WINTERING OVER AT THE SOUTH POLE
J. W. Briggs
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
October 11, 1994
Starting in the late 1950s, the United States has maintained a winter-over
research station at the Geographic South Pole. Since then, hundreds of
people have lived here, and thousands have visited. This year, I and 26
others came for the long "winter-over," meaning we've lived here, all
by ourselves, through a long period of darkness and very extreme cold.
Even though the South Pole Station has been running a long time, it seems
true that not many people know about this place, or, especially, about
what it's like during the Antarctic winter. I'd like to try to describe
our life for you.
The first thing about Antarctica is that here at the bottom of the world,
the sunlight is never very warm, and thus it is always VERY COLD. I, and
my friends here at South Pole, have been outdoors when it was as cold
as -105 degrees Fahrenheit! And you know what? I LIKED it -- it was NEAT!
Of course, it was *fun* to experience this extreme cold only because our
special clothing is so very good, and because warm housing was never very
far away. The Station, our home, has been improved and perfected over
many years of Antarctic experience, and we have great faith in it. We
have never been afraid of the cold outdoors. In general, we are really
so comfortable here that sometimes it's hard to remember what a strange
place on Earth we happen to be living!
I'm writing, using a computer, from the inside of the Station's large
Dome, which is only a couple minutes' walk from the true South Pole marker,
out on the snow. We're now nearing the end of our stay -- myself and the
others: in total, 20 men and 7 women. Most of us are around 30 years old,
and because many different skills are required to run the Station, we
come from many different backgrounds.
The main reason we work here is to conduct science experiments and observations.
Antarctica remains a very mysterious part of the world, and there is much
to learn. Also, this place is proving to be an especially good location
to run certain kinds of infrared and radio telescopes. Thus, we hope to
learn more, not only about the Earth, but also about the Universe in general,
given our views through the various telescopes. I work for the Astronomy
and Astrophysics Department of the University of Chicago, so I'm especially
interested in the telescopes.
A second thing about our special spot in Antarctica -- the South Pole
-- is that the Sun sets not just for about 12 hours, as it does back home
in the United States, but instead, FOR SIX MONTHS. We have six months
of sunlight, and then six months of darkness! That is the cycle here,
year after year. When the warming Sun is completely gone, it gets especially
cold. In the middle of our long winter darkness, it often got as cold
as, say, -80 degrees F. And as I mentioned before, sometimes it was as
cold as below -100!
What does it feel like to walk outside and run the telescopes in such
cold? Since you are bundled up so very well in a giant parka and huge
insulated pants, you don't feel cold too much on your body. Also, it is
necessary to wear very good gloves and special headgear (much more than
just a hat) that covers your whole head, with only little holes for your
eyes, nose, and mouth. And further, we each have several sets of very
special insulated boots that work amazingly well to keep feet warm.
What you feel most is the cold air around your face, as you breathe
in through your insulated face mask. The air here is very dry, but when
you breathe out, moisture from your lungs is carried out and away. As
it passes through your face mask and around your eyes, some of it freezes
out and sticks to your mask and eyelashes, and all around your nose hole,
too, making all sorts of icicles that are quite dramatic when you get
back indoors and look in a mirror!
All this doesn't really hurt, even if your face gets a little uncomfortable.
One thing you do notice is how "crisp" and very cold the outdoor air feels
in your mouth as you breathe in. You do NOT bear your sensitive teeth
to the air! (Hold ice to your teeth, and you'll know what I mean!) But
by the time the air gets in the back of your mouth, it's already warm
enough so it doesn't hurt your lungs. The cold *does* seem to make you
cough a little, just after you step outdoors, until your body adjusts.
One thing that can hurt is if you have to work outdoors with your hands
-- say, using tools to adjust an outdoor experiment. You can not wear
heavy gloves, when, for example, you're undoing nuts and bolts, since
in this case, you need the control of your fingers. It's hard to keep
fingers warm in Antarctica! But, it's amazing how much you CAN do, if
you learn to take your time and to warm your hands in big mittens whenever
you need to. Basically, you learn to be patient with yourself in this
environment. Otherwise, your hands will get so cold that you will be stopped
altogether and will have to rush indoors to warm.
A consequence of the extreme South Pole cold is that the giant LC-130
military-style cargo ski planes can land here only during the short "summer,"
which is only about 3 1/2 months long. Thus, those of us staying for winter
work are alone, and completely removed from the rest of the world, for
8 1/2 months of the year. We can get news and electronic mail through
our radios, and we can make occasional phone calls, but it isn't possible
for us to leave -- at least until the first plane returns, around October
25th. (We have our own doctor here, in case someone gets sick.) One thing
that *is* possible is for us to get certain supplies at "airdrop" in June,
when an Air Force cargo jet flies overhead dropping large boxes by parachute.
After the drop, we scout around outside, in moonlight, to find them. Even
though the plane passes only 1,000 feet overhead, it's not possible for
it to land on our rugged snow skiway in the dark. For one thing, the airdrop
plane does not have the required giant skis.
In these few paragraphs, I can only share some highlights of many memorable
things about what it's like to spend a winter at the South Pole. One thing
I'll surely always remember is that I made many very good friends here,
living together as we do in housing that's something like a school dormitory,
protected under our giant aluminum Dome. We've had a lot of laughs, even
when the work was hard. And the food is very good -- we have all *sorts*
of things in frozen storage! Some people, in fact, enjoy the winter-over
enough that they come back to work here for a second or even a third year!
But even given the folks who return for a second visit, there will always
be a need for dedicated people to learn more about the Antarctic. It takes
ALL TYPES of skills to run this and the other stations across the icy
continent. If you think it's interesting, I encourage you to learn more
about it. The same goes for all types of science -- it can be very interesting,
whatever your preference, but you will have the best chance to participate
if you are willing to work hard.
John W. Briggs
Center for Astrophysical
Research in Antarctica
University of Chicago