Living at the Pole by Paul Siple

Part of the Antarctica: The Farthest Place Close to Home Curriculum Collection.

When a nationwide search was conducted to select a Boy Scout to accompany Richard E. Byrdon on his first Antarctic expedition in 1918, Paul Siple was chosen, and it profoundly influenced the rest of his life. Returning to the continent several times, he became an Antarctic expert. He was chief biologist of Byrd's 1933-35 expedition and the scientific leader of the United State's first permanent station at the South Pole. Siple was among the small group of men who first wintered over at the Pole, and here describes that historic experience.

This event was to be the turning point of Siple's life. Not only did he prove his value to the expedition; after serving in several subsequent expeditions he became recognized as an expert in scientific exploration at the Pole.

During the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), when the United States boldly and for the first time in history set up a permanent station at the Pole, Siple was named as the station's scientific leader.

During his active years he made important contributions to the body of knowledge of the continent. In the following pages he vividly and sensitively describes what it was like to live at the Pole during that first experimental year.

"Will it be pitch dark?" one of Tuck's Navy men had asked me when he first arrived at the Pole.

"Not very often," I had assured him, though he was far from convinced.

All my previous experience in Antarctica's winter night had been centered at Little America off the Bay of Whales on the Ross Ice Shelf. What would happen at the geographic South Pole some 800 miles inland was something we would experience for the first time in man's long history on Earth.

Three times I had spent winter nights at Little America. There the Sun disappeared for four months beginning in late April, and during the first and last months of the winter night there was enough light to permit work outdoors several hours a day. During May, even though the Sun dropped deeper below the horizon each day, we had a twilight around noon. And even during the two real months of total darkness at Little America there was a flush of pale reddish light to the north over the Ross Sea, for at most the noon Sun lay only about 12º below the horizon.

The dark we faced at the South Pole, however, would be deeper and would last far longer. For our night would last six months instead of the four at Little America, and the Sun at its farthest point from us on June 22 would lie a full 23º below our horizon instead of 12º. . . .

Inside the polar areas the four seasons of the year take on a meaning of their own. Summer and winter are of course the periods of twenty-four-hour Sun and sunlessness respectively. Fall and spring apply to the periods when there are true sunrises and sunsets. How long these periods last depends on one's latitude. At Little America halfway between the Antarctic Circle and the Pole fall and spring last for two months each. The length of the sunup and sundown periods during these two months ranges from one minute to twenty-three hours and fifty-nine minutes.

The twilight season at the South Pole lingers from sunset on March 22 until May 4 when the Sun's angle, from its position below our horizon, was 18º. This latter date represented the real beginning of the dark period. Just how dark it is when the Sun is 18º below the horizon can be garnered from the fact that a smaller 6º to 8º angle represents twilight back in civilization, or the time for turning on streetlights. Twilight lasts much longer in the polar regions than anywhere else because of the relatively flat trajectory of the Sun's rays. It is longest at the Poles themselves, where twilight lasts for a whole month.

During this prolonged twilight from March 22 until May 4, when we walked outdoors we could distinguish an ominous and ever-increasing gray arc rising farther from the horizon opposite the Sun each day. It was the Earth shadow, a phenomenon rarely noticed in temperate latitudes where the Sun sets in a matter of minutes rather than weeks as at the Pole. This Earth shadow is actually the portion of the atmosphere completely shaded from the setting Sun by the Earth, and here at the Pole was separated from the sunlit portion of the atmosphere by a distinct gray line which rose higher in the sky each day. As it advanced across the sky, the oranges, yellows, and pinks of the sunset seemed actually to increase in brilliance and intensity. It was my observation on such days that the beauty of the sunset at the Pole surpassed that at any other point on the globe. For with the occasional red of the sky and the white surface, we were living in a pink world. And then before my eyes, our pink world would turn green or purple or a host of other pastel shades.

The ending of the astronomical twilight was another matter, however. Now not even the faintest glimmer of twilight loomed over our horizon. Yet oddly, only 300 miles above our cone of darkness the Sun shone brightly into space all the while. But this offered little compensation to us on the ground, for there is no side emanation from a beam of light, and there were not enough atmospheric particles of moisture or dust that high up to reflect back any light to us. The Sun's rays went by us invisibly, as they do in the sky until the moon or a planet reflects them to let us know they are there. Sunlight, or even the indirect light the Sun sheds, is one of the accepted blessings of life. Without it, apprehension crept into the hearts of the uninitiated.

