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South Pole Station Archives - 2015

Traverses and Turkeys

Rare to see such a large plane fly by South Pole Station, a C-17 drops off a test bundle
Photo Credit: Chet Waggoner
Rare to see such a large plane fly by South Pole Station, a C-17 drops off a test bundle.
A SPOT1 tractor towing 24,000 gallons of fuel pulls into the station
Photo Credit: Ethan Rudnitsky
A SPOT1 tractor towing 24,000 gallons of fuel pulls into the station.
The kitchen staff decorated the galley and put out special table settings for the Thanksgiving holiday
Photo Credit: Chet Waggoner
The kitchen staff decorated the galley and put out special table settings for the Thanksgiving holiday.

November saw big changes at the South Pole Station. The wintering crew of 45 put in a lot of hard work preparing the station for opening – digging out from the snow accumulation of winter, prepping the skiway and getting vehicles up and running. They were rewarded with the arrival of many new faces and freshies for the galley before eventually leaving the ice themselves for other adventures. The station now has a population of about 150, and is bustling with activity. One large summer project underway is transitioning the Balloon Inflation Facility into its new home within the Cryo building. The remodel will raise the building’s ceiling to accommodate the tall doors needed for balloon launches. Both the Meteorologist and the NOAA balloon technicians are looking forward to their new home.

On Monday, November 16, we enjoyed watching a C-17 fly over the station several times on a training mission for possible emergency airdrops. It made multiple approaches over both the winter and summer drop zones and dropped two test bundles – each landing within 100 yards of the target. Such a large plane is rarely seen at Pole and the airshow was a fun diversion.

Another much anticipated arrival was the season’s first South Pole Traverse. Known as SPOT1, the convoy of tractors and sleds reached the station on November 25, after leaving McMurdo on November 1. SPOT1 travelled nearly 1,000 miles (averaging 7 miles per hour) and delivered about 100,000 gallons of much needed fuel. Each sled holds eight fuel bladders with 3,000 gallons in each, totaling 24,000 gallons per sled. There are three such traverses scheduled for this summer season, and the next two should make even better time on the broken-in trail, but that is always dependent upon the weather. SPOT2 has already departed McMurdo and is making its way here. SPOT1 will pass SPOT2 on its way back to McMurdo.

It was fortunate that SPOT1 reached us by Thanksgiving so the traverse team could take part in our annual feast. The galley crew went all out and prepared an amazing meal. Hors d'oeuvres of artichoke and roasted red pepper dip, cheeses, meats, crackers and shrimp cocktail were followed by turkey, dressing and all the traditional fixings. The food was delicious and the mood festive, complete with tablecloths, cloth napkins, candles and a roaring fire displayed on the TV monitors.

A Halloween Start to Summer at the Pole

A Caterpillar tractor towing grooming equipment passes by the South Pole station
Photo Credit: Marissa Goerke
A Caterpillar tractor towing grooming equipment passes by the South Pole station.
The first plane of the season, a Basler, lands at the South Pole Station runway
Photo Credit: Stephan Richter
The first plane of the season, a Basler, lands at the South Pole Station runway.
In lieu of a pumpkin, South Pole Station residents carved a watermelon grown in their green house for Halloween
Photo Credit: Marissa Goerke
In lieu of a pumpkin, South Pole Station residents carved a watermelon grown in their green house for Halloween.

October started with a flurry of activity readying the station for summer operations. Operators running land planes and drags groomed the skiway, mechanics repaired and readied snowmobiles and other equipment for the incoming teams, and the station was deep cleaned over the course of a few weeks. Yet even with all of the extra activity, we managed to have an end-of-winter concert and DJ night to showcase some of the musical talent that people practiced over the winter. It was a great end to a great season.

