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.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Galley

Apart from the gym, the largest room on station is the galley. It's the only place that everyone visits at least once a day, it's your best bet for finding entertainment on a slow evening, it's our auditorium, our cafe, our bar, and our backup TV lounge. The galley is the social hub of the station, and - of course - the source of all our food.

The flags from the signatory nations (to the Antarctic Treaty) - which flew outside all summer long around the ceremonial pole - hang along the walls. The many large windows which have been blacked out since sunset, and three large overhead TV's play the scroll on an infinite loop.

It may look a little industrial at first glance, but after six or seven months on the ice, the galley is as comfortable and comforting as anywhere on station. On special occasions like Midwinter, we dress the it up, and the galley can become genuinely lovely.

Of course, its primary purpose is to feed the crew, and the kitchen staff do an admirable job with that. We get 3 square meals a day, usually with a couple of options at each, and are free to dig through leftovers or prepare something on our own whenever we feel a bit peckish.

Beyond simply feeding the body, the galley at mealtimes is where people gather, sit, chat, and get a moment away from the day-to-day drudgery of work. Because of that association with relaxation and socializing, people tend to congregate there in the evenings as well.

Through the summer, the galley was always pretty busy. With 250 people on station working every hour of the day and night, just keeping everyone fed kept it humming 24/7. Since the population dropped to 60 for winter, it's calmed down a lot: first thing after station close, half of the tables were removed, and one end was designated a lounge area, complete with comfy chairs and a couple of couches. Most times of day or night, you can find someone reading, resting, or just fast asleep there on a couch.

The Galley - beating heart of the South Pole Station.