Tag Archives: Auroras
After 4 days of weather delays the final turnover flight made it to Summit on November first. We unloaded several hundred pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables and various other resupply items then refueled the plane and loaded it up again with bags and passengers. The fall crew had finished their tour of duty and were heading home at last. The rest of the afternoon here on station was mostly spent settling into winter rooms and unpacking the fresh food and supplies.
Fresh food, aka “freshies”, is a big deal in the polar programs. A few stations (such as the South Pole) have green houses and are able to grow some fresh food, but most stations do not have such facilities. As with everything else, freshies must be shipped in from elsewhere. For McMurdo and field camps these come from New Zealand. Here in Greenland it depends on the season – in the summer (Apr-Aug) we get supplies via LC-130s with the NY Air National Guard out of New York state, so food and cargo can be shipped directly from the US. In the winter the hercs are deployed to Antarctica and so for the few crew turnover flights (Oct and Feb) we rely on chartered Twin Otters from Iceland.
Even a few minutes’ exposure to extremely cold temperatures will blacken banana skins and wilt lettuce so freshies from Iceland are sent up in styrofoam boxes to prevent freezing while being transported to and from the plane. We won’t get any flights until February so the freshies we get at the Oct turnover are it – We have to make them last as long as possible. Lettuce goes the fastest and there isn’t much we can do to preserve it so we try to eat that first. Cabbage, carrots, potatoes, beets, onions, and squash can last for months and can also be frozen. Even apples, bananas, and oranges will last weeks to months before we are forced to freeze them.
Now that turnover is complete the station is relatively calm and quiet. We are stocked up with food and fuel and are looking good for the months ahead. Winter is a drawn out marathon compared to the frenetic summer season – there’s less overall to do, but everything takes longer. We won’t get another plane until late February 2017 so it’s just a matter of keeping ourselves alive, the station functioning, and our year-round scientific instruments, such as NOAA’s observatory and ICECAPS, in working order.
It is now officially winter and it’s starting to feel like it. Today the sun rose at 9:13am and will set at 1:20pm, tomorrow it will be 9:22am and 1:12pm…the last sunrise will be on November 14th (www.timeanddate.com/summit). Temperatures are variable, but they are dropping lower and lower. Current conditions here are publicly available at: summitcamp.org/weather. On Thurs evening we reached a new low this season of -52F and with the cold and the dark come auroras!
Welcome to Winter!
It’s a chilly evening in the heart of the ice sheet with temps hovering around -40F. We are outside, however, to witness a fantastic display of auroras! Tripods frost up, breath freezes on gaiters and hats, plastic becomes brittle, and above us the sky is alive.
I’ve written about auroras in a few previous posts here and here so I won’t go into too much detail, but a brief summary is that auroras are caused by energized particles from our sun striking gas molecules in the atmosphere (much like neon displays). The colors are due to which molecules are excited – green is caused by oxygen around 60 miles up while nitrogen causes the red-purple auroras. Solar storms and flares release waves of charged particles which can be predicted and tracked. To see the aurora forecasts and where they might be visible check out NOAA’s Space Weather page here: www.swpc.noaa.gov. NASA also has a fantastic page on Aurorae with photographs of aurorae on other planets!
The green line coming out of the far building in the last image is the CAPABL LiDAR I discussed in my previous post. The red light is the 50m tower.
We awoke yesterday to the wind howling. The Green House was filled with a deep resonating sound as the wind vibrated wires on the roof. I peaked out my window. Seeing only flying snow in the pre-dawn light I pulled up the weather page: 35 knots. I pulled on my windproof layers, complete with goggles and stepped outside. The Big House was completely lost in the blowing snow…this is why we put up flag lines. I followed the flags to the Big House and found our mechanic inside sipping coffee. Gradually the others trickled in. As we ate breakfast and commenced the morning meeting the wind rose to nearly 40 knots, swaying the Big House on it’s stilts. Con 1: No travel unless absolutely necessary and check in via radio upon departure and arrival when moving between buildings…
We hunkered down, working on indoor projects and getting ready for turnover with the next crew who are due to arrive later this week. The winds stayed strong most of the day, tapering off at sunset. Darkness fell quickly. Inside the Green House after dinner we all gathered to watch a movie when one of the Science Techs went out to prepare for their nightly weather balloon. “Umm…You guys might want to pause that…there are some pretty good auroras…” After a quick look outside, I quickly threw back on all my layers and grabbed my camera and tripod. The sky was filled with one of the brightest, most active aurora I’ve ever seen. Curtains of bright green light tinged with red danced across stars, swirling and spreading.