On October 14th the first Basler airplane from the British Rothera Station landed while en route to McMurdo Station, letting the 45 South Pole winter crew members see their first new faces in almost nine months. The Basler brought three boxes containing apples, oranges, onions, and carrots, the first freshies not from the greenhouse in about eight months, a gift bought very generously out of the flight crew’s own pockets. Following the Basler was a Twin Otter plane which stayed overnight. Over the next few weeks several more Twin Otter crews passed through on their way to McMurdo, but we had to wait almost an extra week for the weather to clear up enough for the Basler to return to Pole with the first of the summer crew. Six new residents arrived on October 27th bringing with them 800 pounds of freshies. A small group of winter crew members enthusiastically unloaded pallets of lettuce, avocados, pineapple, clementines, bananas, cucumbers and much more from the Basler, with most of the rest of the station population volunteering to unpack those pallets and pass the fresh food up to the kitchen.

The official start of the summer season was moved up one day when the first LC-130 of the summer season touched down on October 30th in one-mile visibility conditions. The population on station doubled and the halls, bathrooms and galley bustled with new arrivals.

The station held a costume-optional Halloween meet-and-greet with a watermelon carved as a jack-o-lantern as the centerpiece. Old friends who had departed the pervious summer reunited with the people they left on the flight deck in February. New people mingled, asking questions about what the winter was like. The loud atmosphere was bubbling from the excitement of people recollecting old times and preparing for the start of new adventures.

Pole Greets the Sun After a Long Winter

The glowing horizon reflects off of the South Pole Station's windows in the Antarctic twilight
Photo Credit: Stephan Richter
The glowing horizon reflects off of the South Pole Station's windows in the Antarctic twilight.
Barely peeking over the horizon, the sun silhouettes the three telescopes at the South Pole
Photo Credit: Sam Harrison
Barely peeking over the horizon, the sun silhouettes the three telescopes at the South Pole.
The fully risen sun shines over the freshly groomed and flagged skiway.
Photo Credit: Marissa Goerke
The fully risen sun shines over the freshly groomed and flagged skiway.

We started September in nautical twilight; still fairly dark, but the sun was making its presence known from just below the horizon. This quickly turned to civil twilight, which along with the Moon overhead, cast a gloomy gray sky, costing us our amazing view of the Milky Way.

A week-and-a-half before sunrise, the South Pole was hit by another cold spell, dropping temperatures to as low as -103.1 degrees Fahrenheit. Just before sunrise, a large, foggy cloud mass seemed to enclose the entire surrounding plateau, blocking out the horizon and the sun. Due to this inclement weather we almost entirely missed the sunrise.

As the sun comes up over the Antarctic, the ozone hole grows. Balloon launches have become even more frequent to keep a closer eye on the changes that occur in our atmosphere every austral spring.

Sunrise dinner was Luau themed. We decorated the galley with real flowers from the greenhouse, palm trees and parrots. The galley staff once again outdid themselves and provided us with an amazing spread of food for dinner.

After a brief respite from the month’s first wind storm, we were hit by another. However this made temperatures rise high enough to start using snow-removal equipment. During the last week of September we began grooming and flagging the skiway.

We finished up our end-of-season reports and slowly everything around station is ramping up for opening.

NPR interviewed Sam Harrison, the BICEP Grantee, about the sunrise. The interview can be heard here:


Down By the Pole, Where the Cantaloupe Grows

Immersed in twilight, the South Pole Station stands out brightly on the polar plateau after its window covers were removed for the season.
Photo Credit: Marissa Goerke
Immersed in twilight, the South Pole Station stands out brightly on the polar plateau after its window covers were removed for the season.
The first cantaloupe harvested from the South Pole's food growth chamber was shared amongst the station’s residents.
Photo Credit: Marissa Goerke
The first cantaloupe harvested from the South Pole’s food growth chamber was shared amongst the station’s residents.
Barely visible above the station's Dark Sector, the brightly lit moon dips below the horizon.
Photo Credit: Marissa Goerke
Barely visible above the station’s “Dark Sector,” the brightly lit moon dips below the horizon.

