(Correne Coetzer) The Southern Hemisphere’s winter solstice makes for big celebrations on Antarctica. It is the turning point of the long, permanent dark night. One of 50 winter-overs from 8 nationalities working at the South Pole Station is Swedish Sven Lidstrom. He is on a 13-month plus assignment at the ICECUBE project.
Sven talks to ExplorersWeb about life with no sun for months and what it takes to stay in the extreme conditions, his job at the Pole and other activities, the 300 Club, the midwinter centenary celebrations and the secret gem of the South Pole where there are humidity and smells.
ExplorersWeb: What do you do at the South Pole?
Sven: I’m an Associate researcher – Winter Over Experiment operator for the ICECUBE experiment.
ICECUBE is a huge, 1 km3 size neutrino detector buried 2500 meters down in the ice cap at the South Pole. ICECUBE is actually the largest telescope in the world, but it is a different type of telescope. We are observing the universe by looking at neutrinos interacting deep down in the Antarctic ice.
ExplorersWeb: How does your work day typically look like?
Sven: No day is the same; there is no typical day down here. We have to be pretty flexible and adjust to what needs to be done.
When I work with our scientists in Europe, I’m on European time; then we swap to US time working with US scientists. The Station is on New Zealand time, UTC + 12, but people work around the clock.
Since it is dark for 24 hrs we don’t have a natural sleep cycle either. We don’t really have a day off but normally Sundays are the Station rest day.
ExplorersWeb: What outside activities are there at the Pole during winter? Some of the buildings/telescopes are quite a distance from the main building. Do people go there to do work/maintenance? Do any vehicles function in the winter temperatures?
Sven: I go skiing or just for a walk to get out. It is nice just to get out, even if it is really, really cold.
Yes, a lot of us have to go to other buildings to do our work, or at least part of our work. The cut off temperature for the use of any vehicles is -60°C. At those temperatures the fuel gels and a lot of things are very fragile so they just break.
ExplorersWeb: What are the coldest temperature measured so far and how cold is it today?
Sven: We went below -100°F [-73.3°C] already early April, breaking the previous record for earliest -100°F. A week ago we went below -74°C or -102°F. Right now it is -59,5°C [-75.1°F] mainly because the wind picked up.
ExplorersWeb: Tell us about the “300 Club” please? Are you a member?
Sven: The 300 club is a very, very special club and when you tell people about it they take it as another piece of evidence that you actually are crazy.
The idea is that you have to go out of the building to the South Pole [Ed note: the 90°S marker] when the temperature is below -100°F, which is hard enough, and you also have to be completely naked.
To make this possible you need to heat your body up as much as possible. Therefore we sit in the sauna until it becomes unbearable, and then a little bit longer, up to a temperature that is above 200°F [93.3°C].
That is where the name “300 Club” comes from. You expose your body to a 300 degrees Fahrenheit difference and you make it to the South Pole and hopefully back too.
Yes, I have done the 300 club 3 times this winter. I did one last week.
ExplorersWeb: The main building is big and lit up inside. Does it really bother that it is dark outside?
Sven: Yes it does, it is dark all the time… and that makes it hard. I can’t wait to have the sun come back. We have the polar night back in Sweden too but it is not the same, it is not nearly as long.
Down here there is no sun for 6 months and it is dark, really dark, since we have no outside lights. Outside lights disturb several of our very light sensitive experiments so we only use our red headlamps while outside.
But on the other hand we have the auroras, and they are truly magnificent.
ExplorersWeb: You like to go outside and take photos. Is that common for people there or do some people only stay indoors?
Sven: Some people don’t go outside at all for days or weeks and some are out quite a bit. I like to be outside even if it is hassle and really cold.
ExplorersWeb: What type of person would you say is able to stay in the extreme conditions with the thought that he/she is totally physically cut off from the outside world?
Sven: Some people say that winter-overs can’t interact with other people and that is why we are down here. I would say they couldn’t be more wrong. On the contrary you really need to be able to interact with other people and be very social.
We are living very, very close to each other and there is no escape so you really need to be able to interact and get along with each other.
