Wintering in the South Pole Can Be Trying, Exciting

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Wintering in the South Pole, when the temperature drops to 100 degrees below zero and the sun doesn't appear for months on end, creates camaraderie and some craziness.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

As we move deeper into spring, you can almost see everybody's mood lighten. Tulips, baseball, dinner before dark. So imagine how you'd cope if you suddenly traveled to a dark, distant planet where winter had just begun, temperatures hover at 65 below zero or colder. You won't see the sun for months. You can't leave even if something terrible goes wrong.

We're going to take you there now, but it's not outer space, it's the South Pole. Every year, a tiny band of Americans hunkers down there for Antarctica's long winter. They tend the U.S. station and keep the science projects from getting buried by ice, and they discover some interesting things about themselves in the process.

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: The last plane took off from the South Pole on February 14th, 1:35 p.m. Since that moment, nobody can get to the pole and nobody can get out until winter ends six months from now. It's so cold at the pole that jet fuel would freeze.

But when that military jet took off, 60 people stayed behind. The plane did a flyover twice and tipped its wings. The polies back on the ice waved goodbye and tried to snap pictures, but their cameras froze, and then they followed the ritual polies do every year when they shut the door on the outside world.

(Soundbite of music)

ZWERDLING: They strung up a sheet in the U.S. station, and they watched "The Thing from Another World." It's about an alien who crashes near the pole. It's the North Pole in the movie, but who cares. And the alien wreaks havoc on the earthlings.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Thing from Another World")

ZWERDLING: Unfortunately, I couldn't join the celebration. I left the South Pole just before the last flight, or I would've been stuck until October. But before I left, I met with three polies who wintered there in the past, although none of them is spending this winter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZWERDLING: They have an easy camaraderie, almost intimate like brothers and sisters. And they say the experience of spending winter at the pole transformed them.

Joseph Gibbons is tall and lanky. He doesn't like his name, so he calls himself Jake Speed, and he looks like he hasn't cut his hair and beard in years. He says imagine moving to a world where the cosmic framework that usually shapes our lives disappears. On March 22nd, the sun slips below the horizon, and it doesn't come back for six months.

Mr. JOSEPH GIBBONS: You think about that for a second. Put yourself in a place, all right, that everything you know is not true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBBONS: Everything that you know that we, all of us in this room, grew up with is the fact that the sun comes up every day, and the sun goes down every day. Here, it comes up once, and it goes down once in the entire year. And when you actually accept that after a while and say this is normal, you can actually then at that point in time relax into this and accept the beauty of the place, the magic of the place.

ZWERDLING: We are talking in a small room in the new U.S. station. The government dedicated this building only three months ago. It looks like an office building on giant stilts.

Unidentified Woman: Good morning, South Pole. We have package mail to deliver to the station…

ZWERDLING: The polies say they stumbled across the jobs here through an ad or word of mouth, and they jumped at the chance.

Mr. GIBBONS: It really blows my mind for the fact that if you are in - a type of person that likes to travel the world and see as much as you can, Antarctica is by far the most difficult place to get to. And suddenly I find out that not only can I go there, but someone will pay me to do that.

ZWERDLING: Elizabeth Watson is short, dark, intense. She majored in theater. She came to the pole on a kind of spiritual quest.

Ms. ELIZABETH WATSON: When I first even head about, like if I'm going to do this and figure out my inner self, that's the place that I'm going to do it.

ZWERDLING: But the U.S. government sends these people to the pole to work. So they winterized the U.S. station, sort of like you board up a summer resort. They drain the pipes and turn off the heat in the summer dormitories. They check the lab every day that's monitoring global warming to make sure nothing's freezing up. Watson says they're doing mundane work in the most astonishing setting you can imagine.

Ms. WATSON: You see more stars than I've ever seen in my life because it's just 180 degrees of sky. What you get is sort of uninterrupted beauty, beauty without distraction because you don't have anything else to think about or see.

There's also a sense that the only thing down here that's alive are us, so you get sort of that cosmic quiet. There's - you don't have bird energy. You don't have little bugs crawling around. No grass is living. It's just us alive. I've never felt so, like, understanding the hand of God, and I don't even believe in God, just how big and beautiful and magnificent everything is.

