Killing Time Flying To McMurdo – Photo by Dale Mole’

After 10 months at the South Pole it is finally time to head home.  The new medical team (finally!) arrived, turnover completed, and bags packed.  Weather and aircraft mechanical issues delayed our departure for several days…but eventually our LC-130 arrived and approximately 30 “Polies” boarded this wonderful flying machine that would transport us back to friends and family.  It all seemed a bit surreal.  After after hundreds of never ending days, it finally has ended…or at least it is the beginning of the end.  Our route home is usually Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station -> McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica -> Christchurch, New Zealand -> CONUS (CONtinental United States).  Some are getting rest and relaxation in prior to heading home, while others are flying straight back.  I fall into the former group with time spent in New Zealand, Australia, and Bali…which I will dicuss in future blogs.

Flying Over The Trans-Antarctic Mountains – 5 NOV 2012 – Photo by Dale Mole’

During the long winter months I covered the 840 miles separating South Pole and McMurdo Station on a treadmill, running 4 1/2 miles each day usally at an altitude of over 11,000 feet.  Now we were going to cover the disctance in just about 3 hours.   After almost of year of seeing nothing but flat, white snow and ice, it was spectacular flying over the Trans-Antarcic Mountains, seeing signs of glacial flow, and the broad expanse of the Ross Ice Shelf. 

Our LC-130 Arriving On Ice Runway – McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica -5 NOV 2012 – Photo by Dale Mole’

After a smooth landing on the “ice runway”, we grabbed our carry-on bags and headed to the waiting “polar limo” for a short ride to “Mac Town.”  So many strange faces…

Antarctic Limo Service Upon Arrival At McMurdo Station – Photo by Dale Mole’

Three people inhabit a berthing room at McMurdo, but since they were fellow Polies it didn’t seem like you were sleeping with strangers.  I had been closer (at least physically) to these people for the last year than any other humans on earth.  The mattress on my bed sank in the middle…making it more like a hammock than a bed.  I guess it is fortunate I am a Salior.  At least no one in the room snored, so I am thankful for this temporary shelter in my onward journey…

The First LC-130 Arrives At South Pole – 27 OCT 2012 – Photo by Dale Mole’

The (austral) winter season at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station ended around noon on Saturday, 27 October, with the landing of the first New York Air National Guard LC-130 in almost 10 months.  In some ways it seems as though the last flight we saw in February just left; in other ways it seems an eternity.  The profound darkness, extreme cold, and relative isolation of a South Pole winter often felt as though it would go on forever…a form of suspended animation…with every day very similar to the one before and the one that would follow. 

The aircraft not only brought 28 new faces to the station, but also 200 pounds of “freshies” which are reserved for fruit deprived wintering personnel…at least for the first few days.  In addition to the first bananas, apples, oranges, and melons we have seen in many months, the shipment also included such wonderful and marvelous things as fresh eggs. 

For the past few days, the skies have been bluer and the temperatures warmer (minus mid-50s Fahrenheit) than we have experienced a very long time.  Perhaps things just seem better when departure is only days away.  I am sure there are many things I will miss about the South Pole when I leave, but for the moment, my focus is getting the new doctor oriented to this unique environment and then boarding the LC-130 that will take me home. 

Spoolhenge And The Rising Sun – OCT 2012 – Photo by Dale Mole’

As part of the switch from the winter to summer season at the South Pole, the tattered winter flags of the United States and the National Science Foundation, having endured super-cold abrasive snow and ice, are replaced with crisp new flags that will proudly fly throughout the summer.

LTJG Heather Moe, NOAA, Replacing Winter’s Tattered Star-Spangled Banner With A New One For Summer – Photo by Dale Mole’

 

It is somewhat strange having new faces around the station and getting used to interacting with new people again.  The daily routine is much less monotonous as we prepare to receive even more personnel over the coming days and wrap up winter long projects in preparation for our own departures.  The new doctor and nurse practitioner have yet to arrive.  I am obviously looking forward to shifting the mantel of responsibility over to new shoulders and returning to the “normal” world. 

This blog will continue with stories of polar exploration and adventure long after I have left the ice.  Hopefully, my impressions of this centennial South Pole winter will become more refined as I am able to place my experiences in perspective.

