Monday, December 8, 2008

Post Mortem

It's been nearly a month since I left the ice, and my memories of the past year are fading with shocking rapidity. All the long walks through the dark, the frustratingly short 2 minute showers, the excitement and the boredom, all the good times and the all bad seem so distant now, as though imagined in a dream.

Life in the real world is spectacular. Everything is so vibrant, practically humming with life. The birds, the trees, the rivers - they seem almost too real. My mind is buzzing with activity every time I leave my hotel room; there's just so much to see and do. It's all so new, a sort of rebirth after the confinement at pole.

I'd forgotten how much I like water. From ridiculously long and frequent showers to going scuba diving to simply dangling my feet in a stream, I've been spending a lot of time in and around water. Rain has probably been my favorite experience since leaving the ice - the smell, the feel, the sudden change that passes over the world.

Apparently all polies experience something like this on leaving the ice: complete wonderment at every little thing that seemed so routine before our polar incarceration. Flowers, animals, daily sunrises - everything holds a new importance to us. It's funny looking at the world through fresh eyes, and it's a wonder to experience it all again for the first time.

All these new experiences and sensations seem to be completely overwhelming the memories of life at pole. To be honest, I'm not entirely convinced that it actually happened, that I did live at the South Pole for the past year. Those memories are so slippery now, fleeting and ephemeral. I'm sure they'll reassert themselves as I settle back in to regular life, but for now, the pole feels very, very far away.

As one final note on this blog, I'd like to say thanks to everyone who read it through the year, and particularly to those who posted comments. It was one of my few lines to the outside world, and the occasional word of support went a long way in helping to maintain my mental health. I hope you all enjoyed reading it, and that I could somehow share some of the experience of being down there.

- Keith

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Leaving Pole

My time at pole has finally drawn to a close, and after two more-or-less frantic days of turnover with the incoming SPT people, I'm now safely off the ice and back in New Zealand. Civilization at last. I'll try to write one final post after a couple of weeks back in reality, but for now, just a few words about my departure from pole.

I have to admit, it was much harder than I expected to tear myself away from the station. After living there so long, it was home, even with our winter community shattered amid the influx of summer folks. I tried in vain to convince myself that there was in fact a whole new world out there, oh so much bigger and more exciting that my little existence on the ice, but it was still tremendously difficult to pack and leave everything behind.

Eventually the moment came, and with hugs and well wishes from the new SPT folks and the last few winterovers, I boarded the C130 to Mactown. That afternoon & evening, the polies gathered in our berths to share a bottle of whisky and some cheap wine. Mactown is no place to celebrate your freedom, but that doesn't mean you can't get pleasantly drunk there.

The skin on my hands, which had been a sort of scaly parchment, tearing at every opportunity and never quite healing up, was smooth and supple within 6 hours of landing at sea level, wounds healed, knuckles finally no longer cracked and bleeding. The humidity & warmth in Mactown seemed obscene, and while the locals were dashing through the -12C air and 30 knot winds, giant red parkas pulled tight against the wind, polies wandered happily about in shorts and flip-flops. We smiled at the sun, sniffed the dirt underfoot, and generally looked like a bunch of madmen strolling through town.

Leaving the next day for Christchurch came as a too-long delayed release from captivity. We cheered as the C17 lifted off the ice shelf, though everyone was too hungover to celebrate for long. Most of us spent the flight napping, until we began to descend into NZ. Suddenly a rich, thick, fragrant air filled the cabin. It wasn't the smell of flowers and pollen everyone had suggested we'd smell. It was dirt, plain and simple. The smell of earth has never been quite so beautiful, such a welcome relief.

We landed in Christchurch around 9:30 at night, and after clearing customs, walked over to the CDC to turn in our well-worn ECW. The walk was punctuated by people rolling around on the grass, stopping to smell the bushes (not the flowers, the plants themselves), and generally marvelling at everything that teased our senses.

It's good to be off the ice. I'm sure I'll miss pole eventually, but for now life is very full. Tomorrow I'm off for the botanic gardens, to see trees and watch ducklings paddle about on the river. Hurrah!

Monday, November 10, 2008


The last couple of days at pole, the population as been roughly a dozen winterovers to 190 new people. Bumping into someone you know in the hall is inevitably a moment for celebation as a look of immense relief at a familiar face floods over both people's faces. With so few of us winterovers left, these encounters are becoming fewer and farther in between, but flashes of recognition still cross our faces every few minutes.

Every time we turn a corner, every time a someone walks through a door, every time we catch a glimpse of anyone from any distance or angle, there's a moment where they become a fellow winterover. Someone's hair, stance, shirt - anything can set it off - will look like someone we know, an ally from the winter, and our minds will seize on that before they suddenly revert to a stranger, summer person once again.

It's an odd experience walking the halls we know so well with so many strange new faces flooding through them. Our minds haven't quite adjusted to the new reality, and continually imprint faces we know over those we don't. Things are getting progressively less comfortable for the remaining winter crew, and we're all looking to get out as soon as possible.

I think once we get back to the real world, this shouldn't be such a problem. It's just that in these surroundings, there are only 59 other people we expect to meet. Anyone else - to a winterover's eyes - simply doesn't belong.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Photo Recon

The day after station opening, I got to take part in one of the more interesting start-of-summer tasks. Thanks to the many pictures I took throughout the winter, I was recruited to go up in a little Twin Otter plane for aerial reconnaissance photos. These shots are taken and archived twice a year, to watch the development of snow drifts, better understand the status of construction, and generally record the condition in and around station.

The recon flights consist of three passes over the station, repeated at 500 and 1000 feet, for each of the two photographers taken up. When it's your turn to shoot, you swap places with the co-pilot, roll down the window, lean out a little (not too much - the wind will catch anything that actually crosses out of the window and yank it violently away), and start snapping.
We took up a couple of winterovers to fill out the empty seats, and everyone had the same reaction: the station is sooo tiny! It was a shock to see our little world in context, a tiny oasis in a frozen ocean extending seemingly forever in every direction.
On each pass, there are specific things they want photographed, and the plane circles and tips to ensure the best possible angles. While this works pretty well, it's a little disorienting when you're shooting - the horizon keeps moving around, and because of all the centrifugal force, it rarely matches with what you think is level - and positively sickening when you're in the back. After the 10th or 11th pass, all the passengers were looking a little green around the gills.

