Right now, a daring rescue mission is racing against time and harsh conditions to save a sick worker at the South Pole. Dangerous winds, punishing cold, and round-the-clock darkness make flights to Antarctica extremely rare at this time of year. But brutal weather is a familiar forecast for the small crew of scientists who remain at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station during winter.
Sven Lidström, operations coordinator for the Norwegian Polar Institute, has been there. An engineer who helped build the IceCube Neutrino Observatory by drilling 2,500-meter-deep holes in the Antarctic ice sheet to house optical sensors, Lidström then spent the winter of 2012 collecting groundbreaking data from outer space. He has participated in more than 20 expeditions to Antarctica (and as many to the Arctic). These days, however, he deploys to the Norwegian research stations Troll and Tor only for the summer seasons. “Winters are very demanding,” he says.
Lidström talked with National Geographic Adventure about the unique hardships, medical hazards, and camaraderie among the crew at 90° south.
What are some of the challenges for aircraft when landing or taking off in Antarctica?
During the summer there are near daily flights to McMurdo Station, weather permitting. During the winter there are no flights. We were told that it was “impossible,” and that our only option would be an airdrop with supplies if something happened. There are some major risks involved with winter flights—the extreme temperatures, the darkness, and the weather. The fuel used, AN-8, gels at minus 60°C so it is changing from a fluid to a solid form. Everything in and on the planes gets extremely stiff and fragile.
What was the range of temperatures you usually experienced, and what was the coldest you ever felt?
Yearly average is minus 50°C; normal winter temperatures range from minus 60°C to below minus 70°C. The coldest I have had is minus 78°C without the wind factor. If you include wind chill, that is below minus 100°F!
How frequent were blizzards, windstorms, or other dangerous weather events?
Normally the weather at the pole is good. There is nearly always wind, but no really big storms or blizzards like you get down on the coast. Bad weather can last for days.
Is there any light from the moon or stars during the winter months, or is it completely dark?
If the weather is good, you see moon and stars as well as auroras, which are spectacular. You try to do as much outside work as possible when there is a moon, since there are no outside lights except for a couple of red lights on buildings as navigational aid. We do flag all routes used in winter with a flag every 10 meters or less to find the way [in the dark]. Sometimes you can’t see the flags but you hear them flapping in the wind.
Does the elevation (about 2,800 meters above sea level) affect weather conditions at the South Pole?
You don’t have the same katabatic winds as you do at lower elevations along the coast in Antarctica. Weather at the pole (and everywhere on the Antarctic plateau) is actually better than on the coast—or at least less windy. But the altitude makes it a lot colder than it is on the lower elevations. The Antarctic plateau is the coldest place on Earth. And it is really cold in winter!
What kind of gear, clothing, and other items did you bring with you for overwintering? Did crewmembers have a weight limit for the items they could take?
You get all the gear you need at the U.S. Antarctic Program Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) in Christchurch, New Zealand, before deploying. You dress layer-by-layer, and there are a lot of layers if it is minus 70°C outside. If I remember correctly, the total weight limit is 140 pounds for winter-overs. But honestly, you don’t need that much: You live and work in the same clothes while you are down there. You also have a complete set of extra gear kept off-station if something were to happen to the station.
What kind of medical issues were common at the station, and how were emergencies handled?
Altitude sickness, frostbite, and normal work-related injuries are the most common. During winter there can also be physiological problems and depression. There have been several medical emergencies, and they have all been handled really well. The U.S. Antarctic Program has good procedures for how to handle them. I would not have wintered if I did not feel confident with the capabilities on-station. The different emergency teams train consciously to handle multiple situations.
That said, before wintering, you are made aware of the extreme environment and the remoteness, and it is clearly said before you winter that you should not expect any outside help if something happens. The fact that they are now trying a midwinter evacuation must mean it is really serious, since it will put other lives at risk. Antarctica is a very harsh continent and the winters down there are extreme in every possible way. There is very little room for error.
What did you do to pass the time when you weren't working?
You work a lot, but besides that, we did training for the different emergency teams, worked out (there is a great gym), watched movies, and read. There is a library, a music room, and an arts and crafts room as well. You can keep yourself very busy if you want.
Did you have the feeling that you were on your own until winter ended?
You don’t feel alone. You have the entire winter crew there, which you get know very well. All too well, some think!
The fact that the sun doesn’t rise for six months is difficult for many. You definitely feel isolated from the rest of the world. A colleague of mine kept referring to it as Planet Antarctica, and in many ways it feels like you are on another planet, not on planet Earth.