Technical University of Munich: Overwintering at the South Pole

Dr. Martin Wolf is spending an entire year at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The cosmic particle physicist has conducted research under Prof. Elisa Resconi at the Chair of Experimental Physics with Cosmic Particles and is now responsible for the IceCube Neutrino Detector at the South Pole. After arriving at the start of the Antarctic summer, he is now experiencing the dark and extremely cold winter. In this interview, he talks about overwintering in the Antarctic and his life at the end of the world.

Now it’s June and I’m spending my days in what is surely the most isolated and inhospitable place in the world: the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station at the Geographic South Pole. Since the sun went down in March and the Antarctic winter began, we’ve been cut off from the rest of the world. We won’t see an arriving aircraft or supply shipment until the end of October. Our contact with the outside world is limited to a few hours a day when satellites are passing over the South Pole, allowing us to exchange data.

My long way to the South Pole
38 people are spending the winter with me here: Scientists working on South Pole experiments, technicians, engineers and the kitchen and cleaning staff – the people responsible for maintaining operations and supplies at the station.

The nearest inhabited location, the US research station on the coast at McMurdo Sound, is around 1600 kilometers away via the South Pole Overland Traverse. In the summer, our supply shipments take 40 days to reach us on this ice highway. On November 24, 2020 I was flown in from the McMurdo Station with the other South Pole “winterovers” on a small propeller plane. It took about 10 passenger flights over the summer to replace the team here at the pole.

Although this is the second time I’m spending a year at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, many things were new on this journey – partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic: It took six weeks to get here, with stops in San Francisco, where I met up with the new winter team, and Christchurch, New Zealand. We had to quarantine again at each location. We also had a Covid routine at the South Pole: Every time a new group landed, the station went into “Phase Yellow”. This meant wearing masks and practicing social distancing. We’re glad that we were able to prevent the virus from reaching the pole.

Our work at the IceCube lab
My fellow physicist Josh Veitch-Michaelis and I take care of the operation of the IceCube detector. This huge telescope looks for the almost massless subatomic particles known as neutrinos. These high-energy astronomical messengers provide information to study the most violent astrophysical sources: events like exploding stars, gamma-ray bursts, and cataclysmic phenomena involving black holes and neutron stars.

Only two media can help us to see neutrinos: ice or water. Consequently, the IceCube telescope is embedded deep in the South Pole ice. The detector begins about 1500 meters below the ice surface and extends to a depth of 2500 meters. A cubic kilometer of ice is provided with 5160 photosensors capable of detecting tracks created by collisions between neutrinos and ice molecules.

My colleague Josh and I are responsible for keeping the detector running smoothly. An information system connects us to the IceCube lab about 800 meters from the station. An error message often means that we have to brave the cold and cross over to the lab. For the winter, the path is marked by flags so that we can find the way with headlamps even in the dark. Luckily the telescope is very stable so that problems don’t happen very often. We spend most of our time on routine maintenance tasks and scheduled updates.