Atmospheric conditions allow the low pressure propeller tips to leave corkscrew condensation trails
Since my four trips to the High Arctic and the North Pole in the mid 1980's , I have been wanting to go to the Antarctic, particularly the South Pole. About a year ago, I decided to give it a go. This means that I would work at the South Pole for about 13 months; 4-1/2 months during the Austral Summer when there are over 200 people working there and then 8-1/2 months during the winter when there are only 37-40 people and the station is closed down and isolated with no way to get in or out.
In August, the winterovers met in Denver for an Emergency Medical Technician Short Course, Fire Fighting School and then an Outward Bound weekend where we all got to know each other. In addition, we all when through psychiatric tests and a one-on-one psychiatric interview. Also, in order to qualify to winter over at the Pole, we had to go through extensive medical and dental examinations. Because of my age I had to also get a stress treadmill test and a stress echocardiogram. Since I was traveling during this time, I had medical and dental exams in Newport, Rhode Island, Denver, Colorado, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. I finally became Physically Qualified (PQ'd) in late September.
I traveled all over the country for five weeks to meet the Principal Investigators (PI's) and train for the various science projects I am responsible for at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The PI's were at universities , government agencies and private companies and are funded by the National Science Foundation.
Following the exhausting training schedule I then quickly packed my allotted 140 lbs. of clothes, personal items, computer equipment and cameras in a short 1-1/2 weeks. I also sent myself 4 boxes of items I though I might need during the long dark winter. On October 14th the first wave of South pole personnel met in Denver for some last minute administrative work.
There are currently 37 "winterovers" of the 100 in the group making the first flight in since February, 2000. The other people will only be working at the pole for the Summer; late October through mid February. Summer in the Southern Hemisphere is during Winter in the Northern Hemisphere. The sun only rises once in September and sets once in March resulting in days with either 24 hours of sunlight or days with 24 hours of darkness. The remaining winterovers, including myself, work through the long winter and will be isolated for 8 months. No planes can get in for this eight month period, after February 14th, due to the extreme temperatures (exceeding -100F) and the 24 darkness which begins when the sun sets March 21st.
Only a small number of the winterovers are scientists, about 9 or 10. The remainder of the winter population is support personnel or construction workers. Support people are very important to the safe operation of such a station and the construction workers are key to the completion of a new modern station. The National Science Foundation is currently building a new station that will be complete in the year 2005. This coming winter may be the last winter that is spent in the old Dome structure completed in 1975.
The group of 100 left Denver on the 14th of October for Denver International Airport where we flew that night to Los Angeles and picked up our international flight at 1:00 AM that night bound for Auckland, New Zealand. Since we passed the International Date Line somewhere over the Pacific Ocean we lost one day and landed in Auckland, New Zealand on Monday morning at 6:00 AM. At the Auckland Airport we got our bags and went through customs with our passport and dragged our bags to the New Zealand Domestic Terminal to pick up our flight to Christchurch, New Zealand. Dragging 2 large bags and a backpack totaling 140 lbs. was no easy matter for most of us, especially after flying for about 15 hours. The people working only for the Summer season only get an allotment of 70 lbs. From Auckland we took a 2 hour flight to Christchurch and got in at about 11:30 AM. At this point, we all brought our bags to the International Antarctic Center located adjacent to the Airport, had an orientation and found out where we were staying in Christchurch. About five of us ended up at the Devon Bed & Breakfast in downtown Christchurch. The Bed & Breakfast was very nice and some of us had time to walk around the city that day before getting some sleep.
Christchurch is a beautiful city and the people were extremely friendly (wizard of christchurch) . It was Springtime there and the climate is very mild (christchurch photo). Even though there are snow capped mountains visible in the distance, the climate is mild enough for palm trees and other vegetation not resistant to freezing weather. There is a fantastic botanical garden park within the city and it is a favorite of the Antarctic personnel upon returning from a continent of no color, smell or running water (botanical garden)
The next morning we had to report to the Antarctic Center at the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) to receive our Extreme Cold Weather Gear (ECW) (at CDC) . We all were in a room trying on various items of clothing that was issued to us, the type of clothing depending on the length of stay and your job. For example, winterovers got three orange duffel bags full of clothing, including two parkas and 2 pairs of boots where the summer-only people got only two bags of clothing. The clothing is rather good and protects you in temperatures below -100 F and wind chills exceeding -200F. Two types of boots are issued: white "Bunny Boots" , highly insulated rubber boots used in the Korean War and the blue "Frankenstein Boots" which are appropriately named because of their size and the way they make you walk (boots) Many people prefer the FDX Frankenstein Boots in the Winter. Also, the clothing issued depends on your job. After the ECW clothing was tried on and accepted, it was all stowed away in the orange bags and put with the bags we brought. I now had 5 bags and a backpack. That's why every time you have to report for flights they call it "Bag Drag".
