We are having the stormiest weather of the entire season these days, and of the sun we have only been able to see a mirage on Sep 16, and a few rays on Sep 24, when the storm subsided for a few hours. This storm has brought record-setting winds, very close to the strongest wind ever recorded at the South Pole of 55 mph (88 km/h), dating back to1989. The wind lifts snow grains from the ground and blows them high across the featureless polar plateau, reducing the visibility to nil. In the proximity of our buildings, then, it creates turbulence and massive amounts of snowdrift that can pile up to form ice cliffs that can be difficult to negotiate on the way up and treacherous to descend from. Another effect of the wind is the creation of static charge. When we walk in these conditions, the snow grains rubbing against our insulated clothes leave static electricity, so our bodies charge up without us noticing it, and when we finally arrive at our destination and open the metal door the enter a building, we receive strong electric shocks, even through the three pairs of gloves that we wear. Many of our science projects are suffering, either by the direct impact of the force of the wind, or by the creation of static electricity, and we have been quite busy troubleshooting and fixing equipment. Some is hard to access in these conditions, and we will have to wait until the weather allows us to safely visit the sites on the ice. All in all, going out in this extreme weather, has been quite an exciting, fun, and unique experience, one that cannot be safely experienced anywhere else in the world. It is, after all, one of he reason that we signed up to spend a year at the South Pole.
Here are some photos to show what it has been like around here in the last few weeks.
Our last full moon of the winter occurred on Sep 11. Here the station is seen from the Atmospheric Research Observatory, about 1/3 of a mile (half a kilometer) away. What illuminates the snow is not the full moon, but the twilight from the sun, located only 4 degrees below the horizon, opposite the moon.
On Sep 13 the fire team, of which I am a proud member, went out to take a photo at the ceremonial South Pole. Pointing the camera towards the rising sun, clear skies, and a flash, provided some spectacular morning colors. A windchill of -130 F (-90 C), though, was bitter, and some of us came back with frostbitten noses after uncovering our faces just a few seconds for the photo. (Photo courtesy of Christy)
On Sep 16 we saw the sun for the first time, even though this is only a mirage. The sun was still 2 degrees below the horizon, but a thermal inversion near the surface of the ice caused the rays of the sun to refract down towards the earth. On that day, the temperature at the surface was -96 F (-71 C), while the temperature just a few hundred feet above the ice was -40 F (-40 C), as measured with a weather balloon. The next day a series of strong storms would start lashing at us and would prevent any further sightings of the sun, except for a few hours on the 24th.
On Sep 24 the wind dropped to 10 mph and allowed me to put on my skis for the first time in a week and go inspect our wind turbines to see if the wind of the previous week had caused any damage (luckily it had not). I took this photo of the rising sun from the Atmospheric Research Observatory. When the skies had cleared, the temperature had dropped down to -91 F (-68 C), so I was happy to return to the station, where a sumptuous sunrise dinner awaited me.
The South Pole is the only place in the world where one can have dinner at sunrise. It is one of the three major celebrations that mark the passing of the season here, together with the sunset dinner on March 21 and the mid-winter dinner on June 21. This time the chef came around a few weeks before the event with a form soliciting our suggestions for a menu. We each wrote down our favorite dishes. What a surprise when the cooks presented us each with our own selection, like an a la carte restauant, and so it is that I enjoyed a delicious piece of grilled salmon with steamed broccoli.
A stronger storm has been pounding us since Sep 25, with winds up to 52 mph (84 km/h). I took this photo today, Sep 27, at the geographical South Pole, where the axis of rotation of the earth is indicated by a short pole barely visible to the left of the flag. We erected a tent at this location in mid-September for anyone who dared spend the night out on the ice, but with these strong winds, no one has dared, yet.
This is the ceremonial South Pole, the same location where we took the fire team pictures two weeks ago, now pounded by 40 mph winds. The station, less than 100 yards away, is barely visible through the drifting snow.
The North West corner of the station early in the morning of Sep 27. The length of the station is 400 ft (120 mt), but not even half of it is visible through the snowdrift, yet we see blue skies overhead.
Sep 11, 2011
Sep 27, 2011
What a difference 2 weeks make! This is the underneath of the station. The station has an airfoil design, like an airplane wing, that causes the predominant North winds to accelerate as they pass through, scouring the surface and preventing snow accumulation under the station. This provides a hard surface that I have used for running all winter long, when the darkness prevented me from venturing far from the station. I even left a track on the ice along my running path, visible in the photo on the left. This winter we have rarely had winds in excess of 15 mph, but this last few stormy days have put the design of the station to a test. A steep cliff has formed at the edge of the station, about 15 feet tall, looking like a giant ocean wave about to crash, and is now starting to encroach on the northernmost set of columns supporting the station. My running tack has been erased, but the snow has not yet accumulated under the station. So far the design has proved to be effective, but the storm is not over, yet.