The Centennial Geographic South Pole Marker – Photo by Dale Mole’

Amospheric Research Observatory (ARO) – Photo by Dale Mole’

The cleanest air in the world is at the South Pole.  As the “emptiest” continent, there are few manmade sources of pollution in Antarctica.  Air samples collected here are considered to be indicative of uncontaminated background air, which is why the atmosphere has been studied at the South Pole since establishment of the first permanent station in 1956.  Indeed, Charles Keeling…of Keeling (Carbon Dioxide) Curve fame…took biweekly air samples here beginning in 1957.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) currently runs the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) in a state-of-the-art building situated about 500 meters upwind of the main Elevated Station in what is known as the Clean Air Sector (CAS).  The CAS was established to reduce any influences from the nearby Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and is off-limits to pedestrian, as well as vehicular traffic.  ARO is part of NOAA’s global monitoring division that monitors certain aerosols and gases in the atmosphere.  The prevailing winds at the South Pole are typically from the CAS, meaning they have travelled thousands of kilometers over pristine terrain and arrive here unpolluted.

Rising Carbon Dioxide Levels As Measured By NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division

Since carbon dioxide levels were first measured at the South Pole in 1957, they have been steadily rising.  Air samples are collected via “snorkels” atop ARO and analyzed on site in real-time, as well as collected in flasks and sent to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California for analysis, as they have been for many decades.  During the winter the air flask samples are stored, as there are no flights into or out of the South Pole for about 8 months.

The Ozone Layer Blocks Or Reduces The Amount Of UV Radiation Reaching The Earth

Another gas measured at the South Pole is ozone.  Ozone is important to us since it acts as the Earth’s sunscreen, blocking or reducing certain wavelengths of ultraviolet radiation.  Ozone does not absorb the longer wavelength UVA (320 – 400 nanometers) radiation, but does reduce the more energetic and harmful UVB (280 – 320 nanometers) radiation, and prevents the UVC (less than 280 nanometers) radiation from reaching the Earth’s surface.  The medical effects of too much ultraviolet radiation include premature skin aging, skin cancer, cataracts, and suppression of the body’s immune system.  So having a “healthy” ozone layer is important to human health, as well as any influence it might have upon the global climate.

The Ozone-Oxygen Cycle

Ozone is formed high in the atmosphere in a region called the stratosphere by the interaction of short-wavelength, energetic UV light with oxygen molecules.  The UV light splits the oxygen molecule (O2) into two oxygen atoms, which can then interact other oxygen molecules to form ozone, a molecule made up of three oxygen atoms (O3).  UV light also interacts with the ozone, breaking it apart into a molecule of oxygen and one oxygen atom.  This constant interaction between UV light, oxygen, and ozone is called the ozone-oxygen cycle.  It basically converts the UV light into heat and absorbs about 98 percent of the harmful UV radiation.

Ozone is measured at the South Pole both directly via instruments carried aloft by high-altitude balloons and indirectly by measuring UV light absorption from using the Sun in summer and the Moon in winter.

NOAA Instrument Package On Its Way From The South Pole To The Stratosphere – 6 OCT 2012 – Photo by Dale Mole’

The balloons carry an instrument package containing an electrochemical concentration cell that uses the reaction between potassium iodide and ozone to produce an electric current.  The amount of current produced is proportional to the amount of ozone in the atmosphere.  These measurements are then transmitted to a ground station at the South Pole so that we can generate a profile of ozone concentrations in the air as the balloon ascends to altitudes reaching 21 miles or 34 kilometers above the ice.

The Dobson Spectrophotometer At The South Pole Atmospheric Research Observatory – Photo by Dale Mole’

Total Stratospheric Ozone Would Only Form A Layer 3 Milimeters Thick If Gathered In One Place At Standard Temperature And Pressure

Ozone is also measured from the ground using a Dobson spectrophotometer.  Gordon Dobson at Oxford University not only developed the instrument in 1924, but used it to study total ozone in the atmosphere.  By comparing the relative intensity of UVA light (which is not absorbed by ozone) to that of UVB light (which is absorbed by ozone), the Dobson instrument can determine the total amount of ozone, measured in Dobson units, along the light path.  It was with this instrument that a scientist from the British Antarctic Survey first discovered the Antarctic Ozone “Hole” in the 1980s, which led to the subsequent banning of ozone layer destroying CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons.  Unfortunately, long-lived CFCs remain in the stratosphere and it will be take another 30 – 40 years before the ozone layer is fully healed.

Antarctic Ozone “Hole”

So even today, an early 20th Century instrument in the hands of a master science technician at the South Pole is still making important contributions to 21st Century science and adding to our knowledge of the atmosphere.

