available down here, from regular activities in the gym to hundreds of movies you can borrow from the store. We were all pretty burned out, though, so Clarence and I went and sat in the galley and split a couple of beers.

There are 3 large monitors which hang overhead in the galley, constantly displaying The Scroll". The Scroll consists of half a dozen pages telling you the weather, the flight schedule, the Daily Dose of offensively stupid safety advice (eg. "Careful taking plates out of the microwave - if they're hot, they could lead to burns.") The weather page always includes a photo submitted by someone around station, sometimes of Antarctic stuff, but more often they're unattributed and untraceable shots of "cute" pets or am unknown vacation. This usually leads to ludicrous pairings of "-51.2C Windchill" next to a photo of a beautiful green landscape.

Some of the other receiver guys took a sauna night, sitting in a ridiculously hot (200F) sauna for half an hour, then wandering out to the pole (-50C windchill) in their swimsuits for a photos shoot. Apparently the mild fever being rapidly snapped along with the sweat crystallizing on your skin makes for an invigorating experience, and actually feels fairly good.

Along similar lines, in the winter, when the temperature drops below -100F, the 300 degree club convenes. The idea is to experience a 300F temperature drop wearing nothing but shoes and a smile. More on that when the time comes.