In South Pole Darkness, Radiant Moon Shines Like the Sun

Posted May 3rd, 2016 at 9:43 am (UTC-5)
2 comments

After weeks of darkness at the South Pole, a full moon seems nearly as bright as the sun. Details you couldn't see before, like vehicle tracks, become visible again. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

After weeks of darkness at the South Pole, a full moon seems nearly as bright as the sun. Details you couldn’t see before, like vehicle tracks become visible again. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

Everything is illuminated. The moon has risen. It is full or near full, and sits 30 degrees above the polar plateau — circling the horizon each day as our sun once did.

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

A softly bright glow washes over the landscape and each inconsistency in the ice and snow, every building, vehicle and person, casts a long grey shadow. Colors are muted, like in old low-exposure Polaroid photos, and details you could only feel a few days ago, like footprints and soft snow, you can now see.

Things appear bigger than they are. Perhaps it’s because they have been obscured so long in darkness that I have forgotten their relative size. When all there was was starlight and blackness, all I could measure and feel was myself. Walking to work in blinders — heavy boots, heavy coat, fogged goggles — I was the largest thing I could perceive. My outstretched arms touched each horizon and only the crunch, crunch, crunch of snow kept me apprised of my feet and reminded me that I wasn’t floating in an inkwell.

Steep snow drifts form alongside buildings and other "artificial structures" throughout the year. Above, Refael Klein climbs over one on his way to work -- a challenge made more difficult by the darkness. (Photo: Darren Lukkari)

Steep snow drifts form alongside buildings and other “artificial structures” throughout the year. Above, Refael Klein climbs over one on his way to work — a challenge made more difficult by the darkness. (Photo: Darren Lukkari)

Now I can taste, hear and see my whole self and, as a consequence, I feel much smaller.  Amundsen-Scott Station dominates the landscape. At 600 feet long (182 meters), it’s a skyscraper lying on its side. Moonlight bounces off of its surfaces and sections of the station glow candle-fire yellow.

The Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) is the same way — massive and casting a shadow that has no end.

The environment is ripe with tension, like a poorly-lit city parking lot at one in the morning, littered with cigarette butts and broken bottles. Was that a bird I saw or just a cloud moving across the sky? Is that whistle the wind blowing across the hood of my jacket, or is someone walking behind me?

You hear more and see more when the moon first comes out; it’s your senses in overdrive, tuning into a new world.

Up until a few days ago, the moon was nowhere to be seen. The sky was covered in clouds and the winds whipped snow across the plateau in big bales of smoke. Temperatures dropped to minus 90 Fahrenheit (minus 67 Celsius) and my daily walk to work was a battle.

Stepping outside with every inch of skin covered, I’d trip and fall over myself as I tried to kick steps up a steep, recently-formed snow bank that separated the east entrance of the main station from the bamboo flag line that ran out to ARO.

The flag line running between ARO and the main building stretches over a quarter mile (.4 kilometer). When the winds pick up and visibility is low, it can be hard to see the 20 feet between each marker. (Photo: Darren Lukkari)

The flag line running between ARO and the main building stretches over a quarter mile (.4 kilometer). When the winds pick up and visibility is low, it can be hard to see the 20 feet between each marker. (Photo: Darren Lukkari)

At the South Pole, every scientific outbuilding has a flag line that runs between it and one of the two primary entrances to the main station.

The flags are simple affairs, 5-foot (1.5 meter) bamboo poles sunk several inches into the snow, with a colored rectangular pennant — usually red — attached to the top. The flags are spaced about 20 feet (6 meters) apart, just wide enough to let our largest snowplow run between them without knocking them down.

On the worst days, when walking outside feels like walking through television static, the flags can be hard to see, even at 20 feet.

On days like these, when all you can glimpse through your fogged goggles are dark amorphous blobs, and since it’s too cold to take them off even for a second, you can’t navigate by sight. You have to  navigate by sound and follow the slap, slap, slap of the flags against the wind.

From flag to flag, you hone your hearing. You cancel out the sound of blowing snow and tune into the low pitch of beating fabric. And, when you can’t hear the flags, you stand still for a moment, hold your breath, and listen more intently.

 

More South Pole Diaries
Shimmering Sights While Battling South Pole Boredom
South Pole Station Gears Up for Busy ‘Nightlife’

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

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 “In South Pole Darkness, Radiant Moon Shines Like the Sun”

  1. Danielle says:

    Great blog entry! You really made me feel like I was at the South Pole with you. It is so interesting to see what it is like at the South Pole. Also, your pictures look great. It really help me visualize what it is like for you.

  2. David says:

    Poor guy needs to be introduced to the wonders of the flashlight. Dollar store headlight costs $2, batteries cost a few dollars more, hands are free and amazingly you can see details in total darkness similar to having a full moon. ;P