A year at South Pole - 2017/18

In May 2017, I accepted a job offer at the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC) in Madison - a job that will send me to the bottom of Earth. IceCube is a giant Neutrino detector at South Pole, and it will be my job to keep its computers running. For an entire year (November 2017 to December 2018) I will live and work at the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica.
Being an IceCube "Winterover" has been my dream job for years - und now the dream is real. This page is my journal of this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Most of the content will be in English, but I might write in German occasionally. The journal entries are sorted by date (latest first).

[Go to first journal entry]

[Ice facts only]
[Science facts only]

Map of Antarctica
Map of Antarctica [Polar Geospacial Center]
  • Ice facts #13     South Pole weather (again!)

The weather has been so shitty that I was planning on dedicating this whole journal entry to ranting about it. But you can't really be mad for a long time when you get compensated with auroras, so I'm just gonna make this an informative one instead.

Two things go well together at South Pole: Warm and windy on the one hand, and cold-as-fuck and not-windy on the other. You almost never get cold-and-windy or warm-and-not-windy. You can see two examples for warm-and-windy from last week in the pictures below.

If you ask me what I prefer: I'd take -80° C without wind over -40° C and 25 knots anytime, and I'll bet every other winterover would say the same. No matter how many layers you wear and how windproof you think your cloth are - the wind will find you and it will hurt you.
Goggles are not a thing in the winter, because the heat and humidity generated by your own face is enough to make them freeze over within seconds. So people usually go with the Eskimo-slit technique, where you cover up your whole face except a tiny portion where your eyes are. The air you breathe out through your gaiters usually is warm enough to keep that patch of exposed skin frostbite-free - unless it's windy, then your only chance is to either walk with your face faced away from the wind or cover it up with your mittens. Either way, you're not gonna be able to see. Wind sucks! :D

  • Ice facts #12     Where the Internet comes from

To most people in the western world nowadays, communication is an abstract, invisible, self-evident matter of fact. The only time you notice it's there, is when it's not. And that happens a lot at South Pole.

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is so remote from the rest of the world, that the only way of communication is - through space. Only downside: Most communication satellites don't fly over the poles, because nobody freakin' lives there :D So we are currently piggybacking on three different systems that barely touch the South Pole horizon: DSCS, Skynet, and SPTR2 (explained in the picture on the right). All three of them are visible for only a few hours each day, and provide very different bandwidths. DSCS is by far the nicest of the three, and the connection of choice for things like YouTube, Facebook, online banking, phone calls, etc. SPTR is okay-ish but requires a little bit of planning sometimes. It's super patchy and not very fast, but if you pre-cached all your websites on DSCS, you can still use them on SPTR. The network is also used to upload all the science data, including pretty IceCube events. Skynet (or "Sucknet" as the winterovers call it) provides barely enough bandwidth to ping the Google servers. It's slower than Christmas, but better than nothing (I guess).
The overall daily satellite coverage is roughly 12 hours, with about 8 hours of actually usable bandwidth.

The station has a 24 hour Iridium coverage for emergencies - you technically CAN make a phonecall on the Iridium line, but it's not pretty. Email works.

What we really absolutely do not have is Wifi and cellphone reception. So guys, please stop whatsapping me, IT WON'T GET HERE :D

Our two satellite communication (satcom) engineers, Tony and Josh, track the different satellites with gigantic dishes in the so-called raydomes - the domes protect the equipment from wind and weather. Earlier this week, the guys took me out there to show me around. It's quite the walk, but totally worth it, especially if your way is lit up by the prettiest auroras!

  • Ice facts #11     South Pole Sectors

The area around Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is divided into a bunch of sectors; a few of them you can see in the picture on the right. Those sectors are mostly for protecting the science experiments that are going on down here.