Shortly after attainment of the South Pole…first by Roald Amundsen in December of 1911, then by Captain Robert Scott in January of 1912…Rear Admiral Robert Peary inquired of Professor Edwin Frost at the University of Chicago as to the suitability of the South Pole for astronomical observation, given its high-altitude, low humidity, and long winter night.  Although he received a positive response, it would be more than 50 years before astronomy became the main focus of scientific endeavor at this remote outpost.  It would take the pioneering efforts and determination of an American physicist, Martin Pomerantz, to make this daydream a reality.   

Dr. Pomerantz began his career in science by studying the then relatively new field of cosmic radiation and he led a number of expeditions to measure cosmic rays at varying latitudes, and therefore varying magnetic fields, around the world.  His first experiments at the South Pole started in 1964.  He saw the potential for the South Pole as an observation platform since its proximity to the South magnetic pole meant that charged cosmic rays could be detected without deflection by the Earth’s magnetic field, in contrast to studies at lower latitudes.  Much like Peary decades before him, he also appreciated the fact that astronomical observations could be performed over a long period of time; the extreme cold temperatures meant that relatively little water vapor remained in the air (an important advantage for infrared astronomy); and that the elevation of the polar plateau was similar to other high-altitude observatories around the world.  

The Earth’s Magnetic Field Deflects The Path Of Many Cosmic Rays, Except At The Poles

Dr. Pomerantz’s work led to the insight that the Sun, like the Earth, has a magnetic field.  While it was originally thought the Sun’s magnetic field was much stronger, it turns out that it is similar in strength to that of the Earth.  He also pioneered the field of helioseismology (Sun-quakes), the study of pressure waves from the Sun.  You can think of the Sun as an enormous bell ringing at very low frequencies giving off vibrations or pulsations.  These pulsations provide important clues as to the Sun’s internal structure.  

Pressure Waves From The Sun Can Be Measured On Earth

 

In 1979, Dr. Pomerantz and colleagues conducted the first Antarctic observations with a small telescope mated to sodium vapor resonance cell, a special sensor designed to look at the Sun.  Although these observations were not officially authorized, Dr. Pomerantz later said, “We had to find a way to convince people that the South Pole was the place for astronomy. Sometimes you need to circumvent the rules. Our bootleg experiment enabled us to obtain the clearest pictures of the sun that had ever been obtained from any place on earth. It proved once and for all this was a superb place for astronomy.”   Able to record the Sun’s vibrations without interruption for more than 100 hours, they greatly enhanced our knowledge of the Sun.

Martin A Pomerantz Observatory In The Frozen Mist – March 2012 – Photo by Dale Mole’

Dr. Pomerantz was recognized for his efforts in polar astronomy with the dedication of the Martin Arthur Pomerantz Observatory (MAPO, pronounced May-poe) in 1995.  With exterior construction taking place in the 1993-1994 austral summer and interior work completed during the 1994 winter, the two-story elevated structure has 270 square meters of interior space.  It is located about one kilometer from the main Elevated Station in what is known as the “dark sector”, an area where extraneous electromagnetic radiation (including light and radio waves) is minimized.  MAPO has pioneered and proven many of the technologies used by the other laboratories in the dark sector through projects such as the Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA), the South Pole Infrared Explorer (SPIREX), the Cosmic Background Radiation Anisotropy experiment (COBRA), and the Advanced Telescope Project (ATP).

Martin A Pomerantz Observatory – October 2012 – Photo by Dale Mole’

A colleague observed, “In my view, Martin’s greatest talent was to have the vision to see how a new and important experiment could be done and then to gather the very best people to do the experiment.  He made a study of just how Antarctica could be used and then convinced others of its value.  He was almost single-handedly responsible for the development of South Pole into a major site for astronomy.  Dr. Pomerantz demonstrated remarkable foresight by establishing research facilities or laboratories in Antarctica, where observations of the Sun are unimpeded by clouds or the setting sun, and the atmosphere features a window in the Earth’s magnetic shield.  He also showed tremendous courage, working in Antarctica when it was still a very hazardous proposition.”

Amundsen – Scott South Pole Station – 2 OCT 2012 – Photo by Dale Mole’

Cloud Rise Over Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station – September 2012 – Photo by Kris Amundsen

I can never see a beautiful sunrise without thinking of a girl I never met.  By all accounts Lucy was one the sweetest humans ever to walk the face of the Earth; a daughter that would make any parent proud.  The one thing I know for sure about Lucy was that she loved sunrises, especially the ones in the tropics.  As a high school student attending a boarding academy in Singapore, Lucy was in the right place to view some truly spectacular sunrises.  The violet, pink, red, and orange rays of the Sun reflecting on billowing tropical clouds has to be one of the most beautiful sights in the universe.