After ECW issue we had to wait for our flight to McMurdo Station which is on the coast of Antarctica. All of the flights from here out are either with the U.S. Air Force or the New York Air National Guard. Because of weather in Antarctica, it can sometimes be days before you get your flight. For us, we waited in Christchurch from Monday until Saturday when we finally boarded the Air Force C-141 aircraft for a 51/2 hour flight to McMurdo Station. It was nice to have time off in Christchurch, but we did have to get up at 4:00 AM every morning only to find out that our flight was canceled. This is normal procedure. This process is similar to our deployment to the Arctic in the 1980's where we flew from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to Thule, Greenland, our staging point for the North Pole. It was an enjoyable week in Christchurch, but we were ready to go by Saturday (waiting for C-141 flight).
We flew in the cold and noisy C-141 transport (C-141) with earplugs and in our ECW sitting on troop seats packed in like sardines (inside C-141) . The trip is not bad, but when you need to use the bathroom you have a 55 gallon drum with a funnel on top. We finally landed on the groomed sea ice landing strip on McMurdo Sound adjacent McMurdo Station. We boarded large, big wheeled orange vehicles for a trip to the Station, where we would be staying until our flight to the South Pole ( McMurdo Station) . The view was fantastic on Ross Island and you could see a plume of smoke rising from the top of the active volcano, Mount Erebus. We got our room assignment in rooms having anywhere from 1 to 10 roommates. I got one roommate; a cook at McMurdo station named Beaver. We stayed at McMurdo awaiting our flight to the pole and had to get up early again every day to find out whether our flight was scheduled, delayed, or canceled. Because weather is so unpredictable in Antarctica, we had to wait from Saturday the 21st of October until Friday the 27th for our flight to the Pole. It was generally boring during this wait in McMurdo, but I did get a tour of the science facilities and I was lucky enough to get on a tour of ice caves at the termination of the glaciers at the coast of the McMurdo Sound, part of the Ross Sea. Twenty of us boarded a huge, specially built all terrain vehicle with tires taller than myself. After a 1-1/2 hour drive on the sea ice in beautiful sunny weather at about -20 F, we arrived at the glacier caves. We walked inside and it was beautiful. Huge undisturbed ice crystals were hanging from the ceiling of the caves like stalactites.
On Friday, October 27, we finally got our flight to the Pole (LC-130) . We all boarded the ski-equipped LC-130 turbo-prop propelled aircraft and were flown to 90 degrees south latitude by the New York Air National Guard (inside LC-130) It was a three hour flight which took us over the Trans Antarctic Mountain Range (transantarctic mountains) . Both the C-141 and the LC-130 have only several small windows, but I managed to find one and take some photographs and videotape.
Three hours later we landed at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on a carefully groomed snow runway. The altitude at the Pole is over 9300 feet, but because of weather factors and geographic reasons, the apparent or physiological altitude ranges from 10,000 feet to over 12,000 feet depending on the conditions. The spinning of the earth is partially responsible for the increased apparent altitude. As the earth spins the atmosphere thickens at the equator and thins at the poles due to centrifugal acceleration. The sinking mass of cold air over the high Antarctic plateau also has an effect.
The high altitude can be a factor when one first arrives at the pole. I was fine, but several people ended up in Biomed (our medical clinic) and one person was taken back to McMurdo on the next flight due to extreme chest pains. After a week your body adapts to the high altitude by increasing the red blood cell count.
It is always strange being met by the current winterover group at the runway in -60F temperatures. Everybody is so bundled up with no skin showing so it was hard to tell who is who. We got escorted inside the giant geodesic dome that contains several orange buildings (See dome tour at bottom of page) (galley at midnight) . We went into the galley where we had an orientation and room assignments. I ended up in a small structure called a hypertat for the summer. There are four hypertats named Fred, Wilma, Barney and Betty. They are about 1/4 mile outside of the dome and I'm in Betty (my hypertat) . It is the size of a small Quonset hut and has space for 9 people, each with their own small cubicle with a bed and a curtain door. To use the bathroom you have to exit the hypertat and walk in the cold. For this reason many people keep old tin cans in their room. Because of water restrictions, one can take only two 2-minute showers per week and water usage in the bathroom facilities is restricted.
Hopefully, I will get a room in the dome for the winter which starts February 14th. Because of my erratic schedule, living in the some would make sense because most of my work is in sky lab, a structure attached to the dome. There is only room for 28 people to sleep in the dome which was sufficient for winterover groups until recently when a new station is being built while scientific research continues. This is the last year for the Dome structure. The new station will be completely finished in 2005, but sleeping accommodations will be ready in the new structure earlier. The new structure is reminiscent of a space station on stilts and the new station can be raised as the snow level increases over the years. The current station, including the dome is slowly being buried in snow drifts and is almost unusable now.
At South Pole Station, I am responsible for 10 science projects sponsored
by the National Science Foundation, but run by various universities, government
agencies and private companies. Most of my projects have data acquisition
systems in two laboratories in an orange building called skylab (skylab) which is connected
to the dome by a tunnel under the ice (see virtual tour at bottom of page
for tunnel photo) (One of my labs)
. Most of the sensors and antennas supporting this research are outside
at distances up to 1 mile away from the dome. For example, the VLF antenna
is 3/4 of a mile from the dome (VLF antenna--dome
3/4 mile in the background) . One of my projects, the UV Spectroradiometer,
is housed in an elevated structure called the clean air facility located
about 1/3 mile away (clean air building)
. I have to walk out there every day, even when darkness prevails
and the temperatures drop below -100F. (windy day at the dome and skylab)