November 18-November 22, 2002
©Copyright, 2002, Joan Myers
"Why does Antarctica matter? Why go there? Why have men and women risked life and limb in such a hostile environment? Why do we still spend money for research there? This photographic project, with its resulting exhibitions and book, will suggest answers to these questions by linking the past years of exploration visible in historic huts with the ongoing research at McMurdo, field stations, and the South Pole, as seen in the structures that cling to the Antarctic ice and in the faces and stances of those who work there."
Select the Red Inset to See Map Detail
8 P.M. 19 deg. F, -7 deg. Wind chill
South Pole. November 18, 2002.
Three hours after take-off, as we began to approach the Pole, the weather closed down further. We were flying in bright white clouds without any definition. The pilots began to descend slowly, following their readings. There is no tower at the Pole to guide the plane in, so line of sight for the landing field is necessary. As we got closer, the pilots peered out the windshield, rising out of their seats for a better look. Then suddenly, buildings appeared, and we set down seconds later. Less than a mile of visibility and you dont land here (and we would have had to return all the way to McMurdo); we had exactly one mile, they told me later.
It was a balmy 18 degrees here today when we arrived. I see polies walking around in their fleeces with no parka or hat. I even saw one guy in a t-shirt and jeans walking around under the dome. For me, its cold, despite all the layers of fleece, balaclava, and heavy parka. By dinner time, it had cooled off considerably to the current 40.
This is an unusual structure, unlike anything Ive ever walked into. All the tunnels and the dome itself are the temperature of the outside air, very cold, so they store all the food in there. Icicles hang from the ceiling. Layers of frost covers the inside walls and pipes. So are all the boxes of supplies that are stored under it. Fresh veggies, fruits, and beer that shouldnt freeze are stored in a giant freezer that is heated. Whenever a load of freshies comes it, a general call goes out on the radio and anyone who is nearby comes over to help unload it into the freezer. The galley is in a small metal building that was originally planned to serve 40 people and is now serving over 200 with all the construction crew, so people eat in shifts. Other buildings house staff offices, a library, rec rooms, and a medical facility. It is like being in a space ship. You are totally isolated from the world at large, self-contained and reasonably comfortable. Once you leave the dome, you go into the brilliant polar light that is just as bright at midnight as it is at noon.
The South Pole Station is a very different place from McMurdo. It has the feeling of a small rural town where outsiders stick out and are carefully scrutinized. Those that winter-over here form a special bond. But, once I introduced myself, I met with smiles and questions.
We drove out to the Dark Sector, about a mile from the station, where telescopes and the neutrino detector (AMANDA) are located. Its called the Dark Sector because most of the telescopes function only during the six months of the polar night and need completely dark skies for best visibility. The science being done here is much more abstract than the biology and geology and climate research being done out of McMurdo. Several of the projects are looking at the Big Bang billions of years ago or remnants of supernovas (ACBAR, VULCAN, and DASI) or mapping galactic magnetic fields (SPARO). Reading descriptions of these projects before coming, I found it impossible to understand what they were about. The telescopes themselves are not conventional mirrors but rather a sort of hybrid between optical and electro-magnetic radiation detectors.
They are not much to see but they did at least give me a physical component to the science. What they are doing in the Dark Sector is greatly exciting astronomers all over the world.
AMANDA and its new counterpart Ice Cube are especially difficult to comprehend. They are neutrino detectors. Neutrinos are subatomic particles so small that their mass is still not precisely measured, and only recently is their existence widely accepted. These particles pass through the solid mass of the earth as if it didnt exist. AMANDA is a group of some 40 detectors that have been sunk down in the ice to observe traces of these particles as they pass through the earth on their way back to outer space. Fortunately, the people who do these experiments are ordinary, if unusually bright, and very good company, so I didnt feel totally stupid in the questions I asked them.
In the afternoon, I tagged along with a group of Distinguished Visitors (called DVs here). We returned to the Dark Sector for a short visit and then out to the ARO sector where NOAH has a climate monitoring facility. They are measuring carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses here and at other locations around the world where the human presence is minimal. The detectors are so sensitive that we are not ordinarily able to enter this area at all. A single vehicle or human breathing can affect readings.
Will, the station doctor, gave us a tour of his medical facility in the dome. He has enough equipment to handle some severe conditions but nowhere near what is available in even a small United States hospital. If you have a heart attack here, you are dont have 20 trained medical doctors and nurses jumping around you, hooking you up to complicated machines. The blood bank is walking around the station; since the match would not be perfect, a transfusion could be an iffy procedure here. I asked him what the attraction was for him to work under minimal conditions without great pay. Its a great adventure, he said. I can practice medicine as I always imagined and wanted it to be. There are no time clocks. I can visit patients and have time to listen to what they want to talk about. They have time to feel comfortable with me. Its not all positive. Sooner or later, he admitted, we will have a case where someone will die because we cannot provide the necessary care (indeed, a scientist did die last year). During the polar summer, a dentist flies in once a week from McMurdo; during the polar winter, the doctor has to do dentistry as well.
We then visited the new South Pole station, which is scheduled for completion in 2006. It is a funny-looking modular building perched on stilts above the dome. Several of the modules are nearing completion. The station is heated with waste heat from the power plant and has R70, foot-thick insulated walls, so its very comfy to work in. They are expecting to be able to use the galley and some of the living quarters by January.