I'd never done anything like that before, and am really glad I got to go up and see our world in context. It was also awfully fun to sit in the cockpit and shoot out an open window with the plane diving this way and that. I guess there are some upsides to station opening & new people.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Station Opening

The weather at pole this past week has been windy - too windy for planes to land - and station opening had to be delayed a day. On Wednesday, winterovers still outnumbered summer folks 57 to 34. By the end of Thursday, we were down to 30, and the new people up to 110. Saturday it was roughly 10 to 190. Very quickly the station was overrun with new people, and most of our family of winterovers had disappeared.

Station opening is defined by the arrival of the first Hercules C-130, the workhorse planes that transport everything - people, fuel, and equipment - to and from pole. The last one left pole February 14th, beginning our winter season. Thursday, the first one we'd seen in 8 months landed and taxied over to the station, where it disgorged a mass of 40 new people. An hour later, another arrived with another 40, snatched up half the winter crew, and flew off to warmer climes.

That evening and the next day, it was tremendously clear that life had changed. All throughout our home, strange people were running about, acting like they owned the place. Winterovers were marginalized, newly ousted from places they used to tread freely. In the galley, we began to cluster at one end, suspiciously watching the masses of new folks. In the hallways and at work, the arrival of a fellow winterover - even someone who you rarely spoke to in the winter - is now greeted with a smile of pure delight.

Nobody quite realized through winter how much we had become a family. Only when a horde of strangers moved into our home and dragged away half of the members of that family, did we begin to understand. We sixty people living through the six month night on the bottom of the world formed a strong bond. We are now and always will be close; polies to the bitter end.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

South Pole Diet

Writing about the arrival of freshies the other day reminded me that I've been meaning for a while to write a short note on the diet down here. The meals we live off are not exactly health food. Far from it, we eat mostly comfort food. Heavy, rich, and constantly available.

Due to both the elevation and the cold here, we seem to burn calories at a ridiculous rate. To provide maximum calories with minimum complication (see my post on South Pole Cooking for details on trying to cook even moderately complex dishes), most meals end up very meaty, and very fried. Cholesterol levels inevitably skyrocket through the year, and most of the oldtimers end up on medication to keep theirs under control.

I certainly don't mean to denigrate the efforts or skills of the galley staff - they work wonders within the limitations of the place. The problem is that very little is available, meals need to be as caloric as possible, and food is one of the few tools available to keep morale up through the long dark winter. Keeping everyone well stuffed with fried chicken helps to pacify the mob.

I made no effort early on to restrict my meals, and after 6 months of eating nothing but fries, ice cream, steak and corn dogs, I'd dropped nearly 20 lbs. I feel like I should write some sort of diet book - "Eat whatever you want and watch the pounds melt away! Just spend 3 hours outside every day in -100F and at 11,000 feet, and you'll be amazed by the results!" (Since sunrise, I haven't burned quite so much energy stumbling over sastrugi, and my weight's recovered somewhat.)

I'm certainly getting a bit tired of the same greasy food day in, day out, and the arrival of freshies only served to sharpen that feeling. I'm not much of a fruit eater, but the thought of a fresh apple, some berries, or a pineapple (oh, my kingdom for a pineapple!), readily available, any time of day or night, seems like paradise. New Zealand is our first stop on leaving the ice, and it's starting to look more and more like some sort of tropical Eden.

Monday, October 27, 2008

New People

The arrival of new people wasn't at all what I had expected. It started with a trio of pilots who slept over on their way to McMurdo, and rather than being the frightening unknown, they were just people. New, certainly, but somehow nothing more - simply routine visitors from abroad.

That all changed with the arrival of summer people. We've had two flights of inbound passengers, and now the station is crawling with new people. We winterovers - 3 of us having already returned to the real world - still outnumber them 57 to 34, but after a 60 to zero ratio for 8 months, that seems very high indeed.

It's a tradition at pole for the winterovers to spend months prior to the end of season raving about all the clever tricks we're going play on the new people when they arrive, everything from hiding in the subfloors to make the station look deserted, to putting up plastic sheets around the gym and quarantining them, to digging an enormous pit trap next to the runway.

Of course, none of these plans ever come to fruition (that's part of the tradition), but a couple of people did make some effort to dress up the station for the newcomers. One person ran a plank off the observation deck, complete with pirate flag and a pair of legs sticking out of the snow below. Another, realizing the US government is broke at the moment, decided to put the station on the market, replacing the NSF logo with a giant For Sale sign.
It's a strange experience to walk down the halls now and not know the people you pass. I hadn't realized how comfortable and familiar winter life had become. While it's very odd to see the new folks around station, mealtime in the galley is when it really hits home: winter is over.

As xenophobic as it sounds, I think I understand all the anti-immigration feelings in the broader world now. The small, tight-knit community we had grown into has been unbound by the influx of people coming faster than we can assimilate them. Every winter follows a unique trajectory, and each crew forms a distinct society - nobody will ever again experience our particular culture. While many here would argue that's a good thing for the world, nostalgia is a powerful force, and somewhere deep down inside, I'll always miss what this place was.

On the plus side, the new people brought freshies. I nursed my slice of tomato for a good 20 minutes, and am sure that I have never - never - tasted anything as delicious as the pineapple which came in on Sunday. Amazing.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Waking Station

The winter is rapidly drawing to a close, and with our first visitors from the outside world expected tomorrow, the station has become a hive of activity. The crew is dashing madly about trying to breathe life back into all the sections that have been closed down, frozen, drifted over, and more or less mothballed since station close.

Over the past couple of weeks, summer camp - the array of tents used to house the excess summer population - has been dug out, warmed up, and about a quarter of the winter crew has even moved in over there. (Some people really like the peace and quiet of living off station, despite the walk through -60F temperatures to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night.)

A smooth, hard packed runway has sprung up in the middle of my commute to DSL - it's a refreshing change to solid ground between sections of 4' sastrugi and 20' snow drifts. From my path, it disappears into the distance, lined by dozens of heavy black flags to help guide in pilots.

As I mentioned above, we're expecting outsiders tomorrow. This crowd won't be staying, as they're on their way to McMurdo, but with any luck they'll have freshies. From Mactown (nobody on the ice calls it McMurdo - always Mactown), they'll begin ferrying people back here to help with station opening. Our new residents start arriving Thursday.

To prepare for new folks, the entire crew got half the day off today to give the station a good and thorough deep-cleaning. Everything - walls, floors, cielings, desks, washing machines, etc - is getting scrubbed down. By dinner, the station should be gleaming and as good as new. It's funny how much crud has accumulated, and how little we've noticed it.

