It’s a place like no other in the world. At the center of the Antarctic continent, the South Pole is a barren desert of snow. It boasts some of the lowest temperatures in the world, and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station is an oasis of life surrounded by miles of ice.
Although the conditions may be harsh and unwelcoming, the daily life of someone at the South Pole station is exciting and interesting. During construction, we sent over 100 people to the station each year, and here is a little taste of what their experience was like.
Traveling to the Pole
Before you are allowed to depart for the South Pole, you have to undergo a physical examination to make sure you are healthy enough to travel and handle the conditions. There are doctors at the Pole, but because of the time it takes to fly in and out, treating serious medical conditions can be difficult.
Getting to the South Pole as a member of the IceCube project requires a lot time in the air. Travel from the Northern Hemisphere typically takes 72 hours or more. Your first flight would be on a commercial airline into Auckland, New Zealand. From Auckland you fly to Christchurch, New Zealand, where you would be fitted for extreme cold weather gear. Everyone headed to Antarctic is issued special clothing to protect against the cold, including parka, mittens, boots, and more.
After you pickup your gear, your flight out of Christchurch is on a military transport plane—a Boeing C-17—to McMurdo, a U.S. station on the Antarctic coast. McMurdo Station could be considered a large city in Antarctic terms, whereas the South Pole is more of a small town. You stay at McMurdo until you can catch a flight to the South Pole on a ski-equipped Lockheed LC-130 Hercules.
No matter how many times someone has traveled to the South Pole, getting off the plane is always exciting. And, usually, it’s very bright. All that snow and sun make for some intense light. Once your eyes adjust, you’ll see a group of people waiting to welcome the flight, and beyond that, the South Pole Station.
The South Pole Station
The South Pole Station houses approximately 200 people. It also has an industrial kitchen, dining room, gym, greenhouse, and more.
The station is at an altitude of close to 10,000 feet, so some you’ll need to acclimate to the thin air and lower the air pressure. Our bodies have two main problems with high altitude and the corresponding lower air pressure: (1) air at lower pressure has less oxygen per lungful. Your body adjusts by producing more red blood cells to carry oxygen more efficiently. Most of this cell building happens while you sleep; however, the process can take days, and in the meanwhile, you may be ill. (2) At lower air pressure, water evaporates faster. There is little precipitation at the South Pole, making it the world’s largest dessert. It is critical to keep hydrated.
Fresh water is made using a hot water hose. Hose is driven into an ice cavern to melt a bowl into the ice. The melted water is then siphoned out for drinking and other uses. When the melted area becomes too low for the hose to reach, the hose is moved to create a new hole.
For recreation, people form clubs, start bands, attend class and events that reflect their interests—from learning about the other projects going on at the station to learning Scottish dance!
There are always things to do at the South Pole for recreation. In fact, it often seems like there's too much to do and too little time. There is a gym with a weight room, volleyball, basketball, music, and classes, in addition to work. During the summer there are science lectures every week, so you can hear different researchers talk about their various projects; subject tend to focus around astronomy and atmospheric studies. The season starts slowly, but when people begin sharing their talents as the short season progresses, it's easy to become overscheduled.
All supplies must be flown in to the South Pole. There is a small greenhouse to help supplement the food supply. In past seasons the number of flights to the South Pole has averaged about 330 per year—about a third transported fuel, the remainder brought people and cargo. Boxed-up trash is carried out on return flights and flown to McMurdo Station, where it is loaded onto the cargo boats to be returned to the United States.
Thawing food at the South Pole can take several hours to a week. Ice cream needs to be removed from storage several hours ahead of time to thaw or you would need to serve it with a hacksaw!
During the winter a skeleton crew, called winter-over, remain to maintain the station. During the South Pole winter, the sun sets in February and doesn’t rise again until November. It is very difficult to get anything in or out of the South Pole during these months. The average temperature is so low that most aircrafts cannot land. The hydraulics on the skis are rated to only -50°C (-58°F) and could fail at lower temperatures.
Although the record high at the South Pole was -13.6°C (7.5°F), you appreciate any temperature above -18°C (0°F) when living and working at the South Pole. The chill of the katabatic winds makes the area much colder than what the thermometer reads.
Time at the South Pole is aligned with the McMurdo station, which is aligned with New Zealand.
Working at the South Pole changes your perspective on the world. It is starkly beautiful. The weather and atmospheric affects are primarily why scientific research is conducted here. Temperatures are always below freezing and the average temperature during the winter can near -73°C (-100°F). When temperatures are this frigid, one the more entertaining things to do is jump into a sauna, then run out into the cold, with or without your clothes on, to experience a sudden temperature 149°C (300°F) drop. It's called joining the 300 club.