IceTop, the Air Shower Array of IceCube
Letter From The Pole

I was asked what it's like living at the South Pole. I'll try to sum it up. South Pole Station is located at the geographical South Pole. It is on top of a two mile deep glacier. It is the coldest, highest, and driest desert on earth.

The South Pole
Ceremonial South Pole Geographical South Pole Marker
The Ceremonial South Pole sign and flags (left), and marker (right)
The Dome
The Dome
The old US South Pole Station

There has been a lot of change at the Pole over the last several years. The new elevated station has been under construction to replace the Dome which is slowly being buried by annual snow fall. The Dome had been the home for South Pole residents for over 30 years, but it is being dismantled as operations are shifted to the new station.

There are now two places that house summer residents at the Pole. Summer camp has several cloth covered huts called jamesways. Most are living quarters, but there is also a lounge where you can hang out and maybe watch a movie. The jamesways are heated but the floors are still pretty cold. They are dark inside so sleeping in the 24 hour sunlight is no problem. The bathrooms and showers are located in a separate building at the center of summer camp. That means that you have to come out from your warm dark room into the bright, cold to go to the bathroom. I stayed in the jamesways two years ago.

Jamesway Inside a Jamesway

The new elevated station houses summer residents as well as the winter over crew that will stay all year, through the six months of darkness. A couple of years ago the pods were still being constructed. This year I'm staying in a room in the section shown under construction below. The station is nearly finished.

The New Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
New South Pole Station under construction The New Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
My Room

The new station has all the comforts of home. It has the galley and kitchen, bathrooms and showers, a laundry room, TV lounges, a recreation room with a pool table and a ping-pong table, a gym, and a greenhouse. There is even a recreation room where you can play an instrument. There is enough equipment for a complete band. There are, of course, administrative offices and conference rooms.

Living In The Station
The Galley The Greenhouse
The galley (left) and the greenhouse (right)

One of the best things about the Pole is the food! In fact, your day revolves around the galley schedule. In 24 hrs of daylight the only way to know it's morning is because the galley is serving eggs! I'm told your body burns up to 40% more calories trying to keep warm while working outside at the Pole. They feed you very well here. There are three meals a day plus midnight rations (midrats) for the night shift. Despite the good food, most people loose weight here. Well, most people except me! I've got to stay away from the cookies and ice cream!

The people make the South Pole worth coming to. Everybody is friendly and cooperative. You meet people from all over the world. You can be from different cultures, but here, you are all Polies!

The station and summercamp are just about bursting at the seams with the current population of 266 people. I think that is close to a record. The station was not designed to handle so many people. There are two major experiments under construction, the station construction and many other smaller experiments. All of these people and the support have to fit their whole year's worth of work into the three month summer window. For that reason, people work very hard. Most people work 9 to 12 hours a day, six days a week. I have worked every day since I arrived December 15 (some days just a few hours) to complete my tasks in the 32 day window that I had scheduled here. Today is my last full day here, assuming that my plane makes it here! Others will stay until the last flight out. After the last aircraft leaves in early February the station is not accessible until the next November. Only the winter crew of about 60 +/- is left here to watch the one and only sunset a year.

Generators supply power, heat, and water to the station. They run on JP-8 jet fuel brought in by the C130 aircraft that supply the station. Without the generators, we couldn't survive at the Pole. You know how expensive gas is at home. Imagine how expensive jet fuel is and add to it the cost of flying it to the South Pole! It takes 336 C130 flights during the summer to support the station and the science through the winter. Power and water conservation is always in progress. We are only allowed two showers a week for two minutes. Shower days, I feel like a new person!

While the new station makes you feel at home, we are still on the harshest continent on earth. When most people think of the South Pole, they think about the cold. How cold is it? The average summer temperature is 35 degrees Celsius below zero. Right now, at mid summer, the typical day is -15 to -20C. The wind chill makes it feel a lot colder. Most summer days that I've been here, the winds have been mild. The last two days, however, we've had a storm with wind sustained at 24 Knots. That drives the wind chill down into the -40s or colder. This morning I walked about ¾ of a mile to one of my worksites. It was nearly a complete white out. If not for a few flags along the route, I could have easily gotten lost.

Weather At The South Pole
A Sunny Day Whiteout!
Extreme weather: from sunny days (left) to whiteouts! (right)

We are well prepared for the cold. Our ECWs (Extreme Cold Weather clothing) are issued in Christchurch, NZ by Raytheon Polar Services' clothing distribution center. Even in the extreme cold, I can usually work outside for several hours at a time. Again, eating a good meal helps keep you warm. If you are working outside, especially in the wind, you have to keep all skin covered or you will get frostbite!

Embracing The Cold!
Weather Webpage ECW

The cold is easy to handle by dressing properly. There are other issues to deal with at the Pole that most people don't think of. We are at a pressure altitude of 10 to 11 thousand feet (see the weather picture above for the day's pressure altitude). Up here the air is very thin. It takes days to weeks to get used to breathing such little oxygen. This year alone, six people had to be evacuated in 10 days for Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Your body does finally adjust. After a month at the Pole I'm getting around pretty good, but climbing steps still sucks the wind out of me!

The other issue here is humidity, or the lack there of! It is for the most part 0% humidity. It is very important to stay hydrated. You are issued a water bottle in Christchurch. It is with you always! It's even within reach when you sleep. Chap stick and moisturizing lotion are also essentials.

I'm sure I could ramble on all night, but my laundry is done and at least one of my bags is packed. I better get some sleep before my last day here. Then it's the start of the 30 hours in the Air (not all at once) that it takes to get home.

I can't wait to stop for a night in Christchurch where it will be warm with plants, trees, colors, smells, and sunsets. Most of all, I can't wait to see Chris and Samantha!