I photographed in the station, mainly shooting through the windows from the second story elevation. Inside it looks much like any other construction site in an Albuquerque office building, not too exciting. Work on the interior continues through the polar night, so they get everything external finished before the station closes down with no flights in or out until November. It was the easiest situation to work in that Ive had since I arrived.
This afternoon, on the other hand, was an adventure. I had wanted to visit SPRESO in the Quiet Sector, where they listen via seismic equipment. They are keeping track of earthquakes, volcanoes, nuclear blasts and other explosive events. Seismology was the first science done at the South Pole, way back during the International Geophysical Year of 1957 and is the longest running observational science here. Along with other stations throughout the world, they are now mapping the earths core. The South Pole is one of the quietest places on the planet. To make their instruments even quieter they are about to bore ice cores 1000 feet deep to sink their instruments into to get away from wind or any other ambient noise.
SPRESO is five-miles from the station, the farthest away of any project. Several technicians were going out to hook up the camp to the Internet and offered to take me along. Five miles isnt far, but its still an adventure at 41 degrees in an open snowmobile. I climbed behind the driver, and we hooked on a sled with the techs and their equipment and set off. I dont know what the wind chill is at 25 mph, but it must be impressive. We all had on heavy parkas, but it was still cold after several miles. It was worth it, though, to get out on the polar plateau. The camp is down a slight dip from the station, so after about two miles, the station disappeared completely. As far as you could see in any direction was hard white flat snow and blue sky with the sun high overhead. This is what Scott saw as he trudged along with his heavy sled, dragging his feet, wondering if he would make it to the Pole before Amundsen. He saw this and only this for weeks on end, after he climbed the glacier in the Transantarctic Mountains to reach the plateau. An utterly featureless landscape, the same every day, unless a storm broke the monotony.
So what did I wear for this jaunt? Underwear, tights, two layers of fleece, three layers of capilene and fleece on top, a windbreaker overall. On top I zipped up my wonderful wind-proof issue red parka. On my feet: two layers of wool socks and bunny boots (heavy insulated rubber boots). On my head: a balaclava, hat, neck gaiter, and my parka hood (plus polarized goggles). On my hands: liners, fleece and bear paw mittens with hand warmers. Thats a lot of clothes, probably 10-15 pounds worth. Its hard to keep track of everything. Im always leaving something behind. Fortunately, the layers and wind stopping gear really works, and I was warm and comfortable.
The camp was not terribly interesting to photograph since the drilling has not yet begun, but I enjoyed meeting the women who do the drilling (they go all over the world doing ice drilling at high altitudes and cold places).
When I got back to station, I found I had an appetite. The galley is the great social mixer. You never know whether you will be chatting with an electrician, a cargo loader, or an astrophysicist. The food is excellent, much better than McMurdo. Tonight we had great grilled lamb chops, couscous, asparagus, fresh rolls, a potato soup, and lots of dessert choicescookies, baklava, cake, cranberry bread and more. The kitchen is open, and John, the cook, stands ready to accept compliments. Nobody ever criticizes the cook!
November 20, 2002. 42 degrees, -69 degrees wind chill.
Being at the South Pole is like living in a space capsule or on another planet. You are totally dependent on fuel and other necessities for survival. You have communication with the outside world (they have satellite Internet connection here, but only for about 12 hours a day depending on the position of the satellites), but your world does not intersect with the outside world. You are totally separate. You feel like you are in a cocoon. You cant see the polar plateau from inside the dome. You are warm and well fed. But when you leave the dome, it is very cold and very bright. The sun circles around high in the sky and never sets. It doesnt feel or look familiar.
The new South Pole station has an ice well (called a Rod well)an underground reservoir of warm water of some 500,000 gallons, made by a process of drilling hot water through the ice and letting it make its own underground chamber. One has already been drilled, and they are letting it enlarge its capacity until the station goes on line. At that time, they will have plenty of water. Since everyone here wears overalls and boots throughout the station, including the galley, nobody cares how you look. You shower when you cant stand yourself any longer.
I dont think its possible to describe what this place feels likeits family-like culture, the dome that encloses it, or the blankness of the polar landscape that surrounds it. As soon as you get a mile away from the station you see how fragile it is in its uncompromising environment. Antarctica is the most hostile continent, and the South Pole is its center. It is so flat here that you can see the curvature of the earth 360 degrees around you. Its like standing in the center of a fish-eye lens. You can forget that when youre inside the galley eating a great meal.
The old dome station would make a great set for a sci-fi flick. Im told that when the last plane leaves for the polar winter, they play a video of The Thing. You have the feeling that strange phenomena might happen here. Part of it is that the dome itself is gradually and inevitably sinking into the ice. Thats why they are building the new station. Some day the dome will be totally buried and will eventually flow with the ice to the sea. If you look at doors in the dome, you can see they are already torqued out of shape. The light under the dome is dim which gives it a magical, if cold, look. Polies love the hometown community enclosed under the dome and complain they will lose it in the new station. As an outsider, it is a dim, icy place, fortunately punctuated by tiny outpost buildings that are warm and light. For someone like me, who is cold in New Mexico much of the year, this is like reaching Dantes ninth circle of hell that is ice. (Dante had it wrong, though; its not dark.)