Monday, April 28, 2008


It's still not completely dark here, with an obvious glow remaining along the horizon, but we are gradually approaching a nice, dark, star-filled night. At least, we were.

The full moon rose a couple of days ago, bathing the world once again in light. It's as if someone suddenly turned on a spotlight - the moon is bright enough that it hurts to look at, and flags, buildings and people have all grown distinct shadows.

Unfortunately, the outdoors are now so well illuminated that only the strongest auroras show through. After two weeks of daily displays, I quite miss the auroral company on my commute.

Without their motion to bring the sky to life, we've returned to an ageless world of ice and snow. It's a lovely silver-white light that floods down on us now, and the world has truly taken on a dreamlike appearance.

Of course, a handful of auroras do still show through, and with the world now awash in light, can make for spectacular scenes. Every time I think I've hit the visual high point of this place, something else comes along to correct me.

Friday, April 25, 2008


Well, that does it. I'm thoroughly enamored with auroras. They're incredibly beautiful things. Anyone who's never seen one up close should go to Alaska and find one. Now.

Why the newfound zealotry? I got caught in a full-on auroral storm.

I was leaving DSL to walk back for lunch. I'd taken to using my tripod as a walking stick, carrying it everywhere I went to catch whatever splendid sights might appear. Not far from DSL, I happened to glance back and notice a light green band behind the telescope. It wasn't terribly impressive, but made for a nice backdrop, so I set up to take some shots.

Over the next ten minutes, it grew in intensity, then started to climb in the sky. Before long it completely dominated horizon, towering over DSL. The colors started shifting, yellows and greens, reds and purples, and then it was overhead.

An aurora dancing off in the distance is lovely, no doubt. But it can't hold a candle to one directly overhead. Up close and personal, the details begin to show themselves. Every ripple comes into sharp focus, every undulation can be tracked across the sky. Every streak of dancing color effortlessly shifting and sliding through space, every curtain a thousand tiny marvels of liquid light. It's amazing.

(Unfortunately, photos blur all these details out, miss the motion entirely, and can't even begin to approach the experience.)

By this point, my camera had frozen solid, completely unwilling or unable to take any more photos. I kept expecting the aurora to peak, but it kept getting bigger, brighter, more colorful, and more awe-inspiring. Actually, awe is the wrong word - it was somehow utterly unreal, but completely accessible and present. Awe implies some sense of distance or unattainability. This felt like it was right there, and just for me. And it kept getting better.

Shifting, shimmering, multi-colored curtains of dripping light, dancing, rolling, undulating, and crashing overhead. I can't find the words to describe it. I don't think words are adequate tools.

I stood on the path for over an hour watching, unable to keep myself from giggling and cheering it on. Honestly - standing alone in the middle of a vast frozen emptiness, waving my arms and cheering.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Red Lights

Over the years, people have worked out that when wandering around outside in the dark, a bright white light is worst possible option if you want to actually see anything.

Flashlights and headlamps only illuminate small patches of ground, and in doing so, prevent your eyes from adjusting to the dark. Wearing a lamp, you become trapped in a tiny circle of light, with nothing but empty blackness beyond. Allowing your eyes to do their job, a vast expanse of ice, sky, stars and auroras opens up all around you.

Of course, there are limits to what an eye can do. Traveling by foot, there is no doubt that unaided is the best option. However, if you ever need to read something, perform fine work, or operate one of the many tracked vehicles ferrying equipment and personnel between far-flung buildings, some form of light is essential.

As a compromise, any light for use outside - be it a hand held flashlight, a beacon on a distant lab, or a headlight on the heavy machinery - has been covered with red filters. (Red light has a significantly less detrimental effect on night vision than does white.) The result of this careful light management is that the darkness outside is generally preserved, and unaided visibility remains good.

The only colors to be seen on a clear night are the purplish-blue of snow and ice in the starlight, the green, yellow and red curtains of auroras across the sky, and points of red light going about their business behind the station.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

My First Aurora

Sometime about a week ago, it finally got dark enough outside for auroras to start showing themselves. Since I'm outside for at least an hour every day wandering back and forth between the station and DSL, I've been lucky enough to catch them fairly regularly.

They began last week, as vague whitish-green patches, slightly lighter than the surrounding sky. I only realized they were even auroras when one suddenly shifted shape, then vanished. Over a couple of days, these blobs of faint light evolved into distinctly green ribbons floating across the sky.

Early this week, we had our first real show. I was leaving the station to hike back to DSL after lunch, but was stopped by a surprisingly bright band of green across the sky. I paused on the stairs to take photos, and instead of quickly fading away like all the other auroras I've seem so far, it started to dance.

