SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein blogs about his year
working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.
It is the solstice. The sun is half set. For the moment, it is perfectly bisected by the horizon. It is the same sun seen in Hawaii travel brochures and Kinkade paintings. It is the same sun that has sat above my head since October, and the same sun that will rise for you this morning and set for you this evening.
Perhaps anywhere else, it would be a kitsch image. The immutable laws of nature: a dependable 24-hour cycle, 365 ups and downs a year, an image so easy to capture and reproduce that it seems to no longer hold any aesthetic value; an icon used to convey the incredible and the exotic, but almost always representing the opposite — the mundane and the accessible: Walmart, Snapple, Days inn.
Now, the sun has set a little lower. It only took a few seconds, but at this very moment more of it sits below the horizon than above it. The horizon is deep orange, and pink light washes out in every direction over the polar plateau. It’s a fiery landscape. Outside it looks warmer then it is. If I had to guess, I’d say minus 30 Fahrenheit (minus 34 Celsius), but really it is much colder — minus 80 Fahrenheit (minus 62 Celsius), the coldest it’s been all year.
The sun rises and sets only once a year at the South Pole, rising in September and disappearing below the horizon in March, which means we experience up to 24 hours of sunlight in the summer and 24 hours of darkness in the winter.
No one really knows exactly when the sun will disappear. Atmospheric conditions can make it seem like it is sitting higher than it really is. Even if it has sunk completely below the horizon, a sliver of it may remain visible for a little longer. Our best guess is that the sun will drop out of sight sometime in the next six days.
Not knowing when the sun will set is a bit unnerving. It could be here tomorrow when I wake up or it could be gone. Maybe it will vanish while I’m skimming through my email or taking a shower. It could disappear in a green flash while I’m making myself a cup of mint tea. The whole ordeal is making me feel a little manic. It’s like watching a nurse prep a blood test for your yearly physical. You don’t know when you will get stuck, but you will, and do they want to you inhaling or exhaling when it happens, sitting up or lying down?
I’d like to be on the rooftop of the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) when the sun sets, with a cup of hot coffee held between my mittened hands. I’d like to watch the last inch of it rock on the horizon, like a gymnast standing at the end of a balance beam ready to dismount and then, with breath held, watch it slowly sink away until the horizon is nothing more than a perfectly straight, black line, and all that separates me from winter is a few days of dusk.
The sun has set even lower. It is darker out now than when I first began writing this entry. Only a minute has passed, but it is noticeably darker. The pink on the ice cap is more muted, the horizon more red than orange. Above the sun, the sky follows a perfect gradation from orange to blue to dark blue. It looks colder than it did, though I still wouldn’t peg it at minus 80 Fahrenheit because there’s still too much color flooding the landscape.
When the sun sets, it will be gone for six months. What to do with my final days? Ski, run, hike? It’s far too frigid for any of that. When the wind is blowing like it has been lately, it’s almost painful to be outside. I can only remove my fogged goggles for a few seconds before my forehead and the bridge of my nose go numb. It still looks warmer than it really is, but I know at this point to trust the daily weather report more than my own desires.
More South Pole Diaries
Isolated and Alone, South Pole Workers Face Unexpected Emergencies
South Polies Tackle Last-minute Preps to Survive Brutal Winter
South Pole Summer Camp Helps Combat Winter Blues
Stranded Until Spring: Last Flight Leaves South Pole Before Winter Hits
In Giant Parkas, Rank Is Less Apparent