25 January 2010

Science South of 60- Things About Antarctica That May Surprise You

Posted by Dan Satterfield


I'm standing at the ceremonial pole at Amundsen Scott Station at the South Pole. A friend took the pic shortly after arriving.

Antarctica is an amazing and awesome place. Pictures and words cannot do it justice. That said I will try to use pictures and words to describe it because I know of no other way! This is the first of several posts about science at the bottom of the World.

It’s not a place one can live, and there are no “natives” of Antarctica. It’s the only continent on Earth that humans never colonized. Even today you cannot really call the science bases colonies. McMurdo, the American base, is far and away the largest with nearly 1,000 people. Scott Base the New Zealand presence is next with at most 200. The USA Palmer station is not much bigger. Everything else is just a camp really.


Weather Screen in the Galley at Amundsen - Scott Station

Weather Screen in the Galley at Amundsen - Scott Station

Most of the continent is covered by ice. Not just a little, a lot. At the Pole you are standing on around 3km of ice. The ice is thicker still in the very middle of the ice sheet. This huge ice sheet  is bigger than the continental USA (considerably so). It makes Antarctica the coldest place on Earth. Winter at the North Pole can bring temps of -40C in real cold snaps. The South Pole in winter stays near -60C ALL winter and temps of -80 are not that unusual. (-70 is around 94 below zero on the old Fahrenheit scale)

Antarctic weather is unlike any other place on the planet and there is a lot of research underway. NOAA has a clean air laboratory at the South Pole and the University of Wisconsin is working to put automated weather stations in as many places as possible to get a climate record.

Imagine the USA with only a dozen weather stations. That is Antarctica. Weather instruments that can survive conditions there have to be the best. The only way to get the data back is radio or satellite in most cases.

The real South Pole. The marker is relocated every year since the ice sheet moves about 30 meters annually. The top of the pole this year is the South Pole telescope.

The real South Pole. The marker is relocated every year since the ice sheet moves about 30 meters annually. The top of the pole this year is the South Pole telescope.

Everywhere at McMurdo there are bottles of sun screen. 97% of the sunlight that hits the snow is reflected and with 24 hour daylight you can get a sunburn at anytime. The dry air allows much more UV radiation to reach the ground and the Ozone hole is not just a news story. The lack of Ozone allows even higher amounts of radiation to reach the surface. You can indeed get a sunburn at 20 below. I know because I have one.

While there is some tourism on the ice (Most are small cruise ships around the Antarctic Peninsula much further North than McMurdo.) the reason for the bases on the “ice” are for science. It takes a huge support staff to get the equipment, food and transport necessary to do research in this brutal climate. Support staff at McMurdo outnumber researchers by 10 to 1. It’s probably 6 or 7 to one at the Pole.


LC 130 on the skiway at the South Pole. They leave the engines running!

Transport in and out of McMurdo is by the 109th Air National Guard from New York. The Antarctic Treaty between 33 nations allows no military activity on the continent but military can be used for transportation. There’s really no other way. It takes specialized aircraft and highly trained crews to safely operate here. The big aircraft used most often are the C17 for trips between the US Antarctic Program base in Christchurch NZ and the ice runway at McMurdo.

Flight deck of the C17 over Antarctica. Pic from Ed Forgotson of CBS News who was part of our group.

Flight deck of the LC 130 over Antarctica. Pic from Ed Forgotson of CBS News who was part of our group.

Flights to the Pole are usually in a LC130. Both of these aircraft can stay in the air for many hours and carry BIG loads. The LC130 stays at the Pole for a short time and it never shut down it’s engines when it dropped me off and picked me up the next day. Landing on the ski-way at the Pole was surprisingly smooth. Both aircraft are very noisy and ear plugs are handed to you when you get on. They are not an option!

You must fly in your extreme cold weather (ECW) gear for safety reasons and it also serves to keep you warm. It is rather chilly on board but not that uncomfortable. It sure isn’t business class on British Airways! People and cargo are all in the same giant cabin.

When you are a few minutes from landing they warn you to put all your gear on and bring down the temperature. This is your first taste of the intense cold when landing at the Pole. One of the real perks I had was climbing onto the flight deck of the C17 over Antarctica. What a view!

Want to go there yourself?

The jamesway hut I slept in at the Pole.

The jamesway hut I slept in at the Pole.

Sell your house.

A few tourists reach the Pole each year. A local charter company in New Zealand will take you for about 50,000 USD. You had better be in good shape. The Pole is at 9,300 feet and because it is so cold, an altimeter will read about 10,500 feet. Wearing heavy ECW gear and dealing with the thin air and brutal cold will leave you exhausted quickly. The NSF will not take you there until you have passed a battery of medical tests.

You also receive Diamox tablets the day before you fly to the Pole. This helps you breath easier. It also makes soft drinks taste like a mix between mouthwash and shampoo.

Just two days before I arrived a Japanese citizen had to be evacuated in a pressure bag. He did not disclose a heart condition from what I heard. He almost died and had to wait 24 hours to get back to McMurdo because of weather.

The NSF does not operate Amundsen Scott Station for tourists. You will not be welcome and if you get into trouble and need help, the bill will be astronomical. A few years ago a group of skydivers tried to do the first South Pole jump. They set their chutes to open without correcting for the cold weather adjustments to altimeters, All but one died.

I worked hard to get in shape for Antarctica and if I get the chance to go again, I’ll work three times harder. It’s rough. Real rough, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

There are scientists from every field doing research on the ice. Interestingly, you do not get to the Pole unless you have a reason to be there. Scientists who are experts in their field and have worked there for many seasons have never gone. I realize just how very lucky I am. It’s hard to say for sure but in all of human history only about 6 or 7 thousand people have stood at the bottom of the World.


The South Pole Telescope- Dan's picture

Consider this:

To put a telescope into space to observe the radiation left over from the big bang takes many millions of dollars. If it breaks- too bad. You can, however, see that radiation at the South Pole. It’s high enough and cold enough and dry enough to see the rays that are blocked by Earth’s atmosphere everywhere else.

This is why the South Pole Telescope is now up and running. Yes it’s very expensive, but it’s still a lot cheaper than deep space and it can be fixed when it breaks and updated too. This telescope is looking in greater detail than ever before at the “light” from the big bang. (I plan an entire post with video on the telescope soon. So my fellow astronomy buffs on Twitter, like Tavi Greiner, fear not!) I ‘m working to get the TV story done first but all the good stuff and the science will appear here too.)

Physicist Kyle Story watching the Rugby match at McMurdo.

Physicist Kyle Story watching the Rugby match at McMurdo.

Kyle Story a graduate student in physics arrived at the Pole on my flight. I had the opportunity to have some dinners with him in Christchurch before we flew down. (Meteorology is my field, but I love Astronomy and it was a real pleasure to ask questions of a “captive” expert at dinner!) Kyle said something that stuck in my mind. “Every new telescope from Galileo’s to Hubble has shocked us with new discoveries about our Universe”.

“This one will too”.

Kyle is from Montana and fell in love with Physics in high school. He is now working on his PhD at one of the best Physics schools in the world. The Univ. of Chicago. The best thing about my trip was being in the company of overachievers for two weeks! Everyone I met from kitchen staff to principal science investigators were fabulous people to learn from. That includes everyone in the NSF visitor group I was with too.

If you are a student and think that this is the kind of place you would like to work, then the answer is simple.

Don’t be average!

It’s a big beautiful world out there.

Discover it.

More soon,