I ran up to the observation deck on top of the stairwell, and stood to watch. Auroras put on a really neat display - dozens of distinct branches constantly growing, fading, waving and undulating across the sky, all with astonishing grace.

After a while, I was surprised to find myself listening for some sort of noise to accompany the visual feast. Of course, auroras are silent, but I caught myself honestly believing that it should have been making some sort of sound. It just seemed so incongruous to have such an amazing display appealing to only one of the senses.

In any case, I can't wait for it to go fully dark outside, when the multi-colored auroras will finally show themselves.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


It's expensive to ship someone down here, and even more expensive to feed, clothe, and support them for a year. As a result, everyone on station through the winter is in either science, or an essential position. We don't have any janitors, dish washers, or other "luxury" personnel.

Every Monday, every person on station is assigned a cleanup task. These range from sweeping and mopping the main hallways to scrubbing down the toilets. A second bathroom cleaning is done on Thursdays, with each person responsible for cleaning a pair once every two months.

The biggest task, though, is the dish pit. It also operates on a rotating roster, with each person on station assigned a 10-hour day in the pit every two months. On that day, you live in the back of the kitchen, washing the dishes of the other 59 people on station (no, we don't have a dishwashing machine), cleaning the galley (vacuuming, sweeping and mopping the floors, scrubbing the tables, etc), washing the pots and pans from the kitchen, and otherwise generally taking care of whatever labor intensive and thankless tasks come up.

Dish pit's a tough day, particularly for the science folks. Everyone else gets the day off their regular work, and are allowed to sleep in until 10am before starting. We in science don't get days off, so we tend to get up extra-early to get some work done before dish pit, work during the two 15-minute breaks we get, then work late that night. Combined with 10 hours on your feet scrubbing, it makes for a long day.

Dana and I decided to split ours, each taking a 5-hour shift every month, instead of a 10-hour day every other, and that makes a huge difference. The real drawback is that we don't get to spend as much time outside, enjoying the sights.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Iridium Flares

Day by day, the remaining light from the sun is fading, and the darkness growing. Stars have emerged by their hundreds, and we've had our first astronomical excitement of the long night: Iridium flares.

Iridium is a constellation of low-orbit satellites designed to provide global satellite phone coverage. South Pole Station uses the Iridium network for email and phone communications during the 13 hours each day when the satellites used for internet connectivity aren't visible.

Occasionally through the year, a quirk in the shape of the Iridium satellites will catch the sunlight and reflect it down onto earth with blinding intensity. This reflection, brighter than anything else in the sky except the sun and moon, occurs all over the planet, but is generally rare. At the pole, however, the orbits all intersect, and every 9 minutes, a satellite will pass overhead. When things are properly aligned, the sky will light up, regularly and predictably, giving dozens of flares in a row.

During a flare, the satellite passes dimly above, gradually growing into a brighter and brighter point of light, before bursting into a brilliant flash, then slowly fading away again. They're truly a beautiful sight, but a tricky experience to capture on film. By setting a sufficiently long exposure, though, a flare will turn into a wonderfully photogenic slash of light across the night sky.

The Iridium flares last only a day or so before the satellites fade back to their usual dull passage. Thankfully, they will recur several times through the coming winter. The show this past weekend was only the opening act.

Friday, April 11, 2008


Introductions are long overdue. Obviously, I'm not alone on station - there are 59 other people stuck down here for the winter. Two people were left down here to work on SPT and keep it running: myself, and Dana.

Dana's an oldtimer. He's wintered in the high arctic once, and this is his 4th winter at pole. That makes him an indispensable source of timely information about life at pole, in addition to being a great guy to work with. He's clearly fascinated by the science we do, the environment we work in, and the amazing sights everywhere.

He thrives on both the cold and the dark, grows champion-level eye-frost, and is full of stories from years past. He also keeps a website about his travels here and up north. Check it out for some great photos and to get an idea of what's still in store for me later in the year.

Anytime you see a photo of me down here, it's almost certainly been taken by Dana. He's an avid photographer, and we spend a lot of time exchanging tips about how and what to shoot. Since he's spent so many years in the cold, he's got a good idea of how best to operate outdoors.

Dana clearly loves life down here, and that sort of attitude is wonderfully infectious. Whenever I might feel a little down, lonely, or bored with the now-familiar surroundings (which, granted, is a rare occasion), he'll bring up some miraculous new sight or phenomenon I hadn't yet noticed, then dash off to share with everyone else on station.

It's be hard to imagine a better co-worker through the long, cold, and dark Antarctic winter.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

My World

Last night I finally got around to stitching together a panorama I took a week or so ago. Looking at it, I realized that it's a photo of what's essentially my entire world. I never venture further afield than what can be see in this shot.
(Click on it for a blowup - it's a little dark because, well, it was taken in the dark, and I wanted to give an accurate impression of how things look here.)

