Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station United States Antarctic Program

Bright. That’s probably the first thought that comes to mind, the first perception my senses register. The sun is up 24/7 during the austral summer and at nearly 10,000ft, with no ozone, extremely low atmospheric water content, and virtually no dust it’s harsh. Beneath me the earth is pure white snow. Above me the sky is one moment a cirrus haze…and the next a most magnificent infinite blue.

Then, Cold! A shock that steals the first breath and nips at bare skin. So cold sometimes the metal tracks of the heavy equipment crackles like rice crispies. So cold that doorknobs stick to finger tips and palms. So cold that breath freezes onto eye lashes like chunky white mascara and films over sunglasses, hats, and gaiters, with persistent frost.

The world down here is white and blue; the horizon as flat as a sheet of paper. The only place that has come close to this openness is the sea, far from the sight of land. The minute relief of sastrugi provides a bit of texture, it is the waves of the ice – the result of the constant wind that drifts and scours, transporting some grains and hardening others. The result is a beautiful wave-like surface. They generally rise no more than a foot or so in undisturbed areas around Pole, but can grow to several feet with sheer sides depending on conditions.

The white and blue horizon of the polar plateau. Note the sastrugi on the wave-like surface.

It’s sterile here. The first step off the plane is exhilarating to most, myself included, but can instill a deep sense of intruding in some people – a sense that humans are not suppose to be here. That life is not supposed to be here. It takes an enormous amount of energy to support a station here, a fact that is not forgotten or taken lightly. There is no plant or animal life, nothing to smell; too dry even for mold. Some days this simple world seems untainted and pure, while at other times it’s just dead. We joke about the common sense of the rest of the animal kingdom not to venture to the edge of the world.

Despite all of this it’s beautiful. The cold is bearable and just adds to the sense of exotic and adventure. It’s at once a very plain and simple landscape, but also one of the most complex I’ve encountered. Like the sea there are innumerable moods to the seemingly boring landscape of snow and ice. Never exactly pure white, it’s a mix of pale blues, yellows, greens, purples, pinks, browns, and grays – a bit like clouds. The texture and movement of the snow changes by the hour.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station beneath the immense sky.

Welcome to the South Pole, Antarctica.

90 degrees South – where the pin fits into the bottom (or top) of the globe. It’s on the rotational axis of earth, so standing at the surveyed pole itself you are in all time-zones simultaneously! For convenience we operate on New Zealand and McMurdo time. This means we’re a day ahead of the U.S. because we crossed the date line flying to N.Z. At the time of this post it is 6pm on November 12 here, and 9pm November 11 on the Pacific Coast.
The sun rises and sets once a year at the Equinox and other than a few weeks of dusky-dawn light it’s either daylight or night 24/7. The sun follows a gradual spiral higher and higher to a point about 23.5 degrees above the horizon at the December solstice, and subsequently follows its path down to a point at the same angle below the horizon in June. (This is indeed the same angle as the earth’s tilt – if the earth spun on a axis exactly perpendicular to its orbital plane the sun here would stay right on the horizon all year round)

There’s no change in temperature between noon and midnight. It’s just varying degrees of cold. While -50F to -60F isn’t unusual for this time of year the temperature will gradually rise to -30F and up to almost 0F around New Years before dropping again in February. Lately it’s been very warm for this early in the season – yesterday the high was -32.4 F and the low was -42.7 F.

A red and white barbershop pole topped by a mirrored ball marks the “Ceremonial Pole” and is surrounded by the flags of the first 12 countries to sign the Antarctic Treaty.

The Ceremonial Pole

This site is positioned pictorially front and center of the new station. The actual Geographic Pole is a little ways away. The ice here is gradually moving towards the sea carrying the station and everything else here with it. This motion makes it seem as if the Geographic Pole is moving. Eventually it will sit right on top of the VMF or Vehicle Maintenance Facility (aka Garage)! Surveyed annually the actual pole is marked by a metal rod and a sculpture designed by the departing winter-over crew.

The Amundsen-Scott U.S. South Pole Station is named for the first two men to reach the Pole. It was a close race and a competition not only of the men and their crews, but of the countries and philosophies they represented. Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole on December 14th 1911. Sir Robert Falcon Scott arrived on January 17, 1912. Brokenhearted, Scott died on his return to the coast.

There have been several stations here since the U.S. Navy erected a year-round base in 1957. The modern station is a futuristic two story building raised up about 15ft on pilings.

The back of the station as seen from the Cargo Yard where we build and tear down pallets from the aircraft

In theory the wind scours beneath and around the structure automatically clearing drifts. Like everything here it works better on paper. In practice, while it does scour quite well directly underneath, a large bow wave-like drift grows in front of the station and long contrail-like dunes extend downwind. This main building contains housing for ~150 people, a kitchen and galley, a small gym, a half basket ball court, an emergency power plant, a small experimental hydroponic greenhouse, a few lounges for movie watching and game playing, a little self-help library,   a laundry room and bathrooms.

I took this picture of the front of the station last year during an early season storm.

The other ~100 or so souls that reside at Pole during the austral summer live in “Summer Camp.” A series of Jamesways about a quarter mile from the main station. Jamesways are structures of insulated fabric stretched over wooden ribs on a wood foundation.

A few of the Jamesways in Summer Camp

The view of the station from Summer Camp – as we sleep in Summer Camp and all meals are in the station it’s a bit of walk each morning and evening, especially at -30F or -40F and at ~10,000ft.

They are dark and warm inside, which is really what counts. The space inside is separated into 8-10 rooms with walls of canvas curtains and a narrow walkway down the middle. Over the years people have taken charge of their small space installing desks, windows, plywood walls, or cubbies and shelves. Each space is unique.

J-12: my home away from home this austral summer

People from all over the world, with a full range of backgrounds and experiences, end up down here. The dinner conversations alone are fascinating.

A picture of me last year as a G.A. or General Assistant as we shoveled out buried Summer Camp doors

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1 Comment

Filed under Antarctic, History, South Pole, Stations

One response to “Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station United States Antarctic Program

  1. Pablo

    Yay – you made it back! You’re doing cargo this year? Thanks for writing. by the way; I’m missing this season, stuck at my “desk job” in California, and will be trying to enjoy the Pole vicariously through everyones’ blogs. I love the way you capture the feeling of the ice here – great stuff. Again, thanks for writing!

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