August kicked off with a two-day weekend and with it, the 48-Hour Film Festival. In what’s become an annual tradition, wintering stations all across Antarctica create short films following a set of requirements set by the previous winter’s winners. This year, team South Pole Station created a video premised on the idea that the temperature in the station was equal or colder to the outside temperatures. We had a good-humored weekend of filming, editing and fun. The following weekend we all gathered in the galley to watch the other stations’ videos and vote. South Pole placed third in both the “Best Film” and “Most Novel Use of Props” categories. The Trans-Antarctic Darts Tournament also concluded this month, with South Pole Station finishing in second place after winning six games out of eight.

Growers working in the South Pole food growth chamber harvested the first-ever winter cantaloupe. The melon was passed around the galley, just for residents to smell. It was a glorious-smelling melon! The softball-sized cantaloupe was then painstaking cut into tiny pieces so everyone who wanted a taste could enjoy it.

On August 25th we removed the window covers from the station because the light-sensitive aurora camera was shut off for the spring. This is a huge winter milestone and it’s strange to be able to see out the windows again, even though it is still too dark to see much.

We received our redeployment paperwork in mid-August and everyone has started getting excited about post-ice plans. That excitement is compounded by the obvious evidence on the horizon of the Sun returning to the Southern Hemisphere. The sky is getting exponentially brighter every day. We hit astronomical twilight on the 1st and nautical twilight on the 21st. The nearly full moon dipped below the horizon on August 31, which was a spectacular sight. The bright orange orb set against the dark blue sky behind the station’s “dark sector” made for a great farewell to the seventh month of winter.

Chilling Out at the South Pole

The South Pole Station under the Aurora
Photo Credit: Marissa Goerke
The South Pole Station under the Aurora.
The South Pole Darts Team
Photo Credit: Bloyd Peshkin
The South Pole Darts Team
Christmas in July at the station
Photo Credit: John Allerding
Christmas in July at the station

July has been one of the coldest months in a long time at the South Pole, having broken two records and tied a few more.

We spent 20 consecutive days below minus 60 degrees Celsius (minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit), breaking the old record of 16 days in 1997. We spent 13 consecutive whole days below minus 65 degrees Celsius (minus 85 degrees Fahrenheit), surpassing the previous record of 12 days set in 1987. We spent seven consecutive whole days below minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit, which also happened in 1965, 1987 and 1997.

Lastly, we had eight consecutive days with at least some time spent below -100 F, tied with 1982. Prolonged exposure to such cold temperatures caused fuel to gel up in some of the out-buildings. This resulted in generators running sluggishly and building temperatures to drop dramatically. Our fantastic technicians worked around the clock to keep all buildings warm and operational.

For the Fourth of July we had a cookout-style meal in the dining hall and a carnival followed by a “movie in the park” in the gym. There was mini golf, ping pong, corn hole, pin the tail, a homemade cotton candy machine and snow cones (with snow from outside, of course). We watched “Sandlot” after the carnival and everyone enjoyed the festive evening.

We started a trans-Antarctic darts tournament with eight other stations around the continent the week after the Fourth of July. We are currently in the “pole” position, having won five out of six games so far. There are two more games for the South Pole darts team to play before the end of the tournament.

At the end of the month, we had “Christmas in July.” We decked the halls with paper snowflakes and stockings and had a Christmas tree in the dining hall. There were presents under the tree for everyone, with treats like pistachios, hot chocolate mix, candy and little games. We also had a white elephant gift exchange, which was a huge hit. Some of the most coveted presents were the last few cans of Red Bull on station, a painting and a box full of small, buildable toys.

Red Sky at Night, Midwinter's Delight

Light writing at ARO
Photo Credit: Marissa Goerke and Stevan Beer
Light writing at the Atmospheric Research Observatory.
A station resident and the red aurora.
Photo Credit: Marissa Goerke
A station resident and the red aurora.

Stations all over Antarctica celebrate one special day in June when the sun reaches its lowest point below the horizon, and begins its long journey back to the southern hemisphere. Most bases send greeting cards to each other, highlighting their station and extending an invitation to their Midwinter feast. We gathered near the main entrance to the station for our Midwinter greeting picture.

