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Nice ice, baby

Published in December 1999
on Techies.Com

A dream job comes true for a systems administrator at the South Pole

Hypothermia-inducing temperatures, a cramped apartment smaller than some walk-in closets, and a daily dose of technical troubleshooting. What more could you ask from a tech job? On a yearlong assignment as a systems administrator at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Jason Holmes calls his gig a dream come true.

At the South Pole, Holmes supports the base's computer technicians and scientists - as many as 220 people during the Antarctic summer, doing research for the U.S. National Science Foundation on disciplines as far flung as upper atmospheric physics, astrophysics, meteorology, clean air, and geophysics. The station, roughly 90 degrees south on the Polar Plateau, sits on 9,000 feet of ice, 9,450 feet above sea level. Low atmospheric pressure makes it feel like 10,600 feet. And during the polar winter from mid-February to late-October, the pole is plunged into darkness, connected to the rest of humanity by only a satellite link to the Internet.

But in the Antarctic summer, the sun never sets, and on a clear day the temperature can rise to minus 20 F, making a quick jaunt into the frozen landscape in just a sweatshirt and thermals rather comfortable, says Holmes. Holmes, who found this job on, arrived at the South Pole on Oct. 25, after nine days of travel. Fully adjusted to altitude sickness and the frigid clime, Holmes spoke to by email.

Why did you pick a job at the South Pole?

There are people who beg to shovel snow just for the adventure of being here. Fortunately, I had the skills for a more technical position. From my six-year stint in the Army, I had the privilege of getting to six continents. This was my seventh and last one.

I had been trying to find a way to get here for a while, though I never knew of ASA [Antarctic Support Services, an Englewood, Col.-based firm providing support service for the United States Antartic Program]. Did a lot of research didn't I?

This job is also going to expose me to numerous areas of my field that I may not get a chance to get to for a while; multi-platform network administration. There are just two of us running this whole volatile network. The responsibility, the people who I'll be wintering over with, and the fact of being in the most desolate place on the planet during Y2K kind of helped the decision along.

What's a typical day like at the South Pole?

Twelve- to 14-hour days, six days a week, Sundays off. At 8 a.m., I start with email from the day before about what needs to be done or user problems that need attention.

There is also a seasonal 'needs-to-be-done' list. I do these duties when the science or user support isn't high on a given day. With lots of construction going on, I have to make sure every office has network connections.

How does what you're doing support the scientific research going on at the South Pole?

I make sure the network stays up and their computers work. A lot of [scientists] are semi-self sufficient with their systems. But there are always glitches, including the new video conference system that was set up last year. They need to transfer huge amounts of data each day. We have over 23 different science groups that will be here running numerous experiments each. Add in the way that anything I do can affect some of these experiments - this really hinders my 'jerry rigging' ability.

Like the other day when a CAT ran over a run of fiber. An entire department went down - our cargo department. We get numerous flights a day, and cargo is critical in handling the flights. They go down, many problems will hit the entire station in its basic services. Our backup for them was two microwave transceivers. We couldn't use them because they would disrupt many different experiments happening within that area.

We ended up flying up two pairgane hubs from McMurdo to utilize the phone line as the network connection. Though the connection was slower, they were back on without any experiments getting hosed. These kinds of problems happen all the time. This is where you have to be really creative with your fixes and accept change.

What are the biggest challenges of your job?

Things break - all the time. Why? Because of the high altitude and the temperature, minus 20 to minus 120 F, and that's not counting the wind chill. Other than that, I have a lot of new exposure to Unix/Linux admin, satellite communications, and numerous software packages, which I have never dealt with before.

How are you connected to the Internet and the world at large?

If you're an Internet junkie you'll hate it here because of the finicky satellite coverage. It's great but when your baud speed fluctuates from 56k (200 users - slow) to T1, there can be frustration with Web surfing. If I have any downloads to do, I might get 14kb/sec on a good day, 8kb/sec normally. Email is really big here - especially for all the support types. It is their only connection back home so we make sure it is always working. I do weekly video conference with loved ones so it doesn't seem that far - though that depends on satellites as well. I came well-equipped to handle the year: a high-powered system, video camera, tons of DVDs and network books so that maybe I'll learn something when I am down here.

What are the biggest challenges of life/work at the South Pole?

Not everyone can deal with this, but there are some who can. My room is six feet by eight feet, and I couldn't bring more than 150 pounds for a year's stay. In the service it was normal to live out of a rucksack in the boonies for two to four months. I really think that prepared me for this. There are a few ex-military here, but there are a lot of civilians as well. They have 'veterans' here - people with six to ten years of ice time that keep coming back. It's a small community and enjoyable to be around.

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david southgate
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