LIFE AT THE SOUTH POLE
J. W. Briggs
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station October 10, 1994
I've been living here at the geographic South Pole for nearly a year now with 26 other people. In just a few weeks our stay will end and we'll finally return home to the United States, turning over our remote base to a new crew, who will carry on for another year. Some people compare Pole life to what it might be like at a base on the Moon or the planet Mars! Maybe the comparison is reasonable -- I don't really know. But let me tell you some things about what it's like here -- it is certainly a very interesting and neat place to be:
Our station is high on the Antarctic plateau, many hundreds of miles away from the icy coastline and ocean. No life at all -- no penguins, or whales, or seals, or any other of the animals you might think of as "Antarctic" -- can survive here. It's just too cold. As I write, it's -60 degrees Fahrenheit with a 15 mile-per-hour wind. Yesterday is was about -70 F., and recently it was as low as -105 F.! Around the local cluster of buildings, the snow-white "land" runs off in all directions, seemingly as flat as can be, like a great, quiet frozen ocean. And there is *nothing* near or beyond, for hundreds of miles. The ice cap ranges outward, unchanged.
The flat expanse around us is just the top surface of a great, thick sheet of ice that covers most of Antarctica. Walking around on it, you usually feel hard, crunchy snow, and you don't sink. The snow is hard-packed into small drifts by the wind. And if you were to dig deep into it, you would find, after something like 150 feet, that the snow turns into ice. But then deeper, the ice goes on and on, for something like 9000 more feet, before there is rock!
Our altitude above sea level is 9301 feet, according to the marker at the exact spot of the South Pole. If you walk out the front door of our main shelter, the Dome, the Pole is only a minute or two away. We keep a United States' flag there. Someone must restake the spot every year with a new marker, because the ice underneath us is moving slowly over the Earth like a glacier. The ice is being pushed by its own great height and weight, out from the center of Antarctica, very slowly toward the sea. Everything here at South Pole Station is carried along for the ride. But, like I said, it's slow -- we only move about 33 feet per year! Still, it is possible to measure the Pole so well that it makes sense to restake it each season.
Being at the Pole makes for strange things in the sky. Objects like the Moon, stars, and the Sun do not rise and set anything like they do back home. (In this sense, our location indeed seems quite unworldly!) The stars, for example, do not set at all. The ones we can see just go round and round, once a day, parallel to the horizon, each like a control-line model airplane, on a *very* steady flight. What this further means is that we can see *only* the southern stars. (And never the northern ones, like those in the famous Big Dipper.) BUT, the many we *do* see are above the horizon ALL the time, and this can be convenient for astronomers such as myself.
The Sun and Moon, however, are more complicated, but still very odd compared to home. Both move slowly north and south in the sky. Only when they drift into the southern sky can we see them from the South Pole. In the case of the Sun, this means that we have "day" for six months, and then "night" for six more!
For example, I got here last Jan. 1st, on a giant military-style LC-130 ski plane. At that time, the Sun appeared quite bright and reasonably high above the ice, appearing to circle around the base, 24-hours-a-day, gliding evenly above the snowy horizon, like an hour hand on a huge, natural clock. But with each passing day, we noticed that the Sun's path was closer to the horizon, until mid-March, when it was skimming the low clouds, hardly above the ice at all. And in a few more days (which happened to be cloudy) IT WAS GONE. It had drifted northward in its slow, daily spiral, until it was well below our ice horizon. Dusky light remained, since the Sun was not yet far gone, but -- we had begun the polar night -- the longest in the world! The southern stars began to appear, more each day, as the sky grew slowly darker.
By this time, the ski planes had long since stopped coming because of the deepening cold, and we were alone. (It is the remoteness of this place, and the impossibility of emergency help, that make this especially like being on another planet.) A long-range Air Force cargo jet can fly overhead in the winter night, to drop stuff by parachutes, but it's way too cold for it to land safely. Besides the airdrop, which happens once in June for boxes of mail, fresh vegetables, and spare parts, we were (and still are, as I now write!) on our own.
Six busy, winter months later, after the temperature often reached -90, and sometimes -100 F., the Sun returned to our sky. Now it is well up, cheering us with its welcome light. And finally the first planes are about to return for the new Antarctic "summer." Life, in a sense, is returning to normal. The Sun will circle higher in the sky until one day in December, when it will delicately -- hardly noticeably -- begin again its small, daily drop. And thus the yearly cycle will continue all over again.
When the Pole reopens to air traffic, the population will rise to about 130 people. Many of these folks will work to repair, improve, or expand the station and its science labs. Friends of mine, for example, will be working to improve our several telescopes here. Maintaining the station and its many science projects is a never-ending process that takes a lot of work. The airplanes can land for only about 3 1/2 months, so all the "summer" work must move fast before the station "closes" for another long winter.
The whole reason for being here is because one can make so many interesting science experiments and observations. Some of our most dramatic this year were views of explosions on Jupiter. These were caused by pieces of a doomed comet crashing into the planet with power like atomic bombs. Some of our pictures were published in the October 1994, issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.
But beyond the work, we've had fun, too -- we have a gym, and a game called volleybag, which is something like volleyball, but with really wild rules that are a lot of laughs. We also have lots books, videos, and computer games. Someone taught a YMCA course in scuba diving (the water work will be done on the way home, as we pass through New Zealand). And this year, the winter crew even formed a 5-piece rock band, and it was pretty darn good! We had some good dance parties.
A big project right now is preparing the 14,000-foot-long snow airplane runway (here called the "skiway"). Altogether, the large tractor equipment must travel a total of 500 miles to even-out the long snowy strip. It's something like mowing a gigantic lawn, except that instead of cutting grass, you're plowing down the countless drifts.
Other current projects include reactivating the long tent-like buildings called Jamesways where most of the summer visitors will live. Each has a heater, and other buildings have water (which comes from melted snow), and all require careful attention. Yet more jobs are as basic as shoveling -- lots of snow blows in during the long darkness, and only now can we catch up with it. While specialists do things like plow the skiway, everyone here helps with the basic jobs.
This is only an outline of what life at the South Pole is like, but I hope it helps to give you some idea. Almost certainly, I'll "winter" here only this once in my whole life, but I'm sure I'll always be grateful to have done it. In my case, I was interested in the Pole for some years, ever since I met a fellow who had wintered here back about 1970. I never counted that I'd get to do it myself! But yet, that's how it worked out! So I encourage you, especially if you're a student: If you find yourself interested in something special, whether it's unusual or fairly common, *whatever* it might be, try your best to stick with *your* interest. Dedicate yourself to it. Find out all you can about it. You never know how neat it might turn out!
Yours truly, --John.
John W. Briggs Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica Yerkes Observatory University of Chicago