The Dark Sector is home of the IceCube Laboratory (ICL), the Dark Sector Laboratory (DSL) which hosts the South Pole Telescope and BICEP, and the Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory (MAPO) building which hosts the KECK experiment. In terms of visible light, the Dark Sector is as dark as any other sector - in terms of other frequencies, however, special rules apply to this sector to avoid interference with the very sensitive experiments. For example, your radio has to be off at all times, your phone has to be in airplane mode, and all bluetooth and WIFI devices should better be left at home. You are allowed to use your radio in case of an emergency, of course.

The Clean Air Sector is home of the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), which is where the two NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) winterovers spend most of their time. As the name implies, the air in that sector is the cleanest on Earth. The air is pretty neat at South Pole in general, but the wind usually blows from ARO's direction which prevents exhaust from the station or vehicles to drift over NOAA's sensitive atmosphere experiments. Also, please don't fart when you're out there.

Deep underneath the ice sheet, there are buried some seismic detectors which are part of the South Pole Remote Earth Science Observatory (SPRESO) in the Quiet Sector. They monitor shockwaves in our planet, like earthquakes or nuclear explosions. They even detect the slightest vibrations on the surface of South Pole, which is why vehicles are prohibited in this sector.

All the aircrafts usually land in the Downwind Sector (if they don't overshoot the skiway for thousands of feet, chrmmchrm :D). In the winter, not a lot happens here, except the occasional meteorology balloon launch.

  • Ice facts #10     The Run to McMurdo

The distance from South Pole to McMurdo is 835 miles, measured on the way of the Traverse. The Run to McMurdo challenges you to cover this distance within the 9 winter months - virtually on the treadmill, the stationary bike, on skies, the unicycle or whatever weird form of mobility you can come up with.

Now the fun part. I have a little bet going with our research associate Ta-Lee: Whoever makes it to McMurdo first, gets to dress the other person for a week. Yes, FOR A WHOLE WEEK. Everything faster than 5 miles per hour on the treadmill counts.

By the way, running at 3300 m elevation and zero humidity is a lot harder than you think. The extra air you need for exercise: Just not there.

  • Ice facts #9     Skua

skuˑa /'skyo͡oə/, noun: A large brownish predatory seabird related to the gulls, pursuing other birds to make them disgorge fish they have caught.
[Google Dictionary]


skuˑa /'skyo͡oə/, noun: An abstract phenomenon describing the donation and repossession of everyday items predominantly on research stations in Antarctica; as well as the site of its implementation. [Poptart's Dictionary of Amusing and Inappropriate American Colloquial]

Or, let me put this differently: If you have stuff you don't want anymore or you have to get rid of excess luggage for your way home, you put it in Skua. Be it an old towel, an open box of Ibuprofen, smelly sportswear or that tacky multicolored chain of Christmas lights that someone installed in your room before you moved in - Skua takes it all. At Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Skua is a little shack right outside the side entrance, where people put their old stuff for happy finders to take. And this system works - it works so extraordinarily good, that some bold summer people come down here without any extra clothes of their own, with Skua as their wardrobe for the entire stay.

Skua got its name from the famous Antarctic seabird, which is known for its tendency to 'borrow' food from other animals or unsuspecting residents of McMurdo Station who dare to step outside with a tray full of pizza and Frosty Boy.

  • Ice facts #8     South Pole markers

There are two South Pole markers near Amundsen Scott South Pole Station. One is the ceremonial Pole marker, which moves along with the glacier and therefore remains at it's place relative to the station at all times. It is surrounded by 12 flags representing the founding members of the Antarctic Treaty: South Africa, Belgium, Japan, France, the United Kingdom, the USA, Norway, New Zealand, Russia, Chile, Australia, and Argentina. Since it is the sexier of the two Pole markers, it is more commonly seen in pictures.
The other marker, as you've probably correctly guessed, is the geographic South Pole marker, which marks the actual geographic South Pole. Since the glacier moves away beneath it, its position has to be re-calculated every year. The marker is replaced by a new design and moved to its new location every January 1st in a big ceremony. The old marker goes into a little marker museum here on station, where it remains for all future generations of Polies to see. Usually, all winterovers sign their season's marker, so that their names remain a part of South Pole forever.

