LARAMIE — Living in Antarctica means adapting to the altitude, dry high-speed winds and biting cold spells. That’s why a Laramie resident found Wyoming a perfect training ground for life on the coldest continent on earth.
Nate Master, a professional land surveyor, spends his winter – summer at the South Pole – working for the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Support Contract.
Officially, Master is the Survey Operations Department Supervisor for the US Antarctic Program. Its deployment began in August and ends at the end of February.
He said the mission is a combination of adventure, professional challenge and Wyoming– endurance tested.
“The South Pole is 9,300 feet above sea level, so being from Laramie helped acclimatize here,” Masters said, referring to Gem City’s elevation of over 7,200. feet. “The biggest killer of the weather is the wind, especially once the sun (is) up and stays up.
“It didn’t become completely light until mid-September. Up until then it was like continuous twilight at sunrise and sunset…beautiful over the mountains surrounding the Ross Sea, where I was at the time,” he said. “You only have a few minutes to cover your skin before you get frostbite when the wind blows… not so much now that we’ve moved into the southern summer.”
The austral summer, or summer in the southern hemisphere, occurs opposite to the Laramie winter. December 21 is the height of summer weather there. Like much of the winter work in Wyoming, summer work in Antarctica is often weather dependent.
The Captain will live at the South Pole Station until mid-January when he will relocate to McMurdo Station on Ross Island located on the edge of the permanent Ross Ice Shelf and Sea of Ross jelly.
He arrived on the first personal flight at the end of the Antarctic winter (before sunrise).
A typical day starts around 6:30 a.m. NZ time with exercise and breakfast. The master takes care of the administrative office work and the planning of the day’s surveying work. As with many jobs, the day ends somewhere between 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.
“After work, I have dinner in our kitchen and then text or call my family,” he said. “On the weekends, I’ll have coffee with friends at the train station, play games or work mostly on some of the Wyoming-novels that I came here to finish in the solitude of my free time.
The weather plays a role in Master’s daily routine as he plans, collects survey data from his crew, and occasionally assists in active field surveying. The international Antarctic treaty requires that there be no permanent buildings, but there are temporary structures to be placed with airfields and ports that must be located.
As with any construction project, builders need to know where to work, and topographic data provides them with the map coordinates they need. Although Antarctica is a continent with a rocky base, glaciers and ice caps drastically alter the landscape, creating a need for annual updates.
“We’re keeping an eye on it,” Master said of the ice shelves and uncertain terrain. “Some move relative to each other, luckily. Some places it doesn’t. On rock, it doesn’t move, so that’s the norm. For ice shelves, they move quite a bit.
Since some ice fields move at different speeds than others, survey teams establish three checkpoints as a starting reference. Teams are needed to refresh these points every year, he said.
A land ice field can move 33 feet per year, a manageable amount, Master said, especially compared to the Ross Sea ice pack, which can move 315 feet.
“It’s a lot,” he said.
Masters noted that a common misconception about Antarctica is that it gets a lot of snow. In fact, the continent is too cold and too dry most of the time for it to snow. But when it does, the wind piles it up in deep drifts.
Loneliness is also a dramatic experience, Master said. “It’s just a lot more expansive and quiet than anyone might expect.”
He also challenges the idea that Antarctica is just a gigantic hilly desert of ice and snow.
“Antarctica is truly as diverse as anywhere else with mountains, glaciers, frozen seas and even a volcano on the island we live on,” he said.
Antarctica’s Erebus is the southernmost active volcano on Earth and is still smoking.
Despite the conditions, the summer season makes it possible to work outdoors, even when the cold can reach minus 50 degrees, not to mention the wind chill, which is the coldest temperature Master has experienced.
“Whiteouts by ground effect are also dangerous, but can usually be anticipated and can therefore be planned for during the working day,” he said. “They occur after a storm and can last for several days.
“If we reach what is called a Condition 1, we must shelter in place, which could be in our dormitory, the kitchen or huddled in our survival gear if we are caught in the open on the ice floe until that these difficult conditions disappear. ”
Despite the dangerous conditions, Master said he never felt in any physical danger during his time in Antarctica.
“There is great confidence. Things are breaking! We found ourselves in white veils,” Master said. “But honestly, Wyoming more than prepared me for this.
“I was kind of like, ‘Hey, no worries, it’ll be fine.’ But really, there are so many levels of security here. We’re very, very careful. We have many protocols, security is number 1. Planning makes it a little longer, but it’s worth it.
“It’s about making sure everyone is taken into account. Everyone watches over everyone. It’s quite nice.