Keeping the lights on

Essentially no other life exists for over a thousand kilometers from where we are. The severe cold, lack of nutrients, and no light for six months for photosynthesis all preclude any other habitats evolving to sustain life. Man’s ability to technologically innovate allows us to reside in one of the most hostile places within the earths bounds. Fruit and bread don’t go mouldy as there is not even fungal spores to inoculate old food with. There are no flies buzzing around, no mice to worry about if you don’t close the bread drawer, and no birds soaring overhead. The lack of the sounds of life that are ubiquitous across the vast majority of the planet result in their own unique form of sensory deprivation. The barks of dogs, hum of insects, tweet of birds and rustle of leaves are instead replaced by the distant drum of generators and air reticulators, the flap of flags marking routes around the station, and crunch of icy crust underfoot.
A couple of months back, during the long night, I was walking out to one of the outlying science buildings in the Dark sector, when suddenly behind me I heard the high pitched squark of a bird. What is normally a everyday sound of life seemed so foreign down here, prompting me to lurch around towards the source. I peered into the darkness, trying to see what the sound had originated for, and made my way towards the source of the sound. After a while, a gust of wind picked up, whistling through the split bamboo of a marker flag, letting out a high pitched squeal. There was of course no bird, just the reed-like effect of the bamboo causing my deprived mind to imagine life when the barren landscape wound not permit it.

Man’s desire to live in such an environment is only possible due to our invention and the resilience of the machines we create, to facilitate life as we know it. Probably the most important job on station is keeping the lights on and heaters warm. ‘Rosey’, Robert and Bill, the power plant team, keep at least one of four hungry Cat generators turning over at all times to generate the power required for the station. Historically located in an arch like building above ground, the intervening decades have resulted in the progressive sub-terranean burying of the power plant. Within the plant, these gennies also generate a lot of surplus heat which is utilised elsewhere in the station. The heat is reticulated around the station using ethylene glycol as the liquid conduit. It runs to the heaters that ward off the cold, to dry our clothes in dryers in the laundry, and to heat the water used to melt ice that provides us water to drink. Without the power plant being operational, the station would rapidly turn into a dark tomb ready to chill us to the state of death. We have an emergency power plant built into the main station, in case the primary plant has a catastrophic failure.
Whilst prolonged power loss would be inconvenient due to the aforementioned factors of causing us to gradually freeze to death, it would also ruin the multimillion dollar science that the station hosts. The 300 million USD ice cube neutrino array would likely permanently lose the function of its vast network of sensors buried in the ice, and the telescopes studying the cosmic microwave background would gradually warm from their temperatures which are kept around absolute zero, destroying coolant systems. Coupled with that would be every pipe with water based substance in it freezing and rupturing.

So keeping the lights on is kind of important…
A bank of Cat generators constantly on the go require plenty of cat food and trips to the vet. They are cycled through to allow 500, 1000, 2000, and 5000 hour services, replacing filters, measuring wear in the cylinders, changing oil and making sure they remain in tip top shape.
Over the season, the chew their way through ~1,300,000 litres of JP-8 (a cold weather variant of jet fuel). This life blood of the station is hauled in from the coast each summer in large bladders towed behind tractors. Three of these traverses brings in a full complement of fuel each year, replacing the historic need for it all to be flown in. The South Pole Overland traverse (SPOT) was first shown as a proof of concept around 15 years ago, mainly as a cost saving measure to prevent the 20 odd LC-130 Herc flights that previously had to fly in a years worth of fuel. Whilst SPOT 1-3 are massive logistical efforts in their own right, the three week trip each way across the continent massively reduced the cost per gallon that it cost to get the fuel here when compared to flying it all in. The fuel is then transferred to the fuel arch, where 45 x 10,000 gallon tanks store it, ready for use in the power plant. The traverse then trundles its way back to McMurdo. Whilst the trip up over the glaciers from the Ross Ice Shelf, through the Trans-Antarctic mountains and onto the Polar plateau would be dramatic, half of the slog here is just driving in a straight line over featureless ice for days on end. I thought the drive from Dunedin to Christchurch was bad enough.

This season, the fuel tanks had to cleaned out, to rid them of accumulated anti-freezing residue that had accumulated in the last twenty years, and ready them for inspection for clearance for continued use. In some of the more hostile work conditions around, John, Forrest and Barry worked to clean up the tanks. As they are in an unheated arch, they sit at a constant -50C, which is the temperature of the surrounding ice. Each day, the crew would gear up in full waterproof kit, with respirators to prevent fumes, and pump then bail out the residual fuel in each tank, before mopping up the residue and cleaning them out. The fuel remains liquid, but at a super chilled temperature, any splash on skin would result in frostbite. A unique safety procedure was devised, to allow the crew to climb into the cavernous tanks and do the work. Gradually over the season, they ticked them off and with the final tank, they gladly moved on to less austere projects.

Living at a station with a principle scientific goal of measuring effects of climate change, yet burning a vast amount of jet fuel to sustain everything from flushing the toilet, to powering the tele, to keeping warm the climate monitoring systems that measure the creeping CO2 is a awkward paradox. Man’s resilience of fossil fuels is largely due to their reliability, storability and transportability. With six months without sun, and six months of sun with a low incident angle, solar is unlikely to yield a good alternative. The constant plateau wind is more conducive to being a viable alternative, but unlike the more temperate edge of the continent where wind provides a good chunk of Scott Base and McMurdo’s power, the hostile temps of the antarctic plateau do not do wonders for wearing gears and generators, making steel is prone to fracturing and other components brittle.
Although bigger strides can hopefully be made in the future, keeping the lights on in a place like this is unlikely to embrace the alternative energy revolution that the rest of the planet is hopefully going to accelerate into.

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Here comes the sun!

After the long long night, the emergence of a distant glow was a bitter-sweet phenomenon. We got out to experience the dwindling remnants of the season’s Auroras, and started to mentally prepare ourselves for the beginning of the end.

Seeing that light on the horizon was a bizarre feeling after half a year of darkness every time you ventured outside. It was a great morale boost for most, and lifted the mood throughout the station. That palpable change when you walked outside, reminded me of those times late on a night shift at the hospital, when the first glimpse of dawn heralds the wearing off of the 5am cortisol slump that makes you feel terrible, and the imminent arrival of the day shift cavalry to take over.

As the sky slowly lightened, the light sensitive experiments that measure auroras were sequentially shut off (some are sensitive enough that when the moon was full over winter, they had to be switched off to avoid burning out the sensors). Once the last was off, that cleared the way for the window covers to be removed, and us to peer out into the evolving gloom. After staring at the same bits of cardboard every day, some adorned with more creative pictures than others, it was weird to see our reflections in the glass. It made for an awesome time-lapse, of the windows progressively had their covers removed.

The suns gradual appearance had been a while in the making, with the faintest of glows evident towards the direction where the sun was shrouded by the horizon. Gradually over a month or so, the jet black of night transitioned to a midnight blue on one side of the night and black of the other, the gradually through lighter shades of blue until a smidgen of pink and purple appeared. As we then moved through a smear of orange above the horizon, we got to see glimpses of a reflected sun that was bouncing off a low cloud layer. With much hype of seeing the sun, after a long six months without, low and behold the weather packed it in, and the week of sunrise was a haze of snow-blown white clouds that were continuous with the white icy plateau, and obscured any chance of actually seeing the sun makes its first appearance.

The sky continued to lighten, but the glowing orb itself remained hidden for several days after the equinox. The one Thursday morning, we had glorious rays of light streaming in the windows, casting shadows of the many faces peering out at what had been relegated out of the familiar, into the seemingly distant past.

Sunrise marks the last of the three main winter celebrations, along with sunset, and midwinter. The galley was again decked out in its finest livery, this time in the theme of a Hawaiian luau, complete with inflatable palm tree, lei’s to adorn our necks, and bright summery colour table runners. A Hawaiian feast was prepared by our tireless galley crew, with entrees of smoked salmon, coconut shrimp and crab salad entrees, Kalua pork, coconut rice, sweet potato mash and Portuguese style doughnuts.

That sensation of nearing the end of a long slog through the winter, coupled with people being that much closer to seeing loved ones and getting some fresh fruit, had a general lift in mood around the place. The night was an awesome experience, yet pretty taxing in its own right. Nerves and tempers got frayed as the confinement of station life gradually wore away at people. The light whilst not reconciling all differences, at least allayed a lot of frustrations that had been evident.