One day Lucy and some other girls decided to go for a nature walk around the perimeter of a local island.  They were able to walk along the beach for most of the way, but there was one section of rocky cliffs that had to be negotiated. As girls clambered over the rocks, Lucy lost her footing and fell.  She landed on a ledge about half-way down the cliff face with waves crashing against the rocks below.  The other girls called down to her and she responded by saying she wasn’t badly injured, but needed help to get up. 

One of the girls ran as fast as she could across the interior of the island to get help.  Arriving back at the school covered with cuts from the jungle foliage, she explained Lucy had fallen and would need to be rescued from her precarious perch.  She led the rescuers, including a doctor, to the site of the accident.  Try as they might, they couldn’t find a way to get Lucy off the ledge without additional assistance.  They were, however, able to lower the doctor down to Lucy, so that he might provide some medical care despite the difficult circumstances.  As night began to fall, a military helicopter arrived to attempt a rescue.  Despite their best efforts, repeated attempts were unsuccessful.  The helicopter crew was eventually forced to return to their base many miles away to obtain more fuel, additional equipment, and await better light.  I suspect Lucy and the doctor spent the warm, humid night talking about many things while suspended on the ledge between the starry tropical night sky above and the waves below.  He monitored her vital signs…heart rate, breathing, the quality of her pulse…as well as he could and silently prayed for his patient’s welfare and the soon return of the helicopter. 

As dawn was breaking, Lucy asked the doctor if he could lift her up enough so that she could see the sunrise.  As the warm rays of the rising Sun illuminated her face, I would like to think Lucy saw the most beautiful sunrise of her life and that it brought at least a faint smile to her lips…for it was to be her last.  Lucy’s young life ended minutes thereafter as a result of internal bleeding. 

Lucy’s death profoundly affected her classmates.  I must confess the story of Lucy’s short life profoundly affected me, a stranger who never knew her.  A reminder of the fragility of life and the need to appreciate the simple things it has to offer, such as a beautiful sunrise, are the gifts Lucy gave to me. 

At the South Pole, there is only one sunset and sunrise a year.  I had hoped for clear weather at sunrise, but instead viewed a sky filled with ice crystals and blowing snow.  Just as with sunset, we had a multi-day storm preventing us from seeing the returning Sun in all its glory, except for a few short breaks in the weather.  After many months of profound darkness, any sunlight at all is a joy to the soul and a wonderful sight to behold, but I am certain no sunrise is as beautiful as the last one Lucy saw so many years ago. 

“By The Dawn’s Early Light…” – 22 SEP 2012 – Photo by Dale Mole’

The Earth At Equinox – September 2012 – I Am At The Very Bottom Of The Photo

Today is the equinox.  It is that time of year when the length of the day and the night are approximately the same, hence the name which comes to us from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night).  As mentioned in previous blogs, it is a time when the Sun makes its semi-annual journey across the equator marking the beginning of spring or the onset of fall.  At the South Pole it also is a time of rapid change as the Sun either is setting (March) or rising (September) and activity increases in preparation for the long day or night ahead.  This equinox is special, as it marks the end of a six-month night and the soon arrival of our replacements for the austral summer season.  The stars fade and the wonderful auroras disappear from view, to be replaced by the violet, red, and orange appearing ice crystals as they reflect the glow of the returning Sun.

We can thank a phenomenon known as Rayleigh scattering for both the beautiful blue skies and the red hues of sunrises and sunsets.  Light from the Sun interacts with molecules of oxygen and nitrogen in our atmosphere.  Although this light appears white to us, it contains all the colors of the rainbow.  Colors of light with shorter wavelengths, such as blue, are scattered by the gas molecules in our atmosphere.  This scatter light is what makes our sky appear blue.  Yellow, orange, and red light have progressively longer wavelengths and are less affected as they travel through the atmosphere.  This is why the Sun appears white or yellow when it is directly overhead, then becomes orange and finally reddish as it descends toward the horizon.  The more atmosphere through which the light travels, the more the shorter light wavelengths are scattered until the light that reaches our eyes is composed of mostly colors with the longest wavelengths, such as red.

Sunrise Geometry And Why Sunrises Are Red

 

 

Rayleigh Scattering – Why The Sky Is Blue And Sunsets Are Red

 

At sunset in March a storm arrived that lasted about a week and we only caught of glimpse of the setting Sun.  I was hoping for better weather at sunrise with the opportunity to capture the full array of beautiful colors.  Naturally, we have been enduring whiteout conditions for the last five days with 30 knot winds and blowing snow causing the sky and the horizon to blend into an endless sea of white.

