Jan. 5, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 9

current issue
archive / search

    Living at the Pole: Intense experience of tests and rewards

    The sun rises at the South Pole on Sept. 21 and stays up for six months. During the summer's continuous daylight, the temperature rarely gets higher than Chicago's record-cold days -- about 20 degrees below zero. The summertime population at the Pole caps at 125, the limit the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station can support.

    But at the end of February, when the last planes depart for McMurdo Base at the continent's edge, the South Pole becomes an isolated colony of just 27 people. Except for one midwinter airdrop of mail and supplies and communication by phone and e-mail, the station is cut off from the rest of the world. Outside the Pole's collection of low-slung buildings, the temperature can drop to 100 degrees below zero, and the darkness is is constant.

    Three CARA scientists and engineers spent the winter at the South Pole last year, and a new crew of three more will brave the isolation this year. John Briggs, Observatory Engineer at Yerkes Observatory, who "wintered over" with the Advanced Telescope Project last year, said he actually enjoyed the experience, despite the isolation and harsh conditions. "The experience has a unique intensity to it," he said. "Dealing with the extreme conditions -- the cold, the wind -- and learning for yourself that you can actually function under these conditions, well, it's fun!

    "The experience is intense when almost everything you try to do is a challenge, from walking over to your laboratory building [a kilometer away from the base], to using a wrench outdoors, or simply getting out of bed in the morning."

    He acknowledged that several months without sunshine can take its toll, but he learned to improvise. "The moon became my new celestial hour hand," he said, adding that the light it cast, reflected on the snow, was actually relatively bright.

    And although the station is isolated in the extreme, people stationed there can communicate by telephone -- albeit briefly -- and over the Internet with loved ones back home.

    Briggs said the small, close-knit community of "Pole," as its residents call it, reminded him a little bit of living in a dormitory, "but generally the best aspects of dormitory life," he said. "There was a nice family atmosphere, and we had a lot of laughs.

    "We tend to take it for granted in the 'real world,' but at Pole, just sitting around and talking with friends became especially pleasurable. There is the opportunity to form very close friendships with an entirely new set of people -- often different ones than you would interact with in everyday life."

    Briggs said that during the next season, five of the 27 people who will be wintering over are veterans, having already spent at least one winter at the Pole. Consecutive-year stays are not allowed.

    "There are enough really positive aspects to the experience that they outweigh the obvious negatives," he said. Briggs, who married just one month before he left for the Pole last year, said if it weren't for family considerations he could easily be tempted to go back.

    "The South Pole, as an observatory, is only going to become more and more exciting," he said.

    Chicago's two "winterovers" for 1995, Research Specialist Jamie Lloyd and Mike Masterman, an engineer, will be arriving at the South Pole this month and will remain there until November.

    -- D.S.