The return of the sun also was the point of replacement of all of the station flags with the new years set. The 12 flags of the original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty that encircle the ceremonial pole had a fresh vintage hung, as well as a the Stars and Stripes being raised over the station observation deck. The USA flag at the geographic Pole is one of the few official US flags worldwide that hangs through the night, with the rest being lowered each night, and raised each morning. A new flag replaced the battered version that had seen the relentless damage of a years worth of Antarctic plateau wind, and the constant 24/24 light of the summer six months. I had the privilege of replacing New Zealand’s flag at the ceremonial Pole. And thanks to the wisdom of my countrymen, it was not John Key’s favourite tea-towel design, but instead the traditional ensign.

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Feel the burn

One of the important pieces of science that goes on down here is the measuring of atmospheric conditions by the Atmospheric Research Observatory team. Run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), two of the scientists are in charge of measuring important factors such as particulates in the atmosphere, how many parts per million of CO2 are in the atmosphere, and take samples for further analysis back in the USA of rarer gases such as fluoridated species that are important for depleting ozone.
One of the most important, and highly variable, conditions to monitor is the level of ozone in the outer layers of the atmosphere, particularly the stratosphere, where it varies on a highly seasonal basis.

Ozone is critically important for protecting us from the harmful ultraviolet B light (UV-B) (280-315 nm wavelength, as different to UV-A which is 315-400 nm) that is emitted from the sun. Its effects on us are well known in New Zealand, where our lax sun protection and tendency to enjoy long periods outdoors coupled with proximity to the ‘ozone hole’, result in us having the highest rates of melanoma in the world, as well as massive amounts of squamous and basal cell skin cancers. Having done a year of General Surgery covering skin cancers in a provincial centre in NZ, the burden on people health and the system is remarkable.

Ozone is a molecule containing three oxygen atoms, and its name derives from ozien (οζειν) the greek work ‘to smell’, due to its pungent odour. It is the same smell you get when using an electric drill, as the electrical discharges in a motor generate small amounts. The vast majority of it (90%) hangs out in the stratosphere, which begins at 10-16km up, and extends to 50km. Within that, there is a band of higher density, known as the ozone layer. The other 10% is in the troposphere, the lowest layer, in which we reside. Even in the areas of highest density, it is still only at densities around a couple of molecules per million molecules of O2 or N2. Despite its low concentration, it’s pretty important when in the stratosphere. The tropospheric bit is little help in UV-B protection, and itself is harmful to us, plants, and is even a greenhouse gas. So when using your electric drill, try and be 20km above the earth’s surface. You’ll need a long extension cord though.

Ozone is made by the UV degradation of O2 into two O atoms. Some of these highly unstable oxygen atoms combine with O2 molecules to form ozone. This therefore is a sun dependent process, and most occurs in the tropics where the sun’s energy is most concentrated. Some is also made due to polluting processes in the troposphere, but this contributes minimally. It is broken down by hydrogen, nitrogen oxides and substances containing chlorine and bromine.

The behaviour of ozone above the Antarctic continent is unique compared to elsewhere in the stratosphere. Ozone-depleting substances (ODSs) are dispersed throughout the stratosphere by circulating air currents, from where they are predominantly made by the more industrial northern hemisphere, to relatively symmetric distributions throughout the stratosphere. In the Antarctic, the extreme cold of winter (due to lack of sunlight, and circumpolar vortex that traps the cold air) and early spring facilitate the development of polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) – when temps fall below -78C in the stratosphere, water condenses together and freezes, sometimes with nitric acid. These clouds in the stratosphere act as an surface for the conversion of the more destructive chlorine monoxide (ClO) to be formed from its source chlorofluorocarbons or other ODSs. In the Antarctic, these clouds are present for around 5-6 months over winter, whilst in the arctic, the winter does not get cold enough, and the PSCs can often only be present for 1 to 2 months.
However, whilst ClO is made throughout winter in abundance on PSCs, that is not enough for ozone destruction. ClO is a catalyst for ozone destruction, and each ClO molecule can destroy hundreds-thousands of ozone molecules. The reaction needs sunlight which is only present in late winter and early spring. This allows ClO to catalyse destruction of O3 to O2 and causes rapid loss of ozone, and subsequent development of the ozone hole over Antarctica. Due to minimal PSC formation in the Arctic winter, little ClO is formed, and therefore little ozone destruction is catalysed, and the loss is therefore much more minimal.
By late spring, the stratosphere has warmed enough for PSCs to dissipate, ceasing production of ClO, and the ozone depletion tapers off. Over the summer, there is a lag in restoration of ozone levels, as it has to diffuse in from the stratosphere elsewhere in the world, and this takes time.

Ozone levels are measured at multiple places around the world, and in particular, multiple stations in Antarctica. At the South Pole, it is measured by two main methods – using a Dobson ozone spectrophotometer and by using ozonesondes attached to balloons that are launched up into the stratosphere on a regular basis.
Dobson, the pioneer of ozone measurements in the UK in the 1920s and 1930s, developed ways to measure the density of ozone in the atmosphere. The units of ozone are named after him – normal amounts of ozone are 200-500 Dobson Units. The spectrophotometer works on the same principle as a pulse oximeter that we use to measure oxygen saturations in a medical environment, as I found out during recent Part one ICU exam study. Both systems work according to the Beer-Lambert Law, which states that the transmitted light = incident light x e^(extinction coefficient for certain substance x distance travelled x concentration of substance). The extinction coefficient differs for different wavelengths of light. By knowing the distance travelled, and a known extinction coefficient, the concentration of a substance can be calculated. In a finger sats probe, we measure the concentration of oxygenated haemaglobin by comparing transmission of light 660 nm (red) and 940nm (Infra-red light). In a Dobson spectrophotometer, we use two wavelengths of ultraviolet light which have different absorptions by ozone to calculate ozone density. Therefore, a light source that is incident on the stratosphere is needed. In summer, the sun is used, and in winter, the reflected light of the moon is used. Factors like how cloudy it is need to be worked around (cloudy nights – well it is always night – suck for measurement). Similarly, the height of the moon above the horizon is used to measure the length of stratosphere the light is passing through – if the moon was straight above, the column of stratosphere passed through would be much shorter than when it is just above the horizon. The more stratosphere, the more light absorption.
The other method for ozone measurement is using an ozonesonde on a helium- filled balloon. These disposable units are released from the BIF – the Balloon Inflation Facility at regular intervals over the season, and increased frequency during late winter and early summer when the ozone depletion is greatest. A large plastic balloon is filled about 1% with helium at ground level (~3200m atmospheric pressure level). To it is attached a small insulated unit, containing a platinum electrode in a potassium iodide solution that reacts with ozone, creating a small electrical current. There is also an altimeter and radiotransmitter to get the info back to a receiving station, where it is processed by some pretty 1980s computing. After careful calibration and prewarming to ensure they don’t freeze during the period of data collection, they are bundled into an insulated box and slung beneath the large balloon. Balloon release is hugely dependent on wind, with a strong crosswind causing the releaser to have to run with the sonde to prevent it from smashing into the ground as it slews sideways before the balloon generates enough lift to allow it to clear the ground. As the balloon rises, the atmospheric pressure steadily falls, and as per Boyle’s law (more exam study coming in handy…) the volume increases proportionally, with the volume of helium eventually taking up the whole contents of the balloon, and lifting it up to 30km above the earth where it measures the ozone concentration on its way, transmitting levels back to earth. Eventually, the balloon disintegrates and falls to the polar plateau, or out to sea. Just one more piece of litter in the name of science. The sonde gives much more info that a simple Dobson measurement, as it gives a breakdown of ozone as the balloon passes through different altitudes.
The balloons are visible for varying amounts as they ascend through the atmosphere. Christian, one of my colleages got a fantastic series of shots showing the balloon as it launched and was caught by the wind. The majority of the time, they head off in one direction and are never seen again, but a couple of weeks ago, the nature of the polar air currents meant that the balloon recircled back overhead at the height of its path. It was before the sun had risen here on the ground, but the balloon was illuminated up in the atmosphere as it was high enough to catch the sun’s rays. The white balloon has a high albedo (reflects light well), and even though it was too small to resolve on its own, a small white dot was visible in the deep blue sky, at an altitude of 29km (26km above the surface).

