Sunday, January 22, 2012

Additional South Pole/Antarctica Q&A

These are the final batch of student questions and answers for this season. Some questions may have been paraphrased...

1. Why all the costumes for the New Years Party? Isn't that more of a Halloween thing?

Well, folks tend to dress up in costumes for all of the parties at the South Pole. I haven't been there for a Halloween Party yet, but I imagine it'll be similar. Basically folks at Pole work very hard, normal is a six day work week and typically more than eight hours per day in a harsh environment. So when it's time for a party, folks go all out. The bright, anime-like, wigs seem quite particular to Antarctic parties, not sure about their origin, but they were popular the first time I was on the ice, in McMurdo, in 2002 so it's not a new thing.

2. Who gets to go to Antarctic for these experiments?

Within the experimental groups, there are some folks who obviously want to go to Pole, and others who will do anything to avoid it. So you take the former group of people, trying to match skills to tasks that need to be done on the ice. Some people get into the habit of going each year, either their job really is tied to work on the ice, or they enjoy it. Most of the people at the South Pole aren't working on a specific scientific experiment, they're there to work at the station. They're hired by the contractor which runs the station, through this season it had been Raytheon Polar Services Corporation and in the future with be Lockheed Martin. These folks could be cooks, vehicle mechanics, heating repair people, dishwashers, computer network technicians, or a host of other jobs. The job gets them to the Pole.

3. Beards?

They are pretty common on guys in Antarctica, though you have to start off with "academics" and "rock-climbers" as the stereotypical groups of people headed down there, and beards are more common with those groups than with the average person. Then add into it, "keeping your rather delicate cheeks warms" and perhaps some level of "two two-minute showers per week" and beards seem more reasonable.

4. What's up with all of the weird rings and stuff around the sun?

A number of solar phenomena are much more common at the South Pole than they are elsewhere. In the same way in which rainbows, and double rainbows, are common in Hawaii, sundogs, solar pillars, and solar arcs are common at the Pole. These solar lighting phenomena are caused by light scattering from ice crystals that are relatively close to the viewer. At the Pole where "blowing ice crystals" is a common weather description, these light displays are also relatively common, though super-impressive. See Wikipedia (this article and links from this article) for more information.

5. If I wanted to go to Antarctica, what should I do?

There are basically four routes to the ice:
- Science: A few undergraduate students get to go to Antarctica on research projects, but by and large it's graduate students and more senior researchers. So to get there via this route requires dedication to a research topic that happens to involve work in Antarctica.
- Support: This one is easier, there is a job fair each year (Raytheon previously, Lockheed in the future) with jobs ranging from GA (general assistant, typically 18-20 year old with no particular work experience) through the skilled crafts (carpenters, HVAC, mechanics, computer help desk...) and through management (shop foreman, station manager...). A good fraction of people are primarily interested in Antarctica above and beyond the job particulars.
- Tourism: Yes, you can hop on a boat and see the Antarctic Peninsula (the part below South America, it's a lot warmer than the rest of the continent and has more wildlife on it), or book a flight through one of the adventure tourist shops and fly into the Pole. Or fly to sixty miles from the Pole and ski the rest of the way in. Or parachute out over the South Pole. It's not cheap, but plenty of folks are doing it.
- Exploration: You're not going to be first to ski in to the South Pole. But no one has bicycled to the Pole yet (oops, looks like it happened a couple of hours ago). Driving to the Pole (in a Toyota pickup) is a normal thing now, but no one has made it in a hovercraft or driving a 2CV or behind the wheel of an art car. Find a niche, find some sponsors, and don't forget to bring a satellite phone with you in case things go horribly wrong.


  1. Awesome article. I have seen many photos and articles of Antarctica which is one of the beautiful adventure place in the world. I am planning to visit this beautiful place and hope i will enjoy a lot without any setback.

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