Heart of Darkness

“The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” -Conrad

A 20sec exposure of the full moon

A 20sec exposure of the full moon

“We are not conscious of daylight as that which displaces darkness. Daylight, even when the sun is clear of clouds, seems to us simply the natural condition of the earth and air…We take daylight for granted. But moonlight is another matter. It is inconstant. The full moon wanes and returns again. Clouds may obscure it to an extent to which they cannot obscure daylight…We need daylight and to that extent it is utilitarian, but moonlight we do not need. When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms…” – Watership Down

We’ve passed the darkest point and ever so slowly the sun is returning. Astronomical Twilight! Or so they say…with the 35kt winds and cloudy skies we’ve had this past week it’s as dark as ever.

We haven’t seen the sun for over three months now; the darkness only broken by the moon which rises every two weeks illuminating the polar plateau in a wash of silvery light. When full it’s bright enough to cast stark shadows, but when it sets again we are plunged into the deepest of dark. With the stars hidden by clouds it’s utter pitch black – without a headlamp you can’t see a thing. For this reason DZ is illuminated by 6 bright red lights, as are some of the other out buildings used for navigation in the dark. White lights are forbidden (except in an emergency) as they interfere with some of the research projects monitoring the sky. Equipment, headlamps, any lights outside are covered with red cellophane or paint, and lights in general are kept to a minimum.

The lack of sunlight can be depressing and the dark when the moon sets can be challenging to be sure, but when the moon sets and the clouds clear the sky is phenomenal. The stars are bright, the Milky Way a clear slash of light through the velvety sky (see the two pictures below – both 30 sec exposures). The redness of Rigel is visible. It’s awesome in the truest sense of the word. Galaxies, stars, the dark “coal sack”, planets, satellites flying at just the right angle reflect the sun in a bright burst – iridium flares. Not to mention auroras.

The front of the station - Home Sweet Home - the windows blacked out and the plateau cloaked in darkness.

The front of the station – home sweet home – cloaked in darkness. A faint aurora lights up the sky on the right.

The backside of our home - DZ is the red lit area on the right.

The back of the station – DZ is the red lit area on the right. The Milky Way is the bright swath of stars up the middle of the photo.

Pictures from back home with sunlight and shadows, trees, grass, large bodies of liquid water, white fluffy clouds, people in shorts…animals…it’s starting to feel like a different world, a dream. I remember the warmth of sunlight on my skin. Here at the South Pole there is only one sunrise and one sunset in a year. Watching movies, it seems strange to see the sun rising and setting every day. An excessive number of sunrises and sunsets!
The days are blurring together, the weeks blending into one long stretch. I wake up and have to think about what day it is…what month…is it time to get up? Is it the middle of the night? Or did I sleep past my alarm? It’s always dark outside, always cold and even inside there’s not much more variation, it’s the same people doing the same thing day after day after day.
I haven’t completely lost sight of the beauty this place has to offer – auroras and star filled skies contrast with warm stormy days, projects and parties…I know however tired I am now, however much I yearn to leave this place, I will miss it the moment I leave. It brands the soul.

Like life aboard ships or submarines, routine anchors us in some form of sanity. Some people (researchers mostly) “free-cycle,” sleeping when they’re tired and working all night sometimes to end up on a 28hr day, others follow the satellite passes which advance every day by 4 minutes. Most of us are paid however, to work regular hours from 7am-5pm. It’s important for me to have a regular schedule. A typical day for me begins with my alarm at 6:00am. I eat breakfast in the galley, go to stretching from 7-7:30am, check my email, do my ‘rounds’ in which I check all the trash cans and recycling bins in the station, head outside to check my triwalls at DZ, setting up new ones and banding full ones as necessary then lunch from 12-1pm. After lunch it’s on to odd jobs like taking fluorescent bulbs out to my box on the berms, collecting used batteries, staging empty drums or moving full ones, organizing and scanning hazardous waste paperwork, editing the waste SOP. At 500pm we’re done for the day and most days I workout. Dinner from 6-630 then a movie, a card game, scrabble, maybe a lecture if one’s being presented. On Wednesdays I shower, and then to bed between 10-11pm. We get Sundays off.

Checking on my triwalls at DZ on a 'warm' (-50F) and windy day

Checking on my triwalls at DZ on a ‘warm’ (-50F) and windy day

The result of high wind...

The result of high wind…

Insomnia, or “big eye” is a common problem. For me personally it seems to take forever to fall asleep, but then I feel I could sleep for days. As the season progresses I start to feel tired all the time, more tired when I wake up than when I went to sleep. It doesn’t help that with no sunlight there’s no way of knowing what time of day it is. On Sundays I wake thinking it must be 7am or maybe 8 and I might get to sleep some more, but my watch shows 1130! Even with a regular schedule it can get slightly disorienting at times. Some people here use full-spectrum “happy” lights, others take vitamin D supplements. The greenhouse is a sanctuary of light, life, humidity, and oxygen. Just sitting in there for a few minutes is rejuvenating.

The station windows (42″x42″ or 42″x18″) are blocked with cardboard to prevent light pollution and to insulate against the cold. As progressive as this station might be they installed metal window frames which have proven to be huge heat sinks. These window covers go up right around sunset and are taken down around sunrise. While some are plain old triwall cardboard, others have become works of art:

Some of the window covers around the station

A collage of window covers around the station

A fisheye view of the galley with all the window covers up.

A fisheye view of the galley with all the window covers up.


Filed under Antarctic, South Pole, Winter

4 responses to “Heart of Darkness

  1. Marci

    I’m sweating through a hot, muggy Florida summer, and whenever I see another of your posts, I stop and think of you, at the bottom of the world, and marvel that two women on the same planet can inhabit such different environments. Thanks for giving me a glimpse of a side of Creation I’ll likely never directly experience. As you ponder the wonder in the skies, I hope this adventure brings you a little closer to the Creator…

  2. Pingback: Winter Solstice | AntarcticArctic

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