In the mid 1980s, amongst the flares, peace signs and flower power, scientists discovered that the ozone level in the stratosphere over Antarctica was starting to be depleted on a seasonal basis. In what should be regarded as one of the better forms of human co-operation, people got together, actually listened to scientists and did something meaningful about it. It was noted that there were increasing rates of ozone depleting substances (ODSs) in the atmosphere, in particular chloroflurocarbons. Here was a group of chemicals that were pretty handy to us. Compress them under pressure, and they heat up (as do all gasses). Then let them expand and they cool down. This principle was nice and handy for doing things like keeping food cold, and keeping us nice and temperate when we decide as a species to inhabit places like Arizona, or Queensland, or if we drive our car through Death Valley. They could withstand repeated compression and expansion without degrading, and their rate of cooling was efficient for energy expended. But unbeknownst to us (before we listened to scientists), they were destroying the sky above us, and subjecting future generations to increased risk of malignancy, as well as other environmental damage to crops and species.

So we did what rational people do, we listened to evidence, and came up with better solutions. That triumph for logic was the 1987 United Nations Montreal Protocol, which with a series of subsequent amendments over the next two decades, enforced a reduction and then cessation of production and use of the most harmful ODSs, and a transition to less harmful substances. The onus was on developed countries that had the resources to make the shift to lead the way, with developing countries to follow behind.
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were transitioned to hydrochloroflurocarbons (HCFCs) for refrigeration, making insulating foam and as solvents. The presence of a hydrogen atom means that they are more reactive in the troposphere on their way to the stratosphere, and are removed in the process, preventing damage to the ozone layer. Further subsequent transition to hydroflurocarbons (HFCs) has been further progress, as the absence of chlorine or bromine means there is no ozone destruction potential for HFCs.
Wow, mankind working together, using global legislation to protect our environment. It’s great we are replicating this effort with the much bigger atmospheric environmental challenge in controlling CO2 – oh wait, we’re languishing in gridlock, giving unnecessary respect and weighting to fringe scientists who oppose the 98% of scientists, picking petty fights about how best to make change, trading in fraudulent carbon credits (cough * NZ government * cough), printing glossy brochures about superficial government ruminations without making meaningful progress towards carbon neutral options. In the meantime, CO2 continues to rise, the majestic Antarctic Ice sheets wither away, and weather systems become more and more variable leading to more flooding and famine. Shame we can’t replicate the co-ordination of the 90’s. Just as mankind has forgotten how, and now can’t work out how to replicate the Saturn V rocket that powered the Apollo missions to the moon, it seems we have regressed in our ability to co-operate on significant environmental issues.

Thanks to our curtailed use of ODSs, ozone levels are back on the rise, and the seasonal Antarctic ‘ozone hole’ is gradually diminishing. The lag is due to the long lifespan of chlorine-containing substances in the stratosphere, as well as the residual use of older technology that still contain banned substances. But at least we can make a difference to some of the havoc mankind wrecks on this planet, even if it means a balloon or three strewn every couple of hundred kilometers across the Antarctic plateau.

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In the ice house

How many scientists, chefs, power-plant mechanics, doctors and maintenance specialists does it take to build an igloo? What sounds like the start of a terrible joke, ended up in a way being a cruel joke of a project that we recently embarked on. The answer of the ideal group was one of each of the above.

There had been talk with Josh – one of the Utility technicians who maintains all of the things that keep the station alive such as heating, water, cooking facilities etc – for some time about plans to build an igloo and sleep in it at some stage over the winter. Surely it can’t be that hard we thought. Surely that’s madness the rest of the station thought. Whilst most of the station were heavily skeptical about firstly our sanity, and secondly our construction abilities, we assembled a crew of people that were up to the challenge, and we planned some time for when to build it.

Josh had been busy watching documentaries about how the Inuit make an igloo, and was full of optimism. Apparently inuit children can build one in a few hours. And we aren’t children, and there is 5 of us, so surely it will be done in a few hours. A planning meeting was convened, with equipment assembled, sleeping bags sourced, and tools sharpened. We planned the project for a 2 day weekend – when we get Sunday and Monday off (Sun/Mon rather than Sat/Sun to better line up with offices back in the States). These come around every 5 or so weeks, and it was a good chance to build on the Sunday, sleep there that night, and then have Monday to nap should our sleep be sub par.

So come Sunday, we decided on our spot, just a few metres away from the Ceremonial Pole marker, and got shovelling. Our optimism was short lived. Our two day weekend had coincided with some of the highest winds of the season, sitting around 30 knots. Being outside in -60C is a bit of a challenge at the best of times. Couple that with holding metal shovels that conduct heat out of your hands rapidly, and wind that blows ice straight into your face and convects the last vestiges of warmth away, it soon turned into a project with an extended timeline. We’d last outside for about an hour, with often the rate limiting factor being when our eyelashes would be icing up too much that it was hard to keep them open, and they’d start to freeze over. Time to go inside and warm up.

Firstly we had to dig down about 2 feet to get to hard ice, rather than the more powdery surface ice that is snow like in consistency. Josh’s grand plan consisted of a 12 or so foot (~4m) diameter igloo, big enough to sleep 5 of us. Getting down to the base to build on took longer than the inuit take to finish one. It turns out we’re not ingrained with this in our genetics…

Shovelling by head torches that tend to pack up after half an hour as the batteries get to cold was a bit of a battle. We did have some fantastic displays of auroras though, to the degree that at times the reflected green light of the auroras were much brighter than our head lamps. At times like those, you just need to lie down on the snow, and admire one of nature’s great displays, as the sky erupts overhead.

Eventually, after a few warm ups, we were down to the base ice layer, that we were to cut the blocks from. A hunt station wide had been mounted for a good hand saw that would cut through ice, but alas, we were left with a few blunt tools, and an ice knife Josh had machined from a piece of scrap steel. Hand cutting proved fruitile in the super cold ice, so a little technology was turned to. The station has a supply of ice chainsaws, used for maintaining the ice tunnels that service the water and sewage systems. Some ultra-cold rated extension cords were strung together, the chainsaw wired up with cold temp cable (the normal cables snap promptly in the cold as the plastic gets too brittle), and we were away. A lot of care had to be taken using the chainsaws in bulky mitts, but after an hour or so, we had a good routine cutting blocks, chiselling the base free, and passing them up to be trimmed up to shape. The base layers were around 3 feet long, 1 foot high and 6 inches deep (man, I really have become americanised with even my measurements…!). Rosey, one of the powerplant mechanics, aka ‘Snow Rose’, and myself, aka ‘the Block Doc’, were in charge of cutting the blocks.

A base layer was laid on the pad that we had shovelled out, with the blocks having compound angles cut on each end, so that the ends tapered together well, with the outsides face being slightly longer than the inside. Once the base layer was laid, we cut and ramp in the base layer for which to slowly spiral the layer up. The structural strength in part comes from the fact that the left side of the block being laid is supported by overlap that the compound angle that the right hand edge of the previous block provides. As we laid each block, Josh, aka ‘Cheng’ (Chief Engineer), would shape the surfaces with the snow saw made of aluminium. Traditionally the inuit get soft snow, mush it in their mouths and spit it in the gaps. Christian, one of the Ice Cube Neutrino array scientists, aka ‘Spitter’ didn’t fancy frostbite of the tongue, so had to modify his technique to fills the gaps. He and Darby, the head chef, aka ‘Ice Jac’ (may have been something to do with him acting like a jack a…) would get the freshly drifted snow to pack into the cracks, and then pour water on it from thermoses, to set the blocks. Hearing the water freeze within a few seconds of touching minus 50C ice was a strange experience.

The end of day one were were spent, all collapsing onto the couches and trying to replenish the calories that were expended that day, and get some sleep before day two. Overnight, the strong winds did us no favours, given we’d disrupted the contours of the plateau. The low wall that we’d got done provided a perfect means to create eddy currents in the wind, and let it deposit all of its drifting snow in our igloo that we’d shovelled clear the previous day.

The start to Day two was spent clearing the drifts out, down to where our ice mining operation was occurring in the hard deeper ice. Eventually we got back into the swing of things, but it was clear, that this was going to extend well past the two day mark. Gradually the wall crept higher, and out working level grew lower as we dug out the blocks. Breaks were taken in between to allow our corneas to recover from the powdered ice continually whipped up by the wind that was now at eye level slamming into our faces.

Skepticism still remained high in the station about chances of success. The physicists claimed the diameter was too large, the angles to steep. The engineer claimed we didn’t have enough expertise to build it strong enough. Haters gonna hate right?

That week, we took turns adding a few blocks at a time, with thankfully some more gentle winds to prevent us form having to shovel out too much drifted snow. A door portal was cut once it was up to the level that we couldn’t climb over the wall any more, and a trench leading in to it was dug. Eventually the tapering roof took shape, with such a spacious cavern built that ladders were needed to lay the upper levels, especially once we were down to taking a second layer of blocks out of the floor.

Come the next weekend, it was time to lay the keystone. We all took turns at shaping the last of the blocks to provide the final step of the structural process. With the last pour of water we were done. The skeptics were apologetic, and we were a content bunch. Structural integrity was robust, with Christian able to stand on the roof without even a creak of the ice.

The final step consisted of building a cold trap inside beside the door, and a sleeping platform. After spending a week shovelling ice out, we were shovelling fresh drifted snow that had better insulting ability back in, behind a retaining wall. That gave us an elevated platform, higher than the door level. A small ventilation hole had been left when we built to stop us all getting groggy from too much CO2.

The next day, we gathered up the survival sleeping bags (2 each), sleeping closed cell foam, blankets, thermals and a thermometer and headed out. Darby had whipped up a fantastic thai red curry, and as we sat inside nicely insulated from the -50C or so outside, instead in a toast -20C. We played a couple games of 500, listened to some tunes (have to have the mod cons!), and had a celebratory whiskey. For the Americans who are fond of their scotch on the rocks, there was no shortage of ice, and the ice knife was able to chisel a bit off the wall. Note to self: if you put your drink that has a freezing point well below freezing, down on a surface that is -50C, and then drink it, you may freeze your tongue. The kind of thing you only do once. Thankfully whiskey is something best sipped.

Sleeping in two mummy style sleeping bags, with multiple layers on, is a bit restricting but we all eventually got settled in. After a surprisingly comfortable sleep, aside from a bit of snoring from one side of the igloo, and regular wake ups to make sure our entry trench wasn’t drifting in, we returned the station, content with a mission well completed.

A few other hardy souls followed out a few nights later to sleep in it, before the igloo met its demise. Due to being upwind of the station, a condition on building it was that it couldn’t stay permanently due to the influence it would have on drifting around the station which is a perennial problem and source of a lot of work to keep on to of. So therefore, a week after completion, 100 man hours of work was demolished by one swipe of a D6 dozer’s blade! From the records it appears it was the first winter igloo at the South Pole. A couple have been built in the summer when it’s a) light b) not -60C c) not 30 knot winds. A fun mission to stave off the insanity that 6 months without sun can induce.

Many thanks to Christian for the use of many of his photos below.

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A tad on the chilly side

The most prominent feature of living down here is the phenomenally cold conditions. As the second coldest continuously inhabited place on the planet, as soon as you get off the plane in the midst of summer, the cold is so much more noticeable than on the coast. As the sun disappeared, we watched the temperature gauge fall as the little warmth that the sun provided wasted away.

The temperature here is significantly dependent on the direction of the wind, with the extremes of the temperatures experienced dependent on the unique geography of the continent.

The temperatures are a result of three main factors.

Firstly, the main reason for both polar regions being colder than the tropics is that as the earth is roughly spherical, the sun’s rays are hitting the equator at a perpendicular angle so a square metre of the sun’s rays cross section are falling on a square metre of earth. However at the polar regions, that same square metre of rays are instead being cast at an angle across a much larger area. With the inclination of the planet sitting at 23.5 degrees from the ecliptic – the plane the earth and other planets orbit the sun in – the highest the sun gets in the sky is 23.5 degrees on the summer solstice, when the earth is in its orbit in such a way that pole is pointing the towards the sun. Therefore the energy of the sun is spread out over a much larger area.

As the earth rotates around the sun, the elliptical orbit of the earth is such that each pole alternates at facing the sun on opposite sides of the ellipse, and subsequently once it reaches the point where neither pole is closer to the sun (the equinox), six months of winter begins. This period of lacking sunlight means that any warmth to the region is typically transferred from other parts of the world that are sunlit, either through circulating ocean currents or wind.

Oceans typically moderate temperatures a great deal, as they are heat sinks in the warm months and heat sources as the ground loses heat in the winter. It is for this reason that shore breezes change over the course of the day at beaches – when the sun is up the land heats quicker than the sea generating warmer air with lower pressure compared to the air above the sea, and an onshore breeze results. As the sun sets, the land cools faster and the sea becomes relatively warmer, resulting on an offshore breeze.
Similarly, the ocean never gets as cold as the land as if it gets around freezing, ice will start to form, which insulates further heat loss. Furthermore, convection currents can mix cooler polar water with warmer tropical water. Therefore, the coast of Antarctica is a lot warmer than the interior. The further from the coast, the less this moderation is in effect, with the Antarctic plateau being a vast stretch close to 3000km in diameter. This same principle is what results in the interior of continents such as North America, Europe and Asia having much colder winter temperatures than islands at comparable latitudes such as New Zealand.

To add to this, as you ascend in altitude, the temperature typically drops at a steady rate, until you reach the tropopause, when temperatures rise again as you increase in height. The reason for this is, is that as air rises, the air pressure reduces and air becomes less dense. Its temperature is proportional to its pressure, so the work of expanding into a larger space causes a reduction in temperature. In addition to this, air near the surface of the ground is warmed by earth’s radiation, from heat absorbed from the sun’s rays. The further from the earth, the less effect this has. Convection within the troposphere normally causes mixing of this air.
The Antarctic plateau rises up from its surrounding coastline, and with it, falls the temperature even further.

So typically on most parts of earth, you get cooling as soon as you ascend in altitude from ground level. In winter here, we often see a strong inversion layer in the immediate vicinity of ground level. This is because two of the things that cause warming of air closest to the ground don’t occur. Firstly, there is no sunlight to warm the ground. Anywhere on the planet, if you dig down a couple of metres, you will reach a stable temperature that reflects the average temperature in that region. This is the principle behind using ground-source heat pumps in places with warm summers and cold winters. For here, that temperature 2m down is around -50C, and kept cool by a 3km thick iceslab. However, the surface of the ice (like any ground) is constantly radiating heat away, and if there are no clouds around, it is not reflected back and therefore dissipated in the atmosphere. Unlike other locations, there is no sun to rewarm the ground in the winter. Secondly, in certain wind patterns, there is little mixing of air between that closest to the ground, and that 50 or 100m above. So often our coldest days in winter at ground level are those that are still days with little wind to mix the cold air at ground level with warmer air up higher, and no clouds to reflect the heat back. If we climb the meteorological tower to 30m we can at times get above the invesion layer, where the air temp is much warmer by up to 20 degrees.

The wind patterns of the continent are interesting. Whilst on average it is one of the windiest continents on earth, the interior differs vastly from the coast. The wind accelerates as it descends in altitude heading down the edges of the plateau generating the infamous katabatic winds that can batter the coast, up to the record of 327 km/h reached at the French Dumond d’Urville Station on the East Antarctic coast in 1972. However in the interior, we essentially always have some wind, but is never blowing a gale. The direction of the wind is fundamental for determining local weather conditions.

As we lie at 90.000 degrees south, from here everywhere is ‘north’, which doesn’t help that much in trying to determine what way to refer to different parts of the continent. Therefore the grid system is used with grid north being 0 degrees longitude (ie to Greenwich), grid south 180 degrees east (towards New Zealand), grid west 90 degrees west (towards the Americas) and grid east 90 degrees east (towards Asia).

To our ‘east’ lies the highest and largest bulk of Antarctica, as the continent is not centred directly over the pole. This higher area of landmass is also further from the coast, and therefore the coldest region. It is in the interior of this, where the ‘Pole of Inaccessibility’ lies – the point on the continent furthest from the coast. Near this point lies the Russian Vostok station which has the honour of being the coldest inhabited place recorded, at a nippy -89.3 degrees Celsius. There have now been colder temperatures measured high on the ridges of east Antarctica, but these are not inhabited…yet.
As East Antarctica is uphill from us, the winds tend to flow from there, and with in comes cold dry weather. If the winds switch to the north west, now flowing from the closer Weddell sea, the ocean moderates the temperature resulting in warmer weather, but also carries more water vapour meaning cloudy conditions. The weather chart will look warmer on the screen but the psychological aspect of seeing cloudy weather means you often think it is colder outside.

