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.

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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.

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

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