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28 Hardy Souls Volunteer to Spend Winter at the Bottom of the World : South Pole: The crew of scientists, meteorologists and others cannot leave Antarctica for the next eight months. They will live in an unheated geodesic dome; outside, temperatures can reach 100 below zero.

March 06, 1994|MERCER CROSS | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

AMUNDSEN-SCOTT SOUTH POLE STATION, Antarctica — Their home for the next eight months will be an unheated aluminum geodesic dome 53 feet high and 160 feet wide.

Most of that time, it will be winter at the bottom of the world. They will be enveloped in darkness relieved only by the eerie shimmering of the southern lights, aurora australis.

When they step outside the cramped but well-insulated living quarters, they may be greeted by temperatures 100 degrees below zero, made far colder beyond the dome by 30-knot winds.

They will have no possibility of escape from this human cocoon before late October.

It's called wintering over.

The last transport plane takes off from the U.S. South Pole Station's ice runway in late February, the end of the National Science Foundation's austral summer research season.

Those left behind at this remotest of all outposts are 28 carefully screened volunteers: scientists, construction workers, meteorologists and other support staff. Five are women. All have gone through psychological testing, interactive group training and a firefighting course.

Some people thrive on the adventure. Four of the 28 have done it before.

They may live harmoniously or fractiously: Groups differ from year to year. Either way, it's an experience they'll never forget.

"This is the best natural laboratory to study people in an extreme environment like you have in outer space," said social scientist Jeffrey C. Johnson. "A moon base will be a lot like this place."

Johnson, based at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., has a grant to study the social structure of groups that winter over at the pole.

"What it really boils down to," he said, "is that as long as you do your work, engage socially and have a sense of humor, people like you." Those most likely to have problems, said Johnson, are inflexible, opinionated know-it-alls.

"Everybody goes through a stage or two of pretty good depression," said Stanley P. Wisneski, who has wintered over twice, most recently as station manager in 1992-93 for Antarctic Support Associates, the company that contracts with the National Science Foundation to operate U.S. research facilities in Antarctica.

"Definitely, it's not made for everyone," said meteorologist Ann Adams of Phoenix. She and another meteorologist will spend more time outdoors than most of the others, reading instruments and launching weather balloons.

One who enjoys winter life at the South Pole is James Stine of Beldenville, Wis. A veteran of three summers and two winters in Antarctica, Stine is an affable giant with a beard and a Mohawk haircut who manages the power plant.

"If I could do one or the other, I think I'd take winter," he said. "We're more of a close-knit family. I like the lifestyle."

Romances sometimes bloom in the austral dark. One former manager recalls three weddings that have resulted from winter pairings.

For everybody, the lifestyle requires some accommodation.

At its best, the South Pole is a daunting place. It's a pinprick on a frozen continent the size of the United States and Mexico combined. The average mean temperature at the pole is minus 56.

In every direction, the polar landscape is a flat, white sheet. The elevation is 9,300 feet, but when low barometric pressure is factored in, it feels more like 10,500 feet. Many newcomers suffer from altitude sickness.

Most scientific work at the pole is done during the short austral summer season, November through January, when the sun is constantly overhead. The emphasis is on astrophysics.

Peak population is 125, many of whom live in a "summer camp" of insulated half-circle canvas buildings outside the dome. The winter-over crew, however, squeezes into buildings inside the dome.

People work together, eat together and play together. Water, made from thawed ice, is always in short supply: Showers are limited to two a week.

The kitchen at South Pole Station has a reputation for excellent cuisine. Summer and winter, all hands are expected to volunteer for serving and cleanup duties.

After long work days, the small polar community relaxes with cards, video movies, a well-stocked library, a weight room and gym, a pool table and "volley bag," a space-conserving volleyball variant using a rolled-up cloth ball in place of an inflated one.

Alcohol is rationed. Drinking has been a problem with some winter-over groups. "It's very easy for one drink to turn into 10," said Wisneski.

"The isolation is the worst thing of all," he said. "If you dwell on when you're leaving, you're going to lose your mind. The busier you keep yourself, the more enjoyable your time will be."

One antidote is communication with stateside friends and family. Besides shortwave radio, there are satellite-connected telephones and computerized electronic mail.

But the best time of all is the equivalent of Christmas in July, at the depth of the dark winter, when an Air Force C-141 Starlifter transport drops food, supplies--and mail.

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