December 14th marked the 100th anniversary of Roald Amundsen and his ski team reaching the South Pole, the first time in history anyone had ever set foot on the geographic South Pole. Amundsen was Norwegian, and at the time Norway had been a country for only a few years, so this achievement was important for the young country. To celebrate this historic event, the South Pole Station (Amundsen-Scott Station) was visited for the last several days by the Prime Minister of Norway. It’s a little exciting to have a head of state roaming around, and it’s definitely been a bit different around the station. (Scott arrived a few weeks later, but he and his team didn’t make it back…)
You’d think with a head of state visiting that there would be dozens of support personnel and security (they’re certainly would be if President Obama visited, I’m sure). Well, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg does have some support staff, but security is really nowhere to be found. It’s quite remarkable and refreshing to see someone in the position that Prime Minister Stoltenberg is in be so down to Earth and relatively approachable.
He arrived with a crew of Norwegians on Monday, and spoke a bit at dinner that evening thanking the station and the US/NSF for our hospitality and for the chance to be here to celebrate such an important event in Norway’s history. An hour or so later the whole station went out to the geographic Pole for a group photo. (At least, we went out to where it was last year on January 1st. It moves about 30 feet every year due to the ice/glaciers moving and pulling the station and everything on the surface with it).
On Tuesday the Prime Minister toured the various lab facilities in the area (by skiing to each location, of course). He made a stop at DSL and Brad gave him a tour and an overview about the science we’re doing. It was pretty cool for the Prime Minister to see all the work we’ve been doing for so many years.
Wednesday was the actual centenary of the Amundsen’s arrival, and at 4:00 PM all of us gathered around the ceremonial Pole to hear Prime Minister Stoltenberg give a speech and watch him unveil an ice bust of Amundsen. There was another ceremony at 4:00 AM, apparently marking the moment in time when Amundsen wrote in his journal that his team had made it to the Pole, but I skipped that one. There was a live TV feed to Norway, though, so I imagine it was mostly in Norwegian while the speech earlier in the day was all English.
The station wasn’t only visited this week by the Prime Minister and his staff. A whole slew of people skied in to stay at the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) camp a kilometer or so from the station. All told, there were 93 people in the camp, which was comprised of dozens and dozens of tents. Some of these people skied the last degree of latitude (89 to 90 South), and a couple people even skied all the way in from the coast, taking the same path that Amundsen took. A bunch of us went out to take a peak at the NGO camp late Wednesday evening, and these last two heroic skiers were only just arriving, around 11:30 PM after weeks of traveling. The weather was starting to get a little worse around this time too. Fog was rolling in and when we were at the NGO camp we couldn’t see the station at all. Thankfully, there are flags every 10 meters or so to help you along the paths…
After these last two skiers departed to drop off their gear and head into the station for a meal, I decided to take some close up pictures of the Amundsen ice bust and the ceremonial Pole now that there was no longer a crowd. I also wanted a better look at the geographic Pole since I didn’t get to linger when the group photo was taken the day before. As I approached the Pole a group of Norwegians were walking back to the NGO camp, but one lone Norwegian was standing around by the Pole. (In case you’re wondering the Norwegians have different gear than us so they stick out pretty easily). Anyway, this guy at the Pole appeared to be talking on what I thought was a radio, so I approached from behind so as not to interfere, taking a picture of the sign marking the location of the Pole. I then headed around the sign to take a picture of the marker on the Pole (it’s different every year), and ‘lo and behold, the sole Norwegian was the Prime Minister on a satellite phone, not a radio. I nodded at him, took a quick picture of the marker, and headed back in. It was sort of a surreal moment. I mean, would you expect the head of state of a country to just be hanging around by himself like that? It was really refreshing.
On Thursday morning, the Prime Minister was scheduled to depart from the Pole, along with many other people, a couple of whom were part of the SPT team (John Carlstrom, the PI and my undergraduate advisor, and Keith Vanderlinde, a post-doc at McGill who was a winterover for the project several years ago. He also took some amazing photos of the night sky during his winter, including the background picture on my blog). The weather was horrendous – we still couldn’t see very far, and the telescope was completely obscured from the station – and that would normally mean the flight was canceled. But, having an important official on a flight means things happen that wouldn’t normally, and their plane took off more or less on schedule. And that was that. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.