Antarctica

Week 2 November 12 - 19 2007 Arriving at South Pole

Arriving at South Pole is surreal. You have your senses overloaded by noise, cold, and a light head from the altitude. Somehow you grab an orange bag, maybe yours, stumble out of the plane, and follow the other people to a group of people about 30 yards away. There is always someone to meet you. I'm lucky to have friends meet me. Even, maybe especially, a first timer will have someone there. Then there is another 100 yards or so to walk to the station. The final test is the stairs, guaranteed to cause some deep breaths.

LC-130 at South Pole
A LC-130 ariving at South Pole International Air Terminal.

It might be hard to imagine the physical environment, with most people being more familiar with an image of the coast from the heroic explorers accounts. Antarctica is a large continent at the bottom of the world. It is almost completely covered by ice, with a peninsula pointing up towards South America and a mountain range diving what is known as East and West Antarctica. The ice accumulation has resulted in Antarctica having massive ice sheets which slowly slide towards the coast, where more distinct flows are formed and massive glaciers discharge ice bergs into the sea. South Pole station is on the larger of the huge ice sheets, East Antarctica, sometimes also called Greater Antarctica. There is 2 miles of ice below the South Pole Station to the bed rock, over which the ice is slowly sliding at about 10 meters a year. It is hundreds of miles to the nearest surface rocks, and many hundreds more to the coast. From the South Pole in all directions there is nothing to be seen but a flat featureless white plain of snow. In the summer the sun never sets. Over 6 months from September till March it slowly spirals around the horizon to it's highest point and down again, when 6 months of darkness start in March. The altitude is 9600 feet, and due to the squashing of the atmosphere at the Poles, the air pressure is more like at 10500 feet towards the equator. This is know as the physiological altitude.

Polar Plateau
The polar plateau on a cloudy day - not much colour.

In the bad old days it was not uncommon for people to be put to work on arriving at Pole. This resulted in many people having to be sent out due to altitude sickness. These days it is recognized that it is much more efficient and sensible to let people catch their breath for a few days. In McMurdo we are normally offered a drug called Diamox to help and speed up the acclimatization process. I don't remember all the details about how it works, but it has some side effects. Some people get tingling in their finger and lips (I do). It is a diuretic, which along with the advice to drink lots of water, means the first few nights sleep are going to be interrupted by trips to the bathroom, and most unusually it causes carbonated drinks to taste off - very off. There is usually still a few people who have to go back to McMurdo because of the altitude, but hopefully they will get back to Pole.

I had not intended to, but I hit the ground running this year. I'm normally not in a rush to get out to the Dark Sector for a couple of days, but I was out there the afternoon of my arrival to go over stuff with the outgoing WO. He did get a snow mobile so we didn't have to walk. But this set the tone for my arrival this year, I was straight into work.

ICL in the Dark Sector
The IceCube Laboratory (ICL), my main work place, in the the Dark Sector.

I mentioned the Dark Sector and should explain. The South Pole is divided up into a number of operational sectors radiating out from the actual South Pole. The IceCube experiment is in the Dark Sector, which is supposed to mean it is light free in the winter and radio free all year round. The reality is different. Then there is the Clean Air Sector, from which the wind generally blows. The wind at Pole is mostly a gentle katabatic breeze, thus mostly influenced by the almost flat surface topography. A slight gradient means the wind is almost always from the same direction. To avoid pollution from the station the Atmospheric Research Observatory is in this sector. They get very upset if a pilot forgets and flies up wind of ARO. Finally there is the Quiet Sector (seismically) and the Downwind Sector. I had to look this last one up, and I still have no idea what it's operational use is.

South Pole is a frustrating place at times. So much time and energy is spent doing things that take no time at all in the normal world. You're always waiting to get access to transport, things take longer because of all the gear your wearing, and then the lack of oxygen just makes it feel so much harder. Last year we sent a heap of equipment back to Madison. It took 4 people most of 2 days to pack up, and it took 2 of us 2 hours to unpack in Madison. And I was exhausted from packing it, and didn't break a sweat unpacking it.

I some times feel the dominant theme at Pole is logistics. We are always shuffling cargo around, storing, looking for it after we've lost it, and in general not making the progress you want or expect. Maybe I'm being pessimistic because I had a bad week locating things from last year. I've already written in detail about the storage issues at Pole on my blog, but I'll just mention I spent more time than I wanted not finding something out on the Berms. To my frustration someone did locate it at the end of the week. I guess I should be glad it was found.

The Berms
One of the rows of Berms looking back towards the station in the distance.

Rack on Berms
My missing rack is the small plastic wrapped item just to the left of the red crates.

I had some interesting questions from students this week. Mostly about penguins and such, but a number of questions had the common theme of why do you go to Antarctica? It's a tough question. So I asked some friends.

I'm not sure people appreciated being asked this question, but I pushed on. Almost everyone said that initially it was exciting and adventurous. Some said it was to go somewhere very few people got to. I'd point out there are lots of places like that in the world that are easier to get to and in many ways more interesting. They might counter that everyone doesn't get the chance to go to Antarctica, like other places. I was surprised how many immediately said they came for the travel, to the ice, and the subsidized ticket that would get them other places when they left. Some liked the routine, while for others it was a break from routine. Some said they couldn't handle an office job.

I was particularly interested in the repeat offenders, such as myself. I wasn't buying most of the answers as being the deep underlying reason. I knew I was getting closer to an answer when people started sounding irritated, and would say something like it was for very personal reasons that are hard to explain. After I had heard this a few times I felt I was ready to make a sweeping generalization. I think that people that habitually come back to Antarctica do it because they get something from life here that is lacking in their life back home, a well defined place in society, a feeling of accomplishment and importance, and a social structure into which they fit. I'm sure a lot of people would deny this, and mask it with the genuine but less influential factors, such as a break from the office. I would hope anyone in this group will have thought about this, because at some point we all will stop coming to Antarctica, and have to be ready for life with out it. I should point out that this is a generalization and that about a third of people gave good clear reasons why they came, mostly the reasons already mentioned, but their work down here also fit in with a life off the ice, and they had found a reasonable balance. Having made these observations I guess my next challenge is understanding what it means.

But why did I start going, and why do I continue to go? Certainly when I fist went south it felt adventurous and exciting. That has worn off a lot. A lot of people mentioned that they enjoyed the challenging work, which was true for me initially, but has become mostly routine now. For a long time it has been the unusual society that I've enjoyed. While I always say it is just like anywhere else, just more so, here you have more influence over how the society functions. It is certainly more organized in that people are held accountable (mostly), and if they don't live up to their responsibilities they eventually (or sooner) get voted off the island. Many people find this difficult and don't like it and leave or don't come back. So then there is the satisfaction of being able to do something others can't. In this setting you also develop very strong friendships, and I value my friends from the ice very much, whether on the ice or off. Thus for me, like most people, there is no simple reason why I keep coming back, and the reasons have certainly changed with time. Maybe I just like getting out of the office too.

To be continued.

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