Geographic South Pole


Fourmilab South Pole Expedition

January, 2013

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At the Pole

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2013-01-08 23:31 UTC Click images for enlargements.

The Ceremonial South Pole is all about a barber pole monument, a broken mirror ball (the two halves had come apart), and flags of states that claim slices of Antarctica. Fie on that!

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2013-01-09 13:26 UTC

North any way you go!

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2013-01-09 13:44 UTC

Geographic South Pole marker. Every January 1st, the geographic pole marker is moved to the current location of the physical pole and a new marker is installed. This year's commemorates the positions of the planets and stars at the start of the year, and Neil Armstrong in the legend by the Moon.

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2013-01-09 13:48 UTC

The physical pole had drifted about 20 cm from the geographic marker. My GPS found 90° South on the ice with that displacement from the marker in the direction of drift indicated by the previous year's marker.

Since you can see in this picture that the battery indicator is one bar from full (even though it had been fully charged before this excursion), I'd like to make some observations about using high-tech gizmos in polar conditions. The main consideration is that batteries generate electricity by chemical reactions, and the rate of these reactions falls with temperature (the actual decline depends upon the details of the reaction, but you'll always have less available energy as the temperature decreases). I observed no abnormalities at all with any gadgets at Union Glacier Camp, where the temperature was modestly below freezing. At the South Pole, with temperatures around −25° C, this effect is more pronounced. The GPS, which I carried outside my parka in a pack, lost one bar of its battery indicator after the cold soak but continued to function normally. After it came back up to temperature in the tent, it indicated full battery capacity.

Most seriously compromised was the Canon S100 pocket camera. While it worked fine at Union Glacier, once chilled down to polar temperatures, the lens failed to extend fully and the camera was unusable. After entering the South Pole visitor centre, the camera warmed up and the lens resumed functioning, but the battery now indicated it was discharged. After returning to the tent, the camera worked normally, and has continued to do so ever since. I suspect the lens extension failure was due to either moisture in the mechanism which froze or lubricants which increased viscosity at polar temperatures. Understand—I love my Canon S100, and I never leave home without it, but in extreme conditions it shouldn't be your only camera.

The Nikon D600 digital SLR functioned perfectly in all conditions. It has a big battery which is well-buried inside the frame, so it probably chills more slowly than the battery in a smaller camera. The fancy autofocus, image-stabilised lens, about which I was worried (to the extent I brought two vintage prime lenses in case it died) worked without a hiccup. The automatic exposure worked much better than I imagined it would with scenes dominated by snow, although the histograms were often improved by cranking in a bit of exposure compensation. Given the extreme reflectivity of polar snow and ice, you'll almost always want to use a circular polariser on your lens. You may wish to optimise its angle to darken the sky for dramatic photos, but even if you don't, the reduction of glare from the reflective terrain will dramatically improve your photos. The LCD screens on digital cameras are often completely useless when you're wearing polarised sunglasses or goggles—if you want to check a histogram or image, you'll need to peek at the screen around your eye protection.

I brought a Leica M6 film camera as the ultimate backup should everything else fail. This is a completely mechanical camera which uses a button battery only for the exposure meter—if it fails, you can always go by the film box or your own experience to set aperture and exposure. I used Fujicolor Superia 200 film in this camera, and made all exposures with a circular polarising filter. It worked flawlessly, but since the digital cameras produced equivalent images, none of them are reproduced here. Still, were I going to an extreme environment again, I'd always take the Leica—it just works.

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2013-01-09 13:58 UTC

Here is the physical pole, as found by the GPS, near the January 1st pole marker. The GPS unit is shown here at the location at which it found the true South Pole.

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2013-01-09 14:44 UTC

Last year's marker shows the physical drift of the pole, mostly due to movement of the ice sheet.

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2013-01-09 14:37 UTC

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2013-01-09 14:40 UTC

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2013-01-09 14:41 UTC

From the geographic pole, the station is an imposing structure. There is a lift in the cylinder in front, but station staff have to form a bucket brigade to load cargo from the far end of the structure.

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2013-01-09 14:04 UTC

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2013-01-09 14:22 UTC

The ceremonial South Pole in front of the station.

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2013-01-09 14:28 UTC

Well, you have to do a picture at the ceremonial South Pole, even if your glasses are frosting up!

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2013-01-09 14:29 UTC

by John Walker
February 22nd, 2013
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This document is in the public domain.