Ceremonial South Pole – 21 SEP 2012 – Photo by Dale Mole’

 

 Despite the stormy weather, the equinox is typically a time of celebration around the world and the South Pole is no exception.  Our galley staff prepared a magnificent dinner with a 1950s theme.  “Amundsen-Scott’s Greasy Spoon”, whose motto is “Best Food, Worst Service On The Ice”, served up quesadillas, “Juicy Loosey Burgers” made with aged beef (all our food this time of year is at least two years old…some much older), and “Banana-Less Splits”, as we haven’t seen fresh bananas for months!  Dinner was accompanied by a showing of the movie “Grease” while we all munched on our food.  A good time was had by all.

Amundsen-Scott Greasy Spoon Menu

 

The South Pole is perhaps the most isolated spot on the face of the Earth.  After Roald Amundsen reached it in 1911, it was not until March of the following year that the world learned of his great feat.  Such was the nature of communications in the heroic age of polar exploration.  In the 21st century information travels from the South Pole much more quickly, as evidenced by the fact you are now reading these words. 

Although communications have certainly improved, here at the South Pole we are still far removed from the “wired world” most experience in their daily lives.  Because of its furthest south geography, the Earth’s curvature blocks the vast majority of satellites from being visible above the horizon at the South Pole.  Since communication satellites are launched into high orbits where they remain stationary relative to a spot on the Earth, otherwise known as a geosynchronous orbit, only those few in what are called “high inclination” orbits become visible to the satellite antennas at Amundsen-Scott Station.  Geosynchronous satellites don’t really remain stationary over a spot on the globe, but instead travel in a small figure-of-eight pattern when viewed from the Earth.  So when the communication satellites are in the most southern portion of the figure-of-eight, from our perspective they pop up above the horizon and connect us to the rest of the world. 

Geosynchronous Satellites Are Visible From The South Pole When Below The Yellow Line

 

We currently use two different types of satellites for our broadband communications.  The GOES or Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite 3 is an old weather satellite that was launched in 1978.  Although it lost its imaging ability long ago, the communication transponder still works and allows us to make phone calls and access the internet at about the speed of a dial-up modem for the 6 or 7 hours a day it is above the horizon.  Run by the University of Miami for the National Science Foundation, it has a ground station located in Florida.  When Hurricane Isaac rolled through the Caribbean recently, we lost our GOES connection for a couple of days. 

The other system we use belongs to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and is shared with the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope.  The ground station is located at White Sands, New Mexico.  The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) provides two channels; a fast channel for transmitting science data off the ice and a much slower channel for telephone and internet services.  It is fast enough, however, to allow video teleconferencing for medical, science, and administrative activities.  Since this is a shared resource, we typically only have access for a few hours per day. 

The GOES (near) & TDRSS (far) Antenna Domes – September 2012 – Photo by Dale Mole’

When these main communication satellites are below the horizon or otherwise unavailable, we do have access to the Iridium satellite system, allowing us to make phone calls.  In order to provide world-wide coverage, the more than sixty Iridium satellites were launched into polar orbits, so they travel around the world going north and south, rather than the usual east and west direction.  Orbiting about 500 miles (800 kilometers) above the Earth, under the right conditions each satellite can handle more than 1000 phone calls simultaneously.  The Iridium satellites also provide a great show in the polar night sky.  Their highly reflective antennas are roughly the size of a residential door and are made of polished aluminum coated with silver and Teflon, giving them a mirror-like surface.  These antennas reflect the Sun’s rays and produce what resembles a slow moving “shooting star” that gradually builds in intensity then fades over the course of a few seconds. 

A Diagram Of How Iridium Flares Are Produced

If all else fails, we still have Amateur Radio to communicate with the outside world if atmospheric conditions are favorable.  When Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was first established in 1956 this was the only means of communication, as the first artificial satellite had not been launched and communication satellites were still far off in the future.  Our current radio callsign is KC4AAA.  So much today of what we take for granted would have been viewed as science fiction only a generation or two ago. 

This QSL Card Was Sent To Acknowledge Amateur Radio Contact During The Navy’s Operation Deep Freeze

As can be seen from the picture below, the Sun is rapidly returning to the sky over Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.  A week from today is the autumnal (fall) equinox in the northern hemisphere and the vernal (spring) equinox in the southern hemisphere.  The equinox occurs when the center of the Sun is in the same plane as the Earth’s equator.  Spring will have arrived at the South Pole, and with it the wonderful sunshine! 

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station In Civil Twilight – September 2012 – Photo by Dale Mole’

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