Experiences At Pole

(not "at the Pole")

Part One: Dancing Under the Midnight Sun

Journal Entry:
At the South Pole
Saturday Feb. 1

Today I feel much better. I arrived at the Pole yesterday at about 11 AM. My excitement was tempered by the fact that I couldn't breathe - somewhat of a fundamental consideration. The physiological altitude here is about 10,300 feet. I would take a dozen steps and feel exhausted: I lay down on my bed and felt like falling asleep at any instant.

But here I am! I made it.

- The Geographic Pole is a pole in the snow with a USGS Survey Marker on top. It says, simply, "90 Degrees South". Because the ice, upon 3 miles' thickness of which we are standing, is slowly moving at the rate of about an inch per day, and also because the earth's rotation has slight wobbles, the actual Geographic Pole is re-surveyed every year. The marker posts from one year to the next are some tens of yards apart.

- The Ceremonial Pole is a candy-striped pole with a shiny ball on top. Not a Very Big Pole; nor a Very Big Ball. Understated, almost subtle. The pole sticks up from the snow maybe a couple of feet, and the ball is about a foot in diameter. In a semicircle around it are the flags of the various nations associated with the Antarctic. Thinking about it, it would be tacky if it were any bigger or gaudier. I wonder how big the Stone of Ka'aba is, inside Mecca? It doesn't matter: it's the symbolism.

And then we have the human artifacts that are assembled here, precisely because of the Pole: and for no other reason - we are in the midst of a vast, featureless identical sheet of ice. Why are we HERE, and not a hundred miles away? - precisely because of that symbolism. Our science would be equally valid a hundred miles away, but no dignitaries would come to have their pictures taken at a marker that said "One Hundred Miles to the South Pole".

The human presence at Pole ( I have learned that one never calls it THE Pole, but simply 'Pole') takes on three main forms:

- the Dome with its side arches is now almost buried under the accumulated drift of decades of snow.

- the scattered science buildings stick up at various points, usually bristling with antennas.

- but the most striking thing is the overall appearance of a construction camp. Huge bulldozers chug back and forth, dragging sleds with containers on them, dumpsters, whatever. Other bulldozers are shoveling snow: from where, to where, and why, I cannot tell. Yet other bulldozers slumber with a dieselly snore and white-mist breath of constantly-idling engines. Girders, beams, stacks of lumber, sheets of plywood are piled in orderly rows.

On the downside of the Dome, the Summer Camp is rows of tents (yes! - tents!! - but they are 'Jamesways' which are triple-insulated arched structures that look like giant brown sausages with doors at each end). Each Summer Camp unit has a sheet-metal chimney for the oil-fired heater: the chimneys steam in the cold air (no visible smoke as such) and from a distance one sees a mass of small buildings each with a cotton plume of white steam. The whole place looks like something that would have been set up for the construction of the Alaska Pipeline, which is probably the closest in similarity. Most of the men are dressed in brown insulated coveralls for outside work, liberally scuffed and stained, most of the women wear plaid shirts and jeans.

The place is also not that big, in terms of being able to walk from here to there and back again. On my first day, it was an eternity from the Dome to my room: now it is a 5-minute stroll. The snow squeaks and crunches underfoot, the sun shines relentlessly and it's Another Beautiful Day. Every day.

Saturday afternoon.

I meet with the senior NSF Representative, Dr. Wayne Sukow. He is actually in NSF's Education Program, and is interested in my ideas about having scientists send back pictures and reports that can be digested into educational material. I point out to him that the same pictures and reports, with their 'cinema-verite' quality, could also be packaged into press releases and polished up for distribution to Congress and other elected officials: Science In Action, Your Tax Dollars At Work. We will talk about this more when Dr. Jane Dionne comes up from McMurdo on Monday or Tuesday. I take a picture of Dr. Sukow in his office: I tell him, "When this comes up on the Web, your boss in his comfortable suite back at Headquarters will see you in a tiny office in an icebox". He laughs, then says diplomatically "Take my picture while I'm still smiling". I comply, and he returns immediately to his work, I'm sure he's a busy man with all the big-name projects here.

Then I meet with Don Neff, the Science Coordinator. His job is to make sure that the scientific projects get the necessary logistical support from technicians, carpenters, electricians etc. His first question is: "So where is your equipment?"