ZWERDLING: As they're going about their work, here's what the polies see: flat, white nothingness in every direction. It's so flat you can see the earth curve at the horizon. It gets so dark you sometimes need a flashlight to see beyond your hands, and the temperature drops to 150 degrees below zero with a wind chill.

Still, Watson says she'd take a stroll outside almost every night after dinner. Her special clothing covered her face except her eyes, and when she'd exhale, the moisture in her breath would freeze her eyelashes shut. She said she just learned to keep prying them apart.

But Betty Catherine Grant(ph) says this is a dangerous time at the South Pole. She remembers one night, she was getting ready for bed, and…

Ms. BETTY CATHERINE GRANT: The power plant stops, and the lights go out, and they can't get it to run, and you're sitting in your building, you're in your extreme cold-weather gear. You've got your Bunny boots on and your parka on, and you can see your breath, and you're inside the building. You're going, oh, man. I wonder if they really wouldn't come get us. You know, this is going to be a big, big problem.

ZWERDLING: Polies say the new building has better power systems and insulation than the old one did, so it's safer. But they say even a new building can't prevent another problem at the pole. People's spirits get dark in the heart of winter.

Ms. GRANT: It sort of became like this spiritual black mask right here, and I could look at people be like ooh, yeah, he's spooky. You've got the spook on.

ZWERDLING: Medical researchers actually have a name for this. They call it T3 Syndrome, or as the polies put it, you're toast. Studies at the pole show when you isolate a small group of people in a dark and freezing place, their body chemistry changes. They feel worn down, weepy, crabby. They sleep too much, or they don't sleep at all. They turn on each other.

Ms. GRANT: When the "Lord of the Flies" started to happen, it just kept going. We had a construction team, we were building the new garage building, and they severed in half and started fighting with each other. So you know, we had carpenters and sheet metal over here that were friends, and plumber and electricians were friends, and never the twain should meet.

Our two cooks couldn't be in the same building together. You know, when the power plant goes down, you're supposed to run towards it and help; some didn't. So when that starts going down, then you start seeing the true inside of humans.

I really thought that grown-up humans would rise to the challenge. That's what I thought I would see when I signed up, and they don't.

ZWERDLING: But then, the sun finally comes back. It jumps above the horizon in late September, and the polies realize they've made it. In fact, they formed tight bonds, and they say they see the world differently than they did before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZWERDLING: Elizabeth Watson says she doesn't watch TV anymore or read the paper. After the pole, they feel like clutter. Grant says she's learned to be more tolerant. She doesn't get as irritated with people as she used to. If the polies who are spending this winter follow tradition, they'll celebrate that sunrise six months from now with a fancy dinner and dancing, and then everybody will pour outside, and they'll watch the heavens change color.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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A Bright Spot of Life on the Icy Continent

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Paddy Douglas

Paddy Douglas routinely comes to Antarctica during its summer, running the cargo crew at the airport. Peter Breslow, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Breslow, NPR

More NPR Antarctica Coverage

Antarctica's March of the Tourists
Visits by thousands of tourists each year could damage the world's most unspoiled continent.

  

Cruising to Otherworldly Antarctica
While travel to the icy continent has become cushy, Antarctica's allure remains powerful.

  

Antarctica's Sea 'Babies' in Limbo
Antarctica's seas depend on microscopic animals, but global warming is changing that balance.

  

Quonset hut i

Many people working at the Pole live in Quonset huts, which are divided into tiny rooms and have no indoor bathroom. Peter Breslow, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Breslow, NPR
Quonset hut

Many people working at the Pole live in Quonset huts, which are divided into tiny rooms and have no indoor bathroom.

Peter Breslow, NPR

The South Pole lies ahead — a simple metal pole stuck in the snow. It marks the exact location of the bottom of the world, 90 degrees latitude. (Actually this pole has to move about 30 feet every year because the entire Antarctic continent floats.) And what a spectacular sight at the world's tip — in every direction, vast, austere, white emptiness.

