Antarctica in the Summer: Sunshine 24/7

A peculiarity of the polar regions is the cycle of seasons with total darkness and total sunlight. During the Antarctic (austral) summer, the sun traces a circle in the sky that dips low toward the South Pole and elevates toward the north. At the Pole itself the sun traces a perfect circle uniformally above the horizon. The earliest that I have been to Antarctica is the third week in October, and even then the sun settled slightly above the horizon at midnight.

Midnight sun bathes Mt. Discovery in late October, 1975

Perpetual sunlight has its benefits and its drawbacks. In McMurdo it is possible to draw the shades and sleep as one normally does. In the field, however, tents are always brightly lit by the sunlight that floods through their walls. Some folks have trouble sleeping under such conditions, and a variety of strategies exist for coping with the light. One is to draw the hood of a mummy bag down over your eyes. Personally, I feel claustrophobic in a mummy bag and prefer one in which I can roll over without having to take the top of the bag with me. Another option is to wear an eye mask, like the ones issued by the airlines. These work well for blocking sunlight, but unless your head is in a mummy bag, it is out there in the cold, radiating heat from your sleeping body. My personal preference for sleeping is to wear a dark, lightweight, knit hat that I pull down over my eyes just to the top of my nose. On cold nights (relatively speaking) I will pull my bag up to my face with only my nose sticking out. This lets me breathe into the open air without collecting moisture in my bag. Of course, at the end of a hard day in the field, and especially if you’ve had a couple stiff drinks before dinner, simply closing your eyes is all it takes to plunge on deep, restful slumber.

Wake up! The sun's been shining for hours.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of 24-hour sunlight is that you can work as long as you want. At McMurdo and the other USAP stations and helicopter-supported camps, the program runs on a 24-hour schedule, with meals and work hours prescribed. However, a deep field camp operates independently on their own time with the only constraint being daily radio contact from the field. If you have been cooped up at basecamp waiting for a storm to break, a good 12-16 hour day in the field is just the thing to catch up on lost research time and to burn off the pent-up energy. Every morning the comms office at Mac Center does a roll call of all remote field parties; however, they also monitor the radios 24/7 for any traffic, routine or otherwise. Invariably my remote parties drifted off schedule, and we would be either sleeping or, more commonly, off in the mountains when the roll was called. I think that sometimes they wondered, What kind of a show is Stump running out there, that he can’t keep to a 24-hour routine? My answer has always been that you can’t come back in the middle of a climb for a radio call and then just pop back up to where you left off, not without a helicopter. Time is much too precious in the field.

Two-thirds of the way up Mt. Griffith and you expect me to come on down and make a radio call? No way!

When we were really free cycling, our days stretched to 26 or 27 hours. A couple hours in camp for both the morning and evening meals, maybe 10-12 hours out on the rocks, an hour (or less) to shake down the day’s collection, and then sleep till we woke up 10 or more hours later, it generally added up to more than 24.

It is only if you are out working at midnight that you may see the sky turn pink. Queen Maud Mountains, January, 1975.

Gallery – Random Shots, 1.0

This month's gallery is a selection of random images shot during the 2000-01 field season in the Byrd Glacier area.