Travel Log Part 3 and South Pole Arrival

Post written November 28, 2014

On Friday, November 28 I awoke to a sunny day in McMurdo with very little wind – finally good flight conditions! They moved up my flight time an hour, so I had to rush to get dressed and clear out my room in time to go meet the shuttle to the airfield. (Fortunately I’d packed the night before.) When I got to the shuttle pickup point I learned that the flight had been delayed again, so we ended up waiting for about half an hour anyway. When we got the go ahead the eight people on my flight piled into a waiting NSF shuttle van and drove to Williams Field. This airfield is also located on the Ross Ice Shelf, but it is closer to town than Pegasus Field, where my flight from Christchurch landed. We had to wait another 45 minutes at the airfield for the plane to be ready (which gave us time to eat breakfast and get to know one another a little bit), but then we finally boarded our plane. It was another LC-130, but this one was owned and operated by the US Air Force and it was equipped with skis instead of wheels! The skis are necessary for landing on snow, as there is no real runway at the South Pole – only a groomed “skiway” near the main station. The inside was very similar to the LC-130 I flew from Christchurch to McMurdo, a single large open space with more cargo than passengers. Instead of commercial airplane-style chairs, we all sat in jumpseats along the sides of the plane. These were slightly less comfortable than the other seats would have been, but it meant that we all got to be right next to the windows, which is more than a fair tradeoff for a mere 2.5 hour flight.

Our ride to the South Pole, along with several members of our Air Force crew. Note the sled-like runners for landing on the snow.

Our ride to the South Pole, along with several members of our Air Force crew. Note the sled-like runners (“skis”) for landing on the snow.

The passenger area -- jumpseats and carry-on storage.

The passenger area — jumpseats and carry-on storage.

The plane was full of cargo -- including some for our group's new experiment, BICEP3.

The plane was full of cargo — including some for our group’s new experiment, BICEP3.

The best part about the flight was that since there were so few passengers, I was able to get permission to go hang out in the cockpit for the most scenic part of the flight. The cockpit was occupied by two pilots, a backup pilot, a navigator, and one or two other crewmembers who popped in and out; all military. They were all very nice and happy to answer my questions. Our route took us from McMurdo over the Ross Ice Sheet, then over the Trans-Antarctic mountain range that marks the transition between the ice sheet and the (much thicker, higher elevation) polar ice cap, then over the ice-covered polar plateau to the South Pole. I got to see almost the entire mountain range go by from the cockpit and the view was incredible. Some of the mountain peaks were almost level with our plane and all of the mountains were bare rock mostly covered with snow and ice. Huge glaciers full of crevasses flowed between the mountains, including what the pilot pointed out to me as the largest glacier in the world. All of these glaciers are slowly moving towards the coast, where they eventually fall off the continent into the sea. Some of them flow down more gradually and become the Ross Ice Shelf, which never melts. (Climate change is starting to make itself felt here, though, as the size of the ice sheet has been shrinking over the past few years.)

Mountains and glaciers and snow -- oh my!

Mountains and glaciers and snow — oh my!

Another fun fact – due to the location of the magnetic South Pole (which is NOT at the same point as the geographic South Pole), the compass in the cockpit showed that we were flying north-northwest rather than south. This clearly didn’t faze the pilots though, as we arrived at the South Pole station right on schedule.

So far south, we're heading north...or so the compass thinks.

So far south, we’re heading north…or so the compass thinks.

When I stepped off the plane, I was met by my advisor (John Kovac) and Grant, who is another grad student in our collaboration working on the Keck Array. More people will show up to help with Keck in the next few weeks, including Abby, but Grant and I comprise the full Keck workforce for now. There are ten people from our group here already, but the rest of them are working on BICEP3, so Grant has been on his own at Keck for the past two weeks. It was quite cold when we arrived – about -38F. I stayed warm in my ECW, but the mucus in my nose froze before we finished the short walk to the front entrance of the main station.