Over the past 8 months, life on station has been so predictable, repetitive, and almost sleepy, that we simply haven't noticed the changes that have taken place. The station has started waking up from its long winter slumber, and it's a bit shocking to watch the transition.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

South Pole Cooking

There was an injury among the galley staff the other day (nothing serious, don't worry), so they're a little short staffed in the kitchen at the moment. I've been meaning to cook more, and agreed to help out by making desert a couple of nights this week. It turns out that there are a couple of fairly fundamental problems with cooking down here:

First, we haven't had any fresh food or ingredients delivered since station close back in February. We're completely out of just about everything, so you sort of have to tailor meals to what's available.

Second, we're very high up, and nothing bakes quite right at altitude. Technically, we're just over 9,000 feet above sea level, but because of the earth's rotation, the atmosphere gets squished away from the poles and toward the equator. The air here is equivalent to anywhere from 10,000 to 12,000 feet, depending on the weather.

All that taken into consideration, I decided to try making a couple of cheesecakes. They're supposed to be relatively stable at high altitude, and I knew we had cream cheese, so it seemed like a likely possibility. After a quick recipe search, I thought I had found something we could do, and went to work.

Unfortunately, I hadn't inspected our stores since June, and most of what I needed was long gone. For example, we have no graham crackers - the only way I could make crust was by scavenging some "crust mix" from a pile of expired no-bake Jello cheesecake mixes. (They turned out to be "chocolate" flavor, though you'd never know by eating them.) Having resigned myself to a rather questionable crust, I went to tackle the main cake part.

Much to my chagrin, cream cheese separates when frozen. Not just into liquids and solids, but into about 5 different components. You have to take the package, scoop all the various chunks and juices into a food processor and blend it all back together. From there, things sort of went downhill.

Our eggs recently ran out, so I had to use a carton of rather chunky and unappetizing "frozen egg product". Egg yolks were replaced by a bag of thick orange goop. For cream, I resorted to reconstituted milk. Even the lemon juice has run out, and after a bit of searching, sweetened lime juice from the bar subbed in.

Oh, also, the springform pans were the wrong size - too short by an inch.

Anyway, after substituting more than half the ingredients on the recipe, it was time to bake. Things were a little tense at first, as both pies rose dangerously above the edges of their pans, but eventually things settled down and ended up looking - much to everyone's surprise - pretty much like cheesecakes. Even more surprising, they were not only edible, but quite good!

Cooking at pole this late in the season is an exercise in both creativity and ingenuity; I have no idea how the cooks do it day in and day out. I will say, though, that it's quite fun, and surprisingly gratifying when, after what appears to be a complete debacle, everything mysteriously works out.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

My Toast

Throughout much of the season, I've managed to maintain a fair level of mental health. I was thrilled by the sunset, enjoyed the darkness, and got a second wind along with everyone else at sunrise. Since then, however, things have started to unravel a bit.

I never really hit the irritable or angry phases of toast, and it came on so subtly that I didn't notice until it got relatively serious. I skipped straight over the hiding-in-the-room and anti-social stages, and simply stopped paying attention to things.

It's not that I became distracted, mind wandering off during conversations. My attention is still as focused as ever, there's simply less of it there. It's as if I'm still aware of all my surroundings, but many of them don't fully register. I still behave as before, and do my work as easily and efficiently as ever, but several times a day I'll realize that I have no idea what I just did. Or what had for breakfast, what I had planned that evening, or what someone just said to me. For three days this week, I had a mild suspicion that it was Tuesday.

A more common variant of this is the Antarctic (or Thousand Mile) Stare, where people gaze off into the distance, eyes glazing over, mind slowly shutting down. People all over station have begun doing it, but it's not quite what I have. My eyes still focus, my mind is still running. I'm just not paying very close attention to life anymore.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Orange People

In less than two weeks, we'll be meeting new people for the first time in over 8 months, and that's kind of scary.

The official station opening, when it becomes "summer" and the population skyrockets to 250, is Nov 5th. Because winterovers are notoriously bad at dealing with the masses of summer folk, many of our replacements will be arriving earlier than that on smaller planes, during a so-called soft-opening. That allows us to do all the turnover training before the population gets too high and we become too dysfunctional. It also means much of the winterover crew leaves Nov 5th as the masses begin to pour in.

Anyway, in 12 days, the smaller planes that operate through the soft-opening period will be passing through on their way to McMurdo. Two days after that, they'll be back with freshies, people, and who knows what else. While I am looking forward to fresh produce, the people are a little more mixed. To repeat myself, we haven't seen anyone other than we 60 winterovers in over 8 months. We're all tremendously comfortable around each other, know each other's personalities, histories, interests and quirks, and the prospect of new - unkown - people is quite frankly a little frightening.

That may be hard to understand, coming from the outside world, but isolation like this builds quite a group mentality, an us-versus-them way of thinking. Everyone one station is now thoroughly toasted in their own special way, and one of the end stages of toast is an inability to deal with anything new, particularly people.

I'm sure we'll be as nice as we can be to the summer folks, but according to previous winterovers, when that first plane shows up, there's a moment of panic that runs through the assembled crowd. Even old friends from off the ice are somehow a little more than we're prepared to deal with, and the winterovers quickly retreat to their rooms.

Adding to the distinction, none of us have had any sun exposure since arriving last summer. For me, that's about 10 months; for some, it's been as much as 16. We've all very gradually gone very very pale, and now, no matter the ethnicity, we're one and all quite white, verging on transparent. The lore is that anyone from off the ice, regardless of how mild a tan they may have, will look thoroughly orange by comparison.

Summer arrivals are the Orange People, and they bring with them an exhilirating mix of newness, excitment, and - to the toasty mind - a mildly threatening otherness. Also, freshies.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The 300 Club

There's a tradition here at pole dating back decades, that whenever the temperature outside falls below -100F, the 300 club convenes & initiates new members. You gain entry into the club by first sitting in the sauna with the temperature turned up to 200F, then running outside (a 300F temperature differential, hence the name) and around the pole, all wearing nothing but boots and a smile.

Only once - in the half century for which we have records - has the temperature failed to hit -100F over the course of a winter. It's expected that the 300 club convenes at least once each winter, more likely twice or three times. Well, with the sun now up and temperatures already rising into summer, our low for the year is sitting at -99.9F, and there's no way that would count. Seriously.

Never before has the temperature hit -100F this late in the season - the previous record was Sept 28th, yesterday - so based on historical trends, we're going to have the second ever winter without hitting -100F. Last year, they made it, but only for 30 seconds, not long enough for the sauna and naked dash. The 300 club hasn't been able to meet since 2006 - global warming, anyone?