My four boxes DIDN'T come up on the plane: I had seen them at McMurdo in the cargo area, and had assumed that they had been sent up.

Wrong. They're still there. And no more planes till Monday.

"Well that's Mactown for you" says Don.

So we walk around to look at the two locations where they will be installed, to make necessary preparations. The New Clean Air Facility is a beautiful brand-new building, only just completed a few weeks ago and still being set up. It has 2 floors with lots of space, there will be no problem here. We go over to the downwind location. The requirement had been for a downwind building that would be powered and heated throughout the winter: many of the outbuildings are switched off and closed down once the summer season ends. The first suggestion had been the Well Building. It is a small shack containing two giant oil-fired boilers that inject boiling hot water down a 300-foot hose deep down into the ice, and suck up the melted water. This is the main water supply for the whole station. The problems were obvious: there was very little room amidst the pipes and tubes, there were two giant boilers that cycled on and off, making the temperature in the shack fluctuate up and down a LOT (bad for my instrument); and these two boilers were prodigious sources of smoke, right there. Not so good for installing a sensitive instrument for detecting pollution, in a boiler room!

So we walk over to a brand-new structure that it not quite finished: the Balloon Launch Facility. This had not been mentioned at the time of my original proposal for the simple reason that it didn't exist at that time. At first it was going to be unheated, but they decided to add a heated technician's workroom to it, so it is perfect since it will be used year-round. The carpenters will put up a shelf for the aethalometer and the pump, and drill a hole through the wall for the sampling tube.

It's interesting to see that with only minor changes, the construction methods, equipment and tools are (of course) identical to those back home. The carpenters make things out of 2x4's, sheets of plywood, nails and drywall screws. Outer walls are cut from panels made from rigid foam insulation sandwiched between plywood, some kind of standardized product. The immediate vicinity of the finishing construction around Balloon Launch looks just like a construction site at home: tools, lumber, electrical conduit, boxes of nails .... except we are at the END OF THE EARTH, everything has come 10,000 miles by plane. Of course, there is no reason why it should be any different, these are the materials and techniques that these guys are familiar with. It just seems odd to see a box of Simpson Ties, made in San Leandro, here at the South Pole.

Saturday Evening

Party Time! .. everyone is invited out to the Old Clean Air building, now abandoned and slated for demolition. At 8:30 PM I walk in to a building full of talking, drinking of beer and loud music. All the equipment and fittings have been ripped out, some taken to New Clean Air: the walls are undergoing re-decoration by graffiti and (as the evening progresses) some of the more macho construction guys compete in events that could be described as Kick-Through-The-Wallboard-With-Your-Boots, also Rip-Out-The-Studs-With-Your-Bare-Hands, and other contests of strength and idiocy.

We talk. Some of the more grizzled, bearded Alaska types smoke cigars and pipes. The few scientists (referred to here as "Beakers") look uncomfortable in the presence of their graduate students and the rowdy construction workers.

We dance. Everybody dances. A room full of gyrating people, loud music .. so far, a party anywhere. But we're at the South Pole. Behind the tarps pushed up over the windows, the sun burns bright, too bright to look at. Outside, it's 35 below zero, and this building never had a bathroom. The beer runs through you fast. The dancing people, myself included, are wearing bunny boots and insulated coveralls. I, for example, am wearing: underwear shorts; underwear longs; thick boot socks; bunny boots; underwear top t-shirt; underwear top longs; turtleneck shirt; denim shirt. My parka is hanging on a nail, together with my fleece jacket, hat, goggs and gloves. The floor is littered with beer cans. We dance, in 4 layers of clothing and insulated boots, at a physiological altitude of 10,350 feet. I gasp for breath every couple of dances, young guys in brown coveralls with stringy hair and Jesus beards give me another beer.

At midnight, it breaks up. We put on our gear and start trudging back. A snowmobile buzzes up, towing two aluminum sleds stenciled "CARGO". The driver yells "Summer Camp?". I and another guy get into the sleds, and we speed across the snow, weaving and bumping from side to side. Cargo indeed.

I haven't danced for years. I've rarely danced in Arctic clothing. I've never danced at ten thousand feet altitude. I only got here yesterday. After a moment of reflection, I rationalize it as an aerobic exercise to increase my red blood cell count. I sleep well.

Back to Tony's Antarctica Interactive Trip

Prepared by Tony Hansen and Tod Flak; last updated 02 Feb 1997