South Pole! Nowhere from here but North

By Dylan Frikken – UWRF Undergraduate in physics

When I was told this summer that I would have the opportunity to work in Antarctica, there was one small catch. Only Sam and Dr. Madsen would be going to the South Pole, leaving me behind at McMurdo Station on the coast. After finishing up our work at the Cosray building in McMurdo, Sam and Dr. Madsen began to prepare for their journey to the bottom of the world, and I started to volunteer myself for anything needed around the community to keep myself busy. About 30 minutes before they were supposed to go bag-drag (checking bags/weight for the flight), Dr. Madsen told me that I had been added to the manifest, leaving me a half hour to pack for the expedition of a lifetime.

After we had checked in and weighed for the next day’s flight the realization of where we would be going started to set in. Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station is located at the geographic South Pole at an elevation of 9,301 feet above sea level. We were going from sea level to nearly 10,000 feet in just under 3 hours.  In order to combat altitude sickness, it was recommended that we take ‘something’ to ease our adjustment.


The next day we hopped on a shuttle to the Willy airfield near McMurdo, and boarded our flight. There was only five passengers including us, so we got to move around freely and enjoy the breathtaking scenery below the plane. Three hours later we landed, and were greeted by a few of the IceCubers who brought us into the station to receive our welcome brief. The South Pole station is an amazing feat of engineering and design. The elevated station looks like something from science fiction, and was designed to be raised since the snow drifts quite heavily there.

Reflections at the South Pole.
Reflections at the South Pole.

The first day at the South Pole it is recommended you take it easy to acclimatize to the sudden change in altitude.  We toured the station, enjoyed the great food and played a couple board games. Day two started off much quicker.  We toured the IceCube Lab and the South Pole Telescope (a cosmic microwave background observatory). Then in the afternoon I volunteered to assist scientists with the ARA project, a radio wave based neutrino detection array.  I helped dig a 7 foot hole to find an instrumentation hole that had been augured 5 years prior.

Locating the ARA pinger.
Locating the ARA pinger.

Physical labor is no small task at the South Pole between the altitude, cold, wind and blowing snow.  It was much slower work than it would be anywhere else. While I was busy undoing 5 years of Antarctica’s drifting snow, Dr. Madsen and Sam started their work collecting a sample of the insulating foam surrounding the South Pole neutron monitors deployed outside on an elevated platform.

Our last morning at the pole started at 3 am to join an outreach web cast with some of the IceCubers and Kate Miller, a high school physics teacher here with the PolarTREC program.  She also blogged and posted videos about her trip.  After the web-cast and a much needed nap, Sam and I went back out into the frozen wasteland to assist the ARA scientists once again. After we found two of the holes the day prior, we were tasked with deploying a radio transmitter and receiver in order to calibrate their sensors.

Our time at the South Pole was short. We only had about 48 hours due to our time constraints for redeploying back to the USA.  The uncooperative weather this season caused a lot of flight cancellations and delays to the pole.  So we played it safe and got on the first flight back to McMurdo on Friday.  It was a good thing we did, because the next three scheduled flights were canceled. Even though we had a short time, the South Pole was an amazing experience.

Samantha and Dylan, UWRF physics undergraduates, leaving McMurdo for the South Pole.

Wildlife and Hut

By Samantha, Dylan and Dr. Madsen  – UWRF Undergraduates

As mentioned before, we have seen very little wildlife here in Antarctica. All wildlife in Antarctica is protected by the Antarctic Treaty and the Antarctic Conservation Act, making it illegal to disturb wildlife and the ecosystems. The most exciting wildlife “interactions” we get are run-ins with Skua. Skua are large brown birds that are slightly aggressive when searching for food. Because of the treaty, no one is allowed to feed the birds or bother them in any way. Even if one happens to land on the roof of a vehicle. This happened to one of the shuttle vans, and no one could do anything until it moved on its own. This particular Skua must have found comfort in the roof of the van, as he stayed such a long time that the driver got a new vehicle to complete her run. Apparently it happens once or twice a season.

Other than Skua, we have seen plenty of seals, specifically Weddell seals. They don’t really do much. They sun bathe, and rarely move. We have gotten so close to these seals, that we could hear them snoring!

Wendell Seal.
Wendell Seal.

Sometimes it is possible to see penguins near McMurdo, but this year the sea ice went out much farther than in the recent past, so the already small chance of seeing an Adélie penguin dropped significantly. We have not seen any penguins so far. Other types of seals, and whales do come near the station on occasion, but not that we have seen.

Another highly protected area is the Discovery Hut. This historic building was built in 1902 to be a storage place and a rendezvous point for Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. From the Discovery Hut, the South Pole is approximately 850 miles.

