The Middle of the Night at the South Pole

Posted June 29th, 2016 at 3:11 pm (UTC-4)
Comments are closed

It is the solstice. Darkness has swallowed the landscape for three months. Each day, since March, the sun has sunk farther and farther away as our permanent night has gone from grey to dark blue to an immutable black. The sun sits as low as it ever will below the horizon, the apex of our longest night, and what I’d like to think of as our darkest, though, in fact, it is one of our brightest. The moon, near-full, sits well above the horizon. Vehicles cast long shadows as they slowly churn across the desolate landscape, flattening snowdrifts and carrying 50-gallon drums of machine oil and long, snaking bundles of fueling hoses.  Where they are going, and what they are doing is beyond me, lost in the tension of snow and ice, wind and light.

Now that the sun can’t get any lower, it will begin to make its way back towards our horizon.  Still, it’s a long ways off, another three months until I can feel its celestial heat against my frozen lips and, with a scrunched face, stare into its glowing mass until my eyes begin to water and my eyelids freeze shut.  Until then, tedium and tiredness will continue to haunt me—an inescapable condition of life at the bottom of the earth.

A full moon means a bright day and long shadows. Even underneath the station, the night is as clear as day. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

A full moon means a bright day and long shadows. Even underneath the station, the night is as clear as day. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

Of course, the sky will begin to get lighter several months before the sun actually crosses the horizon.  The end of July marks the start of astronomical twilight, when the faintest of the stars begin to disappear and the horizon starts to pick up color — turning from an inkwell of blackness to a salt-water ocean at midnight.

A month into astronomical twilight, things will begin to change more noticeably.  More stars will disappear, and the Aurora will no longer be visible to the naked eye.  The horizon will continue to brighten, and one will be able to follow the position of the sun — still unseen — by a smear of light blue and orange that will ride along the intersection of the earth and sky like the aroma of a magnolia tree when it first begins to bloom.

Bright stars and aurora circle the station during the Winter Solstice. In another two months, as the sky brightens, they will be a distant memory. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

Bright stars and aurora circle the station during the Winter Solstice. In another two months, as the sky brightens, they will be a distant memory. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

We call this stage nautical twilight, the period of night when shapes and land forms on the horizon can be seen, and enough stars and planets are visible, that one can still navigate by them.

By early September, the stars and planets will have left us and the polar plateau will be a uniform shade of grey.  It will be light out—from what I’m told, “frustratingly so,” like the last hour for a smoker on a 9-hour flight from Miami to Buenos Aires, when you can’t get out of your seat, and each second feels like a lifetime.  During civil twilight, when the sun sits just 6 degrees out of sight, and the horizon encompasses every Crayola crayon shade of yellow, orange, red and purple, you can do anything that you could do during the day, except soak up vitamin D and tan — which are really the only two things you want to do.

Sometime at the end of September — and no one can say exactly when, partially due to atmospheric conditions and geographic variations across the ice cap — the sun will finally appear.  It will breach the horizon in a gentle upwards spiral, like a school of fish slowly rising from the deep, testing the shallows for predators, and then, if the sky is cloudless and the earth still lies crooked on its axis, it will let its first rays shine forth, and wash away the last remnants of night from the South Pole.

 

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.

Comments are closed.