With an all time recorded high of -12 degrees C and a minimum of -83C, the station maintains the record of the second coldest inhabited place on the earth. Summer average temperatures sit around -30 or -40C and as the sun sets, taking with it its radiant heat, the temps fall to around -55 to -65. Recently, we had an especially cold snap, with the ambient temps reaching -75C with windchill on top of that.

Windchill calculations are a contentious issue, with the original science underpinning traditional calculations being debated. Revisions have occurred and now better reflect the impact of wind on the human body, but they remain a point of debate. Is it worse to be in -75C weather with no wind, or -50C weather with 20 knots of wind? The seasoned veterans who spend a lot of time outside down here over winter seem to think that the calculations have a reasonable degree of validity, as the perceived temperature accounting for windchill can be so much colder than what is felt without. A part of it depends on how you dress – whether you clothes are better at windbreaking or have thick insulating layers will to a mild degree dictate how you perceive these differences. But at the coldest we had recently of -75C, the windchill pushed it down to -105C and that wind certainly had a bite to it. Windchill only accounts for rate of loss of temperature – ambient temperature of -75C with windchill of -100C means that you should lose heat at the same rate that you would if it was -100C without wind. However, if you were not a warm blooded mammal, the coldest you could get would still be -75C, but you will just get there faster than if there was no wind.

You do get adjusted to the temperature pretty promptly, or else going outside would remain a very unpleasant experience. As a lot of the station inhabitants get by without going outside at all if they don’t want to, it is often humorously ironic to partake is discussions in the galley about the weather with people who have just been outside.
‘What’s the weather like outside today?’
‘Oh, it’s pretty warm out there (being serious)’
(Looking at weather screen) ‘Oh yeah, its -50C at the moment’
When the weather is always below 0C, you can make some efficiencies such as referring to all temps without the minus in front of it. It also makes comments such as ‘it’s freezing outside’ relatively redundant. But when someone says ‘it’s cold outside’, at least there is more of a spectrum to cold, and like, reeeeaaaal cold.

When -50C seems like a warm day, you know that your standards have changed somewhat! You can notice the difference when you go outside. Your face doesn’t feel like as many needles are jabbing it if you aren’t wearing your balaclava. Your layers of wrapping up are resistant to getting cold to your core. But a 20 degree swing from -50 to -70 is much less discernable than going from +10 to +30C. This is in part because at either -50 or -70, if you aren’t wrapped up to the nines when you go outside, either way will result in frostbite or hypothermia if you are outside for more than a couple of minutes.

A typical clothing get-up for going outside normally consists of:
– base clothing of merino long sleeve top and cotton or wool trousers
– Thick woolen socks
– ‘FDX’ cold weather boots with woolen bootie liners
– Carhart heavy duty padded over trousers
– Woolen or polar-fleece sweatshirt
– ‘Big Red’ Canada Goose down jacket
– Woolen balaclava
– Woolen beanie
– Polar-fleece neck gaiter
– Goggles with non-tinted lens for winter months
– Marmot 8000m mitts with down liners
With this set up, no skin should be left exposed and even in the coldest temperatures, you can last an hour outside, depending on activities. The biggest variable I have found is what you are holding. Touching metal even through top of the line gloves, such as a camera tripod, sled handle, or scientific equipment sucks the heat out of your hands at a rapid rate. This addition of conduction of heat away along with normal radiation and convection can be profound and result in chilly digits in a matter of a couple of minutes. Mitts tend to keep your hands a lot warmer than gloves, as the individual fingers can keep their adjacent fingers warm rather than the heat being lost as radiation.

If you have to take your hands out of gloves to do work such as adjusting buttons on a camera, screwing up bolts or other fine-motor skills that are not compatible with heavy duty mitts, your hands can take a hammering.

The most common place for people to get frostbite is around the face though. The contours of the face, with overlapping balaclavas, goggles and neck gaiters often means that small gaps are missed around the eyes, nose or mouth. Meal-time conversation will often turn to the inflamed skin on the person’s face opposite you at the table, who didn’t quite cover up completely. These mild variants tend to resolve within a few days, and are not a lot different to get a spot of sunburn on your nose.
I have found the biggest problem being regarding wearing a balaclava. As we breath in, our upper airway humidifies the air, and when we exhale, it tends to condense on the balaclava. This after a while saturates the balaclava and it can then freeze. My attempt at growing a mangy beard has protected my chin and lips from being plastered to my balaclava, but my nose has suffered a few times, enough so that it is lucky I haven’t picked up the nickname Rudolf.

It is cold enough outside that if you throw a glass of boiling water up in the air, it freezes into a fine mist before descending.
With ambient temperatures always colder than a freezer, food storage is never an issue. Other than a few liquids, almost all food is stored in non heated areas, with the requirements for the upcoming week, being brought up on a weekly basis to defrost before being able to be used. Defrosting your icecream for half a day before you can put it in the freezer to be eaten is a novelty. The phrase ‘First world problems’ doesn’t quite seem congruous here, so instead the common answer to any gripes is ‘it’s a harsh continent…’

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The top of the hill, or is it bottom of the dip

June 21st is a special day across the world least populated continent for the hardy bunches of winter-overs smattered across the icy vastness. It marks the winter solstice, and the mid-point of winter, with the theoretical beginning of the return of the sun. The term the ‘longest night’ doesn’t mean much down here when it has been 24 hour darkness for the past three months. This day is the only of the solar based milestones in the winter season that is consistent across all stations, as the last sunset and first sunrise occur closer and closer to the solstice as you ascend in latitude. Being at the Pole, ours sunrise and sunset are the farthest apart ( around the equinox), whilst the stations that are on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, or on the bulge of East Antarctica that fall outside the Antarctic circle, by definition never reach 24 hours darkness of night on the solstice

It is a time of festivity with galleys across the continent again pulling out all the stops, for in our case, a feast of gourmet creations and handmade goodies. Our feast consisted of entrees of specifically stashed sharp cheddar and cumin gouda, smoked trout dip, shrimp remoulade and salad rice paper rolls. Mains was a ensemble of hand made gnocchi with white truffle sauce, grilled bison steaks, greenhouse salad (with less meager rations this time around), filo wrapped asparagus and freshly baked buns. A dessert of Peruvian cocoa nib mousse tart left everyone satisfied.

Being a event that transcends all of the bases, regardless of size or creed, a longstanding tradition has been established to send greetings to all of the other stations on continent and those inhabiting the various sub-antarctic islands. Offers to join for dinner and ensuring festivities are sent in jest given the vast distances that span between the bases dotted around the continent. The thought of hundreds of other winter-overs turning up at your base is sort of like the offer for your mother-in-law to come and visit. Its nice to offer, but you hope that it will be taken as a gesture of the Antarctic spirit, rather than having them actually turn up and eat your limited supply of food to last the winter. Given we can only get about a couple of kms before our machines would seize up in the current conditions, getting to the nearest outpost of humanity – the Russians at Vostok – around 1200km away would be a long walk…

The mid-winter greetings are accompanied by photos of the various stations and their residents, some more sane than others. It is interesting to see the costumes that the endless night has spurred for some, whilst eyeing up the facilities others enjoy, or the group dynamics of the remaining male only stations. A few disparaging remarks are made by some about a few of the Sub-Antarctic islands whose temperate latitudes afford them grass, trees and the ability to wear shorts outside. Their place in the Antarctic winter over club is considered by some to be of dubious merit.

Our station photo was taken at the Geographic South Pole marker, with some faint auroras overhead. In itself it was a piece of logistic majestry. Getting the majority of the 48 of us together, dressed suitably and photos taken before everyone got too cold was a feat in itself. Amongst cries of ‘hold your breath’ to allow the moisture vapour from our breaths to dissipate and not have a photo resembling a russian sauna, whilst the cameras snapped away and we braved the cutting wind to try and eek out an exposed face and smile, we finally got a couple worthy to send out, before we could breath again and cover up from the frigid breeze.
One of the longstanding tradition at the Pole, a nod to recognise our gradually crumbling sanity eroded by sunless confinement to the same few locales and people, is to screen Steven King’s ‘The Shining’ after midwinter dinner. The gym was rearranged with the couches from lounges and the projector beamed the thriller whilst we huddled up to watch the classic. Different sweepstakes were tallied about who of us was most like to end up writing deranged memoirs about their ‘all work and no play making them dull boys (or girls)’, but thankfully we are yet to get anyone wandering the hallways with an axe.
Wait, wasn’t there an extra axe in the firefighters equipment locker? Here’s Johnny!

