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Joe Phillips
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Joe Phillips

Monitoring Air at the South Pole with NOAA Corps

NOAA Corps Officer Joe Phillips is currently a Station Chief for the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole. The following interview explains his current role and the various exciting assignments he's had along the way.

NOAA Corps Officer Joe Phillips samples air at the South Pole.

NOAA Corps Officer Joe Phillips samples air at the South Pole.

Air samples are collected using the Portable Sampling Unit at least four times a month for the Global Monitoring Division's Carbon Cycle Group. Credit: NOAA

How old are you, and where are you from?

I’m 26 and from Mocksville, North Carolina.

What is your background?

I’m a 2009 Graduate from the Atmospheric Sciences Department of the University of North Carolina–Asheville, with a minor in math.

Where have you worked in the NOAA Corps?

I've had assignments on 3 different ships: the NOAA Ship Rainier which conducts hydrographic survey projects in remote areas of Alaska, the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, which conducts hydrographic survey projects on the east coast of the US, and the NOAA Ship Ka’imimoana which serviced tropical atmospheric and oceanographic buoys along the equator in the Pacific Ocean. I was also an oil observer during the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

What’s your job at the South Pole Station?
I'm currently NOAA’s Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) Station Chief at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The South Pole Station and the ARO (home of the NOAA instrumentation) are both operated by the National Science Foundation (NSF) at 90°S latitude.

What kind of work do you do as a station chief?

As the station chief, I help to maintain the facility and a suite of instruments that sample the atmosphere. ARO sits up against what’s called the “Clean Air Sector.” The air here is essentially untouched by humans and is protected under the Antarctic Treaty, and can be used in comparison to air around the globe. The NOAA instruments at ARO measure aerosols, greenhouse gases such as CO2, solar radiation, halocarbons and trace species and current levels of ozone, including the ozone hole. We also collect a variety of air samples.

What's one of the best things you like about working for NOAA?

The absolute best part about working for NOAA is that I get travel to and through places that are absolutely beautiful. While I was aboard the NOAA Ship Rainier I sailed through the Inside Passage of Canada and all around Alaska; sailing by whales beneath snowcapped mountains in Alaska became normal.

Antarctica has some of the most amazing landscape I’ve ever seen. Getting to South Pole Station takes you through McMurdo Station, on the coast, which is surrounded by the virtually untouched Royal Society Mountain Range and Mount Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano. Between McMurdo Station and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station you can catch a glimpse of the glacial and snow covered Trans-Antarctic Mountains through the window of your LC-130 airplane.

The South Pole is a different kind of beautiful, much like the ocean when you’re underway far from land. I wake up every day and see the vast ocean of ice 2 miles thick and I still amazed that this job has brought me here. Without a doubt, the best part about working for NOAA is seeing and experiencing places most people dream of.

What's your least favorite part of the job?

Being deployed in the field has the advantages of breathtaking landscapes, new experiences and meeting new people, but it has one huge disadvantage: alarm clocks!  Science doesn’t sleep. Although I am in more control of my work schedule here at South Pole than on a ship, it is sometimes dictated by the wind or by the moon. Mainly the winds are predictable and come from the Clean Air Sector, but when the wind shifts and we have to collect air samples, being ready to sample as soon as conditions meet our requirements is essential. During the winter, manual total column ozone measurements are taken using the light of the moon (light from the sun during the summer). Since weather conditions, the phase of the moon, and the normal 9am-5pm work day don’t always go hand in hand, we have to adapt our schedules to collect the data accordingly, which means hearing that alarm clock at odd hours of the day.

It is a small sacrifice though. Being part of a global effort to monitor climate constituents and ozone really means more than a couple hours of sleep.

Lieutenant Phillips explains the importance of NOAA's data to a group of distinguished visitors including Britain's Prince Harry.

Lieutenant Phillips explains the importance of NOAA's data to a group of distinguished visitors including Britain's Prince Harry.

Credit: NOAA

What's your favorite part of the job?

Most of my work is done at the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), which is a little less than half a mile from the main station. So every day I have to leave the main station and walk to ARO. This walk is my favorite part because I have to walk by the Geographic South Pole, I see the sastrugi littered landscape, observe the winds from the flags and clear my head so that I can focus on what’s coming up. During the winter, I’m hoping to include getting lost in the stars and auroras to this walk.

This job is more than being at the South Pole; it’s more than collecting data or managing the observatory; it’s being part of an international agreement where the focus is science and preservation of this continent. Every country that has signed the Antarctic Treaty works together here, not for the purposes of war or fighting, but to understand what is here and preserve it all in its purest form. You don’t usually see countries working together at this level for this purpose. So being part of it means a great deal to me.

When it comes to Antarctica what's your favorite aspect?

The sky. The different shades of blues at all hours of the day during the summer, the halos that form around the sun and across the sky and this winter, the stars and auroras are all things everyone here loves and easily gets lost in.

Where do you see yourself in 5, 10 or even 15 years?

I have been selected to follow my assignment as Station Chief of ARO to the Technical Operations Coordinator position within the National Weather Service’s Ocean Prediction Center in College Park, MD. During this assignment I’m optimistic about starting a Master’s Degree Program and receive my 1600 Ton Coastal 3rd Mates License. After this, I’ll end up as an operations officer aboard one of NOAA’s ships.

Outside of the work you do at the South Pole, what are some things you like to do in your spare time?

I’m a huge fan of traveling, experiencing new cultures and putting myself outside of my comfort bubble. I’m teaching myself Japanese so that I can hopefully take ‘Japanese Game Show’ off my bucket list. I also exercise regularly, read books, hang out with friends and family, I’m learning guitar slowly. I also just started getting into digital photography and spend a good bit of time taking pictures.

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