Both markers used to be right next to each other; but due to the constant moving of the ice cap, their current distance is about a 100 m.

  • Ice facts #7     South Pole weather

Gather 'round folks, it's time to talk about the weather. Well, actually there's not much to say except that it's cold as f*ck. Anyway, here we differentiate between two different kinds of cold-as-f*ck: The actual temperature and the windchill. The first one tells the temperature as it is taken by the outside thermometers; the latter tells you how it actually feels like when you go outside and stand in the wind. Those two can have veeeery different values sometimes! In summer, the (actual) temperature does not climb higher than -20 °C; in winter, it can drop down to almost -80 °C!
The daily weather board, one of which you can see below, also tells you the current "experienced" altitude calculated from the air pressure. This sometimes goes up to 10,800 ft, compared to the "actual" 9,301 ft. And believe me, you can really feel the difference when working out in the gym and the extra air you need is JUST NOT THERE. Phew.

The humidity at South Pole is absolute 0 - always, everywhere. Except in the greenhouse and sometimes the sauna, which makes these rooms very frequently visited places on station. Some people, including me, have their own humidifiers in their rooms, but due to the constantly running air conditioning they don't work really well except when you seal your vents shut (which you are very much not supposed to) or let the humidifier blow directly in your face when you're asleep. It sometimes helps to air-dry your laundry on the clothesline in your room - it will drip dry in notime and adds a little bit of water to the air for at least a few hours.

  • Ice facts #6     The South Pole Traverse

Imagine a caravane in a desert - but instead of camels, you've got heavy bigass bulldozers; instead of tents, you've got containers on gigantic sleds; and instead of sand, you've got ice as far as the eyes can see. That's the South Pole Traverse.
Three times a summer season, 10 intrepid heroes go on this incredible journey, towing fuel bladders all the way from McMurdo to South Pole to provide the station with liquid power for the winter.

There obviously is no paved road to Pole - so the Traverse has to make its way through more than 1600 km of ice and snow. The first vehicle in the caravane carries a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to detect the many crevasses in the glacier, which can be fatal to mission and life.

The journey of the Traverse takes about three weeks with 12 hours of driving every day. Our 10 heroes have to spent their leisure time in very close quarters: There is a cargo-container sized module for sleeping, and another one that servers as kitchen and bathroom.

  • Ice facts #5     South Pole air crafts

South Pole aviation is a particularly tricky business. A mission's success depends on many different factors - mostly weather, which is pretty much unpredictable in McMurdo, at Pole and in between. For a plane to fly, the weather has to be just perfect. It can changes within minutes though, and it happens quite frequently that planes take off in McMurdo, fly all the way Pole just to discover that the weather has changed so severely that they aren't able to land safely, and fly all the way back. This is called "boomeranging".

There are four planes to fly missions to Pole: Most cargo and people come in on a LC-130 or Hercules, the biggest ski-equipped air craft to land here. Backup missions are flown in the much smaller Baslers. Their cabin is not pressurized, so they have to fly very low, which means you get a beautiful view of Antarctica! The tiniest planes to fly to Pole are the Twinotters. Tourists or important people often arrive in those. Their engines are small enough to be heated up externally, so they can actually be parked at Pole for several days - in contrast to the Hercules machines, whose engines have to run the whole time they're here. The by far biggest Antarctic air crafts are the C-17s or Globemasters. Those are not equipped with skies and are way too heavy to land on the snowy South Pole ski way, so they are used to get people from Christchurch to McMurdo's Phoenix air field, which is located on the ice shelf and can carry more load, until it melts in the summer. The annual South Pole air drop is also flown by these gigantic machines, because it does not require landing.

Fun fact: For each of the South Pole air crafts, there is a server with the same name in ICL! Globemaster takes care of syslog and serves as an NSF mount, hercules hosts the IceCube wiki and SVN, basler is our backup server and twinotter is home of our monitoring system.

