I consider myself fortunate that my job entailed working outside so often.
My experiments were located 1km walk away from the dome and although the
journey was cold and arduous (1km is a long way in the dark, across giant
sastrugi and wearing 50lb of ECW clothing) it gave me plenty of time to
stars of the southern sky. The stars at the South Pole don't rise or set,
they just circle overhead (that's one reason for doing astronomy there) and
so I quickly became familiar with the southern cross, the milky way and the
magellanic clouds. With no artificial light I walked by moonlight which was
reflected quite brightly by the snow.
The Aurora Australis were magnificent.
I had heard of the aurora, and as an astrophysicist I had studied them but
as a city dweller living in Leeds I had never seen them. The first we saw
appeared a few weeks after sunset, and
were just cloudy smudges in the sky. These were unspectacular and occurred
several times each day. However for a few days each month we were treated
to fantastic displays lasting several hours.
Each display was unique but had some common features. Initially a long, writhing snake-like ribbon would appear over the dark sector stretching across the horizon from left to right. Over a period of about an hour this would march sideways towards us and finally pass right over head. As it approached the ribbon would turn into a rippling curtain of ghostly green light, sometimes tinged neon-pink. Staring directly upwards as the aurora passed over head revealed it to be composed of hundreds of fingers of light all waggling furiously. The aurora seemed alive with activity like a silent waterfall of light, constantly raining down yet never reaching the ground At times it felt almost close enough to touch but just out of reach. The most intense displays cast shadows on the snow and lit up the dome as can be seen in the photograph at the top of the page.
Photographing the aurora was difficult. For one thing my camera froze easily
and the metal connection on my shutter release cable shattered in the cold.
The two small photos on this page were some I did manage to get but the rest
come from Robert Schwarz's web site. Robert wintered over after me (for
two years straight!). He also took some fantastic photos which I include here.
If you would like to see more of his great South Pole pictures then you can visit
his site here.
Also included is a great photo by Bill McAfee from 1995.
Of all the experiences I had during this year it is the hardest to convey in words or images. It simply has to be seen. I spent many an hour, sometimes alone and sometimes with a group of friends, shivering in the cold night just staring in silence at natures finest display.