This was so even though the South Pole winter night frequently has periods of light from other sources. For two winter weeks each month, the black sky would be punctured by the light of the Moon as it swung around the sky from right to left. During the first week the Moon would spiral its way upward and ride higher in the sky each day. The second week it would creep down toward the horizon and then disappear. In addition the Pole sky, except on cloudy days, would be dotted with starlight and occasional auroral light. It would only be on these cloudy days that the blackness would be all-encompassing.

The men's reaction to the winter night varied from individual to individual. A few of the men expressed their apprehension about the unknown perils ahead in blustering aggressiveness or in elaborate practical jokes as some men do when depressed. Others turned to the hamset for reassurance that there still was an outside world. Oz, our builder, sawed wood and pounded nails as nonchalantly as if he were back home in Pennsylvania. Some of the other men grew quieter while others grew noisier.

.... We were like men who had been fired off in rockets to take up life on another planet. We were in a lifeless, and almost featureless, world. However snug and comfortable we might make ourselves, we could not escape from our isolation. We were now face to face with raw nature so grim and stark that our lives could be snuffed out in a matter of minutes. Every day would bring us new problems to solve and our ingenuity would be taxed over and over again. And all this to carry out a somewhat difficult fragment of the world-wide scientific program of the International Geophysical Year.

An occasional overheard conversation gave me good evidence of the concern the men felt at living in a dark, womanless wasteland. The blink of an eye revealed the wonder that crossed a mind. There was no escape now from the truly lethal wall that separated us from the rest of mankind.

The perils of polar life were many. A fire could toss us to the bitter mercies of a savage, unknown land. If a man were lost outdoors he could not hope to survive more than a few hours. After that he would run out of energy and his body would cool down to the danger point. There was danger also from the restricted vision possible in the darkness, cold and wind-drifting snow. A man wandering only a hundred yards from camp under such conditions might lose his way and never be found. Vapor from a man's breath could freeze his eyelashes shut in an instant and make him believe he had gone blind. His breath would come in gasps and his joints would ache. The intense pain of the cold on fingers and toes could easily distract him, and even destroy his ability to reason clearly.

The dark presented its own danger, for there were no landmarks to help a man find his way. It was like walking out on the ocean where every wave was like every other. If the stars were out, it was possible to fathom your direction—if you knew your stars. But even then it was possible to walk right past the station. Jack and I found this out one time when we walked out 200 yards to collect snow samples. We thought we were walking parallel to the thousand-foot seismic tunnel when suddenly we crossed it and almost fell in. Had this fortuitous accident not given us our bearings, we might have gotten well lost.

The wind also presented a danger. If it was strong (and it often blew in excess of 30 miles an hour), it was natural to turn your face away when traveling downwind. But returning to camp a man would also tend to avert his face and might easily wander off course. With the surface rough, walking was often a matter of stumbling along and this, too, would tend to turn a man off his path. Then again, the winds blew up snow and drift and made the horizon indistinct....

There was danger also in the very temperature outdoors. My early observations led me to believe that the winter night temperature might easily reach a low of -120ºF. If such cold was combined with even a modest wind, a man had little chance for lengthy survival, for almost any wind would triple the body's rate of cooling. I had spent years developing tables to show the effect of wind chill on humans, and the prospects of outdoor movement at this temperature were nil....

Still another danger to be faced was the possibility that an ice fog would roll over you. A mass of crystals of ice that float and form a fog, an ice fog could render the camp invisible from a very short way off. Our camp formed its own ice fogs as a result of the clouds of steam which poured from exhaust pipes and condensed on contact with the frigid air, erasing most outside markers from sight.

So in a physical sense we at the Pole were eighteen men in a box. Only with the aid of our "box" could we survive, yet it bound us in. There was no way we could make our way to the outside world. Nor was there any possibility that we could be rescued should tragedy strike. We would have to remain put until the next summer—in October or November—come what might.

There was also the very large problem of how the men would stand each other's company in the daily rub and grind that would be their steady routine for months without respite.... Whatever a man was inherently would be intensified during the close-quarters winter night. A mean man would grow meaner; a kind man would grow kinder.

Men in a box; that was what we were.