Another summer day at the bottom of the world

Posted October 5th, 2016 at 2:30 pm (UTC-5)
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It’s a cold, clear day outside. The sky is a cloudless light blue, uniform in color and shade from horizon to horizon. The ice cap stretches out beneath it, and apart from its icy whiteness, is a mirror image of its heavenly twin. Today, the sun sits slightly higher in the sky then it did yesterday, a full hand’s width above the plateau. It is supremely radiant — a sight worthy of sunglasses — and in the lee of the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), you can feel the summer’s first suggestions of warmth.

In heavy extreme cold weather gear and navigating uneven terrain, it takes about 25 minutes to hike a couple of kilometers from the station. (Photo: R. Klein)

In heavy extreme cold weather gear and navigating uneven terrain, it takes about 25 minutes to hike a couple of kilometers from the station. (Photo: R. Klein)

The winds died down this morning. For the past week it’s been blustery outside to say the least, but today there is barely enough breeze to stir the American flag that stands beside the geographic South Pole marker.

It’s a lazy day out there. The snow is still and the smoke from the power plant climbs aimlessly into the air. The sun, circling slowly, casts long shadows that crawl across the landscape and align themselves with the hour of the day.

Three o’clock in the afternoon, and the 30 meter (100 ft.) meteorological tower casts a perfectly rectangular 90 meter (300’) long shade in the direction of due north. I adjust the time on my wristwatch and begin to think about making the most of the South Pole’s first summery day. Perhaps it high time for a hike.

The 30 meter tall meteorological tower at ARO acts as a large sundial. If you wanted to, you could set your watch by it. (Photo: H. Davis)

The 30 meter tall meteorological tower at ARO acts as a large sundial. If you wanted to, you could set your watch by it. (Photo: H. Davis)

I trade my chemical-stained jeans for my black, insulated canvas overalls, throw on a thick wool hooded sweatshirt with a hole in the right elbow, and don my always dependable 1000 fill, red goose-down jacket — my “Big Red.” I fill my purple Nalgene thermos with slightly cool tea-steeping water from the electric kettle that sits on top of the desk in my room, and place it cap-side down in the pocket of my coat so it doesn’t freeze shut when I head outside. Neck warmer: on. Hat: on. Googles: check. Mittens on hands. I make my way from my berthing to the giant steel refrigerator doors that divide the pleasantly heated, fluorescently illuminated station from the frigid and naturally lit great outdoors.

“Ah, what a day indeed.” If it wasn’t minus 56 Celsius (-70F) outside, the birds would be chirping and young liberal arts students would be busily debating weighty philosophical questions at hip, cigarette smoke-laden outdoor cafes.

Unfortunately, it’s still a few too many degrees below freezing for a true summer scene to unfurl, but for me, in this moment, it is perfect. The snow, clean and clear, reflects light in every direction, amplifying the sun’s intense glow. I follow the brightness towards the horizon and out onto the ice cap. The earth crunches below me like Styrofoam peanuts. Sastrugi glow orange and yellow in the late afternoon light. One kilometer, two kilometers out from the station, and the Antarctic surrounds me in every direction. I find a seat in the lee of a few exceptionally large ripples of snow, and sit with my legs stretched out in front of me, in the same fashion that someone might lean against a large log next to a campfire. I lower my neck gaiter, and breathe deeply through my nose.

The air smells different than it did a few weeks ago. Humid aromas, rain, and respiration, sap and ripening fruit, smells of summer… or is it just my mind playing tricks on me?

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.

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