I turned off the outside light on the Big House, however in the 2-8 second exposures the other lights on station lit the building up in a surreal light – it was not photoshopped into the picture 🙂
A month since the last plane and a month yet to go, we’ve settled into our respective winter roles keeping the station running and warm. Our focus so far has been to get everything stored for winter and we’re almost there. All the cargo has been moved to the berm, the buildings have been dragged out away from the main station, and our HEO has been working diligently to clear as much snow as possible from around the remaining buildings before the winter storms begin in earnest.
It’s definitely autumn here on the ice sheet. The sun is setting around 7:00pm now and rising around 6:00am, and by 9:30pm or 10:00pm it’s properly dark outside! It catches me off guard…I know it sounds odd, but I’m used to the ice being either light (summer) or dark (winter). I’m not used to seeing the sun set below the great flat white each day, and how fast it changes!
Along with the darkness comes stars, and auroras! We had our first sighting this week. While I’ve seen the Southern Lights this was my first undeniable glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.
Named for the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, the Northern and Southern Lights are formed by the same process. In summary: charged particles carried by the solar wind are deflected by Earth’s magnetosphere and carried towards the polar regions where they interact with the upper atmosphere releasing photons – light. For a more thorough explanation please refer to my previous post here…or check out these websites for more information:
As these charged particles are released by solar flares and carried on the solar wind, aurora events can be forecasted somewhat, though the accuracy is even less than predicting the weather. (http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/aurora-3-day-forecast)
The aurora is a beautiful and magical phenomenon, but it is not rare – it is happening nearly constantly day and night! The light emitted is so faint however, that it can only be seen at night. Every planet with a magnetic field has auroras at the poles – those that don’t, such as Venus, still have the occasional aurora, but they are more random and not specifically polar.
Over the past few days we’ve had stronger winds and more blowing snow in the air, while this has obscured the night sky it did illuminate the normally invisible LiDAR instrument shining through it’s little window in the MSF roof. A very strong laser, the LiDAR instrument is part of a suite of experiments that compose the ICECAPS project that are studying precipitation and cloud properties over the Greenland ice sheet. Check out the official Polar Field Services blog for a more complete summary: polarfield.com/blog/tag/lidar
The NOAA Observatory webpage has some interesting information on the MSF and the ICECAPS project found at: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/psd/arctic/observatories/summit/
The University of Wisconsin website also has a webpage with information on ICECAPS: http://icecaps.ssec.wisc.edu/
Temperatures have stayed fairly warm so far (between 0F and -20F), though we have had the occasional dip down to -40F. The general trend is that it’s either clear, calm, beautiful, and very cold (-30F to -40F)…or windy, overcast, snowing and warm (+5F to 0F). As the winter progresses and the days get shorter temps will continue to fall. It won’t reach the coldest temps seen at the South Pole in winter, but it gets cold enough!
For those who might be curious, Summit’s weather data is publicly available at: summitcamp.org/status/weather
Dawn is upon us. The sky grows lighter each day – swallowing the stars and washing away the auroras. The first faint glow was just visible in the second week of August, by now it’s taken over the sky. Right now it looks like it does at 530am in Denver, or 5:18am in Seattle…with the brightness of the sunrise circling the horizon 24/7, getting just a little lighter each day.
On clear days now it’s bright enough to see the sastrugi, to see footprints in the snow, and even to label my triwalls without a headlamp! The sky is a deep blue still speckled with stars and hints of aurorae. This month has been stormy, and on cloudy days it’s dark, a veil of clouds sliding across the horizon taking back what light was just revealed, but it’s lighter than black…on the darkest days of June and July it was hard at times to know if one’s eyes were open or closed. The sun hit its low point of 23.5 degrees on June 21, the solstice. Today it’s at 8º below the horizon – Nautical Twilight. 3 weeks until sunrise!
It’s no warmer outside, but just seeing the light is rejuvenating. It feels like a light at the end of the tunnel, a beacon pulling us forward day by day. I know it’s completely illogical, but there were days when it felt like it was never going to return. Like we would be stuck here forever – the stars spinning round and round above us, the same petty dramas played out on repeat. A skipping record. We still have two months left, so we’re far from done yet, but time is progressing. We’re getting closer to the now nearly mythical first plane.
Life inside the station this past month has lived up to the reputation of “Angry August.” This week however, it’s a new month. The window covers will come down and on the 21 the sun will rise above the edge of the world – a new day.
Days since the last plane: 200!
Days since sunset: 165
Days since midwinter: 73
Days until sunrise: 18
Days until first plane: 59*
*We’re scheduled to get a Basler and a Twin Otter through here in mid-October, but they’ll just be refueling. There will be no cargo/freshies/mail for us and no one but the crew leaving with them. “Our” first plane will be a C-130 Herc scheduled for Nov 1, but that’s always subject to weather and mechanical delays…that date isn’t by any means set in stone, it’s more like the middle of a bell curve.
Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis – the Northern and Southern lights respectively – are one of the most iconic phenomena of the polar regions.
Dancing streams of light, ephemeral and enchanting, appear in the dark sky spanning a spectrum of color from white to green to red and near purple. They have fascinated mankind and until recently were thought to be spirits or signs from god. Today we understand the physics behind aurorae, however this explanation is no less amazing. It is still one of the most awe inspiring natural phenomena I have ever witnessed.
Charged particles emitted by the sun reach Earth and are diverted around the magnetosphere. This strong magnetic field is induced by the spinning mass of liquid iron in Earth’s core and acts like a shield protecting Earth from the solar wind. Without the magnetosphere our atmosphere would be blown away and terrestrial life would be exposed to extreme radiation emitted by the sun. The magnetic field lines originate and converge at the axis of Earth. Solar particles are charged so they follow the magnetic field lines and are essentially funneled into the atmosphere at the Poles.
The interaction between these charged particles and atoms in our atmosphere produces light. This phenomena occurs year round, but the light is only visible in the dark of night. Here at the South Pole we have one long day and one long night each year – so the auroras are only visible during the winter months.
Walking out to the berms to check on something or find more supplies, I watch the sky above me. With no light the stars shine brilliantly, the sweeping arc of the Milky Way plainly visible. My breath hisses in the cold, my eyelashes freezing together, my steps crunch loudly on the ultra dry snow. I glance up to see a slight glow, a pale green that gradually brightens as it expands. Other bright spots appear and it unfurls in a long curtain of light – reddish at the top and green at the bottom. It seems to stream downward, undulating and pulsing, curling upon itself in sections only to unfold again. It moves across the sky sometimes breaking into parallel lines. After a while it fades away again leaving only the darkness and pure starlight behind.
During winter everyone on station carries a personal radio with them. We can call each other individually, in programmed groups, or do an All Call. With some people working nights and others “free cycling” (for example researchers who do not have to stick to a regular schedule and instead follow a 27 hour day) All Calls are reserved for emergencies only. One of the programmed groups is “Aurora Lights.” This is a channel used to announce especially good auroras. A few months ago, when it was just getting dark, everyone would go running to the upper deck at DA when there was an aurora call. Now that we’ve passed midwinter people are starting to get a little jaded. Only an especially good aurora will draw a crowd…
This past Monday however, we had a spectacular show. Here are some pictures from myself and others here on station (as referenced):
The sun is now ~13deg below the horizon and we’ve officially entered the period known as Astronomical Twilight (with the sun between 12 and 18deg below the horizon). The moon has risen and casts stark shadows against the sastrugi and station. There’s a faint glow on the horizon following the sun, the moon is full and luminous, and still the brightest stars are clear as ever.
We’ve had a good round of iridium flares this past week as well and the first spectacular displays of Aurora Australis the Southern Lights. They’re ephemeral, sliding slowly from black nothingness to grey and maybe into green or a very faint red. Sometimes it disappears as quickly as it came, sometimes I’m not sure if I’m imagining it, and then it pulses bright and there’s no doubt. Lots of playing with cameras and tripods to get a good shot…When a call goes out on the radio that there’s a good one it’s a stampede down the hall with everyone running to see. I’m sure our excitement will wane eventually, but for now it’s a new experience.
Things are chugging along in the seemingly perpetual cold and dark with temperatures ranging from -70F to -85F. It’s beautiful, quiet, and utterly awe-inspiring at times – Especially when I’m working outside and look up to see the milky way unfurled above me, stretching across the sky…
Inside the station, with cardboard over the windows, it feels a bit like groundhog day. We have a good group overall and I’ve made some good friends, but it’s interesting to watch the petty issues like dish washing and toothpaste left in the sink become big deals. With little else to distract us we make news for ourselves. The smallest of things become the most exciting topics for lunch conversation. We only have a few hours of internet each day, something I’m happy with. If there was internet access 24/7 some people would never leave the computer, but we’re not totally isolated from global events either.
So here are some of my favorite shots from this week:
The iridium satellites pass overhead every 9 minutes 10 seconds or so. They’re our emergency connection to the outside world and the basis for iridium phones. The name “iridium” apparently comes from the initial plan to have 77 satellites in orbit (77 being the atomic number for the element iridium). For several reasons however, only 67 satellites are in orbit. When the solar panels or antennae catch the sunlight reflecting it towards us it becomes the brightest point in the sky, baring the sun and moon.