South Pole Winterover, Robert Schwarz talks about auroras, change, and isolation

Life during eight and half months of isolation, over a six-month night

On Midwinter Day in Antarctica we published some aurora australis images taken at the South Pole by Winterover, Robert Schwarz. He is at the Pole for his 13th year with different telescopes, the current one, a Cosmic Microwave Background experiment, called SPUD/Keck. His early years were under the Dome. Not only did the South Pole Station undergo an upgrade, so did photography at -70ºC.

We caught up with Robert at the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station at the Geographic South Pole (90ºS), where he talks about life during the longest night on planet earth.

Explorersweb/Pythom: What do you do at the South Pole?

Robert: I’m taking care of one of the microwave telescopes, to make sure the telescope is running and we are taking data. During winter I’m the only person for SPUD/Keck.

This is your 13th year at the Pole. How has it changed over the years?

Robert: The biggest change was when we moved into the new elevated station in 2003. My first 2 winters were still under the dome, also with smaller crews of max of 28 winter-overs. In the new station we had the biggest winter-over crew in 2005 with 86 people.

How many winterovers are at the Pole this year? Tell us a bit about life at the Pole during the coldest months please.

Robert: This year we are 46, about the norm now between 40-50. Winter at the South Pole begins with the last LC-130 leaving mid-February. By the time the temperatures are down to about -50ºC. Now we are isolated for 8.5 months.

There are 3 big events during the next months, sunset on Equinox in March, Midwinter on the winter solstice (in the Southern Hemisphere) and sunrise on Equinox in September again.

Time actually goes by very quickly, since you are always busy, not just with work, but although all the happenings on station, i.e. we always got several classes, every winter I teach an introduction to astronomy, since from the 46 people, there are only about 12 scientists and the rest is support stuff. Then we got programming classes, welding, all kinds of projects. Sport is a big factor, we got a nearly regular size gym, so we can play volleyball, badminton, basketball… a good workout room. We have movie nights, game nights, people giving talks about travels, there are always a few people who had done some interesting stuff before.

How do you celebrate Midwinter at the Station?

Robert: Midwinter is the big holiday for Antarctica, since that is the only day which is the same for all the stations, not like sunset and sunrise, furthest apart here at Pole. The galley is decorated and the cooks put an awesome meal together, time to bring out a tie and a nice shirt.

You take awesome photos. How do you go about? It is pretty cold for fingers and cameras/batteries. What equipment do you use? How do your shoot, in RAW? Do you edit the images/auroras.

Robert: Thanks 🙂 Taking aurora pictures got soooooo much easier with digital cameras, with the old slide film analog cameras, you could only take about 3 pictures (exposed a couple of minutes each) before the slide film would freeze and when you advanced it, it would shatter into 1000 pieces.

Also with the little wire remotes with little set screws, I frostbit my fingers numerous times. From the developing at the Pole, I won’t even talk. Now with digital photography, all that is not a problem anymore. The unprotected camera lasts about 10-20min outside even at minus 75ºC. Shutter release is easy and if you want to take time lapse you can place the whole camera in a heated box and operate it on an electronic timer etc.

I use Canon and Sony cameras with a Nikon lens 14-24mm lens most of the time. Yes, auroras I take in RAW. I do a bit of editing, mostly reducing noise, and increasing contrast a bit, but that is pretty much it. Read more info also on my website.

Do you have forecasts that tell when you will see the Southern Lights (auroras) or are they always visible on cloudless nights?

There are several aurora forecast sights like We are right on the inside of the aurora oval so mostly any day we got some kind of aurora activity, but a not always that you wanna write home about it.

How dark is it really this time of the year at 90ºS?

It’s quite dark, but you can always see your hands in front of your eyes, since there is all the snow around and even star light can be quite bright, but what is really cool is, when the ground lights up by the auroras 🙂


Robert Schwarz’ website with links to other platforms

Weather at the South Pole currently in the minus 50’s (they operate on New Zealand time)

Previous on Explorersweb/Pythom

Midwinter in Antarctica

Medical Evacuation: Kenn Borek Twin Otter left South Pole (midwinter 2016)

Midwinter living on the edge: ExWeb interview with Sven Lidstrom at the South Pole (2012) midwinter

South Pole Webcam

The Coldest Place on Earth

National Science Foundation news

#polar #southpole #antarctica #midwinter #winterover #robertschwarz