2015 Midwinter Greetings from South Pole Station.
2015 Midwinter Greetings from South Pole Station.

We set up the gym like a movie theater for the traditional viewing of The Shining which was enjoyed by all. The galley staff dazzled us all with a superb Midwinter feast. The greenhouse supplied a fantastic salad and a sunflower that was on display in the galley. There was a passion fruit sorbet, seared and roasted tenderloin, Wellington poulet and sweet pea gnocchi. For dessert there were delicious homemade truffles and mousse. It was a huge treat for everyone and we all feasted and passed the evening together playing cards, talking and reveling in the classic Antarctic moment that is Midwinter.

The week after the celebration, a large coronal mass ejection from the Sun hit the Earth’s atmosphere and sparked a large geomagnetic storm which showered the South Pole with three days of some of the best auroras seen all winter. On the morning of the 23rd a solid red aurora visible to the naked eye appeared in the skies overhead and held everyone in awe for hours.

A final reunion for original South Pole winter-overs

2015 South Pole winter-overs pose with a photo of the 1957 crew
Photo Credit: Jeremy BloydPeshkin
2015 South Pole winter-overs pose with a photo of the 1957 crew.

South Pole has been continually occupied since 1956, when the U.S. Navy landed the first aircraft here and built a permanent station. Survivng members of the original 18 men who wintered over at the South Pole in 1957 have had been having reunions every two years.

These ground-breaking and history-making gentlemen held their last reunion this May. Per tradition, every reunion these legendary winter-overs call the current winter-overs at the South Pole for a nice chat. Current Polies gathered in the large conference room of the third-generation South Pole Station for a fantastic conversation. We shared a quite a few laughs about how things have changed, what wintering in 1957 was like, old stories, landmarks and greenhouse production of fresh vegetables.

We have left twilight behind and entered official night time; the sun is now more than 18 degrees below the horizon. We also hit another winter milestone by reaching minus 101 degrees Fahrenheit on May 27. The clear skies that came with the cold temperatures made for some of the most spectacular star gazing all season.

Lots of activity above and below the South Pole

A Polie enjoys the auroral display near the station
Photo Credit: Marissa Goerke
A Polie enjoys the auroral display near the station.

Night has truly fallen at South Pole.

We covered up all the station’s windows on April 11 to prevent light pollution outside for the winter. This helps provide a pristine view for the aurora camera experiments mounted on the roof of the main building. It also gives us one of the best displays of the night sky in the world using just the naked eye.

Not even a day after the window covers were put up the station was dazzled by a spectacular display of aurora australis directly overhead. Almost everyone came outside to look up at the beautiful phenomenon. We had auroral activity every day after that until a large wind storm hit the station on April 20.

The storm lasted almost an entire week. On April 22, we broke a daily wind speed record at 44 mph, which was previously set in 2009 at 37 mph. The temperatures rose about 70 degrees in a span of a week, and we recorded the warmest ambient temperature ever recorded on April 22 at minus 37.0 degrees Fahrenheit/minus 32.8 degrees Celsius, breaking the previous record set in 1969 by about one degree.

The station took advantage of the warmer temperatures to use heavy equipment to clear the snow drifts that have been accumulating in well-traveled areas around the main building.

Stevan Beer and Forrest Getz move ice blocks in the tunnels
Photo Credit: Steven Allerding
Stevan Beer and Forrest Getz move ice blocks in the tunnels.

We have now entered astronomical twilight. This means the sun is now more than 18 degrees below the horizon. You can still see a small amount of light on the horizon if you look in the right direction but it is dark enough to see the Milky Way, both Magellanic Clouds, meteors, Iridium flares and satellites quite clearly.

The activity in the sky this month was mirrored by activity in the ice tunnels that run underneath the station.

The ice tunnels allow for access to the water and sewage utility lines and are essential to keep the station functioning normally. The walls have started to bulge in over a period of years, requiring the tunnels to be widened.

The warming shack in the under-ice burrows also needs to be rebuilt periodically. A larger alcove was cut out from the original nook for the upgraded shack by the painfully slow process of cutting ice blocks with a chainsaw, knocking them out of the wall with a sledgehammer and man-hauling the blocks (some weighing up to 100 pounds) to be stacked in another area of the tunnels.

