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Beauty and the Cold

Winter-over Polie describes the mundane and the magical at South Pole Station


Today was a day of the unimaginable, the extremes that the South Pole offers us: cold and beauty.

Verging on minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit, in a sudden drop from the negative 40s and 50s — with the sun glowing fat and orange and nuclear a few degrees above our horizon and circling around us, casting long blue shadows and shining pastels through every cloud — the day started with a mental thud, a mind stuttering and casting about for words and concepts.

I dressed as usual, the ritual of adding layers and creating my defenses against the cold familiar and comforting every morning around the same time. The day before had been in similar temperatures and glorious: One of those days when I feel powerful in my independence and impervious to the cold. The sun had been low and casting every bump and bit of texture to the snow into high bas-relief, with a pinkish orange tint.

But today, just a few more knots of wind knocked me flat, and after less time than I’d like to think, in my slightly macho Polie way, I was scurrying inside to warm up for an hour or more and unwilling to face the cold again.

Unless interrupted by demands more urgent, I start my workday in waste management every morning by exiting from the Destination Zulu (DZ) stairwell to the snow. (DZ is the rear entrance to the station.) There I walk along my DZ waste line, where I have a line of 50- and 100-cubic-foot triwalls with wooden lids lined up on the snow just beneath the station between the support pylons.

I open every bin to see the state of them. Have they had more stuff put in them in the last 24 hours? How full are they? Are the bags of waste in the right categories? Do I need to sort? Condense? Reorganize? Close the bin and replace it with an empty one?

I start closest to the station at the food waste bins. These are two 50-cube bins (about four-foot square), double-lined with large plastic bin liners, in which the kitchen staff put the waste food they generate. The greenhouse also makes frequent use of these bins. They fill up pretty quickly.

With the wooden lids on, and a two-foot-square hinged lid opening, it is hard for the bags of frozen food to fit snugly within the bin. I frequently shift bags from bin to bin, to jigsaw the frozen chunks in more effectively. This is never easy. The bags of frozen food are awkward and heavy. I am frequently upside down inside one of these bins trying to yank a bag out that I just know will fit inside the next bin over, making it a perfectly filled bin I can then strap shut and change out.

Then I move down to the glass bin, also a 50-cuber. Almost a third full, all the glass is beer bottles, wine bottles, soda bottles, etc., and double bagged. I may rummage around, feet waving in the air over this bin, to get the bags as flat as possible on the bottom, so there are no gaps as it fills up.

At the cardboard bin, a 100-cube triwall (about four-foot by four-foot by six-foot), I open the lid’s door and see that the cardboard needs some work. Sometimes it is a box that has not been flattened, or a flat box that has landed askew within the bin, causing all the other cardboard to pile awkwardly on top of it. Sometimes the bin appears quite full but with everything in the center third of the bin nearest the opening in the lid.

No matter what, I usually end up climbing inside the bin through the hole in the lid to flatten or spread the cardboard out along the edges so more can ultimately fit inside it. I also stomp. My weight will compress the oddly folded, slightly bent bits of cardboard into a more mille-feuille packing method.

Next is paper towels. Another 100-cuber. I ALWAYS get inside this bin after the first dozen bags have been put in. This bin always looks fuller than it is. The bags are full of used paper towels and napkins and tissues and such soft, compressible items (candy wrappers, chip bags, etc.) and also full of air.

When I pull out a bag from an indoor trash bin, and before I tie a knot in it, I sit on it to get as much air out as possible. This saves me from the following common scenario: I am stomping and stepping and standing on full bags of paper towels tied securely shut. They contain so much air that I am held up by a pillow of air on a thin plastic garbage bag, which in the cold we have here is quite brittle.

Phwoomphf! It has popped. If I am lucky, it pops sideways and I am simply a shorter figure inside the bin. If I am unlucky, and it is windy and the bag pops upwards, I find myself in a rising cloud of white tissues and napkins and paper towels, and I have to chase them down.

Mixed paper: This 100-cube bin requires frequent dancing to compress the bags of paper. It’s the cereal boxes here that make it look fuller than it is until I have done my triwall dance.

Plastics: 100-cuber. I can usually shift this stuff around by hand, but toward the full end of its sojourn at DZ, I do dance in it.

Aluminum cans: 100-cuber. Mostly bagged. No dancing. But hand shifting much like the glass bin.

Non-R (Non-recyclable items like chairs, bamboo poles, insulation, bags of ghost poop, also known as packing peanuts): 100-cuber. Mostly hand work but the occasional climb inside to shift heavier items about is called for.

Sanitary waste: 50-cuber. I so don’t dance inside this bin. If it ain’t condensed, it stays that way. I am not going to stomp around in something that could explode the less savory items we humans produce on station up into my face. I have my limits.

