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Nowhere to go but up: A day in the life at the South Pole
Katie Valentine
/ Categories: Profile, Women in Research

Nowhere to go but up: A day in the life at the South Pole

What's it like to work in a place where winter temperatures can reach -100F? NOAA Corps Officer Marisa Gedney explains.

In honor of Women's History Month, NOAA scientists from across the country are taking readers inside what a typical day in their life looks like. Today's story comes from LTJG Marisa Gedney, a NOAA Corps Officer stationed at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica.

When you find yourself stationed at the bottom of the world, the joke is that there is nowhere to go but up. However, near the center of the cold continent of Antarctica, the crew of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station work year-round to transcend the challenges of the harsh continent in the pursuit of research and discovery. 

The station itself is composed of one main building, which houses living and socializing quarters, surrounded by numerous outbuildings that are used for science and facilities maintenance. One of those outbuildings is NOAA’s Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), and for one year I have the honor of referring to ARO as my office, along with one other assigned technician. As part of the Earth System Research Laboratory’s Global Monitoring Division (GMD), ARO is one of four baseline observatories around the world that focus on monitoring long-term and global scale changes in background atmospheric constituents, with minimal impact from direct human influences. This includes focus areas such as global carbon cycle and greenhouse gases, aerosols, solar radiation, ozone, halocarbons and other trace species. 

It's cold...really cold. 

If all is going well, a typical day at the South Pole is actually fairly straightforward. At ARO, our main goal is to ensure that all the instrumentation continues to run smoothly and that data is successfully transferred to GMD’s headquarters in Boulder, CO. The day starts with obligatory coffee and some morning stretching before getting ready for the approximately one-third mile walk outside to ARO. Base layers? Check. Carhartts? Check. Coat, gloves, boots, balaclava? Check. To protect against the cold, all personnel heading to Antarctica are issued Extreme Cold Weather gear prior to their arrival. Although proper protection from the environment is needed all year round it is especially necessary in the winter when temperatures can reach -100F, with wind chill that reaches even colder levels. And wind is our specialty at ARO. 

Ceremonial South Pole

Ceremonial South Pole

These flags outside the Amundsen-Scott Field Station honor the original 12 signatory nations to Antarctic Treaty. They surround a pole that marks the ceremonial South Pole. Credit: Marisa Gedney

When you live in a location where every direction is considered North, a new convention is required. A grid system superimposed over South Pole is used to provide some navigational orientation. “Grid directions” 340 degrees and 110 degrees form two edges of the triangular shaped Clean Air Sector, and it is from between those two edges that wind is blowing from across the Antarctic continent towards ARO approximately 90% of the time. Each day we monitor the wind speed and direction to ensure that the cleanest air possible is reaching our inlets to be measured and sampled, with minimal impact from the main station building or vehicles. 

What do you call a runway at the South Pole?

However, there is more to the daily activities than just instrument maintenance and data transfers. South Pole station is a self-contained community, and one that becomes particularly close-knit during the winter season. By mid-February each year the station closes for the winter, meaning that no more flights can arrive until the start of the next summer season (around September). In preparation for this year’s closure, I had trained with the station’s summer communication personnel to provide communications support to the last LC-130 flight of the season, which departed on February 14, and any smaller aircraft that may be passing though. And to anyone who might be wondering, yes South Pole does have an actual, designated airport code (NPX) and the skiway is made of ice and snow (which is why it is not referred to as a runway).

This year there are 42 winterovers, or personnel working together to continue operating the station though the long, dark winter. In addition to the two of us working at ARO, the remainder are stewards, facilities maintenance, engineers, or National Science Foundation project support. All of us are required to be trained in various emergency response team skills, because for months any outside help in the event of an emergency is most likely not an option. Due to my prior experience as Damage Control and Safety Officer aboard NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown, I am currently serving as one of this year’s firefighting team leads. This involves weekly trainings, monthly drills, and frequently standing by on call in the event of an alarm.

 Atmospheric Research Observatory

Atmospheric Research Observatory

The Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Credit: Marisa Gedney

Having fun at the bottom of the world

When my days are not filled with sampling clean air, monitoring instrumentation, talking to aircraft, or firefighting training, South Pole station provides plenty of recreational activities to fill our free time. Surprisingly, at the southernmost building in the world there is an indoor greenhouse, large gym facilities, a craft room, and even a sauna. As much as the amenities are enjoyed, everyone is responsible for conducting cleaning duties at least once a week, ensuring that the facilities are always ready for the spontaneous game or movie night.

Living and working at the South Pole is challenging work, compounded by the harsh environment and the remote location. Some days may feel monotonous or stressful, and others may bring pleasant surprises, but the science, the community, and the adventure make it all worthwhile in the end. Besides, after a few days of walking past the Geographic Pole and through every single time zone on Earth, you begin to realize that the world literally does revolve around us.

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