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Tales from the field: maintaining seismic stations at the South Pole

By Aubreya Adams

Aubreya Adams

Dec. 16, 2012. Aubreya Adams in the ice tunnels below Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica. (The tunnels are COLD! Like caves in the rest of the world, they maintain the average ambient temperature. Here, that's between -50 and -60. My eyelashes were frozen (although that happens all the time here) and my balaclava kept freezing to my face. Also, the zipper to my parka froze shut from the moisture in my breath!)




Aubreya Adams, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate in seismology in Earth and Planetary Sciences, spent a few months at the South Pole Station this winter maintaining seismic equipment. Here is her first-person account and photo essay illustrating what it’s like at the South Pole and what seismologists do in the field:

This winter (the Southern Hemipshere summer) I spent a few months at the South Pole Station maintaining seismic equipment. Guy Tytgat of the Program for Array Seismic Studies of the Continental Lithosphere out of New Mexico Tech and I — occasionally joined by others — worked out of the pole station to install, service and demobilize seismic stations within several hundred miles of the pole.

Some of the seismic stations were originally established during an effort to determine the shape of the Gamburtsev Mountains, a range about the size of the European Alps, which is hidden below snow and ice. These stations now are being merged with Polenet, a global network of GPS and seismic stations deployed across the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. 

The goal of Polenet is to characterize the ice sheets and the crust and upper mantle structure beneath them, in order to better understand the behavior of ice sheets in a warming world.

A "typical" successful service run involved waking up early to consult with the pilots and remote weather forecasters to decide whether the conditions were acceptable for flying.  If the weather was clear enough, we'd load our equipment onto a Twin Otter plane and fly to the location. 

There, we would inspect the equipment at the surface, dig up a large box containing most of the equipment, and exchange the disks full of data for new, empty ones.  After burying the equipment again, we'd hop back on the plane and fly back to the station, where we'd perform preliminary analysis of the data. 

Of course, things rarely went so smoothly. Our biggest challenge this year was actually weather.  The long distances we were flying meant that the weather had to be clear over a large area — sometimes we would have to land along the way to refuel.  Unfortunately, the weather was good enough for flying only about once a week!

Aubreya Adams

The backside of South Pole Station. There are four of these modules sticking out from the main hallway. They contain the sleeping berths. The station is elevated; snow drifts underneath it in the winter and they dig it out in the summer. You can see some of the drift on the far side of the station.

Aubreya Adams

My dorm room at South Pole Station. I even made my bed for the picture, which is no small feat since that bed is almost shoulder level for me! I'm definitely out of breath by the time I climb up there. Of course, at this altitude, I'm pretty much out of breath if I do anything but walk on a flat surface!

Aubreya Adams

The ceremonial South Pole. The flags around it represent the original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty. The true geographic south pole is about 100 yards away. Doesn't the ceremonial pole look like a movie prop?

Aubreya Adams

The geographic South Pole (marked by the pole topped with golden sphere). Somewhat less impressive than the ceremonial one, huh? It moves about 50 feet relative to the station every year (because the ice the station is on is moving). There is a big ceremony at New Year's when the pole is moved.

Aubreya Adams

Preparing for a service run in the Twin Otter. I was really impressed by what the pilots can do with these planes. They can land in seemingly impossible places and make turns so sharp that your blood rushes to your feet. Sometimes landings and take-offs seem more vertical than horizontal. And, when testing the ice looking for a landing spot, they would fly long distances so close to the ground that the skis would occasionally scrape a bit of snow! Very impressive! 

Aubreya Adams

The bamboo poles mark the location of a buried seismic station at SWEI, a station installed by WUSTL graduate student Songqiao Shawn Wei. 

Aubreya Adams

We replaced the big orange box there on Christmas Day. The equipment inside the box includes batteries, the DAS (command center), baler (data storage), satellite modem, power control module, and bunches of cables. The box is prepared prior to the installation trip, so all 400 pounds of it have to be lugged to the spot.

Aubreya Adams

When power modules go bad - I wish I could've captured the lovely smell for you. ;)

Aubreya Adams

Here I'm lowering a dome over the top of a broadband seismometer. There are many differences between seismic installations in Africa and Antarctica, but one thing remains the same: Someone had better hold your feet, or you will fall in the hole! (I have a picture of me doing the same thing in Uganda, with the driver, David, holding my feet.)

Aubreya Adams

Back at base camp I explored one of the ice tunnels running under the South Pole Station. It goes from the station to a series of deep cavities from which water is drawn and into which sewage is pumped. The walls and ceiling really do bow inward — it's not an optical effect.

Aubreya Adams

There are many "shrines" carved into the walls of the tunnels. Some are serious  and others humorous. This one is legendary, and I won't even attempt to explain how it ended up here. But, yes, it is a sturgeon, and it was a gift from the Russians. The caviar, DVD, and biscuit blowfish are more recent additions.

Aubreya Adams

I love the presentation! Apparently even whiskey will freeze at -60.

Aubreya Adams

One of our more exciting runs was to the Pecora Escarpment, the southernmost exposed rock of the Pensacola Mountains, a large group of mountain range. This shot, from the air, shows a cave-like structure carved by the wind in the ice! For this trip we were joined by a mountaineer, Mike Roberts, who kindly kept us from falling off a cliff or into a crevasse.

Aubreya Adams

Pecora Escarpment. The seismic station is in the foreground and the GPS station in the background, right on the edge of a cliff. Mike Roberts and Thomas Nylen from UNAVCO, a nonprofit consortium that facilitates geoscience research and education, were strapped in with harnesses when they were working on the station, but the pilots weren't, and kept getting very close to the edge for pictures. We were really hoping they didn't fall - who would fly us back???

Aubreya Adams

As Christmas approaches enterprising citizens at the South Pole Station erect a trash tree.

Aubreya Adams

There's been an addition to the trash tree. I think the sombrero was a nice touch.


Aubreya Adams

New Year's Day: Pole Moving Ceremony. Every year, the geographical pole is moved to account for the movement of the ice. It is also given a new "topper" or cap made by the folks who wintered over the previous year. It's a pretty big deal, so it was neat to participate in the ceremony.

Aubreya Adams

This year, the cap includes pins representing the planets and the moon in their relative positions today 1/1/2013. Fun fact: this year's cap is the first ever to have a proper orientation as well as location.

Aubreya Adams

Signatures from the over-winterers on the bottom. Also, there is a pin representing Pluto, for those who don't quite want to give it up as a planet.

Aubreya Adams

A group of people built a tiki hut/ice bar in their spare time, made the decorations, and bought the food and alcohol on their own so the rest of us could have an awesome and unique New Year's party.

Aubreya Adams

Hanging out at the ice bar.

Aubreya Adams

By Jan. 6, I was already on my way home. This is McMurdo Station — the departure point for planes flying north — as seen from the hut built by polar explorer Robert Scott in 1902 during the Discovery Expedition.

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Diana Lutz
Senior Science Editor
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dlutz@wustl.edu
EXPERTS @ WUSTL
Aubreya Adams
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Earth and Planetary Sciences
314-935-7372
aadams@seismo.wustl.edu