South Pole Station Gears Up for Busy ‘Nightlife’

Posted April 19th, 2016 at 1:34 pm (UTC-5)
2 comments

Many of the dark sector experiments study the cosmic microwave background--very faint radiation emanating from the farthest reaches of the universe. The detectors used by these experiments are very sensitive, and can be adversely affected by artificial light.

Many of the dark sector experiments study the cosmic microwave background–very faint radiation emanating from the farthest reaches of the universe. The detectors used by these experiments are very sensitive, and can be adversely affected by artificial light.

Dusk gives way to night. The first stars and planets have come out, and all that remains of the sun’s memory is a thin band of blue sky on the horizon.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein blogs about his year
working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

With the skies darkening, experiments at the South Pole are in flux. The solar radiation equipment on top of the Atmospheric  Research Observatory (ARO) has been taken down and will be stored inside for the duration of the winter — until the sun rises again in September.

Conversely, new experiments studying different cosmological phenomena, such as aurora and galactic radiation, have been brought online and will remain in place for as long as the skies remain dark enough to collect accurate data.

The majority of these night-time experiments are located in what is called the Dark Sector — a region synonymous with the ARO’s Clean Air Sector, but protects the integrity of its measurements by limiting the use of artificial light and radio transmissions, instead of minimizing foot and vehicle traffic like we do.

To minimize light pollution at the South Pole, window coverings are installed over every station window. Over the years, winter-overs have taken the time to decorate them.

To minimize light pollution at the South Pole, window coverings are installed over every station window. Over the years, winter-overs have taken the time to decorate them.

In an effort to accommodate these projects, and ensure that the best possible data can be collected, window coverings made out of cardboard and foam have been fitted over all windows in the main station and outbuildings to reduce light pollution.

The signal on hand-held radios — which all South Pole “winter-overs” carry for emergency purposes and general communication — has been attenuated to produce less interference with dark sector instruments.

With the station boarded up and foot traffic limited to the distance our radios can transmit — about three-fourths of a mile (1.2 kilometers) with our current signal — the facility is beginning to feel a bit claustrophobic, perhaps akin to life on a submarine — just with more fresh air and bigger berthings.

Though the view out my office window was never anything special — a flat white ice cap occasionally disrupted by blowing snow and wind — it  provided some connection with the outside world, a reminder of where I was and of the harsh realities of the polar environment.

Now, back in ARO, sitting in a temperature-controlled building with warm fluorescent lights overhead and a downloaded copy of The Good Good radio show playing over a pair of black JBL computer speakers, I could be anywhere; at work in our main labs in Boulder, Colorado, or listening to the radio show live in a non-descript office building in Davis, California. Sixty-five degrees and funk appear to be the same no matter where you are.

After sunset, the solar radiation equipment on top of ARO is removed.  Refael Klein takes time to inspect and re-organize the instruments.

After sunset, the solar radiation equipment on top of ARO is removed. Refael Klein takes time to inspect and re-organize the instruments.

It’s tempting at times to pull off the window coverings to peek outside and see if more stars have come out, or if the moon is still occluded with clouds. Is it warmer or colder?

You can’t really tell by looking out the window, but that’s beside the point. The cardboard sucks your imagination dry and guessing doesn’t seem worth it.

It is noon and time for lunch. A quarter-mile (.40 kilometer) walk separates ARO from the galley and main station. The wind is blowing from the northeast, so it’s to my back as I march along the bamboo flag line that separates me from the station’s nearest entrance.

Below my heavy insulated boots, the snow sounds like crunching Styrofoam peanuts. The cold nips at a little patch of bare skin above my right cheekbone where my neck gator and ski goggles don’t quite meet. It prickles like champagne bubbles against a bare lower lip, and then begins to slowly “heat-up” like a forearm in the grip of an Indian rug-burn.  Thirty paces later, it is numb.

I pause and smell the air. It is minus 65 Fahrenheit (minus 53 Celsius). I smile, knowing that I’m just picking numbers out of thin air.

 

More South Pole Diaries
Greeting 6 Months of Darkness with Sumptuous Feast
Bracing for the Sun to Set for 6 Long Months

Isolated and Alone, South Pole Workers Face Unexpected Emergencies

South Polies Tackle Last-minute Preps to Survive Brutal Winter 
South Pole Summer Camp Helps Combat Winter Blues

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

2 responses to “South Pole Station Gears Up for Busy ‘Nightlife’”

  1. Ashley Westall says:

    Hello again Rafael! I so enjoyed reading this post. I cannot imagine life where you are, doing what you are doing, but you provide such vivid imagery that I feel I can almost begin to. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into your life!

    I hope you will not mind if I share this post with some of my students. Though I know it is not your mission in writing this blog, students would really benefit from reading your blog posts for both an understanding of science and a model of wonderfully descriptive writing.

  2. Stefanie says:

    Hello! I love reading your different posts and all about your experiences. I think it has to be amazing living somewhere like this and experiencing what it must be like to live there. Also, I love the manner in which you write. All the details and images you include in your writing allows us to really feel like we are there with you. You help us to imagine experiencing what you are! Keep the good work and I look forward to the rest of your shared experiences.