Frequently Asked Questions

(actually mostly questions that no one has asked but I felt like answering anyway)

For what Earthly reason would you subject yourself to 11 months at the South Pole including 6 straight months of night and 8 months where you can't leave?

I'm crazy (but not too crazy, apparently, because I passed the psych eval). Also I like science and I wanted to go play with a giant telescope. SCIENCE!
Also, why wouldn't I want to go live at the South Pole for 11 months?

Why are the posts numbered like that on the main page?

It's a pun. When you figure it out you'll probably roll your eyes and groan. Whatever, I think it's hilarious.

Can haz RSS?

RSS icon

Why is this blog so shitty? Why is there no comment section or slick navigation like a normal blog? Why don't you just use Wordpress or something like a normal human being?

Well, the internet at the South Pole is very slow, only available for a few hours per day, and somewhat unreliable. Blogging on wordpress or any other typical pre-fab blogging interface requires being able to load the wordpress webpage and then being able to upload my content, and then being able to load my uploaded content to make sure it looks ok in the browser. My current system doesn't require any of that. I compose the HTML locally, and test it in Firefox, Chrome, and Opera locally without an internet connection. Then I log into the file system where this page is hosted (using a network identity manager, so I don't have to load a whole login webpage, I only use enough bandwidth to pass my login info), and then I upload my already-tested-offline files to the file system. Oops... that didn't work. The port is blocked here. I migrated it to gitHub, which tragically means I can't use php, but on the up side, it's easier to only push the diff, which uses even less bandwidth (thanks Aaron for the suggestion). I can update the blog without ever loading a full webpage, using only slightly more bandwidth than the size of the actual update. It's a minimal-bandwidth solution or close to it. It doesn't have comments or slick navigation because I'm too lazy to code that stuff and I don't have reliable enough Internet access to moderate comments. If you have a deep, burning desire to respond to my blog posts, you'll just have to email or call. If you have a deep, burning desire for slick navigation, you're a nerd and I like you. But not enough to code slick navigation.

What communications systems are available at the South Pole?

We have pretty much all of the same communications systems at the pole that you have back in the US (or wherever you're reading this), but usually significantly limited in some way.
  • Landline phones: We have regular landline phones but they only make local calls around the station. For example if I'm at the telescope I can pick up a phone and call someone in their room or in the lab back in the main station.
  • VoIP phones: Using the same physical phones as the local landline phones, we can also make VoIP calls to the outside world when the main satellites are up. All of these phones have Denver area codes, and you can call them from your regular US (or wherever) phone for the same cost as calling any other Denver number. I have a Google Voice number with a Denver area code, which I can link up to my phone here and use to make free calls to any US number. There is typically a ~1 s delay, but otherwise the call quality is fairly good.
  • Iridium phones: These phones work over the lower-bandwidth iridium satellites that are up all the time. The sound quality is lower than the VoIP phones and sometimes the background noise sounds like Darth Vader or a drum corps (or Darth Vader *and* a drum corps), but hey, it's up all the time. We use iridium mostly so we can call into telecons with our science collaborators back in the US, even when the main satellites aren't up.
  • Email: Emails of less than 50 kB sent to certain special iridium-enabled USAP email addresses go through more or less 24/7. Other email has to wait for the main satellites.
  • Internet: All of the internet access goes over a couple of satellites that have orbits that put them above the polar horizon for part of the day. The station actually gets petty decent bandwidth; I've heard it's something like 50 Mbps. BUT there are two big caveats. The Internet only works when at least one of those satellites is above the horizon, which is only around 6-8 hours per day. Second, of course a lot of the bandwidth is taken up by the scientific payload.
  • HAM radio: There's an amateur radio station (KC4AAA) here available for use by anyone who has the appropriate licenses. It usually operates at 20 m, though I hear there's also equipment for 40 m, which may or may not currently be in working order.
  • US Postal Service: In the summer months there is somewhat regular mail delivery. In the winter, there are no planes in or out from late February until late October so obviously there's no postal service during that time period.

How can I contact you?

Email: You can reach me at lowitz at wisc dot edu. If you know me in real life, you probably also have my personal gmail address which works too. You might also have my Chicago email, or my USAP email. Those work too. All of these only go through when the satellites are up, so my response time will probably be slow, but I'd still love to hear from you.

Phone: If you know me in real life, you may already have my South Pole phone number. If not, email me and I'd be happy to give it to you. If I don't know you in real life I probably won't give you my phone number. The phones here go over the main satellites using VoIP; that means they only work when the main satellites are up. My number here has a Denver area code (because the NSF office that manages the station is in Denver), and it costs you the same to call me as it would cost to call any other Denver number (so probably free on most US cell plans). We also have phones here that work over the iridium satellites more or less 24/7, but those have lower quality sound and can only call out. You can also text me on my Google Voice number, and I should receive your text via email next time the satellites are up.

Gchat or Facebook chat or other text chat clients : Gchat so far seems to work the best. I'm usually online if the satellites are up and I'm awake. Say Hi! Facebook chat is spottier, but it works occasionally.

HAM Radio: I got my HAM Amateur Extra license (AC9MX) in December. The station at the south pole usually operates on 20 m, which mostly only works when the sun is up and the ionosphere is nice and ionized. I've heard there's also a 40 m setup that may or may not be in working condition. In principle that one would work better in the winter when the sun is down and the ionosphere is not so ion-y. But the fact is I haven't even set foot in the HAM shack yet. I'll try to get in there and at least try it out before the sun goes down, though.

Snail Mail: Mostly no. I do have an APO address, but there's only mail service to and from the pole in the summer season (Nov-Feb, remember it's opposite seasons from the northern hemisphere). So if you have a deep, burning desire to send me a letter or a package, you would need to mail it (USPS only) by the end of December to have good chance of it reaching me before the station closes for the winter. Otherwise, I'll be back in the US before your letter makes it to the pole. My APO address is:

Amy Lowitz, A-379-S
South Pole Station
PSC 768 Box 400
APO AP 96598

And you should write "WINTEROVER" somewhere on the address side of the letter or package.

I'm also accepting post card requests from people I know in real life, so if you want me to send you a postcard, let me know and make sure I have your address. You might not get it until I after I get back to the US, but I promise to mail your post card from Antarctica. Sorry, I am not accepting requests from philatelists I don't know in real life.

Video Phone / Skype / webcast / google video / Facetime / etc: Nope. Not enough bandwidth, even when the satellites are up. All of these kinds of services are blocked. There are a few exceptions for emergencies or for occasional educational outreach events, but in general there is no personal use of any kind of video link or any kind of streaming.