Saturday, January 27, 2007

This thing happens...

The very first time that I sat down in the Galley with the boys from Chicago (Tom, Jeff, Ryan, and Joaquin, who've all been here since November), I asked them about the weather here at the pole. Was there even weather? It's too cold for the snowfalls I'm used to back home. Plus, this time of year, the sun never sets, but just goes around in circles around the sky. So there aren't morning or evening changes in temperature or wind. Stability and dryness of the atmosphere are the reason why this is such a great site for our telescope. But when I first arrived, what I really wanted to know was whether I would see exactly the same thing every day as I walked back and forth from the station to the telescope.

I think it was Ryan who replied to my question about the weather, saying "Well, no, there's not really weather exactly. But this thing happens sometimes....where for some reason there's a lot of ice in the air". I laughed at this, but when I went out the next day I could understand what he meant.

One of the things I most wish that I could photograph and convey to the rest of the world is what it's like to be outside when that thing is happening. The snow here is not like the snow in Chicago, or in my home town of Athens, Ohio. It's not wet at all. It crunches when you step in it, and it sparkles in the sun. And when there's a light wind, the air is filled with tiny ice crystals that glitter everywhere. If you just stand and look in any direction, tiny flashes of light seem fill the air and rush by in a constant flow with the wind.

As it turns out, there are a lot of changes in the daily conditions, even if they are very different from the weather back home. The temperature has been steadily around -15 to -25 degrees F with windchills making it feel typically 15 degrees colder. But the clouds and the wind change a lot. Some days the sky is completely clear, and some days a front appears on the horizon and over the course of a work shift you see it sweep across the landscape and cover everything you can see.

The laboratory where I spend most of my time is called the Dark Sector Laboratory, or DSL. It's called that because it's out in the "Dark Sector", where restrictions are placed on any lights or equipment that might interrupt the operation of the South Pole's telescopes. The DSL is on stilts (like all the buildings here), and I work on the top floor. I've posted a picture of it that was taken by Berkeley Professor Adrian Lee. When I stand on the outside staircase, it feels like I can see forever, and it's a wonderful place to observe the south pole weather. For the first week we were here, it was sunny and glittery and beautiful, with just enough ice in the air to create beautiful sundogs that framed the telescope from that vantage point. Jeff in particular has been pursuing the perfect sundog photograph, and he has a spectacular collection.

Personally, I've enjoyed the cloudier days more. One of the more impressive things I've seen here is what happens when the sun peeks through on a mostly cloudy day. Once, in particular, there were a series of sharp parallel lines of bright light on the snow that extended from horizon to horizon, passing through the landscape of the South Pole Station and creating glowing stripes like massive neon lights had been embedded in the snow. This photograph shows a quickly-captured view from the steps of the DSL. The foreground is cluttered with the machinery being used to drill deep holes into the ice for the IceCube neutrino experiment, and just beyond that is the MAPO lab, which houses and has housed other telescopes observing the Cosmic Microwave Background. In the far distance you can see the elevated station. And in the middle, crossing the skiway, is a strip of bright light reflecting off the snow.
So far my attempts to take photographs outside have been less than wonderfully successful, due entirely to the fact that I haven't sat down to figure out how my camera really works yet. It's so bright that point-and-click doesn't really do the trick, but here are some pictures anyway. The first one shows Jeff, Ryan, and Tom as we're about to head out to the lab on a gorgeous day. The second is a shot of the ubiquitous bamboo flags that are the only thing interrupting the absolute flatness of the ice in most directions that you can see. These particular flags mark the edges of the road that goes out to the DSL, but the flags are everywhere. They are in all different colors, and they extend far out into the distance. Marking what, I don't have the slightest idea.

The flags are so numerous and seem so random in places that they're almost comical, but I learned to appreciate them the second week that we were here. The winds increased and clouds rolled in and we had dramatic weather for a few days. No planes came or went, and the trek out to the lab became much more challenging. There was so much ice in the air that it was impossible to see more than a ten feet ahead at times, and snowdrifts disrupted the roads and footpaths. I understood the flags then. Without them, it would have been very hard to have any sense of direction walking around outside.

And finally, one morning as we were coming back from our night shift, John Carlstrom took this photo of a bunch of us disappearing into the white (that's me with the backpack).



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