How to Layer Up to Survive Frigid South Pole Temperatures

Posted June 16th, 2016 at 11:44 am (UTC-4)

It’s trial and error when it comes to learning how to dress at the South Pole. Above, the author illustrates the layering system he employs on the coldest days-- when temperatures drop below minus 90 F.

It’s trial and error when it comes to learning how to dress at the South Pole. Above, the author illustrates the layering system he employs on the coldest days– when temperatures drop below minus 90 F.

There are few places on earth that are as cold, as dry and as uncomfortable as the South Pole. We rarely see temperatures above 0 Fahrenheit (minus 17 Celsius) during the summer, and it’s not uncommon to have a week of minus 90 F (minus 67 C) during the winter. When you factor wind and blowing snow into the equation, things become even chillier.

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

Of course, the harsh climate doesn’t preclude the average “Polie” from having to spend time working outside. Even when temperatures are below minus 100 F (minus 73 C), heaters in outbuildings need to be inspected, satellite equipment adjusted, and weather balloons launched. For me, regardless of the weather, I walk to the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) each day—a half-kilometer walk that can leave me frozen to the core if I don’t dress properly.

Good clothing and knowing how to layer are key to survival at the South Pole. Despite the short duration most people spend outside –our most remote facilities are less than a kilometer or so away– your face can be red, burning and blistering with frost-nip within a minute of leaving the station.

Fortunately, for those working at Amundsen-Scott Station, the United States Antarctic Program’s Clothing Distribution Center in Christchurch, New Zealand, provides all of us with ultra-warm, specialized clothing that can handle the continent’s harshest weather.

Even with the proper clothing on hand, though, learning how to dress for an environment that is so removed from one’s daily experiences can take some time. There’s a definite learning curve when you first step off the plane in November, into a world that is close to 100 degrees colder than the coldest temperatures you have ever experienced.

The clothing distributed to those working at Amundsen-Scott station has evolved over the years, as evident in the above photo, taken circa 1960.

The clothing distributed to those working at Amundsen-Scott station has evolved over the years, as evident in the above photo, taken circa 1960.

Everyone is different, but for me, on those ultra-frosty, would-give-my-left-arm-for-a-sunny-August-hour-in-Seattle type days, I find that a three-part layering system that more or less incorporates every piece of clothing I own works well.

I start with a base-layer — thin black, merino wool long underwear; a blue, short sleeve, polypropylene t-shirt with a Robert Motherwell-esque bleach stain; and a pair of calf high, black and grey, merino wool liner socks. Normally, I pull the socks up and over the long underwear because they seem to stay in place better that way when I start moving around.

From the base-layer, I move on to a more bulky mid-layer. I put on an additional pair of long underwear; a heavy pair of grey wool socks that I pull up to the edge of my calf; and a heavy black wool hooded sweatshirt that on its own can keep me comfortable in temperatures down to 0 F (minus 17 C). If I pull the hood up, I look like a Ninja — as black as night, and as nimble as a contemporary dancer.

My final layer begins with a pair of well-worn, black, insulated Carhartt overalls. Once the overalls are on, I begin to really heat up. I don’t want to start sweating inside, because outside it will turn to ice, so at this point I try my best to get the rest of my clothing on quickly and get out the door.

Next, I slip my feet into a pair of green insulated rubber boots. With my pants tucked into the tops, I make a bizarre transformation from Ninja to Antarctic dairy farmer — if only we had fresh whole milk at the pole!

Over my head I pop two fleece neck gators. The first sits between the base of my clavicle and my chin, and the second between my chin and ridge of my nose. A black wind-proof fleece hat is snugged on next and I pull it down across my forehead until it covers my eyebrows. By the time my head is fully encased in warmth, all I have is a tiny slit to look through. This kills my peripheral vision, but on most winter days, when I walk out to ARO, all I care about is walking straight and getting there quickly without getting lost.

Finally, over the entire ensemble, I don a massive red, hooded, 1000 fill down jacket. Everyone is issued the same coat at the clothing distribution center, and colloquially, among those living in Antarctica, it is known as “Big Red”. Big Red cannot be zipped on or off with mittens on, so I hold off on covering my hands until I’m just about to leave the station.

Fully dressed, and heating up, I’m ready to enter the elements. The first few moments outside, with the wind blocked by large snow drifts, are refreshing. Within moments though, my head is buried in front of me, trying to cut through the blowing snow, and protect my face from freezing. My bulky clothing slowly loses its heat capacity. I get colder and colder until my three insulated layers feel no more substantial than a three piece summer suit in a mountain blizzard.

The colder I get, the slower time passes on the flag line to ARO.  The bridge of my nose grows numb, and my eyes, slowly freezing, grow sluggish in their sockets. My legs grow tired, slipping and tripping along the path, lifting and swinging forward a two pound boot on each foot. Hands balled into fists inside my mittens, I continue forward, until, as if sensing my exhaustion, ARO appears at arm’s length in a hazy mist of frozen clouds. I push the entrance door open and smile, feeling my ice-caked eyelashes breathing a sigh of relief.

More South Pole Diaries
At South Pole, a Fine Line Between Frostbite & Asphyxiation
Watching Climate Change in Action at South Pole

In South Pole Darkness, Radiant Moon Shines Like Sun

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.

3 responses to “How to Layer Up to Survive Frigid South Pole Temperatures”

  1. Rick says:

    Or how kids dress for walking to school in Winnipeg

  2. Eleanor says:

    Hope you are well. Heard the news of the evacuation. I am friends of Max and Hannah from Seattle who are wintering over. If you can let me know if they are ok we would appreciate it.

    Eleanor Wachtel (Hubbert family)

  3. Phil says:

    I’m surprised ABC News’s Ginger Zee hasn’t gone there yet?

    Sometimes I think I need those same close for our Ohio winter weather.