This is all accomplished at a grueling minus 55F, the constant year-round temperature in the ice tunnels. Several people from various departments volunteered to help with hauling ice blocks and the insulated wall sections for upgrading the shack. The shack is expected to last 10 to 15 years with the improvements.  

Sun sets at the South Pole for 2015, first stars begin to appear

Flags backlit by sunset.
Photo Credit: Marissa Goerke
The sun sets once per year at the South Pole.

March marks one of the first big milestones in a South Pole winter – sunset.

Since the December solstice, the sun seemed to roll around the sky in a lazy downward spiral, inching a little closer to the horizon each day. The actual sunset—when the sun’s disc appeared to touch and then sink below the horizon—lasted about 32 hours.

We had a special dinner to celebrate the occasion. The kitchen staff did an amazing job. There were three different hors d’oeuvres and fresh salad from the greenhouse with tomatoes and cucumbers. The main course included tenderloin, lobster tail, and homemade pumpkin ravioli. For dessert we had chocolate terrine and pavolva. It was an awesome dinner, and morale was very high.

With the sunset comes removing the ceremonial pole maker and flags for the winter to protect them from colder temperatures and blowing snow. The flags of the 12 nations that originally signed the Antarctic Treaty were taken inside after we took a group picture. The ceremonial pole was also dug up and taken inside for the winter.

The clouds and colors are all very dramatic after the long, bright, blinding-white summer. The last part of the sunset was obscured by a 30-knot windstorm that enshrouded the station in almost whiteout conditions for two days. The overcast skies warmed things up a bit, bumping the temperatures up to a balmy minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

The dark slice of sky opposite the sun has been steadily creeping higher every day and it is now dark enough to see the first few stars; more will appear every day. At the end of March, we covered up all the station windows to prevent light pollution outside to provide optimal conditions for the scientific aurora cameras. All outside travel will be guided by moonlight, starlight or red-lensed flashlights to preserve these conditions.

Astronomy classes started in early March, and several of the winter-overs have been attending the Monday evening classes to learn more about auroras, the solar system, stars, and galaxies, as well as learning how science at the South Pole is helping find answers to big questions about the early beginnings of the universe.

We are all eagerly awaiting our first auroras of the season, which should start to be visible in the next few weeks.

South Pole heads into winter a few days later than scheduled

February started with the last scramble to finish all summer projects, get the last few Hercules LC-130s in, and offload the last of our winter fuel, cargo, mail and fresh food.

People look toward low clouds.
Photo Credit: Hans Boenish
South Pole winter-overs watch as the last plane for the 2014-15 season disappears into the low clouds.
Several people wrap up a hose.
Photo Credit: Marissa Goerke
Polies drain fuel lines to winterize the flight deck.
Bright lights on snowy horizon.
Photo Credit: Marissa Goerke
A sundog backlights newly carved sastrugi on the polar plateau near the geographic pole.

Our last flight was scheduled for Feb. 13, but due to power plant complications, the last flight got pushed back a few days for repairs. After a group of talented mechanics did a complete generator rebuild on one of our six generators, the station was ready to close.

On Feb. 17, pushing the “too-cold-to-fly” line at minus 52 degrees Fahrenheit, the last 45 Polies stood on the flight deck to wave goodbye to the last Hercules as it did a fly-by on its last trip across the continent for nine months.

To honor a humorous South Pole Station summer-ending tradition, we watched all three versions of “The Thing” in the gym. We set it up like a movie theatre, with couches and popcorn. The kitchen staff went above and beyond, supplying us with excellent chicken wings and chips and salsa, and we all had a great time.

After it was confirmed that all fixed-wing Twin Otters and Baslers were off the continent and no more northbound visitors would be stopping by for food and fuel, we started one of our big closing tasks: breaking down the flight deck.

All the flight-deck and pump-house hoses were drained and put into storage. Everything flight deck-related was towed to “the end of the world” to prevent drifting on the skiway. (The end of the world is the place where station activities stop and seemly limitless plateau starts.)