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A-roar-of the Southern Land

The sun having long set, and the progressive twilight faded, the night is now continuous down here.

In one of the most spectacular natural phenomenon’s able to be seen on earth, we have been graced by some fantastic Aurora Australis displays over the last month, with many more still to come.

The spectacle of Auroras are created by solar particles interacting with our atmosphere. In the land of no direct sunlight for six months, instead, we get a proxy of sunlight in the form of the Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights

The generation of these is created by an interaction between charged particles in the solar wind originating from the sun, the earth’s magnetosphere and our atmosphere. The process is analogous to the old school Cathode-Ray tube Televisions of yesteryear, of electrons interacting with a magnet and being projected onto a screen.

Solar wind, consisting predominantly of electrons and protons, and constantly being ejected by the Sun, to the tune of 1,000,000 tons a second. That is distributed out in all directions, radiating away from the sun, with only a small proportion being directed towards us.

The ejection of material varies significantly, depending on the solar weather. Solar weather. A bizarre concept. Yes, you can be a weather forecaster for space. I wonder if they’ll be an unreliable as terrestrial weather forecasters? If its like the mix of horoscopes and normal weather, then surely it will be incredibly vague. Along the lines of ‘the sun will most likely still be shining, and the world will probably turn’ with possibly an interpretation that is completely irrelevant such as ‘change is coming to your life, make hay whilst the sun shines.’

Anyway, you can get a good idea for what might happen depending on what is happening with the sun. The sun is a ball of predominantly hydrogen continuously fusing in to helium. Given the sun is gaseous rather than solid but has angular momentum (ie it is spinning), the matter in the central portion spins faster, doing a complete revolution in less time than the poles. Within the sun lies a magnetic field, but this is being wound up more in the middle given the faster revolutions. This is similar to holding a rubber band in two fingers, and twisting the middle segment to wind that up more. Just as the rubber band will start to buckle out of a straight line between the two poles, the sun’s magnetic field also buckles, at times creating pockets of the magnetic field outside of the surface of the sun. This causes the convecting gas fury to occasionally follow these lines of magnetic field that are outside of the normal sphere of gas. The end result is the sun’s matter straying out in long wisps, getting further away from the sun’s gravity and therefore more likely to escape its bounds and continue out into the solar system. We see these as solar flares, and to optical instruments (our eyes included), they can be seen as darker patches or ‘sun spots’. This sun spots persist for several weeks, so can be used to predict when more energy dense solar wind will be coming. Occasionally major episodes of this nature are seen, and visualised as coronal mass ejections.

Particularly at temperate latitudes such as southern New Zealand, Tasmania and the bottom of South America, where the Aurora are difficult to see, this relative increases in solar activity can mean the difference between seeing something and nothing.

The earth has a magnetic field, due to our liquid iron core. The axis of the field is similar to the axis of rotation, but is off in alignment by around 25 degrees, meaning that the magnetic south pole lies on the edge of Antarctica, on the section closest to Tasmania. The flux lines of the field are complex, and not the same as a simple dipole magnet. Therefore there is two entities when it comes to the earth’s magnetic field. One, the magnetic pole is where your compass will point to, is where the pole of the asymmetrical field is sensed when on the surface of the earth.

The geomagnetic south pole on the other hand, is theoretically where the main axis of the pole runs through, when distant from the surface of the earth. This therefore is what the electrons ‘see’ as they interact with the magnetosphere. It is over this point that the ‘aurora oval’ is centred. Similar to an apple, which has the stalk coming out along the axis of the apple, the surface of the skin is where the particles can follow. Where they reach the top is not at the stalk, but instead in a oval centred around the stalk. In a similar way, the auroras are most intense not at the actual geomagnetic pole itself, but instead in an oval centred around the geomagnetic pole. At the South Pole, we are on the inside of the oval, so although not the theoretically most prime location, it is still essentially still one the best sites in the world for the Aurora Australis (Aurora Borealis’ oval overlies a lot of Alaska, Canada, Russia and Scandinavia, so there are plenty of inhabited places within the oval), as the rest of the oval overlies uninhabited polar plateau. Furthermore, we have pretty consistently clear skies, few storms, and a very long night to enjoy the auroras over.

As the electrons and a proportionally fewer protons (as some of the protons have combined with electrons and become magnetically neutral) follow the magnetosphere, they enter the atmosphere, and start hitting the ions and molecules in the atmosphere. It can happen from anywhere between 60 and 500 km from the earth’s surface, but typically between 200-300km (space theoretically starts at 100km). The most common element to hit in the outer layers of the atmosphere is elemental oxygen (O, not O2), and one electron can hit several oxygen’s during its descent. The energy imparted to the oxygen molecule, pushes one of its outer valence electrons to a higher energy state where it is unstable and prefers to return to its more inert form. Typically the oxygen will go to its second excited state (an electron two valence rings out from its inert state). It is unstable there, and within a second, normally its has released energy in the form of light, to return to its first excited state. The wavelength released by going from 2nd to 1st is 557.7nm which is green light. One it is in its first excited state, the urge to get back to the inert state is lower, and therefore takes a couple of minutes. Given that the time period for this transition is much longer, the oxygen may instead bump into another molecule in the atmosphere transferring its excess energy. Therefore, the release of light from the 1st excited state to the inert state is much less common in the lower, denser atmosphere. The wavelength released is 636.4 nm corresponding to red light. Therefore green light predominates over red light in lower auroras. In order to produce visualisable auroras, you need around a millions and millions of electrons hitting a square cm! That is quite a few. Lucky our sun is such a source of spewing electrons.

The other colour seen is purple, which is generated by electrons hitting primed nitrogen. The nitrogen first has to be primed by sunlight, so down here, typically only happens closer to the periods of twilight, where although the sun is well below the horizon and not reaching us on the surface of the earth, its rays are still hitting the upper atmosphere, priming the nitrogen. The purple colours tend to be in curtain like displays, as different to the more dynamic greens.

The auroras vary in their intensity and movement, with typically the brighter ones also being the most variable. With the magnetic field shifting, the patterns include shapes such as spirals, arcs and veils. It can be so short lived, that if someone is outside, and radios to others that they are looking good, by the time you’re out there within a few minutes, things have lapsed and you’re back to a clear sky. On our radios that we use for communication around the base, interested aurora spotters have a dedicated channel to alert others about what is happening outside. All of our windows are boarded up, to prevent light pollution disrupting or damaging light sensitive science experiments, so what is happening outside is often an unknown unless your want to peak out one of the fridge doors that insulate the station.

In low light conditions, our eyes are pretty rubbish at picking up colour. Instead of using the cones in the retinas of our eyes, which detect colour and give us our central fields of vision, we use the rods that make up the most of our peripheral vision, which are much more sensitive in low light, but only detect black and white. It is for this reason, that out of the corner of your eyes, you can’t see colour, and similarly, in dark situations, you will often see movement in your peripheries, but when you turn to look, you can’t detect it any more. As the germans say “all cats at night are grey”. For aurora gazing, you can often see the auroras, which are clearly visible against the black starlight background, but the they appear as greyscale clouds. When captured on camera, they take up their vivid colours, as cameras are detecting the true colour that they are. We have had fleeting glimpses of the super bright auroras which light up the sky and ice beneath to such a degree that our cones can pick them up, and they are seen actual visible colour, but I haven’t been able to time it to be out for them. Our eyes are six times more sensitive to green light than red and blue, so if we are to see any colour, green is by far the most likely.