The winter-over experience is what we make of it and there are lots of disaster stories from winter’s that have gone terribly wrong. They all boil down to the crew not getting along.
I literally trust my life with my fellow winter-overs. If something happens here there will be no one else coming to help us. So we have to rely on each other, which build a very special bond between us.
A positive attitude is very important. I would say that it is also very important that you are self going and can motivate yourself. There is very little stimulation down here so you need to be able to stimulate and motivate yourself.
ExplorersWeb: If you don’t work, what do you do to pass the time there? How accessible is the Internet?
Sven: We actually have a lot of things to do. There are lots and lots of movies, TV-series and books available. Then we have a music room and an arts and crafts room and the of course the gym and workout room.
We also have pretty busy recreation schedule; volleyball, indoor hockey, soccer, movie nights, art class, astronomy class, radio darts, the South Pole Pool tournament and then the ongoing race to
McMurdo. Then we have training with our different emergency response teams, help out in the kitchen, generator watches and so forth.
We have Internet access by 2 different satellite systems. One is GOES, a 30 year old research satellite that was decommissioned so we get to use it. Every day it works we are happy.
Our main satellite system is TDRSS, which is a NASA system for deep space missions and the International Space Station. We get to use the satellites when they are not used for something else.
In total we have about 6-8 hours per day but which changes and there are so many things that can go wrong I’ve noticed. Science data have priority.
ExplorersWeb: Midwinter is a special occasion on Antarctica. Tell us what is planned at the South Pole.
Sven: There were so many events scheduled that we actually had to postpone some of them since there is not enough time. The big thing is our Midwinter dinner. Then there will be drive in movies in the Gym, computer game tournament. Farmers Market in the greenhouse.
ExplorersWeb: You will have a special midwinter menu and have fresh fruit, veggies and greens at the Pole. Tell us about the special greenhouse please.
Sven: Our greenhouse, or food growth chamber, which is the official name, is the secret gem of the South Pole. The greenhouse provides us with lots of freshies throughout the winter AND we got strawberries the other week. That was a treat.
It is also a gorgeous place to just hang out in since there is humidity and there are smells. Otherwise down here it is extremely dry and no smells.
At the South Pole the sun disappears below the horizon during the March equinox and appears again above the horizon during the September equinox. This covers the Pole in total darkness for months. Midwinter is celebrated at all the research stations on Antarctica after which the days start to slowly get lighter. Traditional greetings and photographs are shared between the research stations.
On Wednesday at 00.15 UTC the last flight took off from the South Pole base . It will be 8 months before the next one arrives.
Sven Lidstrom has a M.Sc in Applied Physics from Uppsala University and University of Colorado at Boulder. He participated in 18 Research expeditions to Antarctica, done 2 winters and several summers at South Pole. Sven also worked with some 15 plus expeditions to the Arctic and has been to the Magnetic North Pole and “very close to the actual North Pole too”.
Favorite hobbies: Outdoors, skiing, mountaineering, kayaking, sailing, and hiking.
Food: He likes all types of food. “Down here at the South Pole you can eat a lot without gaining weight which is nice.”
Movies and books: Sven watches all types of movies and reads a lot. “I like to read about explorers and explorations, especially the old polar explorers. It is amazing what they went through back then. I just read a really good book about caving, “Blind Descent” and one about a guy who travelled across India on an Elephant, “Travels on my Elephant”.”
Best adventure: He is lucky enough to have a job that is a big adventure, says Sven. “My most fun private adventure was when I kayaked from to Stockholm, Sweden, to St. Petersburg, Russia. It was so fun we redid it a couple of years later.”
Dream destination: There are so many places to go to and so much to see in the world, contemplated Sven. ”I love the Polar Regions, but after this I will need some warm and humid climate for a while.”
“I think the optimal destination would be to go into space – that is a dream I share with several others down here. That would be the optimal experience I think.”
When Sven is not on Antarctica he works with supporting scientists that work in the Polar Regions – Antarctica and the Arctic. In his free time he travels to remote and interesting places and does his “own small adventures”.
Last flight out of the South Pole, goodbye to Evans
Hundred years ago: Amundsen breaking news; Scott in a very bad way
South Pole anniversary final: March 29, 1912
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