Inside Discovery Hut

Another highly protected area is the Discovery Hut. This historic building was built in 1902 to be a storage place and a rendezvous point for Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. From the Discovery Hut, the South Pole is approximately 850 miles. Imagine walking in extreme cold weather for months without the gear we have today. Elaine Hood, the communications specialist of the Antarctic Support Contract, gave us a tour of the building. It was absolutely stunning to see the building in near pristine condition. Some of the explorers left seal carcasses in and just outside the hut, and yes, these have been left exactly as they were too.

Seal carcasses left in Discovery Hut by early explorers are still intact.
Seal carcasses left in Discovery Hut by early explorers are still largely intact.

About ten years later, in a mission by Ernest Shackleton, 5 men were trapped in the hut for 5 months. It was sobering to be standing in the same place that these men had struggled to survive. Visiting the hut was a humbling experience, and is one of my favorite parts of our adventure so far.

Items in Discovery Hut.

Community Fun

By Samantha Pedek – UWRF Undergraduate

There are many exciting thing to do in the community, and we have been fortunate enough to have witnessed some of these events. One of the goofy events was the 1st Annual Antarctic Applesauce Chugging World Series. It is exactly what it sound like. People volunteered to chug applesauce in hopes of winning an assortment of different prizes. These community events, or odd contests, really make the community special. It is a blast to watch, and it is a great opportunity to try new things.

Dylan with is 2nd place prize.

The biggest events of the week was the Beard Contest and Mustache Roulette. The Beard Contest was broken up into different categories, including Big and Bushy (which is exactly what it sounds like), Free-style (curls, loops, glitter and ornaments), College Beard (the thin, not quite complete beards), Ginger Beard (which is exactly what it sounds like), and the Fake Beard (where anyone can be creative and make their own). The contest also featured live beard-themed music. Dylan competed in the Ginger Beard category, and got 2nd place!

The following night was Mustache Roulette. It is a charity event supporting Doctors Without Boarders, where people can place bids on the opportunity to shave someone’s beard into whatever shape they would like. It was super fun! One regular here at McMurdo, Dale, has had his mustache for over 47 years! He offered to donate his glorious mustache for $3,000 in donations. The goal was reached and Dale did indeed part with his mustache.


Astrophysics is not the only work being done at McMurdo. There are many different projects happening during the summer season including biology, microbiology, geology, glaciology, paleontology, atmospherical science, volcanology, chemistry, and a artist and writer program and a teaching program. Every week, different people have the opportuinty to give a talk about their project. Since coming here, we have listened to many wonderful lectures. The first being Dr. Neil Shubin, a leader in the paleontology community most well known for his work with finding the connection between aquatic animals and land animals. We then listened to a talk by Maris Wicks, a New York Times Bestselling illustrator and author who aims her graphic novels towards science outreach. The next talk we sat in on was by Dr. Chu, who works with gravity waves in the upper atmosphere. Last night we heard our very own Dr. Madsen give a talk about cosmic messengers, including cosmic rays and neutrinos, and how we detect these astrophysical particles. People from all backgrounds attend these talks, science experience or not, and it is really amazing to see the community support. Everyone here is excited to learn something new, and is not afraid to step outside their comfort zone. It truly is wonderful to see.

The End of an Era

By Dylan Frikken and Samantha Pedek – UWRF Physics Undergraduates.

Work has officially begun on disassembling the neutron monitors in the Cosray building at McMurdo. There are Two neutron monitor sets here that need to be packaged up, new enclosures built and eventually shipped off for Jang Bogo, a South Korean station here in


Antarctica. Each set has six neutron monitors encased in ten tons of lead each and their enclosures. After two days of hard work we have taken one set down and staged it for packaging. Also, we have nearly completed the new enclosure for this set, so we are doing pretty well for time.

Neutron Monitor
Moving Lead
Moving Lead

Today we a lso prepped for the Cosray open house event. The historic Cosray building is going to be removed from McMurdo after our work here, so the community was given one last chance to come and visit. We spent a good amount of the day cleaning and organizing

Cosray is like a time machine straight back into the old days of scientific research. There are all kinds of vintage equipment and instruments, and it really could be a museum itself. Before computing came onto the scene, analog recording systems and good old fashioned paper ruled the world of science. The data from the detectors used to be recorded on ticker tape, while the pressure, temperature and wind speed were all recorded with devices similar to a seismometer.

Real data from the neutron monitors past.
Real data from the neutron monitors past.

One really interesting product of recording data using a ticker tape is that a massive amount of chad – the holes punched from the ticker tape.

Visitors trying to reach the bottom of many years worth of neutron monitor “data”.
Visitors trying to reach the bottom of many years worth of neutron monitor “data”.

The Cosray open house was really successful. A good chunk of the community came, and Sam and I got to explain how the neutron monitors work and why they are important to science, and we fielded a lot of interesting questions.


Flight Day: Finally!