By the time I made it to the end of my line this particular morning, the sun was sharply bright and orange, glowing brightly, flickering in and out of the power plant exhaust.

I was also starting to feel the cold on the minute bits of skin on my cheekbones exposed to the cold, the wind deftly seeking access through my face gear. My fingers were a bit chilled but nothing beyond the norm in which I function quite easily. I headed down the two-step slope at the end of the A Pod wing on the station, past the power plant and down into the valley that contains the logistics arch (LO) and the vehicle maintenance facility (VMF).

A normal day.

It wasn’t until I was climbing back out of the VMF, just leaving the doorway behind me, that my heart fluttered for the first time. At my feet were balls of white things rolling around and gathering in little fuzzy piles in every depression in the snow. My initial thought was, “Oh no, not more cotton balls!” I’d spent my fair share of time last winter sorting fresh white cotton balls from white snow. I’d actually spent several days doing it.

I knelt in the tracks left by the loader and peered closely at these balls. I picked them up in my mittens. I crushed them like air.

Not cotton.

Soap bubbles? Was there a bubble bath on station no one told me about?

Nope. I was dumbfounded. Had one of the pieces of heavy equipment been spewing some soapy stuff behind it?

I continued on my way up the VMF slope and noticed more and more of these collections of tiny balls of frozen airy bubbles. By the time I reached the top of the slope, I was back inside the glow of the sun shining long and low across the snow ahead of me. And what I saw amazed me: Rolling, dashing balls of light snow, chased and hurried across the uneven snowscape by the light wind at my back.

The way these bubbles traveled was like nothing so much as when the bubbles from a soapy car wash escape in the summer wind and roll off with that slightly rubbery flexibility and lightweight escape. But this was at minus 78F at the South Pole.

Does it have a name?

The name of this phenomenon is yukimarimo, described in 1999 by a Japanese expedition after discovering it four years earlier at Dome Fuji in East Antarctica. Members of the 36th Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition observed that fine frost layers had formed on the snow surface at cold air temperatures (ranging from minus 59 to minus 72 centigrade), and frost balls had formed due to a weak wind condition. Yuki means “snow” in Japanese, and marimo is a ball-like plant found in some lakes in the northern hemisphere. So, yukimarimo means something like “snowball” or “snow roller.”

— From Yukimarimo’s Homepage

As far as I could tell, I’d stumbled into a desert world populated by miniature crystal tumbleweeds. Every tiny, dancing ball of breathy ice caused me to almost stumble in my tracks.

Was I the only one seeing this? What was this? Where was it coming from? Did we humans cause this? My mind raced but also it sat still and stunned in my head as I stood watching this phenomenon in utter mind-boggled gratitude.

Every tiny drift and old footprint in the snow had gathered a wee collection of these balls. I knelt in front of one footprint, and gazed long and hard at the pile of tumbleweeds within. It was then I noticed, at this low angle with the sun also low, that hoarfrost feathered the entire surface of the snow — every smooth, flat area and rounded, humped area.

The entire world had been felted overnight with the lightest furring effect of hoarfrost. The sun was so low that even a 1-centimeter frost protrusion cast a 10-centimeter-long shadow across the snow.

The wind was collecting this light feathery crystal hoarfrost and rolling it along the surface of the snow to collect more hoarfrost, and these mini tumbleweeds were collecting and skittering into piles in the lee of any obstacle.

Wow. Let me just say, “Wow.”

I wasn’t noticing the cold by then. I was flabbergasted, excited, thrilled and grateful. The world was alive around me with tiny balls of odd life, and I was at the South Pole at the right temperature and the right time with the right sunlight to witness this tiny miracle.

But I had work to do.

By the time I gathered my wits and took a few highly inadequate photographs, I was getting colder and colder.

I headed off to the newly transformed landscape of my waste yard, where every item downwind had a family, a gathering, a delicate pile of frost bubbles. I was greeted by a new discovery everywhere I turned. I could not stop smiling broadly every time, even acknowledging these families with squeaks of gleeful welcome.

Despite these distractions, I got cold. I got very, very cold. My hands reached a point where they hurt. Just past numb, with which I can still work and have always recovered without frost nip or frostbite. You learn the limits of cold, how far you can let it invade before you have to respond and fight back or flee.

I retreated. I had to. And I simply could not get my body to recover its warmth. Not until after lunch, a lunch of turnip soup, a fresh, warm bread roll slathered in more butter than is probably legal, and good conversation.

Then I headed back outside for another few hours of what Pole offers us best: cold and beauty, in forms and ways you’ll never be able to imagine or understand until you’ve been here. Both of which stun me more frequently than I’ll admit.

Genevieve Ellison is the Waste Management specialist at South Pole Station. This is her second winter at the Pole. You can follow her blog at 


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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs