November 29th, 2009

South Pole Station, Antarctica
Chuck Kimball's
Austral Summer 2009-2010

New Zealand, McMurdo and South Pole - Current Time

South Pole Facts

90 South

So, Ive ended up at the South Pole.

This South Pole is the Geographic South Pole. Not to be confused with the Magnetic South Pole, the Geomagnetic South Pole, or the Pole of Inaccessibility, all three of which are hundreds of miles from here.

Im at 90 South Latitude. The Longitude doesnt really matter; I can walk through all the degrees of Longitude in a less than a minute by walking around the geographical pole.

Even here at the Geographic South Pole we have two poles.

One is the Ceremonial Pole, with the barber shop pole and glass bulb on top, surrounded by the flags of the 12 countries that were the original signers of the Antarctic Treaty (whose 50th anniversary is December 1st, 2009) . It is strategically placed in front of the station.

View from the station galley on a breezy day

It's not a bad day today (-28F, -45F wind chill), so I ran out and got a couple of shots of the two poles.

About 1:30 Sunday November 29th, 2009

The hero shot.

The other is the actual geographic South Pole. However, at the moment its in the wrong place.

The ceremonial pole is visible in the background to the right.

Im sitting in the elevated station, a couple of hundred feet from the Geographic Pole Marker. The Station, marker and I are all about 9,301 above mean sea level. Almost all of that elevation is ice. If the ice melted, the ground here would be near sea level. So, all that ice is moving, yep, every year the station and all the stuff on the surface moves with the ice about 33 feet towards Europe/Asia. On January 1st each year they move the Geographical Pole to its correct location. Of course each day we move just a little bit, so by now (late November), the pole marker is probably 25' out of position.

There are string of the poles from previous years lined up along the route we're moving north.

The Australian flag marks the 2000 location in memorial for Rodney Marks, a Researcher that died that winter. Though you can't see it in the photo, there are 8 poles between the flag and the current marker. The South Pole 10 meter telescope is visible in the background.

So while were on the topic of the elevation, I'll mention the altitude. (Same thing right? - not always).
Like I said we're at 9,300', but due to the rotation of the earth, the atmosphere is bulged out around the equator, and is thinner at the poles. Between the elevation, and the thinner air to start with, we have a physiological altitude (what it feels like to our bodies). Looking a few moments ago, the barometric air pressure is 687.6 mb which is the equivalent of being at 10,343 ft in other parts of the world. For comparison, 1,000 mb (millibars) is typical near sea level. When I was working a Palmer Station (sea level), we'd see a barometer reading in the high 900's. I think the lowest I ever saw was a very bad storm with a low around 920 mb. A ridge of high pressure would get up to 1060 mb or so. Checking today, the barometer at sea level at Palmer is 986 mb, McMurdo is 983.6 mb, and in Aspen, CO at about 8,000' 1015.9 mb.

That is an extra part of the reason they are always concerned about people acclimating to the altitude when they first arrive on station. They have already had to evacuate one person back to McMurdo this due HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema). He was fine once he got back to McMurdo and Sea Level. I even met him at dinner the night I was in town.

Longest Day (and Night)
For the actual pole, we have only one day per year, and of course one night per year. (This could mean that in 'pole days' I'm still less than a year old. - now if only I felt that young). The sunrise and sunsets at the pole last for several days, and the round disk of the sun slowly appears/disappears below the horizon. Once the sun rose above the horizon in late September, early October (before my arrival), it will remain above the horizon until late March. The sun will continue to rise higher in the sky until about December 21st, where it will be about 23 1/2 above the horizon (90 being directly overhead). By the next calendar day it will start to drop in the sky, working it's way down to the horizon by March. Of course all that darkness actually works out well for some of the science here, hence the reason for a lot of Astronomy projects.

As we watch the sun it moves in a counter-clockwise circle around us, pretty much at the same height in the sky (the slight increase at the moment is imperceptible to me).

The bad news for me, my window faces the direction that the sun appears about 5AM in the morning. I block out the window before I go to bed unless I want to wake up early.
So, while we're on the topic of time...

In most parts of the world, noon is pretty much when the sun is directly overhead (give or take an hour with some exceptions). Well here at the pole the sun never passes overhead so what time is it? Well with only a single day a calendar year, it doesn't really matter.

As a practical matter, it's works out best to operate on New Zealand time. Most all of the flights for the United States Antarctic Program that come to McMurdo start from New Zealand, and since it makes sense for McMurdo to operate on New Zealand time, it makes sense for us to do likewise. So, I'm currently operating 20 hours ahead of my Colorado home (we crossed the international date line between Los Angeles and New Zealand on the way down). So I'm usually a day ahead.

There was one winter season when they tried operating the station on Colorado time, so they would have similar hours to the office in Denver, but the 20 hour transition was a challenge, and that plan was dropped.

People & Animals
At the south pole there were none until 1911. Nothing grows here, there are no plants, and no animals that live here. There have been reports of a wayward skua (bird native to the Antarctic coast) being seen, but those sightings are rare.

It was less than a 100 years ago that the first men set foot at the pole.

(Amundsen's expedition at the South Pole, December 1911. Photo by Olav Bjaaland. From left, Amundsen, Hanssen, Hassel and Wisting (per Photo from Dutch Wikisource at

Amundsen and his group was the first to reach the Pole, followed about a month later by Scott & his party. I won't spend any time on that history, as there are lots better references available than I'd be able to summarize it.

The pole was not visited again by man until 1929 when Admiral Byrd was the first to fly over the pole, but did not land.

It was 1956 before the next person actually set foot at the Pole, that was Navy Admiral Dufek as part of the efforts to construct the first South Pole Station for the US. The United states has had a manned station every since.

Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and his crew were the next persons to reach the pole overland. They arrived by tractor on January 4th, 1958.

Size & Terrain
The Antarctic Continent is about 14 million square kilometers (5,405,430 square miles)
Antarctica is the 5th largest continent. It's about twice the size of Australia, or slightly less than 1.5 times the size of the US.
Less than 5% of the continent is not covered in snow and ice.
Antarctica has approximately 17,968 kilometers (11,165 miles) of coastline

Well, I've probably lost a few folks by now, and I've piddled most of the afternoon away working on this page. I'll scatter a bunch of other facts through out the rest of my pages as I document the remainder of the season.

The CIA world factbook has this comment:
Geography - note:
the coldest, windiest, highest (on average), and driest continent; during summer, more solar radiation reaches the surface at the South Pole than is received at the Equator in an equivalent period; mostly uninhabitable

Other References
There's plenty of other information out there about Antarctica and the South Pole.
Here's just a few:
CIA's World Factbook page on Antarctica
National Science Foundation - US Antarctic Program South Pole Station Page
Bill Spindler's Excellent page
The South Pole Station Guide available to the station residents.

Next - Why is it so cold here?         Chuck's South Pole Trip Home Page         Chuck's Home Page