Signs of summer at the South Pole

Posted September 12th, 2016 at 1:20 pm (UTC-5)
1 comment

The sun has started to spiral upwards.  It now sits less than six degrees below the horizon—civil twilight on the Antarctic plateau.  Earth meets sky, in a rapture of orange, yellow and red, a chorus of bright hues that fades into what remains of the polar night.

A few stars and planets are still visible and occasionally faint aurora can be seen. More grey then green, they flicker in and out of existence –ghostly premonitions of the changing season.

Ten months of blowing snow mean monumental drifts. The author stands on top of one of the larger ones and admires the rugged landscape. (Photo: Hamish Wright)

Ten months of blowing snow mean monumental drifts. The author stands on top of one of the larger ones and admires the rugged landscape. (Photo: Hamish Wright)

It is light out now, bright enough to see the Atmospheric Research Observatory from the main station and to follow my footprints from yesterday while I walk to work. Clouds are visible on the horizon and exhaust from the power plant wafts upwards like a wood fire through a stone chimney at dawn. Despite the brightness, it is still cold—minus 70 Celsius (-95F) today with a wind-chill of minus ninety (-130F). Unfortunately, it won’t begin to warm until the sun breaches the horizon, an event that is still several weeks away.

As darkness continues to recede, more and more of the frozen landscape becomes visible.  Shadows give way to monumental drifts—3, 6, 9 meters tall, and three times as wide.  They have formed proportional in size to the objects they lie against—with the largest sitting on the south and west sides of the main station.  It will take months to remove the snow, an activity that will begin in earnest when the station opens for the summer.

Meanwhile, climbing on and exploring the drifts has become my preferred pastime. As the largest natural structures within hundreds of miles, they are a welcome diversion from the otherwise flat world that I have called home for the past 10 months.  An hour of walking between them, kicking steps up them, standing on their cat-walk summits, and running, rolling and sliding down them leaves my cheeks and nose frost-nipped, and my eyelashes and mustache covered in my frozen breath.

In celebration of the rising sun, a tent similar to the ones used on the original Scott expedition has been erected near the geographic pole. It is a good place to escape the wind and observe the receding night sky. (Photo: Max Peters)

In celebration of the rising sun, a tent similar to the ones used on the original Scott expedition has been erected near the geographic pole. It is a good place to escape the wind and observe the receding night sky. (Photo: Max Peters)

Beyond the drifts and the station, lies the ice cap. When the winds are calm, I’ll walk towards the brightest spot on the horizon—where the sun sits just out of sight, and the colors are most vivid.  The impenetrable grayness that dominated the plateau during the height of night is dissolving rapidly and for the first time in five months, I can see the effects of a ceaseless winter wind on an otherwise undisturbed world.  Sastrugi abound—wind-swept structures of snow and ice, shin-deep canyons of perfectly graded snow and snow sculptures that extend outwards like cresting waves just about to break.  What light is available reflects off them in incandescent blues and purples, which seem to pulse in the cold, glowing and dimming with a heart-like rhythm.

Our three-week sunrise is well underway.  Our six month night is nearly over, and our six month day is about to begin.  With the gradual transition from winter to summer, the station begins to wake from its frozen slumber. The plateau reveals its beauty in fine details, and the mind is set ablaze with inspiration.

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.

One response to “Signs of summer at the South Pole”

  1. Irina says:

    Hi from Boulder
    I wish I knew earlier on that you were blogging.
    This is such a neat blog with great information on how life at South Pole can be so fascinating and multifaceted.
    Keep blogging and hope to see you soon.