(As a side note, a couple of people have decided to try an alternate 300 club - eating nothing by fried foods and trying to get their cholesterol up to 300. This late in the season, people resort to pretty self-destructive behavior for entertainment.)

Sunday, September 21, 2008


The "official" sunrise doesn't happen until about 3am Tuesday morning, but because the sun is so big and the atmosphere bends the light, its top edge crosses the horizon a day or two earlier than that. Most of the past week has been overcast and windy, but last night things finally cleared, and we got our first view of the sun itself in over 6 months.
After 6 months without, the sun is an odd sight on the horizon, and seeing it a bit of a watershed moment. The galley filled up fairly quickly with gawkers, lining the windows and staring at the strange glow peeking out from behind the blowing snow. Yes, staring, and yes, at the sun. That's not really the doctor recommended way of viewing it, but there was simply no way to dissuade us - poor sun-starved polies that we are - from seeing it. (For the record, it was mostly obscured by clouds, just peeking over the horizon, and the galley windows are heavily tinted anyway. It hurt to look at, but more like a 60W lightbulb hurts to look at, not like the fully risen blinding sun.)

Binoculars were gathered and passed around, and because we didn't know any better, started staring at the sun through them. From beside, you could see people's eyes were alight with the sun, glowing in a slightly unsettling way, as their pupils struggled to contract after months of lazy inaction.

There's a fairly large telescope at one end of the galley, and after everyone's eyes were sufficiently exhausted and sore from looking at the sun directly, we realized it would be much simpler to just project the sun onto a piece of paper, through the telescope. That gave a fairly nice image, and we even caught some fringes of green and blue at the edges.

Those fringes are really the highlight of a South Pole sunrise or sunset. The atmosphere bends the different wavelengths (colors) of sunlight very slightly differently, giving a near invisible fringe of green to the top of the orb. Ordinarily, it's far to faint to see right next to the full brightness of the sun, but at sunset, very rarely, the sun will be obscured enough that for the last moment before it disappears completely, you can make a faint green band.

In the real world, this "green flash" lasts only for an instant, and is rare enough that it has become somewhat mythologized. Jules Verne once described it as "a green which no artist could ever obtain on his palette, a green of which neither the varied tints of vegetation nor the shades of the most limpid sea could ever produce the like! If there is a green in Paradise, it cannot be but of this shade, which most surely is the true green of Hope." A little over the top, but you get the idea.

Well, down here, instead of a 1/2 second long green flash in the best of circumstances, we get about 5 hours of it in middling weather. We missed it to a storm at sundown, but last night's weather qualified, and through the above mentioned binoculars and telescope, we were able to make out the dancing green and even blue edges on the top of the sun. I didn't bring a zoom lens up to the task, but was able to get a few photos where the green is at least present.

It's a strange sensation to see the sun again after 6 months without it. Not as strange as having its light back, but still a little odd. It feels a bit like I just found a long lost toy from my childhood, a companion from years ago. I wonder if I'll get that every morning when I hit the real world...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Imminent Light

It would be hard to argue these days that the sun isn't rising. The world outside has been transformed half a dozen times since the start of the month, and is now so bright that I had to shield my eyes when I walked out of the station yesterday.

It's surprising how much closer together everything seems to be in the light of day. Well, the light of pre-dawn. The walk to DSL seems to have shrunk by a factor of two or more, and everything seems suddenly more closely connected: the station is never more than a quick hike down the road, the berms are all neatly laid out just behind it, SPT is only a couple of minutes from my door.

We've got our big Sunrise Dinner this Friday, but the atmosphere is completely different from either that at Sunset or Midwinter's dinner. Despite everything I've been writing and the photos I've been taking, sunrise has somehow managed to sneak up on me. While I was excited and waiting with bated breath for both Sunset and Midwinter, I'm suddenly realizing only a couple of days out that Sunrise is about to happen. After all those months of darkness, deep down I don't seem to believe the sun is returning.

To be perfectly honest, I might just prefer that it didn't. I'm done with the dark, but the light outside now is soft and brilliantly colored, much nicer than the harsh whiteness of direct sunlight. We've been experiencing the world's longest sunrise for the past three weeks, and it really has been beautiful - I'll be sad to see it go. Some people on station are already talking about wintering again, simply to relive the sunrise. That's a little further than I'd go, but the last couple of weeks really have been a visual delight.
Two nights ago I found a Canadian flag nicely planted next to the geographic pole. I've no idea who put it there - or why - but there was some spectacular color behind it that I decided I couldn't miss. I bundled up and ran outside in the middle of the night to explore, and simply enjoy the view.

This really is a wondrous place to live and work, and the little miracles like flags from home popping up one night in the middle of a three-week sunrise do a fair job driving that point home.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Glow

In the photos from the last post, you may have noticed both a bright glow on the horizon, and a very pinkish light illuminating the yukimarimos. The sun is very clearly returning, and the lightshow of sunrise has begin.

Last week - two full weeks before sunrise - the sky was already aglow with colors. What started in mid-August as nothing more than a deep blue tint to the black of night had evolved into a fire painting the horizon.

These shots are all from last week, when we had our clearest weather in months, affording an unobstructed view of the horizon. Having been deprived of light and color for so long, even the faintest glow can catch our attention: everyone on station was more or less flabbergasted by the colors suddenly pouring over our world. Two weeks after sunset, I don't recall any colors at all. Two weeks before sunrise, I could swear the sky was burning.

Following our winterover photo on Tuesday, I spent the afternoon on my yukimarimo hunt, but that far from finished my day's photography. On entering the galley for dinner, you couldn't help but be shocked by the bright orange light spilling through the windows. Even with all the windows on station heavily tinted to keep out the blinding light of midsummer, the view from the galley was spectacular. The real horizon was even more stunning, and unfortunately well beyond my capabilities to do justice in a photograph.

Since that evening, we've had mostly overcast weather, and with the exception of occasional glimpses through the clouds, have missed the glow on the horizon. It's still a little over a week until sunrise, but it's getting hard to imagine how bright it will actually be outside. Having gone six months without sun, our eyes are not well equipped for daylight. The next week will certainly be an interesting one - I have a hunch I'll be back to my trusty tinted goggles very soon.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Attack of the Giant Yukimarimos

Yesterday, the whole crew gathered after lunch for the annual winterover photo. We'd decided to do it over by Spoolhenge, the final resting place for all the spools which formerly housed cables now running through the station and between buildings. They're too expensive to ship back north, so they languish behind the station, next to the berms. Spoolhenge makes a great subject for photography - I've never mentioned it or posted photos before because it's in the opposite direction from SPT, and I rarely made it back there through the dark of winter.
It's difficult to take photos of people outside, as they tend to breathe. Clouds of water vapor follow them around, fogging up the area and obscuring any potential shot. I had been recruited as photographer for the day, but wanted to be in the shot, so had my camera on a looped timer. I had to yell instructions from the back row (that's me with the pointy hat near the middle at the back), telling everyone to hold their breath, long enough to allow the haze to clear, before each shot.