Of course, it's not complete emptiness. Right near the pole is the official U.S. South Pole Research Station. It looks like a cross between a modern junior high school and an office building. We came down here to talk to the people who work in this building. What kind of people come for months at a time to live in the most difficult place on Earth? And why is the South Pole so important, anyway?

You enter the research station through a huge metal door, like one of those giant airlocks on a restaurant freezer. This complex is brand new — it was dedicated two months ago. Officials from the State Department and the Pentagon flew all the way to the ceremony. A congressman came, too — Rodney Frelinghuysen from the Appropriations Committee.

As we stroll through this new center, it's easy to forget that this is the most extreme spot on Earth. Life inside seems normal. Just peek inside the gym, where a full-court basketball game is under way. Or load your tray in the cafeteria. This dining room could be at some resort — it's all blond wood and wall-to-wall windows. So while you eat, you gaze right at the South Pole.

The head chef, James Brown, used to cook in fancy restaurants around Washington, D.C. He just served grilled salmon in spicy-sweet chili sauce.

Though the chef is mainly into his cooking, he and everybody else at the Pole are actually part of a giant geopolitical chess game. A tiny group of Americans has lived down here since the 1950s, but they worked in funky buildings that were getting buried by snow. And in the mid-1990s, Congress asked a blue ribbon panel: Do Americans really need to live at the South Pole at all? Is it worth spending all that money?

The panel members answered yes.

"The substantial U.S. presence in Antarctica is viewed by the panel as a critical, perhaps the most critical, element in assuring the region's continued political stability," the executive summary of that report reads.

A Giant Frozen Laboratory

Things in Antarctica haven't always been stable. Just before World War II, the Nazi regime planted flags on the continent for Hitler. After the war, Britain and Argentina almost started a war over claims on a chunk of the continent. And when the Cold War started, the Soviets said they were going to set up a base at the South Pole, so the U.S. rushed there first.

But since then, more than 40 countries have signed a remarkable treaty that has kept the peace. It promises that all the countries can share Antarctica and that nobody can mine it, even though studies suggest there could be gold, uranium and oil beneath the ice. The blue ribbon panel worried that if the U.S. left the Pole, there'd be a power vacuum and the treaty might fall apart. So the panel told Congress to build this dazzling new base and to plan on staying here.

And, the panel said, there's another reason America needs this center: The South Pole is one of the best places on Earth to do scientific studies. The environment here is so cold and pristine, it's like a giant sterile laboratory. That's why the government's research agency, the National Science Foundation, runs the whole place.

This is where researchers helped prove that the Earth is getting warmer. Other scientists are exploring how the universe is changing, such as Steve Meyer, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago. Meyer is standing at the base of what looks like an enormous white cereal bowl with lots of rivets.

"What we're looking at here is a 10-meter dish," Meyer explains. "The idea of the dish is to collect microwave radiation... [which] has its origin in the very early universe, the Big Bang radiation."

In fact, this dish can detect radiation from galaxies that are roughly 5 billion light years away. Meyer hopes it will help scientists learn more about the mysterious force called dark energy. Scientists think dark energy is shoving the universe apart.

"I view this as a continuation of astronomy that's been going on for thousands of years. And if we were to say at some point, 'Oh, Galileo, he found the planets were going around the sun, and this is all we want to know about the universe,' that's a very odd thing to say," says Meyer. "Our understanding of physics as a whole may change as a result of our beginning to learn about things like dark energy."

Meet the 'Polies'

Meyer belongs to an exclusive club: He gets to work at the South Pole. Only about 300 people come here in any given year. Only a few dozen are scientists; everybody else keeps the place going so the scientists can do their work. They drive snowmobiles and trucks. They unload fuel oil and food from military planes. And they load most of the garbage from the base back on the same planes — candy wrappers, batteries, human waste. The international treaty says no dumping — so they ship it to California. The huge defense contractor Raytheon manages all these workers for the U.S. government.

Paddy Douglas runs the cargo crew at the airport, which is really just a strip of ice marked by flags. Everything and everybody at the South Pole gets in and out on these planes, which land on skis. Most of the vehicles look like creatures from another planet. Douglas names them like pets — Cassie Rose, Barb Allen, Emma.

