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South Pole Update

SOUTH POLE, ANTARCTICA– We are nearly 2 months into the Antarctic winter now and it’s hard to believe that we only have just a little over a month until we are at mid-winter. April was somewhat uneventful here as everyone seems to have on the winter cruise control. There were some interesting things that happened however.

April weather was somewhat significant being the coldest April on record averaging -80.7F which was lower by 0.2F than the previous record set in 1998 (records began in 1957). On top of that, we set the second earliest mark in reaching -100F ever recorded dipping to -100.7F on April 13th. It’s only typical that as soon as April ended, we are on a streak of warm and unsettled weather. For instance, temperatures today are supposed to rise into the -30s Fahrenheit. It’s amazing to me that you can have a range of about -65 degrees without any daily help from the sun. If things keep up, which they look like they will for the near future, we are on pace for the warmest May ever! I wonder what is in store for the rest of the winter?

Taking in the sky from the Atmospheric Research Observatory

The station atmosphere was much quieter however. We only really had only one major event which was a glycol leak in the power plant. The power plant uses a 60/40 glycol to water ratio to cool the diesel generators. The waste heat from the generators transferred to the glycol mix is then run throughout the station to heat the building. My knowledge of how the whole system works is very limited but as I understand it, a thermostat broke open and created a geyser of glycol. It then landed on some of the exhaust manifolds causing it to vaporize and create a huge cloud in the power plant. This triggered the fire alarm. Luckily it wasn’t one of the loops that carry the bulk of the glycol or it could have been a much worse mess. Over the summer, we had so many false alarms that you kind of become desensitized to it always thinking it’s a false alarm. But when you hear the automated alarm system say that smoke was detected in the power plant, and that it’s not a drill, it really gets the adrenaline pumping. As you can imagine, the power plant is one of the locations on station where you could have things really go wrong.

Everyone on station is assigned to an emergency response team and mine is the fire team. Because we are on are own down here, it is our responsibility to deal with these situations. The fire team had some firefighting training back in Denver before we came down Antarctica and we also try to do some training on our own once a week to keep methods fresh. But we are by no means professionals. Needless to say, I was very relieved to find that the power plant was not engulfed in flames and nobody was injured in the incident. The heart rate definitely jumped initially with the thought that I might actually have to go in and drag someone out of a flaming building. We don’t have fire hoses so all we have are fire extinguishers to use on station (there are fixed water and CO2 suppression systems at various locations however). With all the luxuries that the station has, it’s easy to slip into a false sense of security. These types of incidents are reminders that we are still in a dangerous environment.

There are not any traces of the sun on the horizon any more. When the moon is out, it is like a floodlight on the South Pole. It’s amazing how bright it is. It sure makes walking to the observatory every day much easier. Now the moon has gone below the horizon and it’s extremely dark but the stars are incredible. Yesterday walking back from the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), I was lucky enough to see an iridium flare coupled with a really nice aurora. An iridium flare is when the solar panels of a satellite are at just the right angle that it reflects the sun’s light at you. It does it for just a few seconds as it passes overhead. Unfortunately I did not have my camera ready for a photo.

Well that about does it for the update. Seven months down, six to go!

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