Tuesday, April 13, 2010

100 Below Zero

The temperature did not reach -100F during the last two winters at the Pole, but this year we passed that mark today.  It looks like a cold winter since it is only April and the coldest months are still ahead.  Tomorrow I will go outside and find out what -100F feels like.

The barometric pressure is also very low at 670 mb.  If you are at the beach right now your pressure is probably 1000 mb.  That means we only have 67% of the air you have.  No wonder climbing stairs is so hard here.  You would have to go straight up to 11,000 feet to get the same level of oxygen and pressure we have today.  At this altitude I sometimes wake up during the night and have to breath deeply for a few minutes before I can get back to sleep.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Station

Let me describe the South Pole station.  It is basically a long narrow building on stilts that faces into the prevailing winds.  It is shaped something like a huge boxy airfoil.  The theory is that this shape should keep snow from accumulating around the station so it won't get buried every winter by huge snow drifts.  This does and doesn't work.  The station itself stays clear of snow, but a huge snowbank piles up about thirty feet in front of it over the winter.  This snowbank usually gets as high as our top floor windows which are about 30 feet up, and right now after two months of winter it is about 15 feet high. Since our outlying science buildings are in the direction of this drift we have to climb a thirty foot wall of snow to get to them by the end of winter.  This snow has to be pushed away by bulldozers every summer.  You can see the wall just starting to build up in the picture to the right.

Inside, the station has two levels.  L2 is the main level and has work space, the galley and dining area, a large science area, and some meeting rooms.  L1, the lower level, is about 70% air handlers and service areas, but the laundry, library, and store are there.  Yes, we have a souvenier and sundries store here - it's like a very poorly stocked 7-11 that is open an hour a day and sells five year old cans of  Pringles.  There are four wings off of the main station, three of which have housing for residents.  In the summer these are chock full of people but during the winter we have the luxury of turning one of them into food storage.  That means we do not have to go outside every few days to get food, and since the wing is kept at 50 degrees the food doesn't spend days thawing before we can use it.  There are a lot of perishables that stay edible for months in the food wing.  The picture is a very unattractive one of the L2 corridor.  The stairs lead down to the L1 level.  My room is in a wing to the immediate left, but out of the picture.  To the right is Africa, straight ahead through the doors at the end of the hall is South America, to the left is Japan, and behind you is India.

My room is in A-pod.  That's a nice pod because the rooms are big.  By big I mean that my room is almost exactly the same size as my bathroom at home.  Imagine living in your bathroom for nine months with a desk, bed, three chest of drawers and a chair.  At least it doesn't take long to straighten it up.  The next wing of the station, B-pod, is the coolest of the wings because it has a complete mini-station in it.  It has everything we would need to survive if there was a catastrophic accident - diesel powered generators, fuel system, water supply, heat, laundry, living space and a mini kitchen.  It wouldn't be good living but all 47 of us could cram ourselves in there and stay alive until a rescue flight could get to us in October.  The fourth wing is pure luxury - a ¾ sized gym and a well-appointed exercise/weight room.  We use the gym once a month to hold "drive-in movies" where we project a movie on the gym wall.

We also have three service arches outside the main building.  These are buried under the ice and contain the main power plant, fuel, supplies and maintenance shops.  To get to them we have go through heavy freezer doors and walk down six flights of stairs in the beer can.  The beer can (the National Science Foundation calls it the vertical tower, but everyone else on the planet calls it the beer can) is not heated, so if it is -94F outside it is about that cold in the beer can.  At the bottom of the beer can are unheated snow tunnels that lead to the arches.  So even walking inside from one part of the station to another you can get frostbite.

Everyone loathes the beer can, which is basically an enclosure around a staircase.  It doesn't look too bad in pictures of the station but you have to remember that it continues down into the ice.  So to walk up the beer can to get to the main station is like climbing the stairs of a six story building at 10,500 feet altitude and -80F.  I hate the beer can so much I will leave the service arches using their outside doors, and in full ECW walk uphill 100 yards to the main station when it is pitch black, -90F, with a 20 kt wind just so I don't have to climb those stairs.

There are some other outlying science buildings but I will talk about those in later posts.