Reporter 404, 16 June 1997


It's very dark, very cold and drives people insane – but I had to go

The Antarctic environment is the harshest on earth. Temperatures range from -20°C in the summer, when the sun shines constantly, to -70°C during six winter months of total darkness. Frostbite, dehydration and insanity face anyone "wintering over" at the South Pole. Experiencing this hostile world was a dream come true for Leeds researcher Dr Simon Hart.

When I heard that Leeds University's Physics Department had an experiment running at the South Pole I was determined to go there. Persuading my PhD supervisor to let me operate it in its last year was the easy bit, then came the medical examinations, blood tests (eight of them) a psychological examination (to weed out the sane?) and a week with the Denver fire department learning how to fight fires (there's no 999 service in Antarctica). For the past ten years a team from Leeds has been working to discover how and where in the universe cosmic rays are produced. By combining information from a number of detectors at the South Pole we hope to measure the mass of the particles initiating the cascades which in turn may tell us something about their origin. One possibility is that they come from exploding stars.

It took Scott over 17 months to reach the Pole from England but 85 years on it takes just four days. From Christchurch, New Zealand the US Navy operates almost daily flights of specially adapted, ski-equipped Hercules transporter planes. After an eight hour flight we touched down on the frozen sea a few miles from Ross Island. The glare of the sun was blinding as it reflected off a frozen sea that stretched to the horizon and was surrounded by colossal mountain ranges. As my lungs filled with the cold, dry air I felt elated to be stood on Earth's most unknown continent.

Ross Island is steeped in the history of Antarctic exploration. I took a four-hour drive across the sea ice to Cape Evans where Captain Scott's base camp still stands next to the sheer ice cliffs of the mighty Barne glacier. Stepping through the door of the small wooden hut is like a journey back in time. Inside there is a musty smell and the only sounds are the creak of floorboards and an eerie, sighing wind. Standing amid the unmade bunks, stacks of food and pony equipment it is easy to imagine the sights and sounds as Scott and his men planned their tragic assault on the Pole. Outside lies the sun bleached skeleton of a dog still chained to the post where it froze to death.

The flight to the Pole took three hours and afforded dramatic views of the transantarctic mountains and the great rivers of ice that sweep between them. Countless crevasses large enough to swallow our plane scarred the otherwise pristine surface. It was somewhat humbling to gaze down upon peaks that have never been climbed and over glaciers upon which no foot has trod. I had journeyed as far south as possible and with a bump, our plane touched down at the geographic south pole, the bottom of the world.

The United States has maintained a year-round presence at the South Pole since 1957. The current station consists of a fittingly space age aluminium dome which houses 26 winter personnel while the one hundred plus support crew sleep in several large tents left over from the Korean war. The Pole itself is marked by a simple brass pole and a signpost bearing quotes by Amundsen and Scott. At this point all lines of longitude converge and so it is possible to walk around the world and through every time zone in a matter of seconds. The only living things are hundreds of miles away on the coast.

It takes a while to adjust to life at the Pole. The first few days are breathless as people adjust to the thin air 9000 feet above sea level and the constant harsh sunlight disturbs sleep routines. As the sunlight shines through ice crystals suspended in the air it produces spectacular optical effects such as giant halos around the sun and inverted rainbows. Summer is a busy season as most of the year's work has to be done during the few months left until the sun sets.

On February 22 all but 26 of us left the station. We were now alone, left to our own devices for the next 8 months. Our only contact with the outside world would be by a satellite that passed overhead for a few hours each day. As we watched the vapour trail of the departing plane fade away the reality of our situation dawned upon us and we traipsed back into the dome in silence.

Over the next month we watched the sun gradually sink until at the end of March we were treated to a wonderful week-long sunset that turned our colourless world into a blaze of gold. As the sky gradually darkened the night brought new delights. When the weather was calm the southern skies, unpolluted by city lights, were spectacular and occasionally we would all rush outside to watch a display of the aurora australis. The darkness also brought danger. Once I became lost outside. My tracks were blown away and I had no idea in which direction the dome lay. It was two in the morning and everyone would be asleep but I tried to radio the station. Fortunately a sleepless colleague heard my call. Only when he turned on the station lights did I realise I had been walking in the opposite direction, headed for nowhere.

Towards September light appeared over the horizon and as the sky slowly brightened so did our moods. Finally one Thursday night the sun was sighted and we all stood outside basking in the cold new rays of the dawn, grins fixed on our faces. One month later a plane bringing new faces marked an end to our isolation. As the new crew crammed into the galley champagne corks popped and everyone began hugging, crying and laughing. We had had our bad moments as well as good and our sense of comradeship had been tested to the full but we had met the challenge of the ice together and finally left the Pole as a band of close friends.

After completing his BSc in Physics, Simon Hart joined the Astrophysics group at Leeds as a research assistant. After two years he gained a PPARC studentship to continue his work in the same group. During his PhD, he spent 20 months researching high energy cosmic rays at the South Pole. He is now carrying out post doctoral research in Molecular Physcics.

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