As sunrise draws near at the South Pole after six months of night, we check in with the NOAA crew stationed at the South Pole to see how their year in Antarctica is progressing. LTJG Ben Kaiser, Station Chief of the Atmospheric Research Observatory at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was happy to answer questions regarding what it’s like to live for a year at the bottom of the world, what the crew does to pass the time, and what he will do first once back in “the Real World.”
– What surprised you most when you first arrived at the South Pole?
-How blue the sky was. I expected all the snow and nothing else, but the blue skies of the summer are pretty amazing, especially considering there are a fair number of crystal clear days. Aside from that, just how good the food has been down here. Our galley staff has been amazing to put it lightly.
– Why do we do science all the way at the South Pole?
-BECAUSE WE CAN!!! It’s the remoteness that we need and lack of human influence, and there’s hardly any place in the world more cut off from human civilization. Due to that we can sample extremely clean air and get good baseline measurements of the constituents we are observing.
– What do you do for fun to pass the time?
-You have to be able to entertain yourself down here. The groundhog’s day phenomena is definitely real, so doing a variety of activities has definitely helped to make life a bit more exciting. Personally, I’ve taken up learning to unicycle, watching new TV series with folks, playing board games, and just generally exercising regularly. We have a small climbing cave out in one of the out-buildings and I’ve been spending a lot of time out there climbing when I can.
– Were any special events held down there this year?
-In terms of special events, we have our big three for the winter: Sunset, Mid-Winter, and Sunrise. We have a big meal with everyone and everyone gets dressed up for some fine food and good times. Aside from that, we held Polympics this year in July where we all competed in a variety of activities to try and get bragging rights along with some medals.
– What is your favorite food there?
-Our galley staff did something this year where everyone got to choose one meal. I chose tuna poke (raw tuna in soy sauce and rice), thinking it was a long shot that we have it. To my surprise not only did we have it but it was the best thing that I have had down here. It was such a big hit, two other people decided that it would be their meal of choice as well. Our galley staff really outdid themselves with that one.
– What food do you miss most?
-We have a pretty good selection down here, and the green house has been pumping out a good assortment of greens. However, there’s no fresh fruit, like apples or bananas, and I definitely miss those. There’s also no good milk, it’s all powdered stuff. It’s just not the same…
– It’s really cold outside. How do you not freeze?
-It is really cold outside, but as long as you dress appropriately it’s really not that bad. Heavy boots, Carhartt overalls, a balaclava, gloves, and of course the Big Red down jacket just to name the main things everyone wears in the winter. If you wear the Extreme Cold Weather gear that you’re issued before you come down, you’re pretty much set to go outside whenever you need to. I mainly just walk back and forth to the buildings, but some people go out for longer strolls and they are more than fine. It only gets really bad when the wind kicks up, then it’s just not pleasant at all.
– What were your thoughts at sunset?
-Sunset was pretty amazing. It’s still a little weird to think that I have only seen one sunset for the past year. However, getting to enjoy the sun slowly dipping below the horizon over the course of a few days and watching the sky become aflame with a myriad of colors, it’s pretty beautiful.
– Tell me a little bit about the night sky there.
-When it’s calm and clear, it’s nice to just stand outside for a bit and look up at the night sky. The amount of stars that you can see is amazing, and I’ve never seen so many in my life. And there’s the auroras. You get pretty used to seeing them, but when the good bright ones come out and they start to dance, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. I got into photography down here just for the sake to have some means of remembering just how crazy they were.
– How do you communicate with home?
-Mostly through email. With the internet being what it is, limited access for about half the day, it’s the easiest way to pass along updates to my friends and family. Sometimes we’ll try to schedule a phone call or something, but I mostly just stick to email so that things can be a bit more asynchronous. Works out much better with the time difference and connectivity.
– Just how tired are you of House Mouse?
-House Mouse, our communal weekly cleanup time, honestly isn’t that bad. It’s a nice change of pace and it makes things feel more like home (sweeping, vacuuming, etc.). Granted some of the bathrooms aren’t the most fun to do, but it’s an hour out of the week and it’s a chance to be a productive member of the community.
– What are you most looking forward to once you get off the ice?
-Seeing an actual body of water again. I’ve spent my entire life near the ocean so being this land locked has been weird. Also being able to take a shower for as long as I feel like whenever I want, as opposed to the two two-minute showers we are allowed a week. Probably the biggest thing is having my own place again. You get your own room down here, but it’s not very big and that’s the only real space of privacy down here. It will be nice to have a space that is solely my own and not a common space shared by 41 other people.