November 18-November 22, 2002
Antarctica Journal
©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."
-Joan Myers

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8 P.M. 19 deg. F, -7 deg. Wind chill

South Pole. November 18, 2002.
-40 degrees, -65 degrees wind chill.
I flew out with three other passengers and lots of cargo on a Hercules C130 this morning. Since one of the other passengers was Father Damien, the Catholic priest at McMurdo, I figured I was in good hands for the flight. The pilots invited me up to the cockpit shortly after take-off so I got a grand view of Black and White Islands and then a close-up of Minna Bluff, which you can see off in the distance from McMurdo. This is the route that many of the early explorers, such as Scott and Shackleton, took on their man-hauling attempts to reach the South Pole. After Minna Bluff are miles and miles of the Ross Ice Shelf, a floating extension of the polar plateau, easy going for the expeditions since it is flat. Unfortunately, at the edge of the continent, clouds appeared. By the time we crossed the Transantarctic Mountains up to the plateau, I caught only a brief glimpse of the mountains sticking up above the several miles of ice that cover their base.

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 don’t 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, it’s cold, despite all the layers of fleece, balaclava, and heavy parka. By dinner time, it had cooled off considerably to the current –40.

When we got off the plane, we saw lots of buildings and construction equipment. Someone pointed us in the direction of the dome, the old station, but we were soon lost. We clambered around on snowdrifts around the side of the dome with all our bags. Father Damien, unfortunately, was as lost as the rest of us. Finally, someone pointed us in the right direction and we entered the tunnel that leads to the dome.

This is an unusual structure, unlike anything I’ve 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 shouldn’t 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.

The South Pole. A mythical place. A place that Scott and his companions suffered and died to reach. A place where the Ice Queen lives. The end of the earth. As far south as you can go. Santa’s retreat when he finishes with Christmas? It doesn’t appear on most globes because that’s where the fastening pin attaches to the globe. (All of Antarctica is missing from many world maps.) Only a few thousand people have ever succeeded in reaching the South Pole in the history of the planet.

A place you can’t ever reach. But, here I am.

November 19, 2002. –39 degrees, -68 degrees wind chill. Colder today. Al Baker met me after breakfast in a piston bully (one of two that just arrived on yesterday’s flight from McMurdo). Surprisingly, the station is spread over a fairly large area. My living quarters are a five-minute walk from the dome. That may not seem like much until you think about it being –39 degrees with a breeze blowing. Much of the science is over a mile walk out. That’s a nippy walk. More than the cold, the altitude bothers me. It is only a little over 9000 feet here, but the physio-altitude is 10,800 feet (because of the different atmospheric pressure here at the Pole). To me it feels more like 13,000-14,000 feet. I huff and puff as soon as I walk a short distance and find carrying a large bag to be all but impossible. With all my camera gear, I was fortunate enough to rate transportation and am very grateful for it.

We drove out to the Dark Sector, about a mile from the station, where telescopes and the neutrino detector (AMANDA) are located. It’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 don’t 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. “It’s 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.” It’s 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 it’s 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 I’ve 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 earth’s 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 isn’t far, but it’s 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 don’t 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. That’s a lot of clothes, probably 10-15 pounds worth. It’s hard to keep track of everything. I’m 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 choices—cookies, 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.
Went out this morning with Bill, the winter station manager, and did portraits and additional telescope images at DASI, AMANDA, and ASTRO. Tony Stark, the principle scientist at ASTRO was in the middle of major equipment moving when I arrived and was slightly gruff at the request for a picture by a photographer who arrived unannounced in his lab. ASTRO has been his baby for 15 years, and he’s very proud of it, so he soon started telling me about what they are doing. We had a great lunch afterward.

Allan Day at DASI not only posed but also insisted I climb a very steep ladder and go into the telescope. I couldn’t imagine photographing in the tiny space I saw from below, and it was a precarious climb to a tiny platform, so I did it more to please him than with any hope for a picture. When I stood up inside the telescope, the sight was worth the climb. The machinery is complex and elegant (as was the tiny device he later showed us for detecting polarization). It was a universe of its own—a great metaphor for a telescope that examines the early days of our universe.

This afternoon I did panoramas, including several out at the end of the ice runway where a Hercules LC130 crashed years ago and now lies buried in the snow with only its tail showing. It’s much harder to set up the panorama camera than shoot digital, since it requires a tripod, and my tripod freezes solid at these temperatures in about five minutes.

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 can’t 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 doesn’t feel or look familiar.

My room is simple, about 6 x 8 feet with a couple of rough wood shelves, a metal wardrobe, and a bed. There is a large window, but I have to keep it mainly closed with a heavy Velcro covering since all the rooms share common overhead space. Since these eight rooms have workers who sleep days, the light from the open shade makes the whole dorm too bright. My room is warm enough and decently insulated and has a light for reading.

Going to the bathroom involves going through a double set of doors to a 100-foot passageway that is uninsulated and unheated. There is snow on the floor and frost on the inside walls. It is only slightly warmer than the outside –42 degrees. You don’t linger here. You don’t have bare feet or wear sandals. After a couple of turns you come to another pair of doors and the bath/shower room, one for men and one for women with laundry machines in between. You are allowed only two two-minute showers each week. All the water for this set of four dorms must be trucked in. I showered last night, and it was utterly delicious.

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 can’t stand yourself any longer.

November 22, 2002 -38 degrees, -58 degrees with wind chill.

I don’t think it’s possible to describe what this place feels like—its 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. It’s like standing in the center of a fish-eye lens. You can forget that when you’re inside the galley eating a great meal.

The old dome station would make a great set for a sci-fi flick. I’m 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. That’s 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 Dante’s ninth circle of hell that is ice. (Dante had it wrong, though; it’s not dark.)

I wondered how –40 degrees would feel. It’s different from when I arrived in McMurdo six weeks ago and it was –20 degrees. Then, I had an immediate flashback to where I grew up and thought to myself, “My goodness, I’m back in Iowa!” It’s colder than that here. However, it is so dry that you remain warm as long as you put on enough layers. As soon as any clothes get damp, you’re in trouble. You get cold immediately and risk frostbite. I’ve met several folks who got frostbite on their noses and cheeks from working outdoors and having their balaclavas get damp. People here say you adjust to the cold after several weeks and don’t need so many layers, but I’m hoping I can leave before I find out whether they are right!