By Dylan Frikken – UWRF Physics Undergraduate

Editor’s Note: Dylan, Samantha, and Dr. Madsen made to McMurdo a couple of weeks ago. This is a delayed post on their flight from Christchurch New Zealand to McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

Today is the day – again! We woke up early and made our way to USAP,  at Christchurch’s Airport, for another check-in, this time we all had good feelings about our chances. With check-in complete we received the safety brief video once more and waited on the weather call. All things looked good so we were told to board the LC-130. Some people were moved to different flights, but we were still all clear. After about twenty minutes waiting on the plane we were told the plane needed to top off with fuel, which required us to deplane. So we got off the plane and waited the longest “five minutes” of our lives. After braving the sweltering New Zealand sun in our cold weather gear for what seemed an eternity the crew chief came out to tell us we could reboard. As the engines started the cabin filled with the sound of the roaring engines and all hopes of talking and listening on the flight were lost. After a few hours of nearly melting sitting under the heat duct, Samantha and I were invited up to the flight deck.

View from the cockpit.
View from the cockpit.

Seven and a half hours of mixed sleeping and reading later, we were signaled to prepare for landing. The LC-130 lands with skis on the Pegasus runway on the Ross ice Shelf. After a smooth landing, we began taxiing to our parking spot, the crew chief opened the back cargo door and we were met with a stunning view from the runway.

On the Ice
On the Ice runway.

After a few dozen pictures of our new temporary home, we loaded onto Ivan the Terrabus for a 30 minute ride into “town”.

Ivan the Terror Bus came to get us.
Ivan the Terror Bus came to get us.

We made it to McMurdo Station at last!

Moving Day: Part 1

By Prof. James Madsen –  UWRF Physics

Today was filled with moving all of the heavy components of the first section of the detector outside. Seems simple, right? Not exactly. Our task here is to move last two sections of the neutron monitor out of the Cosray building which is near McMurdo Station. Each section consists of is 6 neutron monitor tubes, approximately 10 tons of lead, a bunch of polyethylene, and a stack of Styrofoam.

Over the past couple of days, we have been staging the lead and packaging up the neutron monitors and the polyethylene for shipping. These neutron monitors will be heading to Jang Bogo Station, the Korean Antarctic station nearby. The tricky part about the process is that the monitors will be in a different geometric configuration, therefore the insulated housing needs to be modified. Instead of having an array of 1 row of 6 tubes, it will be 2 rows of 3 tubes.

Cos Ray Neutron Monitor.
Cos Ray Neutron Monitor.

Today we loaded the first 10 tons of lead. We placed 6 lead rings per pallet (which weighs over 1200 lbs!) by using a ramp, and a lot of force. It was then strapped down and taken out the back door by a fork lift. Lather. Rise. Repeat. Tomorrow a smaller machine specifically used for moving heavy things into shipping containers, called the pickle, will load it all up.

To wrap up the day, we dismantled the second section all the way down to the housing. We will be repeating the entire process from today on Thursday!

Down Time Down Below

By Samantha Pedek – UWRF Physics Undergraduate

We have had a completely full first few days here at McMurdo. We didn’t arrive here until quite late Friday evening, so we had a few briefings and went straight to bed. The first full day was filled with more briefings and trainings. There are a surprising amount of things to do in order to pass free time, and we have all started to get a feel for the community. As a part of our lab tour, we were brought down to the Touch Tank.

Sam with some sea critters.
Sam with some sea critters.

In the beginning of the season, biologists collected a plethora of aquatic creatures that they keep for people to hold and handle. One really amazing quirk about the native animals here is a trait called gigantism. One of the creatures that exhibit this property are sea lice. It is comparable to the traditional sand lice, but instead of being gnat sized, it is roughly the size of my hand. Along with the sea lice, we got to hold a bunch of other neat animals including a sea lemon, a sea urchin, sea spiders and many more.

Dylan and a sea bug.
Dylan and a sea bug.

Another fun thing to do around town is to hike (or ski or bike) on some of the trails that are around. Some of the hikes are relatively short, only a couple of miles; others can be quite long, up to 13 miles. Dylan and I took advantage of the never ending daylight to hike up to the top of Observation Hill (or Ob Hill for short) after dinner on our first full day here. This is one of the many hikes that people are allowed to do either with a pal or solo. Once getting a tiny bit out of town, both of us realized that we completely missed Mt. Erebus, the active volcano, on our way in from the landing strip, which is just north of town. Up there, we both got fantastic views of town and the surrounding geographical features, because it was uncharacteristically clear.

Jungle with a sand flea
Jongil  with a sand flea

On the second full day, we had a lot of time to ourselves to get our individual work done. Around town there was a marathon going on, and after the marathon, contestants were invited to jump into a tank filled with sea water straight from the bay. Dylan and I went down investigated the polar plunge and decided to do it for ourselves. Since it is salt water, the temperature is actually slightly below freezing, and boy was it cold! It was definitely an experience to cross of the bucket list. “Swimming” in Antarctic waters and doing a literal polar plunge!

Adventures in undergraduate astrophysics research