Wednesday, March 24, 2010

10 Seconds

I'm sure you readers are getting tired of it by now and are probably muttering, "Again with the cold", but let me assure you that as the winter progresses every week has been a new experience in cold appreciation.  Let me try to explain what -104F wind chill is like.

When I dress in my ECW* it is inside in the warmth of the station.  By the time I am ready to go out I am nice and toasty and maybe even a little hot.  But once I step out the door that warmth is instantly sucked out of my clothes by the cold and wind.  The temperature next to my skin goes from around 85 to the mid 60s in about 10 seconds.  It happens so fast I can actually feel the temperature dropping inside my ECW.  After 15 seconds the only heat I have is what is being produced by my body - which is now working hard trying to keep that tiny air space inside my ECW warm.  For me there is no more stark indicator of how cold it really is here than those first 10 seconds outside the door. 

This is aggressive cold that demands attention.  It envelops my ECW, sucking away every bit of heat it can find, and for the most part it succeeds - being just barely held at bay by the heat my own body produces.  And it is a fine line.  If you were to go outside and simply stand there you would freeze to death despite all the ECW because your body would not produce enough heat to keep you warm.  You have to keep moving, keeping your body active to produce enough heat to warm that precious inside layer of air.  

This is cold where you can't make mistakes. I now cover every square inch of my head with layers of fleece.  I wear a breathing device over my nose and mouth that gives me pre-warmed air to breath, and I wear goggles over my eyes.  If I leave even a sliver of skin exposed on my face it will be frostbitten in minutes, so just before going outside I always look in a mirror to make sure I haven't left any skin exposed by accident.  Even then I sometimes have to come back inside after a few seconds because I will have left the tiniest bit of skin accessible to the wind and cold. 

Yet I can't just throw on all my warm clothes because being too hot is worse than being too cold.  If I am too hot I will sweat, and wet clothes do not insulate.  Yesterday I experimented for hours to get things right. Too hot in the chest area... come back inside and take off fleece.  Too cold in the arms... come back inside and exchange a short sleeve undershirt for a long sleeved one.  Too cold in the legs... come back inside and add a layer of thermal underwear or another layer of wind-proof pants (but not both - too hot)!  Then I realized my hair was wet because my head was sweating - very, very bad!  So I remove a layer of head covering.  And on and on.   I'll say one thing for the South Pole Station, it is very convenient having an ultra-low temperature test chamber for winter clothing just outside the door.  Mere steps away.  Here there is no waiting for cold.

Luckily I only have to get this right once and then I will be able to suit up without worry and stay out for an hour or so. Well no, that's not quite right - in reality how long I stay out depends on Antarctica.  It's like Antarctica sees me, smirks and says, "Now try this" and turns up the cold or the wind.  The coldest temperature ever recorded here was -117F.  The coldest temperature so far this winter has been -81F, but the winter is just four days old.

[April 3: Since I wrote this last week the temperature dropped to -87F with a -127 windchill.  It was only for a day but since it is so early in the season I think it portends a cold winter.  I made a 45-minute foray to the Jamesways and back that day and my gear and breathing mask setup kept me warm.]

[October 6: It is now the end of the winter and only three weeks until we all leave.  The low temperature for the season was -104F.  I don't remember the windchill.  I have become an expert n ECW gear (duh) and can now stay warm for a couple of hours when the windchill is down around -140F]

*ECW - Extreme Cold Weather gear


Anonymous said...

What a vivid description of the cold and how you have to deal with it. Thank you for writing this blog. My husband has been at McMurdo, as the safety coordinator, for less than a month, and although I know that isn't the same as being at the Pole, I use your descriptions to give an extra dimension and more details to the mental picture I try to build about what he's experiencing.

J. Reaves said...

Thanks for the compliment. I hope you enjoy the blog. I talked to Bernie last week over the satellite phone. He seems to be pretty busy and doing a great job.

You are right, McMurdo doesn't have the raw cold of the Pole, but they have their own issues with high winds and blowing volcanic dust. In McMurdo everyone is confined to whatever building they happen to be in whenever the windchill reaches to -100F. Here at Pole that's a pretty mild day. There is no minimum temperature we don't go out into or we would just sit in the station all winter drinking coffee! :).

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