At one end of my daily commute sits the elevated station. This is where I eat, sleep, write blog posts, and - when time permits - socialize. A large fraction of the winterover population never leaves the station, so in relative terms, I'm quite mobile and well travelled.

Next to the station sits a small empty stretch of windblown snow, followed by the now drifted-over runway. On the far side of the runway sits the Dark Sector, which includes several buildings belonging to astronomy and cosmology experiments.

ASTRO, the now mostly-buried home to experiments back in the 90s, is the first sign that you've arrived in the dark sector. MAPO, now retired as a home for experiments, still houses the machine shop, where Dave the friendly machinist spends his days making bits to replace whatever breaks on station.

DSL and SPT are the last buildings you'll come across in the Dark Sector, with only Old Pole (the station which predates the old dome station) further out, buried somewhere in the frozen ocean beyond.

My whole existence is confined to a stretch of barren ice less than a mile end to end. I'm sure it'll get old eventually, but so far, my little world - with all it's beauties and challenges - feels more free, expansive, and open to me than anywhere else I've been.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


People who've been following along with this blog have probably noticed that the photos are a big part of it. Photography has been my major passtime down here when not at work, partly because I've wanted to learn about it for years, but mostly because there are just so many amazing sights.

Antarctic photography poses some unique difficulties, most of which arise from the extreme cold. It's currently -65C (-85F) outside (not counting the wind), and very little works as it should in those temperatures.

I, for example, can't have exposed skin for more than a couple of seconds if I want to avoid frostbite. I have a pair of gloves which give me about 2 minutes outside without fear of frostbite, but for longer sessions, I have to wear my giant gauntlet gloves. Either set leaves me seriously lacking in dexterity, and finding the little buttons on the back of the camera to set it up for a shot rapidly becomes impossible. Even finding the shutter button is difficult enough that I've gone to a remote, which stays nice and warm in my left mitten.

The camera itself refuses to take photos after its internal temperature drops below -40C, which takes about 10 minutes if left exposed. The LCD response slows and washes out, making it unusable after 15 minutes. Batteries rapidly run down if they get cold, and to get more than 5 photos off a charge, I've had to build a battery-on-a-wire which I keep inside my parka. Tripods seize when the grease inside them has frozen, and I've had to completely disassemble and degrease mine.

It's dark enough outside now that I'm taking 5-20 second exposures. That would be near impossible without this setup, but remains difficult even with. While shooting, I've got several wires/cables running from me to the camera, all of which quickly harden into solid beams and shake the camera if I move at all. Even breathing produces a large enough cloud that it can easily ruin a shot. During an exposure, I have to remain perfectly still, standing behind the tripod, trying not to breathe.

All that said, I can now get about 30-45 minutes outside before having to go in because my face is too frosted to see. And I love every minute of it.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Darkness and Light

This week, we had our first real storm of the season, or, in polie-talk, a blow. Storms here don't really include any sort of precipitation, and so are limited to just wind. This wasn't a "good blow", when the winds get up to 40-50 knots, but simply a blow, with winds peaking around half that. Enough snow was kicked up and tossed about to severely limit visibility, blot out most sun, moon and star light, and fairly quickly lead to a whiteout (though blackout would be a more accurate term).

Earlier this week, some work was being done down in the power plant, necessitating a power conservation day. All non-critical computers, lights, heat and other equipment was turned off, and the station went into a sort of hibernation. Everyone was still working, but it was much quieter and darker than usual, and the whole day had a sleepy middle-of-the-night feel to it. When I got to Science (the lab space reserved for science people), the lights were out, it was pitch black, and in a corner someone was playing a harmonica. Certainly a new way to start my day.

That same day, people started spotting the first stars in the sky. The sun officially set almost two weeks ago, but a distinct glow still migrates daily around the horizon. Every day it gets fainter, and every day we can make out more and more of the night sky. In another couple of weeks, the whole Milky Way should appear, and the auroras will begin.
For the time being, though, there's still plenty of light outside, and on a clear day it's easy to forget that it's nighttime at pole.

With sunset now well behind us, the station has begun battening down the hatches for winter. Because of the light-sensitive nature of some of the science projects going on down here, no stray light is permitted from buildings - all windows need to be blacked out by Monday. Only half of them are done, and out of the remaining half spills a warm and friendly glow. I'm going to miss that glow - it makes things here feel quite cozy.

Behind DSL, the frozen ocean is more beautiful than ever, glowing an ethereal, almost electric blue. The commute to work continues to be a pleasure, now filled with serene, timeless scenery the entire way.