Photographing the auroras is a bit of a learned art. A combination of shutter speed, aperture, ISO settings, mixed with ambient light (is the moon up) and the intensity of the auroras varies the quality of the images. Too long a shutter speed, and things will lose definition and get blurred. Too wide an aperture, and peripheral stars on a wide angle lens get distorted with comatic aberration. Too much ISO and the photo will look grainy or too little, and the photo won’t be bright enough. Too short a shutter speed, low and ISO or narrow an aperture and not enough light will be captured to see the auroras. Taking photos outside if full complement of Extreme Cold Weather gear (ECW) is challenging especially if you want to change camera settings. With the help of resident experts, I have rigged up a remote with a nut (nut and bolt, not cashew…) epoxy’d on to the button to aid in dexterity through thick multi layer mittens. Unwarmed, my camera with a specific cold weather battery tends to last 15 minutes on timelapse before giving up the ghost. After being outside for just a couple of minutes, touching the camera or tripod without gloves tends to burn your fingertips at -60C, if you try to adjust something not amenable to fat finger mitts. Plastic remote cables don’t like -60 temps, and tend to become brittle and snap, so several of us keen novices had a soldering session replacing the plastic coated wire with cold-tolerant teflon wiring. Furthermore, we had to change the grease in our tripods as normal grease freezes at the temperatures we experience, making tripods much less helpful.

I have recently constructed a warmed camera box, out of a polystyrene box used to ship temperature dependent medication and lab equipment down here. Warmed with two drink bottles of boiling water, and with a hole to poke the lens out of, hopefully it will be suitable to capture some long duration time lapses over the course of half a day.

Many thanks to resident scientist/astronomer/aurora guru Robert Schwarz for his knowledge imparted about auroras and space during out weekly astronomy classes, his advice about aurora photography and skills and equipment in fabricating camera boxes, regreasing tripods and rewiring remotes. If you want to see the products of a master aurora chaser who is down here for his 12th winter, check out his collection of videos and photos on,, and

It has been a real highlight to see some of the most intense auroras around. In a place that doesn’t see direct sunlight for six months, having another sun-produced substitute that is much more beautiful is a awesome way to accept the long long night.

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Machines on ice

The lead-in to winter is a busy time for the mechanic team on station, as they winterise all of the machinery not required, and work to keep the required equipment that will be used over winter maintained to handle the conditions.

Temperatures around -60 C (without windchill) are not kind to machinary, as any rubber gasket, hose or rubber track becomes stiff and brittle, rather than its normal malleable self. This automatically excludes vehicles like the utes/pickups, vans and Cat tractors that use rubber tyres or tracks for traction. The utes/pickups and vans were put up on blocks, and stored with the bulk of the snow(im)mobiles and other machinery and in what looks a bit like a vehicle ghost town.

The more hardy vehicles include the big Caterpillar dozers, front end loaders and LMCs. These are the options reserved for the Heavy Equipment operator to use to clear drifts, refuel outlying science buildings, retrieve equipment from the berms, or stow boxes of our waste recycyling and rubbish, which all need to continue during the winter.

Drifting from the constant wind can be dramatic and walking around the station in darkening twilight in the weeks after the sun had set at times is a comically troublesome event. Without direct light, all white snow and ice loses its contours and perception of depth, and it is not uncommon to be walking beside some buildings, only to walk into a 2 foot high drift that you did not detect, resulting in you being facedown in the said drift, followed by a quick check to see who witnessed it and would report your clumsiness back to the crew for everyones humorous benefit.

The drifting is inevitable and in most locations, is not tackled over winter, as the battle is endless and trying to gain ascendancy puts too much demand on the machines in dubious conditions. Several places need to be kept clear, such as emergency exits, entrances to the mechanics workshop etc. The rest is left for nature to build its fort, ready for the tussle to continue once winter abates and temperatures warm.

The nine months of winter does provide a chance for the mechanic team to do annual maintenance on the equipment whilst use is at a minimal, to allow them to be used at times around the clock in the frantic three months of summer. JP, our lead mechanic has just finished a major overhall on ‘Mary-Lou’, a Caterpillar D-8 dozer. All of the machines have a name, from the practical sounding tracked LMC ‘Wrench’, the sci-fi movie inspired Skidsteer ‘Wall-E’, the cult-classic referenced Waste shredder ‘Fargo’ to the effeminite ‘Emma’ or dozer ‘Sherri Anne’, and the bizarre ‘Screaming Eagle’, ‘Bigfoot’, ‘Elephant Man’ or ‘Bald Guys’.
Mary-Lou’s work included a complete engine block change, hose replacement and other routine repairs. Our work at times takes us down to the ‘VMF’ (Vehicle Maintenance Facility), where we would see the guts of the big dozer disemboweled across the workshop floor, in various stages of reassembly. At lot of the heavy equipment we have here, is of a 1960s vintage. It may well be that some of it was the same equipment that my Dad worked on during his university holiday employment at the Goff, Goff and Hamer Cat dealership in Christchurch in the early 1970s, when problems that were not able to be sorted on the ice by the American program, were instead shipped to Christchurch for major repairs at the Cat dealership.

All the equipment used over winter is stored inside the warmed VMF in between use. Even with electric circuits that warm keep the engine block warmed, which is standard practice in Summer, this is not sufficient once the temperatures drop as the sun goes. Oil becomes more viscous, hoses become brittle and snap, and seals lose their patency. Some of the snowmobiles have been modified to allow for winter ops. If stored inside, and never turned off outside, they can be used to haul water and supplies to more distant outlying buildings when needed. Just don’t stop for too long, as the rubber tracks quickly freeze to the ground, and then you’re in big trouble!

One of the pre-winter tasks we had to do was to retrieve the skiway markers that designate to the Herc pilots where the groomed skiway lies, and give a sense of depth perception in the otherwise definitionless environment. Every 50 yards or so, lies 3 canvas panels sleeves on each side of the runway, on two bamboo stakes in the ground. With no flights for the nine months, the markers are removed to stop them getting damaged or buried by the drifting. Timing the task was a case of watching the weather so we could get out on ‘Wrench’, one of the tracked LMC vehicles, with it warm enough for the machine to tolerate the couple of mile trek to get the task done, but careful to not leave it too late as the light faded. Sitting on the back of the tracked vehicle, going out to the so-called ‘End of the World’, past the last remnants of our human interaction for over 1000kms and just looking out and thinking about what it would have taken for the explorers of the historic age to get there, with none of the technology we today have, is a humbling feeling of how lucky I am to be down here.

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The long night awaits

The setting of the sun is one of the big three milestones for the winter season, with mid-winter and sunrise being occasions we still have to look forward to. Most of the crew was looking forward to what winter would bring, with the challenges of the prolonged isolation from our local fusion reactor in the sky, making us devoid of natural alarm clocks, as well as bringing some of the coldest conditions experienced on the planet. Furthermore, the lack of natural light in the night sky allows one of the true magical aspects of life down here – the ability to gaze upon the universe around us with minimal light, moisture or atmospheric distortion. Along with what promise to be amazing starscapes, the chance to see auroras is for many, one of the biggest things to look forward to over the winter.

To celebrate the going down of the sun, our Galley crew pulled out all the stops for a formal dinner for the station. Tablecloths were brought out of storage, wine glasses dusted off, and a five course meal was carefully crafted from a limited armamentarium of ingredients.
Shaggy beards were trimmed, ties were fossicked from the back of wardrobes, best pairs of jeans had their quarterly wash and most people’s solo dress shirt were ironed. The crew mustered up surprisingly well, and whilst we waited to be seated in the main dining area, we were treated to platters of specialty cheese, prosciutto and crab that had been stashed for such an occasion.
With mains of braised duck breast, lobster tail, vege medley and fresh salad, everyone was left content. The greenhouse had had a hiccup the week prior in the lettuce department, so our salad consisted of two slices of cucumber and a cherry tomato each, with a vinaigrette over top. Such is life!
With an industrial supply of liquid nitrogen on station thanks to science requirements, homemade icecream is a novel way to escape the supply of icecream that gets shipped in, but seems to absorb through the cardboard box the odour and taste of the jet-fuel near where it is stored. And a dessert is not a true american dessert without bacon, so Applewood smoked bacon liquid nitrogen icecream it was, with coffee cake and toffee glaze creations.

After everyone was filled to the gunwhales, and content with enough calories in their system to go into hibernation for winter, should they wish, we all pitched in to get the whole process cleaned up and dishes done. Their had been a poll of most appropriate sunset horror movies, with the leading candidate being ‘30 days of night’, a horror set in Point Barrow, in the far north of Alaska, about zombie vampire type beings that take over the town during their 30 day sunless period of continuous night in mid-winter. Our sunless period is six times the length, so thankfully, we could double the movie as an educational instruction on how to deal with such scenarios, should a ghost ship pull in and offload a bunch of blood sucking undesirables in the long months ahead.