The main South Pole Station, built in 2003.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, built in 2003.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is where everyone sleeps, eats, and relaxes during free time. It is compact, but includes a medical clinic, a gymnasium, two lounges, a TV and games room, a store, a post office, a greenhouse, and an arts and crafts room. There are also two conference rooms, administrative offices, and a scientific laboratory space. We have workstations in the science lab, but our telescopes are located in two buildings about a kilometer away in the “Dark Sector,” which is reserved for astrophysics experiments.

I have my own room on station — small, but with more than enough space for all of my stuff. The room comes with a private phone line and an ethernet connection, both of which can only be used to access the local South Pole network unless a communications satellite is above the horizon.

After we arrived, we had a quick orientation followed by lunch. Here I got to see the rest of our group for the first time since arriving. It was great to hang out with everyone again! After lunch I really wanted to see the telescopes, but was cautioned against walking over because everyone is supposed to take it easy for a day or two after arrival to adjust to the altitude. (The South Pole station’s elevation is 9,306 ft and it feels even higher because the Earth’s atmosphere is thinner at the poles, so altitude sickness is a serious concern. Fortunately, I felt fine, but decided to be cautious anyway.) Instead of walking out to the telescopes, I hitched a ride from Rachel, one of our research assistants working on BICEP3. She arrived on a snowmobile dragging a sled behind it and four of us plus some packages hopped on and sped off to the telescopes. So even though it is very flat here, now I can say that I’ve been sledding at the South Pole.

The Dark Sector, which contains a number of astrophysics experiments. The South Pole Telescope and DSL are visible to the left and MAPO is visible to the right.

The Dark Sector. The South Pole Telescope (SPT) and DSL are visible to the left (behind the snow pile) and MAPO is visible to the right. The plywood construction on the top right of MAPO is the Keck groundshield.

Grant and I got off at MAPO, the building housing the Keck Array, while the others continued on to DSL, where BICEP3 will operate. Grant gave me a tour of MAPO, which was really cool because I finally got to see the telescope collecting the data that I have been looking at for the past several months. I will put up a more detailed post describing MAPO later, but for now here is a picture of me on the roof with the telescope.

Five Keck receivers and a Kate!

After my tour of MAPO I decided to hold off on walking over to DSL to see BICEP3 until I had acclimatized a bit more. Instead, I walked back to the main station, which turned out to be an easy hike in my ECW. Since I wasn’t feeling tired, I decided to go pay a visit to the actual South Pole before heading back inside. Interestingly enough, there are actually two different markers. The first is the “ceremonial” South Pole and has a pretty red and white pole topped by a reflective ball, surrounded by the flags of all of the countries that signed the Antarctic Treaty (which states that no country will attempt to claim any part of the continent or mine any of its resources and preserves Antarctica for international scientific research). The second is the “geographic” South Pole and is a much smaller marker. The second marker is necessary because both markers and the entire station move about thirty feet every year, as they are carried along by the slowly moving polar ice sheet on which they sit. The geographic pole marker is moved every year on New Year’s Day to the new correct location of the South Pole, but it would be too much trouble to have to continually relocate the ceremonial pole and all of the flags. So each year both the station and the ceremonial pole move further away from the actual South Pole, although it will be a long time before they move out of easy walking distance.

IMG_1359 Me at the South Pole(s). Top: the ceremonial South Pole, reflecting me and the flags of the countries that signed the Antarctic Treaty. Middle: the geographic South Pole marker, updated every January 1st to account for the movement of the polar ice cap. Bottom: my best guess at the current location of the South Pole, now almost 30 ft away from the geographic pole marker’s 2014 position.

Once I had visited the Pole, I decided to head back to the station for the rest of the day and “take it easy” as per my instructions on adjusting to the altitude. I got my first chance to try out the South Pole internet and set up my google voice account to let me call anywhere in the United States. The current most-convenient satellite pass is about 1-5pm local time, or 7-11pm on the East Coast of the US, but it shifts by a few minutes each day due to the satellites’ orbits. After dinner I finally unpacked my bags and decided to get an early night – happy to have finally reached the South Pole, and eager to settle into life here.

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