Experiences At Pole

Day Two: Daily Life, Food and Communications

Journal Entry:
At the South Pole
Sunday Feb. 2

Slept well after the party, woke at a leisurely hour. Washed and shaved (first time for a long time), strolled over for Sunday Brunch. The food here is really very good: they are cooking for only a hundred-odd people, not a thousand as at McMurdo.

Since the inside of the Dome is unheated, it's at -35 degrees: a nice freezer. All around the inside perimeter are boxes and boxes of food, perfectly frozen. 'Bagels' by the four-dozen-count, stacked almost as high as you can reach. Enough bagels to last for 8 months, indeed. And enough pork chops, and potatoes, and pastrami, and pineapple chunks, and peanut butter, and and and. A whole supermarket warehouse of food, *everything*, seemingly just piled outside the buildings, but the real weirdness is that the default condition of everything here is simple: FROZEN. There are no cockroaches here: in fact - no insects, no molds, no mildew, no weeds. No liquid water. Set something down, and it will remain preserved indefinitely in a frozen state. Those bagels could have been brought here in 1987, and they'd still be OK.

However, they do use refridgerators! I took this picture on my final day at Pole - a refrigerator was just delivered! I am astounded! - refrigerators at a place where the HIGHEST EVER temperature was +7 degrees F ???

I went to the computer center and finally figured out a way around the problems we'd been having with sending pictures. The e-mail system here won't accept large files, so I sent each picture individually in a compressed form, rather than a whole bunch of them all at once. This makes for a lot more files, but if it's what you gotta do .. you gotta do it. It is obvious that e-mail is a TREMENDOUS morale boost for the station personnel. The computer room is full of people, day and night: "beakers" and construction workers, all typing away. They stay in touch with their families and friends in a way not possible by written letters, and not really possible by telephone. There are a couple of periods every weekend when people can sign up for a phone call, but my understanding is that time is tightly rationed and the connection is not very reliable. E-mail, on the other hand, allows everyone to write their most profound thoughts, their tenderest emotions, with the knowledge that the message will get through before the day is out. Communications to the outside are only possible when the satellites are 'visible' over the horizon, which means three periods of a few hours each. The local computer network stores up all the messages, then transmits them out to the world when a satellite comes into view. 'Back home', one thinks of e-mail as an essentially white-collar activity: the manager, the scientist, the engineer, the secretary. The phone is universal, used by educated and uneducated alike. Here, e-mail is the universal link, and in the computer room I may be sitting next to a bulldozer operator in his hard-worn coveralls, carefully writing to his wife using his fingers in an unfamiliar mode.

I then walked around to look at my sampling locations again. The whole site is suffused with the plumes from the myriad stacks of building heaters. The whole place steams gently in the harsh light. With the correct relative angle of the sun, I can see the cloud over the whole station, drifting downwind. It becomes clear that the Balloon Launch building will not get a sample that is representative of the whole ensemble of sources: it's in the middle of it all, rather than at the farther edge. I talk to Don Neff, but he tells me that once Winter operations start, all power and heat is turned off to the Summer Camp and other outer buildings, and that the Balloon Launch building will represent the downwind-most powered location. Maybe next year we can propose to have a permanently-powered sampling shack way downwind, but not for now.

This evening, after dinner, the last Sunday Evening Presentation is held in the cafeteria. Dr. Sukow, the NSF Rep., gives a slide show on his hobby of studying agates. The room is filled: we get a refreshing intellectual change from the usual concerns of one's experiment, construction problems, snow and cold. A week from now, most of the summer people (including myself) will be gone. It must be a strange feeling, flying away from people you have come to know over a period of weeks or months, leaving them behind for 8 cold and dark months at the end of the world, yet in contact by e-mail.

I have finally figured out a clothing regimen that works for me, for what I am doing. At first I wore way too much: too bulky, too hot. Then, once, I got cold. Now I have settled on the following menu. Firstly, 'conventional' underwear: cotton boxer shorts and t-shirt. Next, a set of NSF-issue long underwear, ankles to wrists, light brown color, some kind of lightweight synthetic material. Then, NSF-issue heavy wool boot socks, and the flannel-lined jeans that I bought at home. These go into the huge white bunny boots and I am warm enough from the waist down. On top, a thin turtleneck shirt, dark blue, and finally a blue chambray work shirt, with the script-cursive red embroidered oval namepatch 'Tony'. I look exactly like a gas station attendant or a maintenance man, but it is practical and fashionable in this milieu. More than one person has commented on the usefulness of the name patch: there are a lot of transient personnel, scientists and engineers and so on, and no-one knows who anyone else is. Now, all kinds of people know me: 'Hey Tony, pass the sugar please' and so on. For going outside, I wear the NSF-issued black zip-up fleece underjacket, enough in itself for short trips between buildings; and finally the bright red official parka. My Russian-style fur hat goes over the very necessary UV goggs, the fleece jacket zips up over my chin, and I am ready to Step Out in South Pole Style. They issued me with a zillion different pairs of gloves: I have found that I only need the lightweight fuzzy-lined tan leather pair, but I carry the knit undergloves to keep fingers warm when taking pictures.

I talk to Don Neff some more, after Dr. Sukow's presentation. Don is a thoughtful guy, sensitive to how people feel and work together. It must be a challenge, having tough-as-nails construction workers on one side and primadonna scientists on the other. Somehow he manages to make it all work, and I shall enjoy working with him. We go to the computer room (the satellite is 'up' now) and look at my journal on the web pages. He chuckles as he reads some of my more specious text. The pictures come clearly on the screen: we see the power of the digital world.

And so to bed. Who knows, my equipment might arrive tomorrow on the plane! - I had better be ready.


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Prepared by Tony Hansen and Tod Flak; last updated 10 Feb 1997