One of the last remaining tasks for sunset was the bringing in of the flags at the Ceremonial South Pole. The twelve countries that make up the original signatories of the Antarctic treaty each have a flag flown at the Ceremonial South Pole during the months of light. Bringing in the flags of Argentina, Australia, Chile, Russia, New Zealand, Norway, USA, Great Britain, France, Japan, Belgium, and South Africa, as well as another copy of the Stars and Stripes, and NSF moniker that flew on the station, were all balloted out to interested individuals, and 14 of us got to lower the flags, and carefully roll up the emblems that had been battered by six months of constant sun and wind.

I got in early and was uncontested in the pick for the New Zealand flag. It was just three days after the result of our referendum popularity contest regarding the choice of whether we wanted to replace our current ensign with John Key’s favourite tea-towel pattern. Given that mail had stopped a month and a half earlier, and that the design that was challenging the incumbent was known well before, I had sought and gained permission from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that runs the US Antarctic Program, to bring down a copy of the new flag, should it be successful. Whilst I was opposed to the new design, it would have been a special opportunity to raise a new flag on behalf of our country, at the South Pole, for the first time.
The outcome of the quazi-democratic process, hamstrung by the supposed expert committee containing no-one with any flag designing experience or design expertise at all, and all personally chosen by our great leader who had openly repeatedly voiced his preference for any new design to contain a fern, ‘cos he likes rugby, and the All Blacks are great, it is unsurprising with the result we got. What was a great opportunity for our country to reaffirm our principles of what we stand for, our heritage that is important to us, and our political outlook we want to take into the 21st century instead ended up being squandered as essentially a vote of do we like sport more than the mother Britain. Whilst we are a great sporting nation, we are so much more than that, and just transplanting a complex motif from our sporting attire that is far too intricate for a flag (which are supposed to be high contrast simple shapes designed to be seen and identified from miles away at sea), belittles everything else that we have achieved as a country and what potential we have to be.

My moral conundrum of how I would feel if the new flag got voted in, and was due to be raised thankfully did not come to fruition, and so I have a copy of the flag, still wrapped up in my drawer, should any of those on the bandwagon for change want a copy that has been to the bottom of the world and back.
Rant over. Well, it is my blog, so there…

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Winter is coming…

A yearly sunset in a sight to be behold. Watching the sun gradually deflate in its gently spiralling arc towards the horizon, turning the sky from a light radiant blue, through the palette of pastel colours, back to a monochromatic diffuse deeper shade of indigo. This primed the conflict in our minds of what the excitement of what a true Antarctic experience would bring, versus what the six long months without sunlight would do to our mind and spirits.

During life at more temperate latitudes, I always rued the onset of winter, where the sun would be yet to rise on the way to work, and down before I could home to enjoy it. The melancholy that that time of the year ushered in was slightly offset by the winter and snow sports, but the return of long days, warm weather and all the activities that returned with it, provided the solace of dealing with a standard winter.

Here, life is on a much more profound scale. During the weeks of February and March, we watched the temperature drop by up to a degree a day as the suns angle of inclination dropped through the single digits, meaning a cross section of its rays were spread across an ever increasing area of ground, and with that dissipation, the warmth of the sun disappeared. At its highest point on the summer solstice in late December, the sun reaches 23.5°, which correlates to the angle of the earth varies in, compared to the ecliptic plane of orbit around the sun.

As we watched our shadows get longer and longer, the sky transitioned through shades of yellow, orange and red. Maybe one day, down here will become a lovers retreat, where you can amorously watch the sunset for weeks on end, rather than the minutes you get elsewhere.

The exact time of the sun setting is a variable entity and dependent on a range of different variables, as the resident weather experts informed us. Being on the very bottom of the planet, you would assume the sun sets on the equinox. But that assumes a perfectly spherical earth, no atmospheric impact, that you are right on the surface rather than any elevation, and the measure is of when half of the disc of the sun is below the horizon.

But what we consider to be the ‘sunset’ is when the last of the visible rays of light disappear, rather than the technical reference being just when half is visible. The sun depresses at just under one arc-minute (a measure of angular distance in the sky) per hour, and the sun is around 30 arc minutes in diameter, so it takes 15-16 further hours for the top half of the sun to disappear.

Then there is the issue of atmospheric distortion. Light hitting a more dense substance is bent towards the line perpendicular to the surface of the two different substances. It is for the same reason that were you to try and spear a fish in the water, unless directly below you, you are likely to hit a spot above it. As a result, light is bent around the curve of the earth by the atmosphere. Whilst the atmosphere here is a lot thinner than at sea level, the cold increases its density, meaning it has roughly the same density as at sea level.
When we watch the sun setting, whilst sitting on a beach back home, by the time our view of the sun first reaching the horizon, it in fact has already completely set, but we are just seeing light bent from over the horizon. The refractive effect is approximately 34 degrees, meaning that here, we get roughly another 36 hours of visible sun, after it has passed below the horizon.

Then there is the issue of elevation. The higher your vantage point, the further the visible horizon stretches. From our vantage point in the main elevated station, we can see approximately 7 miles further compared to at ground level. For each mile equates to around a further arc-minute of visibility, and therefore an extra hour of sun.

With all of these calculations and permutations streaming through our consciousness, everyone was keenly (with a dose of trepidation) awaiting the final glimpses of sunlight, and the twilight that would shepherd in winter. For those that had been there since the end of October, it was to be the first sunset in 5 months. Low and behold, the wind shifted to Grid North (heading from the warmer moister Weddell Sea region, rather than the drier colder East Antarctic plateau). Misty overcast skies mixed with windblown ice crystals to reduce the visibility to a mile or so, and ruin the views we were anticipating of the sky transitioning through its pastel spectrum.

A despondent group of Polies moped around, disappointed the chance to see this sentinel waypoint in the year looked likely to pass without our observation. But late on the 23rd, the skies cleared, and the slim sliver of the sun beamed its radiant beams around the horizon to us to everyones delight.

One of the idiosyncrasies of the setting sun is the transition in its colours. Just as the sky is blue because the blue light is scattered by the atmosphere, allowing other wavelengths to transit, as the sun sets, the sunlight passes through more and more atmosphere given its low angle of incidence. This refracts out more and more wavelengths of light, giving it a more red appearance. It is for this same reason, that the setting sun in dusty dry environments such as the subsaharan African dry season, or a smog-ridden city has a deep red appearance, due to particulates in the atmosphere affecting shorter wavelengths.

As the sun departs our line of sight and heads over the horizon, the light is bent by the atmosphere, with the red light being bent less than green and blue light. But at a certain point, the green light at the top of the sun is bent just the right about to pass to the observers position, whilst the green light of the body of the sun is bent and falls short, but red light from the body of the sun still makes it to the observer. Therefore, the elusive green flash can be seen as a green sparkle on the top of the setting sun. Typically at temperate latitudes, this happens in the passing of a few seconds, so is difficult to see, and even harder to photograph. Luckily for us, the equivalent of a few seconds of the suns path equates to minutes here, so we all revelled in peering through telescopes, cameras and binoculars to see what looked like a stream of green ants marching back and forward on the top of the sun. At times we even saw a blue flash, as the air here is some of the cleanest in the world, so even less particulates to refract short wavelength light away. This was a pretty magical evening for the crew, with a papparazzi line up of cameras busily snapping away well into the night.

This evening doubled as also being the dying minutes of my 20s. Come midnight, the last remainders of the sunset watchers sang me the traditional happy birthday ballad, as well as a more disturbing song about getting old, dying and being forgotten. At least I won’t forget what was a special way to bring in my 30s. Supposed to be the best decade right?

The clear weather also luckily were coupled with low winds, so a couple of us took up the offer to climb the Atmospherical Research Observatory’s (ARO) 50m tall meteorological tower to gain a new perspective on our barren world. From the top of the tower, on one side was the red/yellow glow of the final remnants of the setting sun. On the other, in a shroud in a pink hue, fell the shadow of the earth, from which we watched the full moon rise, reminding us that night was here, and the long winter was coming…

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