  • Ice facts #4     ECW

ECWG stands for Extreme Cold Weather Gear and includes all kinds of clothes to protect you from South Pole's harsh environment. The most important ECW item is the "Big Red": The red Canada goose parka which does a perfect job to shield you from the wind and cold, has a trizillian pockets to store (and loose) all your stuff in, and even has your name printed on it so that people know who you are when they meet you outside and are not yet familiarized with the way you walk ;)
Then, of course, there are the "Bunny Boots": Big white boots made out of rubber to keep the warm air inside and isolate your feet from the icy ground they are walking on.
All your ECW comes in big orange bags which further contain three kinds of mittens, a neck gaiter, a hat, goggles, wind-shield pants, and a bunch of other stuff. Everything that's in there has to be returned upon your re-deployment to the real world.

  • Ice facts #3     Packing for Pole

So how does a winterover's packing list look like? First of all, you need a year's supply of EVERYTHING. This is more difficult than it sounds - or do you know exactly how much toothpaste you use up in 13 months? Or what kind of medication you might need? You can not just pack everything "just in case", since every winterover has a total baggage allowance of 46 kg.
Next to toiletries and all that everyday stuff, you need things that keep you entertained. I packed a shitload of yarn - maybe by the end of winter everybody on station will have a silly handmade sweater they didn't ask for! :D
The more nostalgic winterovers also should pack a buncha' photographs of their loved ones - there's no seeing them in a looooong time.

The most expensive and spacially demanding items in a winterover's bag: Warm clothes. Lot's of it. That includes heavy socks, hats, scarfs, balaclavas and long underwear. And of course you want the fancy Merino stuff, so plan on spending quite some money (for what I know it's worth every penny though; I got to try some of it during some cold Madison days already). And that's only the base layer of what you will be wearing at Pole. The ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear will luckily be issued to you right before you go - you have to give it back upon re-deployment when your year is over though.

The good thing is: During the austral summer, people can send you stuff. So if you forgot to pack your underpants, it's not the end of the world - at least not if you notice before the end of summer ;)

  • Ice facts #2     WO training

Here's to all the people who keep asking me: "Are you getting locked in freezers a lot for winterover training?"
The answer is: No. We have giant freezers here, but those are for DOM (Digital Optical Module) testing rather than for winterover natural selection. But luckily, deep-freezing winterover trainees still SEEMS to have a certain fascination on some WIPAC scientists, so I get to try the freezers out from time to time - and -40 °C is really not as bad as I thought. Until the cold starts creeping up your pants and sleeves. Then it's bad.

So what AM I doing all day? There is a lot of things winterover-to-bes have to learn before being released to the ice. They have to know the IT infrastructure of IceCube like the back of their hands - every single server and switch, all the power supplies, each cable. Ralf has us stripping down each machine to its pieces and putting it back together again - not in the actual IceCube data center obviously, but at the SPTS, the South Pole Test System. That means most of our time we spend between SPTS server racks. It's noisy, but also full of exciting sophisticated technical Schnickschnack! :)

Another winterover trainee task is to load the big IceCube cargo crate, which leaves for South Pole mid September. So far, we packed it up with roughly 1.5 metric tons of UPS batteries and spare hard drives - almost good to go!

  • Ice facts #1     South Pole seasons

South Pole works a little differently than what we are used to. There only is one long day (the austral summer) in which the sun never sets, and one long night (the austral winter) in which it never rises. Most people at South Pole only work there in the summer. However, there are a handful of crazy people called winterovers, who stay at South Pole station all year long. This is a demanding and also dangerous job for many reasons. During the long Antarctic night, there is no way of leaving Pole (because the weather is too bad and too cold for planes to land). There is limited internet and NO FREAKIN SUNLIGHT.

Every year, IceCube sends two winterovers who stay at Pole for 13 months. Their job is to keep the detector running at all time.