I want to send a special Thank You! to everyone at Beach School Elementary on Lummi Island, Washington (my alma mater)…
We received two 50-cube triwalls and 3 bags of letter mail yesterday! I found a package with my name on it filled with gorgeous paintings of fall leaves, a bunch of little treasures, and some good questions! The paintings especially, are beautiful. I left home in the first week of October, just as the leaves were starting to turn colors. There are no trees here and they’re one of the things I miss most.
First off, to answer some of your questions:
– A compass here points towards Australia. We’re at the Geographic South Pole here, not the Magnetic Pole. The Magnetic Pole (both North and South) move a bit year to year, and right now it’s somewhere in the ocean between Tasmania and Antarctica. The convergence of the lines of Longitude at the Pole confuse aircraft navigation and some GPS units so a special Polar Grid system was developed. The new station is almost in line with this grid so “Grid North” points roughly to the Ceremonial Pole and the Berms are roughly “Grid South.” But using the “normal” Latitude/Longitude system everywhere is North from here!
– Yes, things freeze overnight, even over dinner! If a cup of water is left outside it will freeze in an hour or two! This is also true for batteries, or shampoo, or regular gasoline and lightweight oil…many things are “DNF” and can’t be left outside for very long at all! Bananas turn black after only a few minutes exposed outside. But we don’t get much new snow – it’s not like winter back home with a thick carpet of snow over everything…here it’s lighter, almost like dust or sand, terrible for snowballs. The snow on the ground is scoured by the wind so it’s quite hard and around the station there’s enough traffic to pack it down.
– In effect the air is thinner here – in more ways than one. There’s less pressure because we’re at altitude. Imagine a box of 100 air molecules evenly distributed, now imagine doubling the boxes volume without changing the number of air molecules, there’ll just be more space in between. It’s harder to breathe and just walking up a case of stairs can leave you wheezing and coughing like you’d just run a race…sometimes people have a hard time sleeping because they wake up every few hours gasping for air. After a few weeks the body makes more red blood cells to carry more oxygen for each breath taken, it compensates, or “acclimatizes.” The atmosphere seems thinner here because there’s very little water and there’s an ozone hole – so the sunlight is harsh and can burn what little skin is exposed very easily!
Mail arrives here in large orange nylon bags and giant cardboard boxes (triwalls) – Comms announces an all-call asking for help and we all fire line the packages up the stairs and into the station. Inside they are set on the floor, lining the hallway. There is an official US South Pole post office here, run by volunteers here at the station.
There’s something special about getting a letter in the mail, and even more so for packages, but getting mail down here is almost as exciting as Christmas. It’s a physical connection to the world back home, a place so different and distant from here.
Post Office hrs
We are thousands of miles from the United States, and yet most people here are American. Everyone here speaks English, listens to the same music, has watched the same movies, read the same books; sometimes it’s hard to believe we’re so far away from home. We have access to the internet for several hours each day (though they’re usually during my work hours) – via satellites orbiting near the equator. One of the satellites we use is an older unit with a bit of a wobbly orbit, allowing it to just barely come into view over the horizon for a few hours each day. The USAP also buys some time from a NASA satellite. Bandwidth is limited, and science data transfers take precedence over email, facebook, or calls home. Iridium phones work on another satellite network so they can be used 24/7 if needed for an emergency, but for the most part we are fairly isolated. There’s no radio, no TV, no YouTube (uses too much bandwidth), no looking things up online all the time – think of all the little questions or arguments that are resolved with “Google it!” Here we make bets and someone writes it down to look it up when the satellite comes up next.
Usually I have 20-30 mins to copy emails into word documents so I can respond after the satellite pass, look up travel info, catch up on news, upload blog posts and photos etc It’s frustrating sometimes when I forget something and have to wait a whole day, but for the most part I love it! No advertising, no commercials, no Christmas music until the week of Christmas. It’s a welcome respite from the media overload of life stateside. The flipside is that it can feel very overwhelming at first to get off the ice and see billboards, flashing neon signs everywhere, newspapers and magazines…
So what do we do in our spare time? Well, there’s not very much of it, working 54 hour weeks – 6 days a week – most time off is spent eating or sleeping. Conversation topics are varied and interesting, but often revolve around how well, or not so well, one slept the night before and what will be for the next meal.
Scrabble, cribbage, chess tournaments are ongoing throughout the season, movies are played in the two station lounges almost every night, dance and exercise classes are offered in the gym between basketball and volleyball games, “paper telephone” is popular and one of my favorite games. After spending all day working with the rest of the cargo team and eating in the crowded galley every meal I often return to my Jamesway after dinner to read for a while in the peace and quiet of solitude.