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.