February 27, 2013 - With forecasts calling for more snow, Michiganians may be grumbling, but Clarkston High School graduate Eric Woolley would find our temperatures quite mild.
Contractor Eric Woolley arrives in Antarctica on a USAF cargo plane that lands on a sea ice runway at the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo station. (click for larger version)
He's been living in Antarctica at the National Science Foundation's McMurdo research station since August 2012 where temperatures can get as low as -56 degrees Fahrenheit.
"The South Pole station has hit -117 F. Yes, that is 117 below zero," Woolley confirmed.
He keeps a close eye on the temperature because his work as a contractor in Antarctica is all about staying warm.
"My main duty here is keeping the heat on in the buildings. That is important all year this close to the South Pole," he explained. The McMurdo science station is located 850 miles from the earth's most southern point.
In particular, Woolley says maintaining warmth "is very important in the winter (April-September) as the temperatures can reach to -56 F with the average being -25 F. Summer temperatures average around a balmy 32 F."
In addition to the challenge of keeping the station warm there are other obstacles facing Woolley as he works in Antarctica.
"The sun sets April 24 and rises August 19 this year," he said. "I have just spent the summer here (the seasons are opposite in the southern hemisphere) and will work through the winter. The sun is up for 24 hours in the summer and does not rise in the winter."
With or without sunshine, those living in the McMurdo station are still hard at work. The scientists' fields of study range from astrophysics, glacial geology, and ocean and atmospheric sciences.
"The population here at McMurdo rises to 1100 in the summer season because that is when most of the science activity happens. With 24 hours of daylight, we do have 24 hour operations to support the scientific community that is based here," said Woolley.
In the winter, McMurdo's population drops to around 150 people, and as one of the few inhabiting the science station, it's Woolley's responsibility "to keep what buildings that are kept operating during the winter season from freezing."
He describes Antarctica as "snow white with volcanic mountains sticking up here and there. It is devoid of any greenery."
Although it might seem impossible for any animals to survive in such a place, Woolley's seen "transient seals, penguins, and an occasional orca whale. McMurdo is a sea port, so when the ice breaks up in the summer and you have open water, you do see the marine life," he said.
Despite the familiar sight of cold-loving critters, the humans stationed at McMurdo are isolated. They are 2400 miles from the closest civilization in New Zealand. However, Woolley said, "with 1100 people concentrated in the half square mile station, you feel like you are in down town Clarkston."
While Antarctica may feel like home at times, there are some significant differences.
All the supplies needed to survive are flown in by United States Air Force cargo plane or on a cargo ship in summer. "So it's not like running to Kroger or Wal-Mart when you need something," Woolley pointed out.
To reach his cold destination, Woolley flew from Los Angeles to New Zealand, a 13-hour flight. Once he landed in New Zealand, he picked up the extreme weather clothing he'll give back when he leaves Antarctica.
"From New Zealand, we traveled by USAF cargo planes to the sea ice runway at McMurdo. The sea ice at the runway site is 800 feet thick and is part of the Ross ice shelf," Woolley explained.
The McMurdo station has a small shop where Woolley can pick up basics like toothpaste and soap. "You can order and have things shipped to the Post Office, but that only happens from October – February. From March-August, there are no flights or ships that can make it here," he said.
When Woolley isn't busy with his 6-day a week schedule, there are activities in Antarctica besides maintaining the heat in buildings. The McMurdo station has a gym, chapel, library, and a bar, he said.
Woolley's work in Antarctica will be done in October, and he'll fly back to warmer climates. Although living in a stark polar region may seem foreign to many, Woolley assures, "Antarctica grows on you."
Find out more about the McMurdo research station on the United States Antarctic Program website, USAP.gov.
Clarkston News reporter