The University of Chicago Magazine February 1996
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Life on Ice


December 7, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station: I'm exhausted, dehydrated, and altitude-sick (the altitude here, about 10,500 feet, makes about half of all Pole travelers ill). But I'm at the South Pole, where I will spend the next week. As Robert Falcon Scott wrote upon arriving here in 1912, only to find the Norwegian flag already planted, "The Pole, yes, but under very different circumstances than those expected."

Bill Mullen, of the Chicago Tribune, and I were the only two passengers on our morning three-hour flight--a "Pole Tanker," carrying mostly fuel to keep the station operating through the dark winter, when no flights are made.

Stepping out of the plane, the cold air took my breath away. The temperature was about -25°ree; F, with a windchill of about -45°ree;. The mitigating factor--at least this time of year--is sunshine. With two weeks until the solstice, the sun is near its highest point: It spins around the horizon, spiraling upward only several hundredths of a degree each day, and won't set again until March 21, rising again September 21. One sunrise, one sunset.

Bill and I were directed down into the bowels of the South Pole Station: the Dome. Although the Dome is half-buried from years of snowdrifts, its entranceway is kept clear, with a steep, 30-foot slope leading to the station. About 75 feet tall, the Dome houses three two-story buildings: the galley, the science building, and communications.

Groggy and disoriented, I was steered to "Club Med"--the biomedical facility. There Doc Betty pronounced me de- hydrated and prescribed oxygen and two liters of water. At the Pole, the biggest health dan- ger, aside from the cold and altitude, is dehydration. With only about 2-percent humidity, it is the driest place on Earth.

December 9: This morning I feel terrific, having slept blissfully until 11 a.m. The only thing missing was a morning shower. Because our water is made by melting snow and ice, which burns up a lot of fuel, we're limited to two showers a week. I am smelly and greasy, but so is everyone else.

With limited facilities for housing and food, the National Science Foundation has set a population cap at the Pole of 145 people. About 90 are support staff (construction workers, cargo haulers, electricians, communications technicians, kitchen staff), another 45 are scientists, and five are visitors like myself.

After lunch, the computer room was packed, mostly with people wanting to log on the Internet--available here only because a couple of aging weather satellites wobble out of their geostationary orbits far enough south each day to be just barely visible from the Pole. Our communications links are so precious and seem so tenuous.

With no regular access to news, the outside world recedes. The essential questions are: What time is the next meal? When's the next plane, and is it carrying anything interesting? How cold is it? When is the next satellite up?

December 11: I was up early to start work on creating a "video news release" about the coming Christmas Eve "Race around the World," a tradition so old that no one here can recall when it began.

For the tape, distributed to TV stations around the U.S., I interviewed two top competitors, U of C graduate students David Schleuning, SM'92, and (former champion) John Kovac. The race, a three-lap run around the South Pole skiway, is "around the world" because all of Earth's meridians converge at the Pole--also making it possible to run through all 24 time zones in a matter of seconds.

When they're not running, both Dave and John work for Chicago's Mark Dragovan, AB'80, PhD'86, the principal investigator for CARA's Cosmic Background Radiation Anisotropy project. "COBRA" looks for tiny variations in cosmic microwave radiation, a Big Bang relic that bathes the universe.

Until very recently, the best measurements made this background radiation appear perfectly uniform in every direction, but in 1992, the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite found the first evidence for some variations. COBRA is designed to confirm these fluctuations--which, scientists believe, were amplified by gravity during the universe's 15-billion-year expansion, clumping matter into the clusters and superclusters of galaxies that we see today.

The Pole is the best place on Earth for this kind of astronomy because it's cold, dry, and high, and the air is stable. Another big advantage is that a single patch of sky never rises or sets, at least not every day, so the telescope can track the same patch for days.

Mark, in his fifth season of microwave astronomy at the Pole, tells me that, yes, he's detected variations, but no, they don't quite have the sensitivity needed to nail down the answers cosmologists are seeking. Conclusive experiments will probably come from another, space-borne instrument, and to that end, Mark is collaborating with other scientists on a proposal for a second-generation COBE satellite. But even if funded, it will be many years before that instrument is launched.

In the meantime, the Pole offers the best earthly solution. And Mark and Chicago collaborator John Carlstrom are planning an even better telescope--about the size of a 55-gallon drum--with 14 different horns, or light-collecting elements. This instrument, when it's installed at the Pole in 1997, may be sensitive enough to answer cosmologists' questions even before the next satellite gets off the ground.

December 12: At 1 a.m., about 30 of us were sitting in the galley, relaxing and finishing off the meal, when the fire alarm went off. Fire is another of the many dangers here. Because the air is so dry, anything that catches fire will burn to the ground almost immediately. This time there were no flames--it was, we learned, just a drill.

Tomorrow I return to Mc- Murdo, and in two days, to Christchurch, to begin the journey home. Despite the inconveniences of living in this desolate environment, I'll miss the people who a few days ago were stran- gers, and the fresh importance of little things: a shower, a meal, an Internet conversation with a friend back home.

I've also gained an appreciation for the sacrifice that people make in coming here, and how amazing it is that they have managed to create a daily life that is bearable, even enjoyable. Talking with Jim Gardner, the South Pole Area Manger in charge of the Dome's support staff--he jokingly calls himself the Pole's "mayor"--I mentioned that South Pole seems very much of a cooperative venture.

"When something needs to get done, everybody pitches in," he agreed. "Nobody is too good for the most menial tasks, and there's nothing here that I wouldn't ask someone to do that I wouldn't do myself."

Could I live at the Pole? I know that I am adjusting to life here. There was no clearer example of that then when I walked outside the other day. It was -13°ree; F and actually felt balmy. Perhaps the memory will muster some reverse psychology back home: Imagine how warm a Chicago winter feels in comparison.


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