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90 Degrees South:   Life at the bottom of the world

  • William Bergholm of Temple at the South Pole.

    William Bergholm of Temple at the South Pole.

  • The Ceremonial Pole at the South Pole is surrounded by the original signatory nations of the Antarctic Treaty.

    The Ceremonial Pole at the South Pole is surrounded by the original signatory nations of the Antarctic Treaty.

  • William Bergholm of Temple at the South Pole.
  • The Ceremonial Pole at the South Pole is surrounded by the original signatory nations of the Antarctic Treaty.

Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series written by a Temple resident who spends much of his time in far colder locales ­ — Antarctica.

In the weeks ahead, I plan to describe with words and pictures our state of the art station, some of its amazing features, and what is required to keep things running. Also I want to introduce you to the amazing people here, talk about the cutting edge science being done. And of course I’ll touch on the weather, its extremes, the highs and lows and what it takes to survive the long dark winters.

But since this is my first column, I’ll start with myself and how I wound up at the bottom of the world.

My improbable journey to the bottom of the planet was a matter of necessity. As an electrician working in the construction industry it was becoming more difficult to find steady work, and by early 2009, I realized it would be necessary to cast a wider net, thinking I would need to look to other parts of the country for opportunities. So like we all do these days I started job hunting on the Internet. It was during this process that I came across an ad for a foreman’s position that started with, “would you be interested in an adventure in Antarctica,” or words to that effect. It was enough to get my attention and I found myself reading the rest of the ad. Before I knew it I was on the phone with the company in Denver, filling out mountains of paper work, and going through what they call the PQ process (physically qualified), which is a rather comprehensive battery of medical tests to determine a person’s suitability for living and working in this most hostile of environments.

As I recall, this process started in late March or early April and was not concluded until late July or early August when I was finally offered a contract for the summer season, which runs from late October through early February ­— remember this is the southern hemisphere. Finally in mid-October, it was time to head to Denver for orientation and training before finally starting the long journey south.

In a future column I will describe the trip of 10,000 miles from New Hampshire to Antarctica, and ultimately here to the pole and all that entails. But I want to use the space I have to introduce you to Antarctica generally and the South Pole in particular. We fly commercial flights to New Zealand, a beautiful country with wonderful people (more on New Zealand in the future). Once there, we switch to military flights, and for me it was that first leg of the military flights when reality set in and I thought, what have I gotten myself into?

The United States maintains three bases in Antarctica. The smallest being Palmer station up near Punta Arenas Chile, our largest base McMurdo station on Ross island, and the station known as the jewel of our bases, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station named in honor of the first two men to set foot on the geographic South Pole. I could have been assigned to any one of the three but wound up here at pole and in retrospect have to say I am very happy it worked out that way.

Our largest base McMurdo is also the hub for all logistics including people heading to the pole. That means we have to pass through Mactown as it’s known on our way south. If the weather doesn’t cooperate we can be stuck for days or weeks before making it the last 800 or so miles to the pole, but eventually we do make it.

It’s difficult to describe a place as unique as the South Pole, but let me try. For starters the South Pole is located on the coldest, driest, windiest continent, though here our winds are somewhat modified by our location, and we do not hold the record for the coldest temperature. That honor belongs to the Russian base, Vostok! But we can still experience winter temperatures well below minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We are also situated on a massive ice plateau which is moving roughly 10 meters a year toward the coast, meaning all the structures we have here are going along for the ride. As a result the geographic pole has to be surveyed each year and placed in its proper spot. We are also at 9,301 feet of altitude and as a consequence have as much as 30 percent less oxygen than folks at sea level which can make physical activities difficult.

Until next time. In the meantime, I encourage you to check out usap.gov and get a feel through pictures and articles there what we are about.

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