Ellicott City engineer, 24, visits South Pole

December 28, 2007|By Janene Holzberg

How cold is it at the South Pole?

It's so cold that icicles quickly form on your eyelashes, even beneath a pair of thick goggles. It's so cold that the packed snow squeaks as you plod across it. It's so cold that even though the sun never sets in summer, a temperature reading of minus-30 degrees Fahrenheit is considered balmy.

All of these answers are courtesy of Sebastian Stewart of Ellicott City, who made the 13,200-mile trek to Antarctica in November. An engineer working at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, he spent seven days performing annual maintenance of a scientific instrument.

"When you take your first breath `on the ice,' the cold air grabs your throat," said Stewart, 24. "The high altitude is disorienting, and you can feel your heart pounding. The lowest temperature while I was there was minus 68 degrees.

"As cold as it is, many people don't realize that it rarely snows at the South Pole -- only 2 to 3 inches a year," he continued. "But the snow and ice layer never melts, so it is packed nearly 2 miles thick."

Stewart, a 2001 graduate of Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, has worked as an instrument engineer for Science Systems and Applications Inc. since June of last year, after graduating from Salisbury University with a double major in physics and mathematics. His parents, David and Consuelo Stewart of Dorsey Hall, are college math teachers.

His mission at the South Pole was to conduct a "complete physical checkup" on an instrument operating there, said Steve Palm, SSAI research meteorologist.

"Seb, as we call him, works on a project called Micro-Pulse Lidar [MPL], which is a worldwide network of autonomous ground-based systems that gather information on the cloud and aerosol structure of the atmosphere," he said.

`Right at home'

"He has been right at home working on the MPL instruments, making sure they are optically aligned and calibrated," Palm added. "Seb also fixed a problem with the scan angle encoder that tells us the angle at which the MPL is pointing."

According to a Web site describing the MPL network, the types of observations that are collected by the instruments "are required for several NASA satellite validation programs, are useful for studies of aerosol transport, and are also a high priority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."

Stewart said he took off one glove to fine-tune a screw on the instrument, but had to quickly tug it back on within 30 seconds. "It's hard to put into words what that frigid air feels like on bare skin," he said. "You can actually feel your skin freezing."

Arriving at the South Pole involved a weeklong journey encompassing 30 hours of air travel, Stewart said.

His trip was broken into four flights on commercial jets and two trips on a C-17 military aircraft fitted with skis, a plane so large that it carried a helicopter as cargo, he said. His last stop before landing at his destination at the bottom of the world was at nearby Christchurch, New Zealand, where he said he obtained heavy-duty, cold-weather gear lent to him by the National Science Foundation.

`The scenery was surreal'

"When I finally set foot at the Pole, the scenery was surreal -- you almost can't take it all in," said Stewart, who added that photos of him in his red parka and goggles resemble an astronaut surrounded by the stark landscape of the moon. "I liked to visualize myself standing at the bottom of the Earth and to contemplate the spiritual feeling of the setting. The air is so clear you can look up and see the Milky Way galaxy."

He said that one of the oddest sights is the sun, which circles just above the horizon instead of rising and setting. In March, at the autumnal equinox there, it finally goes down and stays down for six months of winter darkness.

"It really looks alien as it goes around and around, and watching it makes you feel like you aren't on Earth," said Stewart.

The constant daylight prohibits a good view of the aurora australis, which is the southern counterpart of the aurora borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights, he said.

There really is a pole at the South Pole, said Stewart -- two in fact. One pole is topped with a 6-inch engraved metal disc that is replaced annually with a disc of a different design that's been engraved with the current year, he said. The new pole is planted each New Year's Day at 90 degrees south, the exact location of the geographic South Pole. Since the location moves about 10 meters each year because of shifting of the polar ice sheet, he said, past poles still poke up from the snow like random pickets from a fallen fence.

The ceremonial pole resembles a barbershop's red-and-white striped post topped by a mirror-like sphere, a nod to the popular vision of how the pole should look, Stewart said. It is encircled with the flags of the countries represented in the Antarctic Treaty, which regulates international relations.

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