With temperatures closing in on 100 in Washington, D.C., today is a good day to dream of working at the South Pole.
The high there today (Wednesday at the South Pole, which is on New Zealand time, 12 hours ahead of ET) should be -79 F, says Dale Herschlag, the meteorologist at the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
“We had quite the cold-snap the past few days here with our lowest temperature of -104.8F being recorded last night (Sunday night, Washington time). It had been running between -90F and -101F on Friday and Saturday. Luckily, the winds were fairly light, between 7 to 11mph. There was a brief time period where our wind chill value was close to -150F,” he says.
If you were going outdoors to work at the South Pole today you’d start dressing with polypropylene long underwear--no cotton because it gets wet with your sweat and tays wet, which is dangerous in the cold. On top of that you’d have polar fleece pants and shirt, heavy-duty insulated Carhart coveralls, a red, down-filled parka with a hood you can zip up to your nose, wool gloves inside your mittens, and a balaclava (ski mask) that covers your entire head except for your face. When it gets to -100 or colder, Herschlag adds a knit beanie hat with the balaclava.
The 37 men and 13 women now at the South Pole live in the warm, two-story 80,000-square-foot building that was dedicated on January 12, 2008. But many of them including Herschlag have to go outside to work. For example “research associates go outside daily to check equipment, either on the roof of the station, or at the NOAA lab. Utilities technicians go outdoors daily for outbuilding checks, and to test or repair equipment.
“A good majority of us do in fact have to work outside at some point,” Herschlag says. “The remainder of the winterovers have indoor jobs, but do occasionally go outside, especially when there is a good viewing of auroras.”
“Winterovers” refers to those who have spent February into October “winters” at a U.S. South Pole station each year.
The first winterovers came to the South Pole on Feb. 21, 1957, when a U.S. Navy airplane took off leaving 18 men there at a base Navy Seabees had built. They knew they could not leave until October later that year when it would be warm enough for an airplane to safely land. The current station is the third one at the Pole.
This year’s 50 winerovers watched the last airplanes leave on March 15 and, like the originals back in 1957, they won’t be leaving until some time in October.
Going outside “isn’t too bad as long as you really bundle up,” Herschlag says. “When the winds increase, it becomes a bit more challenging, as any small area of exposed skin, mainly around the eyes and bridge of the nose, can get frost-bitten very quickly. I have found that the use of goggles becomes a hindrance due to the quick build-up of frost.”
Sven Lindstrom, who works with the Pole’s huge neutrino telescope, says that when the temperature falls below -76F vehicles can’t be operated outside. This means that he and others must walk the more than half a mile from the station to the telescope.
“The extreme cold temperature makes everything really stiff. For example the rubber soles on our boots are solid without any friction when we reenter a building. You need to be very careful so you don’t slip. It is actually as if you were on a pair of skates the first minute inside. And I have seen people, without any reason at all, just slide.”
Another problem, he said, is “during the winter ... it normally is really dark. We are now in the middle of our six-month night, and there are no outside lights since they would disturb some of the very sensitive measurements we do. So our walk is aided only by our red headlamp and the lines of flags we have put in place to guide us. When it is really cold the headlamp battery tends to die very quickly so then we would be fumbling in the dark.”
“Luckily we have had some amazing auroras the last couple of days which have lit up the entire sky for us.”
Cynthia Chiang says, “Every day during my walk to the telescope, I have to decide if I want to trade the protection of my ski goggles, which become hopelessly frosty in 10 minutes, for an unobstructed view accompanied by stinging cold. Choosing the latter buys me only a few more minutes until my eyelashes begin to freeze together.”
While winter conditions at the South Pole are brutal, even the so-called “summer” isn’t so hospitable. The more than 200 people who might be at the South Pole any day during the summer research season from late October into March—many live in tents—aren’t running around in shorts. The highest temperature ever recorded at the South Pole was plus 9.9 F degrees last Christmas Day.
The coldest temperature at the South Pole since weather records began in 1957 was -117F on June 23, 1982.
So far this year the temperature has fallen to -100F or below five times, the first on April 7.
At that time Dr. Dale Mole, the station’s physician wrote on his personal, unofficial “southpoledoc” blog:
“Everything exposed to the elements was cloaked in a covering of ice. Every exhaled breath produced a strange, unearthly sound as the water vapor in expired air instantly froze, producing billowing clouds of ice crystals. Bare hands were useful to manipulate camera controls for only about 10 seconds before the pain became unbearable and dexterity rapidly faded. One does not touch bare metal for fear of leaving behind flesh on the railings or door handles.”
Temperatures of -100F or below also give -overs a chance to join the exclusive 300 Club.
Herschlag explains “Membership involves sweating it out in a sauna at 200F for as long as possible. You then run down four flights of stairs, and out and onto the snow level from the circular part of the station (called the beer can) and run up the 15-foot snowdrift to the geographical South Pole marker, which is approximately 300 feet from the beer can.
“Typically, one is allowed to wear some sort of footwear, such as tennis shoes, boots, etc, along with a neck gaiter to limit inhaling the cold air and frostbiting your lungs,” he says. “This is what I did. Others only wear footwear, and nothing else - no briefs or t-shirt is worn by anyone. It is done completely in your birthday suit!
“It is a tradition that continues! It really isn’t as bad of an experience that one would think.”
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South Pole jobs
If you are interested in working in Antarctica, including at the South Pole, you should visit the U.S. Antarctic Program’s Jobs and Opportunities page.
Elaine Hood, a communications Specialist for Antarctic Support Contract, the group of companies that operates the three permanent stations and two research ships for the U.S. Antarctic Program, says about 1,000 people are hired to work from October through February at the stations and on the ships.
She says the kinds of jobs available are those needed for a small town from waste-water treatment plant operators and heavy equipment mechanics to electricians and plumbers.
“Those hired for winter-over jobs at the South Pole must be prepared to be in 24-hours of darkness for months at a time, and have no transportation or mail from mid-February until November,” she says.