Another station winterizing task is laying flag lines. Flag lines are put in so important buildings outside the station can be found on low-visibility days during the impending six-month-long night ahead of us. Another team began boarding up summer-only buildings and letting them go cold.

February had a sun dog so beautiful it was announced over the station intercom and everyone went outside to see it. Some speculated it was the best one seen in years. It arced almost halfway around the horizon.

A late February wind storm brought us 25-knot winds and carved new sastrugi for a very picturesque landscape coupled with the now noticeably sinking sun. We are just about done with winterizing the station and are eagerly awaiting the sunset next month! 

Latest South Pole geographic marker takes it place in 2015

Just as the annual Race Around the World marks the Christmas holiday at South Pole Station, January has its traditions.

The geographic marker at 90 degrees south latitude sits on an ice sheet nearly two miles thick. The ice moves – about 10 meters or 33 feet per year – requiring the marker to be relocated on or about the first day of January each year.

Glass etch of Antarctica inside brass ring.
Photo Credit: Andrea Dixon
The 2015 geographic South Pole marker.

That position is determined by the station surveyor, who assures us that he is within “a tenth of a foot” by the time his work is complete. That’s less than two inches, which is really quite amazing.

The New Year’s Day relocation ceremony is brief. The new marker – designed and crafted by the station winter-over crew – is unveiled. The unveiling takes place after the American flag is passed from last year’s position to a spot next to the new marker. The entire station population is invited out to help pass the flag, from one person to the next. Eventually, it’s put in place and the new marker uncovered. 

This year’s brass marker was the first to incorporate glass into the design, with the continent etched into a rounded piece of glass that spins on an axis.

Having greeted the New Year, station personnel returned to more mundane tasks. The austral summer generally offers its best weather from mid-December to mid-January, so many construction and maintenance projects were in full swing throughout the month, including a project to level the station building, which sits on pillars directly on the ice sheet.

Side of a building.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Shifting of the snow surface on which South Pole Station sits requires the building to be leveled.

By month’s end, a noticeable change has occurred, and there is an air of wrapping things up. Some projects – an ice-core drilling project to name but one – have been put on hold until they can be resumed next summer. Others shift from repair and upgrade activities to routine data collection. Some of the summer staff is already heading home, while many others complete summer projects in anticipation of their own departure.

The transition to the colder, darker days to come is accompanied by a shift to a leaner crew and a more quiet station. Temperatures have already dropped noticeably, with wind chills dipping into minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit and lower.

Soon the summer’s flights will have come to an end and the winter-overs will work under a slowly setting sun.    

Science continues steady pace through December

The high pace of incoming LC-130s to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station that started in mid-November did not let up in early December. Good weather and program demands resulted in a continuing stream of flights. The aircraft brought in lots of needed supplies and staff, and by the third week, something out of the ordinary.

U.S. flag flies with plane in the distance.
Photo Credit: Dean Hancock
An LC-130 prepares to depart following a visit by a congressional delegation.

On Dec. 19, a sizable congressional delegation – accompanied by several National Science Foundation officials – made a visit to the station. Concerns over the weather shortened the visit somewhat, but there was still plenty of time for a tour of the main building, which focused on the labs and presentations that explained many of the station’s research projects.

The week that followed included Christmas, and the unique way that the holiday is celebrated at 90° South Latitude. The annual Race Around the World event benefitted from great weather. The race was followed by a hearty brunch, and later a wonderful Christmas supper.

Unfortunately, the South Pole’s version of the holiday season is somewhat abbreviated. Late December and early January typically offer the best weather of the year here, and it’s essential that that the focus is on getting things done. The season may be one of festivities back home, but in the Antarctic, it’s time to shift into high gear.

Annual preventative maintenance is visible in the main station, long-awaited improvements to infrastructure are being completed, and the scientists are working overtime to make sure that upgrades to sensors and other equipment are completed and their instruments are in good working order. The austral autumn will be here all too soon, and December is the time to make long dreamt of improvements and fixes. The pace on station reflects that reality.