Anyway, as the last of us were walking back to station, what to our wondering eyes should appear, but an enormous Yukimarimo! (For those of you who haven't the foggiest idea what that is, check out the earlier post on the subject.) On our previous encounter, the yukimarimos only got up to the size of a golf ball, maybe slightly smaller. This one was softball-sized, so big that it didn't seem to be able to roll anymore, at least not without much stronger wind.

Both I and my camera were frozen fairly solid by that point, so after a single quick shot, we had to run inside to thaw out. An hour later, warmed back up, and armed with three fully charged camera batteries, I went yukimarimo hunting.

There were none on the SPT side of the station - I knew that from my morning walk out. Instead, I headed back toward Spoolhenge, off into the antenna field. It didn't take long before I found some, rolling playfully around beside summercamp. Again, there were an enormous few, cantaloupe sized, sitting still under their own weight, while the smaller ones danced around.

I turned toward some drifts coming off nearby berms, and there found a sparse colony, cottonballs scattered about the landscape. It wasn't long before I started finding little nests of them, a dozen or more having rolled into a furrow in the landscape and become trapped. There was something about that image, puffballs huddled together in the glow of the sunrise, that I found tremendously cute. I guess that's what happens when you live in the cold and dark long enough - snow becomes cute and develops a personality.
Nobody here - not even the oldtimers - had ever seen giant yukimarimos before. Getting any at all is a treat, and to have these montrosities tumbling about is just amazing. As in March, they seem to have arrived with the sudden cold snap after last week's ridiculously hot & humid weather. That gives rise to lots of hoarfrost covering the landscape, and given a gentle enough breeze (though not too gentle), mother nature begins rolling snowballs. To get the big ones, that gentle breeze has to slowly build at just the right rate to continue rolling, but not breaking, these funny little bits of antarctic wildlife.

My world has suddenly become exciting and very new again. Funny what a sunrise can do.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Greenhouse

We ran out of freshies - that is, fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, etc - from the real world shortly after station close back in February. Since then, our only fresh greens have come from the greenhouse - without it, we would be completely salad-free for almost 9 months.

You can imagine then, that having a functional greenhouse is fairly critical for our diets. Beyond that, simply having something else living on station actually does a tremendous job keeping morale up. It distracts people from the cold, dark, lifeless plain we live on.
Terry, the greenhouse tech this winter, has done a tremendous job keeping it running, and we've had record yields all season. The main crops are various sorts of lettuce, a wide variety of herbs (basil, chives, etc), and more cucumbers than we know what to do with. About a month ago we had out largest harvest of the season: 160 lbs of greens in a single week (of which roughly 80 lbs was cucumbers). Typical weekly yields are closer to 60-80 lbs, but in any case, it's a lot of food from a 10'x20' room.

The greenhouse runs entirely on hydroponics, simply because foreign soil is forbidden by the Antarctic Treaty (and the local Antarctic soil is both sterile and buried under 2 miles of ice). The unfortunate result of that is that - given our setup - we can only grow plants in a very few chemistries at once. That is, some plants prefer more acidic soil, some need extra nitrogen, etc, and when growing hydroponically, the water they are fed has to be fairly carefully tailored to that plant. While the setup is perfectly capable of growing, say, tomatoes, logistical problems keep us from growing them alongside cucumbers. Due to the vastly greater yield of a cucumber plant, fresh tomatoes are off the menu.

Beyond just providing food, however, the greenhouse is also a popular room to relax in. There is a small antechamber/airlock on the front - complete with couch to lounge upon - to allow people to sit in the thick, damp air, soak up the light, and marvel at green things. No other room on station stands out quite like it - when you enter, you're immediately blinded by the light, choked by the humidity, and often overcome by the smell of living things; everywhere else in our world on the bottom of the world, the air is cool, thin and dry, the light is pale, and there are rarely smells of any sort, even around the galley.

I made the mistake of spending an evening reading a book in there back in July. Mistake might sound like an odd word for describing time spent in the relative Eden I just described, but allow me to explain. My time in there certainly wasn't unpleasant - quite the opposite: it was a lovely way to spend an evening. The problem is that you eventually have to leave, and by comparison, the rest of the world here seems that much worse. The halls become dimly lit with a pale bluish-grey light, the air thin and cold. Everywhere I went for the next few days, things seemed somehow less substantial, a pale mockery of reality, devoid of color, smell, or any sort of feeling.

Within a week of that experience, I was back to enjoying this funny little world we live in, and I've been avoiding the greenhouse since then. Now that the sun is rising, the windows are open, and the world is apparently re-awakening, I may poke my head back inside and see how it strikes me. Then again, I may just wait until I get back to the real world, and try to enjoy my last couple of months here with the ice.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


After 4 months of life in the unvarying darkness of night, the changes occurring around station over the past couple of weeks have been both surprising, and a bit unsettling. Driven by the dawning light, the world around us is evolving, and at a pace none of us is quite prepared to deal with after the plodding progress of winter.

Don't get me wrong - lots of things happen throughout the depths of winter, just nothing changes. Nobody new turns up, there is no new food or drink, nothing new on TV or in the store, and even the weather is only variable within a few categories (windy/cloudy/clear). Each day, week, and month is virtually indistinguishable from those which precede or follow it.

Now, the sky has lit up with the brilliant light of a sun not to rise for two weeks. It's a rich, warm blue twilight, well distinct from anything we've seen in months. Heading outside inevitably brings up some long dormant memory of a sunrise seen in a previous life: sometime in early January for me, last November for most people. I can't count the times I've walked out of DSL to visit the washroom (ie. the bucket in the boiler room) and caught myself thinking it must be nearly Christmas, based solely on the quality of the light outside.

The sastrugi and drifts, which have been growing ever larger all winter, are now clearly visible, and the whole landscape has changed from a black emptiness into a sea of windswept textures. The stars are gone, and the moon (which rose again yesterday) sheds a light so pale and cold that even it - our erstwhile surrogate sun - is easily missed in the glow of the not-yet-risen real sun.

We're scheduled to unplug the windows this weekend, when the station will suddenly revert from a sealed box into a building, more reminiscent of a home up north than the cage it has been slowly becoming. Seeing the world outside from the comfort of the galley seems like an unimaginable luxury, and being able to assess the weather without going outside to check will be a nice novelty.

The changes in light outside have brought on remarkable changes in the psyche of everyone on station. People who had largely been hiding in their rooms since shortly before or after midwinter have emerged, friendly and excited. The rest of us are no less affected, with personalities well known abruptly gone, and some of the quiet folks now boisterous.

The weather, while still in essence either clear or stormy, has become more extreme with the dawn. Sunlight tends to churn up the air, and we've been hitting both colder colds and warmer warms, along with some absurdly hot storm fronts. As I write this, the temps have risen into the -20s F for the first time since January. Last week, the windchill broke -100C, just barely missing -150F.

I hadn't realized how much I'd settled into the steady unchanging darkness of winter. It's astonishing to me how plastic we as people are - something as basic as a sunrise can come as a shock, and the month it takes to complete can seem disarmingly rapid.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


There are two primary factors that mark life here at pole as completely different from life in the real world. The first of these is the year-long day, with only a single sunrise and sunset per year. The second is the cold. I've gone on at length over the past four months about the night, but haven't delved too much into the many effects of the cold.

By and large, no machinery works cold. Anything with moving parts takes oil or grease, and there doesn't appear to be any grease which won't freeze solid by -90F. We aren't allowed to take vehicles outside below -80F, not for fear of damage to the engine - running keeps it warm enough - but because if stopped for any length of time they tend to freeze solid to the ground.

As far as SPT goes, the telescope's primary motors are kept warm inside the building (which is heated by waste heat from our electronics, supplemented with heat from the DSL furnace), while the smaller ones sit in the receiver cab on the end of the secondary arm, kept warm by a battery of electric heaters. Without heat, the telescope is dead in the water, just like everything else down here.

With that as preface, at 3am this past Sunday, the telescope lost power. The alarms failed, and Sunday is the one day of the week both Dana and I tend to sleep in a couple of hours. The telescope was without power for 6 hours before we discovered the problem, by which time, it was cold. Very cold. The building and main motors were slightly below freezing, while the entire receiver cab had dropped to -80F.

At that point, simply restoring the power wasn't an option - motors would turn back on and seize, hard drives would fail, fans would stall - in essence, everything breaks if powered up cold.

Instead, the cab needed to be reheated before powering anything back up. That set up a bit of a catch-22 - the heaters are electric, but we couldn't restore power until things were warm again. Worse, the fans on the heaters were all frozen, so powered heaters were likely to melt or catch fire.

Well, after much crawling in and out of the emergency hatch on the back of the cab (the main doors require the cab to be docked against the building, which in turn requires that the motors in the cab be functional), flipping breakers, disconnecting electronics, and fiddling with heaters, we finally got things warming up. Six hours later, the cab was up to freezing, and we were able to begin turning stuff back on.

Several systems came online relatively easily, while others did not. Some metals' resistances drop precipitously when deep frozen, with the result that several of our external heating systems cannot be turned on cold - if you try, they draw too much current and trip a breaker. They work fine once warm, but again, that makes for somewhat of a catch-22. Many of our electronics failed to initialize properly cold, and had to be reset several times as they gradually warmed up from different systems coming online.

Last night at 3am, fully four days after losing power, we finally got everything back online and were able to resume normal observations. It's been a hectic week, all because an alarm didn't go off, and the temperature outside was so cold. This is the sort of thing that makes life and work down here so different from the real world.

With everything back online, it's been amazing to look up from our work and suddenly realize how bright it's been getting outside. The sunrise is starting to feel rather imminent.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

First Light

For the past couple of weeks, the it's been fairly windy down here at pole. In addition to building impressive new sastrugi and several enormous (>10 foot tall) snow drifts, the wind-driven snow does an excellent job of obscuring the horizon.

Because of that, we haven't been able to see the glow from the sunrise growing day by day. Well, on Friday, the clouds and wind finally cleared, and everyone on station was fairly shocked to see not just a faint glow in the sky, but a strong band of pink light along the horizon.
To be perfectly honest, I didn't quite believe my own eyes. My mind couldn't quite accept that sunlight was returning, and somewhere deep inside I assumed it was some sort of trick. (What sort of trick, or why or how such a thing would be done, I can't imagine, but at the time, it seemed more plausible than the sun returning.)

On Saturday the weather turned foul again, and by the time it cleared Sunday morning, the pink band had expanded into what passes for a rainbow of colors down here - a glow, orange through purple, covering a quarter of the sky.
A conveniently timed lunar eclipse momentarily stole away our surrogate sun, and the true sunrise shone out over the darkened landscape. I've been thinking of the moon as a temporary sun for months now, but the sheer quantity of sunlight spilling over the horizon has left me marveling lately at how blindingly bright the real sun must be. Of course, it is - quite literally - blindingly bright, but that's the sort of thing you forget after months and months in the dark.

If I didn't quite believe the Friday's pink band, Sunday morning convinced me. Something very primeval took over when I saw the full colorful glow of a sunrise, and millions of years of evolution kicked in to tell me that the day was dawning - to my mind it would be light out in a matter of hours. It's a month yet before the sunrise, but there's no reasoning with your instincts.

By now, half the sky is aglow with sunlight. The moon is gone, but it's bright enough to see the major features on the path. With the exception of overcast or windy weather, my days of stumbling blindly to work and back seem to have passed.

Things are changing in our world, and both light and color are returning. It'll be nice (if slightly surreal) to have them back.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

New Colors

Winter at pole is without a doubt visually spectacular, but it does lack one thing: colors. Sure, there are red lights wandering about the landscape, and the auroras cast a pale green glow over the snow, but by and large color is something we don't get much of.

Last week, just before sunrise, all the lights at DSL were turned on (why, I'm not entirely sure). All that red was enough to make my eyes - and camera - see the stars as a lovely shade of electric blue, the first natural blue I've seen since... New Zealand, I suppose, back in January.
Beyond tricks of the eye, however, we've been getting some genuine color the past couple of days. The auroras have been remarkably bright lately, and have started to include the red and yellow fringes that only show up in the strongest storms.
Auroral activity is strongest at the equinoxes, which are sunrise and sunset here. Of course, once the sun is up (or close to up), the auroras are completely invisible, but for the next couple of weeks, we should get bright, colorful displays complementing the growing glow on the horizon. I haven't quite figured out how to photograph the really active ones yet, but I'll keep working on it.

On a sidenote, I should probably point out that, despite all my talk of how bright it is outside with the moon up (and it really does seem bright), the photos I've posted in the moonlight are kind of a cheat. They're all long exposures, much longer than the camera's light metering thinks is appropriate. The photo to the right is a more realistic portrayal of the lighting outside under a full moon - plenty to move around and operate by, but I wouldn't want to try reading anything in it.

From now until sunrise is probably the most colorful time of year at pole. Between the newly invigorated auroras and the ever-growing glow of sunlight, we should get the better part of a rainbow, and after months of black and white (ok, and green) existence, that'll be a pleasure.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


It's been 6 full months since we've had any direct contact with the outside world. No visitors, no planes, no airdrops. There is no new "stuff" to be found anywhere on station - we're developing the ultimate anti-consumer culture.

Having said that, you can't begin to imagine the thrill which comes with the discovery of something new.

Back in December, my mother put together a series of small care packages, and shipped them all down before station close. They're each labeled with the month they're meant to be opened in, and I keep them carefully squirreled away at the bottom of my closet. The past couple of months, I've been looking forward to the first the way a 7-year-old looks forward to Christmas, giddy and excited for the ~$5 worth of stuff I'll be getting.

Those packages, along with others send by friends, are wonderful, and all give huge boosts to my mental well being, but a couple of days ago, I got a true surprise.

An email came from one of my collaborators (also a good friend) asking me to phone him because he had to locate some of the holography equipment used to align the panels on the telescope. I gave him a call when the satellites came up later that morning, and he described the package he needed me to find and look inside.

A couple of hours later, I managed to track down the "Sensitive Holography Equipment" tucked in the back of one of the many closets used to store spare parts for the telescope and equipment for summer work. It was an oddly wrapped bundle, which I'd come across earlier in the season but never gave another thought.

On unwrapping it, I was surprised and delighted to find - not sensitive holography equipment, but a bottle of excellent scotch which several friends had conspired to hide way back in the summer! A little bit of luxury to help me get through the toasty months. After reading of my recent illness and practical incarceration in my room, it was decided the time had come to unveil the present.
Just to be clear on one point, it's not the alcohol which is so nice to receive. There's plenty of liquor on station, and if I really wanted to get drunk, it wouldn't be a problem.

There has been no new food or drink on station since February, and while the galley staff is certainly talented, after 6 months the limited flavors of frozen food start to get old. A bottle of Lagavulin is such a nice surprise because it's such a wondrous luxury to have a new consumable, a fine scotch to sip.

Somewhere along the line, I did something right in choosing my friends.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Returning Light

At 10am this past Friday, we officially re-entered twilight, leaving behind the full darkness of night. There's not a hint of discernible light anywhere on the horizon, but with the sun now less than 18 degrees below the horizon, we're technically in astronomical twilight. In a couple of weeks, it'll be bright enough to be nautical twilight; in a month or so we'll hit civil twilight, and so on.

That means the end of the spectacular sky shows we've been getting day after day, but I'm completely ok with that. For a couple of days now, I've been mentally quite finished with the darkness - it no longer holds enough interest to justify the difficulties it brings. I'm sure my recent spike in toastiness is playing heavily into it, but over the last few days the walk to DSL has become sufficiently frustrating and hazardous underfoot to overwhelm the stars and auroras overhead.

Sastrugi and snow drifts are now thick enough on the ground that it's essentially impossible to take even a single step without stumbling. Some are aligned almost parallel to the flag line, catching and subtly deflecting feet onto awkwardly angled slopes. Ankles twist and knees jam as the ground falls away suddenly, and the body is repeatedly jolted as you stumble in slow motion through an invisible obstacle course changing daily.

The moon rises tomorrow, bringing with it the end of the darkness. By the time it sets two weeks from now, the sun will be casting a clear glow across the horizon, easily enough to navigate or tell time by. We'll still get a couple of weeks of auroras, but the galaxy and the millions of fainter stars are more or less done with.
We had some good auroras today - one last hurrah in the dark.

Friday, August 1, 2008


I've been experiencing many of the rarer events down here (yukimarimos, halo crosses, etc), and can now check off another. It's not supposed to happen at this point in the season, but for the past week I've been really sick.

It's not supposed to happen because there are only 60 of us, and by now, we should all have been exposed (and developed immunity) to any infectious diseases on station. Quarantines do just as good a job of keeping bugs out as in, and we've got a perfect quarantine situation; this ought to be among the most germ-free environments on earth.

My previous medical difficulties - the stone that led to an infected salivary gland - wasn't all that odd because it was my own bacteria that infected me. People have a large bacterial flora, and it's not all that uncommon for some portion to go a bit out of control. Some of the bugs in my saliva got trapped and did just that.

Well, this time was different - I got a legitimate infectious illness, which for several days had everyone on station (doc included) quite confused.

It started last week with a sudden fever - alternately shivering under dozens of blankets, and lying in a cold sweat. I went to see the doc, and after a quick check, he told me it couldn't be viral, all viruses having long since been cleared out of the community. My white blood cell count was normal, so if it was bacterial, it wasn't too serious. He told me to drink lots of fluids and sent me on my way.

Three days later, still feverish, I returned. My throat and tongue had become covered in (very painful) open sores, and I clearly wasn't improving. As it turns out, there is a single, highly communicable virus still on station, and about 2/3 of the US population carries it: Herpes simplex 1, the source of cold sores. Apparently I've never been exposed, or at least I hadn't, until sometime a couple of weeks ago, probably from taking taste of someone's drink.

My immune system hasn't had anything to do since March, and looks to have gone on vacation. I was caught without defenses, and within a day or two, I had full blown viremia, viral presence in the blood. That's what was causing the fever, and by the time we caught it, I was pretty much doomed to a long and painful illness. I've been on antivirals for several days now, and things have finally started to heal.

For the past week, eating has been nightmarish experience, so I've more or less stopped. The last three days I haven't even been able to talk. I've been generally locked in my room, surviving off mug after mug of tea, and watching every movie the store can loan. It's been a long week.

Stuck in my room, my toastiness has been growing unchecked. I went to DSL today for the first time since the fever started, and the whole walk out I was angry. On the return trip I caught myself swearing at and kicking a lump of snow on the path. I mentioned this to someone, and they pointed out that it is now Angry August; I've just been catching up with the rest of the station.

