The Storm

The storm must be a metaphor for something here, but it’s not like storms I’m used to. Back in Pittsburgh, a storm meant dark clouds billowing up from over the horizon, looming high, bubbling over. Then a distant rumble, another, and then the gust front would hit and sky would crack open in a bolt of light. Rain blowing sideways with leaves, small branches and old newspaper caught up in the maelstrom. We’d go out onto the front porch to watch, listen, and feel the power of it rolling past us like a giant locomotive.

That’s not what this storm is like, not at all. Showed up like wispy clouds to the north (no, that’s not a vacuous statement – down here we use grid coordinates, with “north” being the direction of the prime meridian, “west” being 90 degrees west longitude, etc.). Wind always comes from that direction down here, which is why it’s the “Clean Air Sector”. The Atmospheric Research Observatory is in that corner, and the air that hits them has been traveling thousands of miles without any human interference. They do some insanely accurate atmospheric measurements, and claim that they can detect the breath of someone walking half a mile upwind.

So, that’s where the wind comes from, and that’s where the clouds were coming from. Wispy gray harmless things, way up in the sky. But below them, the horizon was no longer as distinct as it was to the west or east. Rolf, our meteo guy, looked out to the north knowingly “Yup, it’s coming – look at the temperature.”

The thing about the temperature change surprised me. We’d been a pretty constant -45C since I’d arrived, and the display in the galley was now showing -39C. A bit of poking around (see http://www.southpole.usap.gov/met/faq.html) explained that here at the Pole we have an almost constant temperature inversion –the ice re-radiates most of the energy it receives, so the surface is much colder than the air only a couple of thousand feet above. The wind tends to mix things up, stirring the warmer air aloft with our cold surface air. And the wind was picking up.

By Sunday morning, it wasn’t bad yet. Wind was blowing about 15 knots, so I threw on my gear and – as a precaution – tucked a toothbrush, t-shirt and change of underwear into my bag. Trudged upwind to the station and plonked myself down at my desk. It was a Sunday, so officially, I wasn’t working today. But it was a warm dry place to check email, write a little, and… yes? Sure, I can help you get on the wireless. And um, yeah, you need to prefix your email address by the domain. And…

Yeah – spent much of the day helping lost souls who, on their day off, were trying to get ahold of friends, family and Facebook. Ducked out to play some guitar, eat lunch, read a bit in the library, but kept running out of things to do. And whenever I ducked into the computer lab, someone collared me for help. I know I need to take time off, to recharge, but I don’t have a routine yet – I don’t actually have anything much to do when I’m not working.

By now, the wind was upwards of 25 knots, and the snow was flying. It rarely actually snows here – the wind just picks up what’s already on the ground miles away and hurls it at you. It piles up against the buildings and carves itself into wild sinusoidal ridges called “sastrugi”. It buries stuff. “Old Pole”, the original outpost established back in the 50’s as part of Operation Deep Freeze, is now being crushed under 35 feet of ice. No one goes out there, though – it’s off in a prohibited area to the west, just north of the Dark Sector. And the dome, the old geodesic dome that was iconic of the USAP for over two decades – it got to be too much work shoveling it out from the annual accumulation, so two years ago they just gave up and dismantled it. The new station is built on pylons, so that every decade they can jack it up and add another segment to keep it above the ice.

Galley at lunch

Anyhow, the wind was picking up. It wasn’t quite whiteout, but “everyone” kept talking about how bad it was going to get. The temperature was up to -28C and flags along the rope line were whipping wildly. There were murmurs of Summer Campers around the galley staking out couches. Someone called out “Slumber party!” when Elissa agreed to take in a handful of co-workers to camp out in her station room. I plodded the corridor, trying to decide what to do. Greenhouse couch would be comfy (and humid!), but the couch was short. TV lounge? All the couches were taken.

Finally found myself standing by the coatroom at Destination Zulu (DZ) – the freezer door that leads out the back of the station and down to the flag line out to Summer Camp. Shaun, Rachel and Kasia were suiting up – “You braving the walk heading out to camp?”

Shaun shrugged as though I were asking if he were braving the walk over to the water cooler. “Yeah, it’s not that bad.”

Shaun’s from Anchorage, so I suspected that his baseline for “not that bad” was a bit different than mine. But I was increasingly unimpressed with my overnight options in the station, so I grabbed my Carhartts and started suiting up.

Destination Zulu

And you know, it wasn’t that bad. Temps were fine, visibility along the flag line was fine, and the wind just pushed us along. We tromped along over fresh-blown sastrugi, creaking under our feet like a carved landscape of Styrofoam. Waved each other off to our separate Jamesways – the noise of the wind didn’t allow for any conversation, and that was it.

J7-11 was perhaps warmer than on previous nights, tucked under my newly-acquired flannel comforter, but I was kept awake early by strange sounds resonating off the canvas. Drifted off to sleep imagining that someone was on the roof, breaking off chunks of hard-packed snow and chucking them down the side…

Morning felt like any other: up around 5:30 (strangely, I’ve yet to sleep in long enough to be woken by my 6:00 alarm), throw the gear on loosely and head off to bathroom for my morning shave and brush. I usually go out the leeward end of J7; it’s a longer hike around the end, but avoids tromping the length of the hall in my ECW and waking folks who need their sleep. But the leeward door was stuck shut – I discovered from the outside that snow pulled in by the eddies at the end of the building had settled into a substantial and rock-solid drift blocking the entrance.

So down the hall and out the front door it was. Was windy – no surprise. The surprise was that I couldn’t see any tracks in the snow; surely I wasn’t the first person up this morning? Took my first steps and discovered that, while the white stuff at my feet looked soft and fluffy enough to make snow angels, you might need a pickaxe to get through the veneer. Again, the creaking sound of hollow Styrofoam under my feet.

But the trek to the bathroom was uneventful. Go through the morning ablutions, suit up for real, and clomp, squeak, clomp, squeak upwind to the station. Nothing to it, really. Not even the wind – between the goggles, hood and balaclava, it was just another day at the bottom of the world.


[Note: this morning, our meteo guys tell us that yesterday’s high temperature (-27.8C) and peak gusts (44mph) set new records for this date at the pole.]


[Note #2: finally have the satellites up again – posting a day late, after the additional drama of two main generator failures last night. Woohoo – fun times at the Pole!]

labels read: “Real Imitation Crab Bakes!” and “Artery Clogging Sauce”
Marco and Ron



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