Douglas is fit, tanned and outdoorsy. She had been living in Colorado until about seven years ago, when she came across a Raytheon ad promising exploration and adventure in Antarctica. She has been coming to the Pole during Antarctic summers ever since.

"It's one of the last frontiers. These things that we're doing — we're exploring. And it helps define who we are, and that's exciting," she says.

Though her job is in moving cargo, she's as thrilled about science as any of the researchers. "How can you not be a science junky and be here?" she exclaims. "To know that I'm a part of that in some small way, to help support these wonderful things these guys are doing, how cool is that?"

It sounds almost corny, and every employee we meet here talks exactly the same way. They even have a name for themselves: "Polies."

A Spare and Spectacular Life

You don't feel cold at first when you land at the South Pole. The sky is impossibly blue and the sun is blazing. In fact, it blazes nonstop during Antarctica's summer — you can get sunburned at 3 a.m. Still, it's almost 50 below with the wind chill, and after a few minutes my fingers are throbbing under two layers of gloves. Polies like Douglas say they hardly notice the cold.

"It is such a unique and amazing place," Douglas says. "We get halos here that are spectacular. We get rainbows, round rainbows around the sun. The beauty of the place is phenomenal... and the sense of freedom I feel when I look out at the horizon."

Polies say you either love this bizarre world, or you hate it. Consider how most of them have to live.

Most employees live in long Quonset huts — actually, they're more like Quonset tents. The Army invented them to house soldiers in the Korean War. They're dotted across the landscape, big half-cylinders of plywood with black canvas stretched over the top.

Wendy Bever, who helps load cargo, offers to give us the inside tour. Even though it's the middle of the afternoon, the hallway inside the tent is dark and lit with red lights. Bever warns us to enter quietly — since people here work 24 hours a day, some are sleeping.

Bever pulls back a curtain — she doesn't have a door — and there's her, what do you call it, her room? Her cubicle? It's only 6 feet long by 5 feet wide. There's barely space for a twin bed and a pile of books, plus her collection of Mardi Gras necklaces. There are 10 cubicles like this in every tent. And they don't have a bathroom, just an outhouse. So in the middle of the night, people urinate in cans they keep under their beds.

Though it's tiny, Bever says her living space is big enough. "I once had a great big house," she says, "and what I found was, you don't need 15 pairs of tennis shoes. You really just don't need all that stuff."

Changed by the Place

But Polies say, even if you love this Spartan life, sometimes you still have to come in from the cold. So they go to the greenhouse.

Monique Dulak studied horticulture at the University of New Hampshire. She has come to the South Pole to grow plants. She walks through the greenhouse and points them out proudly — lettuce, basil, cilantro, purple onions.

Polies say it's great to see anything fresh in the cafeteria, but here's the main reason they love the greenhouse: It's therapy. Think about it — there are no birds at the South Pole, no trees, no bushes. Not even any grass. People can start feeling off balance. Managers started worrying there was too much drinking, and there were a couple of ugly fights. So, they've squeezed a sofa under the leaves in Dulak's greenhouse. And Polies hang out here during their breaks.

Dulak still feels calmed by the greenhouse, even though she works here every day. "You know, this greenhouse is incredibly relaxing," she says. "I come in here, I get the light, I get the air, I get the moisture and it feels good."

The week we visited the South Pole, Antarctica's summer was almost over. The last flights of the season would take off in a few weeks, and most of the people would leave with them, including Douglas, the cargo chief. Douglas says she's planning to come back late this year for her eighth Antarctic summer. She says she's more alive at the Pole than back in the States.

"The third season I was here, I was feeling really lonely for my kids... and a friend of mine brought me an orange," Douglas says, her voice cracking. "And it was so good... You appreciate that kind of stuff more... I've been very changed by the place."

Only 60 Polies will stay behind for the winter. They won't see the sun for four months. Temperatures will drop to 100 below. But they'll keep watch over America's brand new outpost, here at the bottom of the world.

Produced by Peter Breslow.

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