Looks like it'll be an interesting last couple of months.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lunar Halo Cross

We were treated to another rare and uniquely Antarctic phenomenon the other day, just as the moon was setting. Reaching out from the moon were four bright bands of light, forming a nearly perfect cross in the sky. Halo crosses are (apparently) frequently seen around the sun, but to get a lunar one is fairly rare.

It's worth mentioning that this is not an optical effect from the camera or our eyes - it remains perfectly oriented in the sky no matter how you tip your head/camera from side to side.

Rather, it's formed by reflections off ice crystals in the air. Humidity in the air condenses into millions of tiny plates of ice, and as they drift down under the influence of gravity and the wind, they all align parallel to each other and to the earth.

Reflections of light off different parts of these crystals make various lines and circles of light in the sky. One particular reflection makes the vertical pillars, while another makes a parhelic circle which parallels the horizon. If the moon (or sun) is low enough in the sky and these two reflections are of roughly equal strength and dominate others, you end up with what appears to be a cross-shaped beacon of light in the sky.
One of the IT guys down here often comments on how we live in a science fiction movie. Usually that seems about right, but every now and then events seem closer to something out of a fairy tale.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Two Months

It seems like midwinter was just yesterday, but already it's less than two months to sunrise. Two months of continuous night must sound like forever to people used to daily sunlight; to a mind wintering down here, it's barely a moment.

The first light of dawn will be visible sometime late August (people have reported seeing it on clear days in early August in previous years), so we've really got less than a month before the sun begins intruding on the night sky. Take off the two weeks of moonlight we get every month, and we're really down to only two more weeks of full darkness.

Again, a two weeks of fully dark night outside must sound unending and dismal to people in the real world, but down here it's the blink of an eye. And it's beautiful.
Mentally, I'm not quite done with the night, and already feeling a bit apprehensive about losing it. I'm not generally a huge fan of the dark, and certainly do miss sunlight, but I doubt I'll ever get another chance to live in a perpetual night - best experience it while I can.

The moon sets tomorrow, so our last chance for truly vivid auroral displays is rapidly approaching. I'm going to have to alter my schedule to make sure I'm outside as much as possible over the next couple of weeks - get it all out of my system.

Monday, July 14, 2008


It occurred to me the other day that I've referenced Toastiness several times already, and never really defined the term.

'Toast' is the name given to the condition of antarctic residents as they slowly go stir crazy. At its core, toast is an extreme variant of cabin fever.

Living in Antarctica poses some unique challenges to a persons physical and mental well-being. While this is no doubt true in summer - with flights and new people constantly coming and going - it's manyfold truer in winterover life.

Just so we're all clear what sort of things I'm referring to, here's a (very incomplete) list of highlights:
1) No temperatures above -40C outside.
2) No sunlight for 6 months (4+1/2 if you count twilight)
3) Your entire life contained within the main station, or - for those lucky few who get out - within the station and a half dozen other buildings.
4) No travel beyond a 1 kilometer radius around the pole.
5) No escaping the 59 other people on station, no matter how much they get to you.
6) No living things except people & the greenhouse

There are dozens of other particular things that get to individual people, but you get the idea. Life here is, in a word, limited. After enough time, people all react in the same way - they go toasty.

Toastiness begins almost immediately after arrival on the ice, developing slowly over the months. It can manifest itself in a variety of ways, appearing on any given day, disappearing just as suddenly the next.

The most common symptoms include crankiness, a shortness of temper (often resulting in largely unprovoked outbursts of anger), apathy, a loss of focus, extended daydreaming, and the "thousand mile stare", where a toasty person gazes off to infinity, eyes slowly glazing over, completely unaware of their surroundings or the passage of time.

Shortly after station close, I was eating dinner with one of the crew who had wintered before. His comments at the time summed up the polie attitude on the subject nicely: "I can't wait for July, to stop caring. Life's so much easier once you're toast."

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Six Months

Today marks six months since I arrived, excited and confused, at pole.

For a long time, I was having trouble believing how fast time has been passing, but somewhere around midwinter that changed. Now this place feels like home, and it seems I've always lived here.

Memories of the flight in, from the days at McMurdo and in New Zealand, even the hectic pace of summer life, all feel like they belong to someone else. I've fully adapted to the cycle of life without warmth, light, or freshies, and have come to think of it as normal (though the 2-minute showers still seem a bit harsh).

These days, I more or less expect an auroral light show every time I step outside, and have become a bit blasé about all but brightest and most active. It seems reasonable and ordinary to wear three layers of pants and hats, two pairs of mittens, five pound boots, and an enormous puffy parka whenever I want to leave the station.

I've begun to dread the return of summer people, stomping around station, acting like they own the place, and generally messing it up. With such a small crew, winterovers tend to develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for the place. Having all those strangers in our home just doesn't feel right.

All that said, I'm starting to feel a tug whenever I think of the outside world. I'm not ready to leave yet - far from it - but another couple of months and I'll be getting close. It's probably four months before I actually get off the ice, and that's starting to sound like kind of a long time.

It's been an amazing half-year, and I can only imagine the adventures I'm in for over the rest of my stay.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

More Auroras

It's been a while since I wrote anything about the daily auroras we get down here, and the photos are starting to pile up, so here's a photo-heavy post to catch up a bit.
They really are a significant part of my days, and sharing pictures is starting to seem like one of the best ways to give people an idea of what my life is like.

Saying that we have auroral storms every day may sound like an exaggeration, but to a very good approximation, we do.
We may get one day every week or two where the auroras are only a faint green glow, but most days we will have at least a couple of bright bands or curtains hanging overhead.
Auroras seem to come in two general forms, the static band or ribbon, which hangs overhead moving very slowly or not at all, and the much more active dancing variety.

They usually form fairly contiguous bands, stretching nearly from one horizon to the other. Auroras form primarily along the "auroral oval" which encircles the magnetic South Pole, and passes directly over the geographic South Pole (where I live). Because of this, they tend to orient themselves in a particular way, perpendicular to the path between the station and dark sector, and all of the active ones tend to happen over the ICL (Ice Cube Lab - where the Ice Cube neutrino detector houses its electronics).

These photos are all long exposures - at least 15 seconds, and usually 30. The SPT (where I work) is among the most photogenic bits of life down here, but unfortunately, it's usually in motion and blurred in any aurora photos.
Instead, I tend to use MAPO (the nearest building to SPT, and wonderfully stationary) as a foreground. These photos include what is probably my best shot of the season, which has been widely borrowed, particularly for the Midwinter's Greeting card.
Far from being six months of frozen darkness stranded on a barren icescape, life here really is beautiful.