MONTVILLE, NJ – We’ve all complained that Montville is cold in the winter, but Gil Jeffer can honestly say it’s not as cold as the South Pole.
Jeffer has taken four trips to Antarctica for solar research, and told about his trips at the Montville Township Public Library on Sept. 28.
After his retirement from Mars, Inc., Jeffer got involved with New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research in 2008. He is the director of the NJIT observatory at Jenny Jump State Forest, which collects data on atmospheric gravity waves.
“The CSTR travels to Antarctica to study ‘space weather,’” Jeffer told TAPinto Montville. “Solar wind and flares can wreck havoc with our electric power grid, radio communications, satellites and navigation systems. Better understanding of the causes of the underlying phenomena is a step towards prediction.”
Jeffer said the South Pole is the best place to research space weather because the sun is visible 24 hours a day for nearly six months out of the year, and Antarctica is an ideal location to monitor disturbances in earth's magnetic field caused by the sun.
Jeffer showed the clothing necessary to brave the cold, and said items are loaned to the team because just the specialized coat cost more than $1,000. He said his trips usually take place in November, which is “summer” in the South Pole, and it was typically 60° below zero.
Jeffer described his landing on sea ice, which is typically 10 to 12 feet thick and plowed of snow in order to form the airport, which is temporary and mobile.
“It’s a very smooth landing, but it takes a long time to stop,” he said.
The first stop for all visitors is McMurdo Station for the U.S. program, which includes a briefing to learn about working in the extreme weather.
“Temperatures can reach negative 75 to 100 degrees,” Jeffer said. “You learn to take the weather seriously.”
Jeffer worked in “deep field,” meaning, away from the station at an outpost. Part of the training was to teach the scientists to cut the ice into blocks to make a wall between the tents and the highest altitude of the area in order to break the wind.
Jeffer described life at McMurdo, saying there are dormitories, giant warehouses for the supplies, and recycling is a big thing.
“Garbage has to come back on the supply ship,” he said. “So everything is reused as much as possible. There’s a bird like a seagull called a ‘skua’ that will smack you in the head to steal your food, and it’s also the name for sharing. Everybody shares clothing, shoes, art supplies, sunscreen…as much as possible.”
He calls the McMurdo Station “Scientific Disneyland” and says that he has worked with people who are tops in their field.
“You don’t just meet them in passing. You can sit and talk with them,” he said.
Jeffer said there are no polar bears in the South Pole, but penguins do live there, although he has never seen any. He has, however, seen seals.
He described daily life, saying that on Sept. 29 the weather was -70° with a windchill of -108°.
“It was hard to communicate with home, because you have to wait until the satellites are at 5° below the horizon – there’s a schedule to tell you when,” he said. “And even when they are, they’re very slow.”
Food includes a small greenhouse with lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers, and water comes from 1,900 feet of tunnels, which melt the ice.
“But you’re only allowed two two-minute showers per week,” he said.
Once the group is flown out to the remote outpost to conduct their research, the five of them plus a mountaineer had systems and rules to follow.
“We had to communicate back to the station twice a day,” said Jeffer. “If we didn’t, they would send an emergency flight to rescue us which cost $100,000 and we would be permanently kicked off the continent.
“It was often 35 to 40 below, and we slept in tents. I learned to bring everything into my sleeping bag, including my boots. The snow is constantly drifting. We have to raise the research station every couple of years as a result.”
Despite the cold and challenges, Jeffer is enthusiastic about the trips and is looking forward to his fifth round in November. His return date is iffy, however.
“In 2012, I was stuck an extra week because of the weather conditions,” he said. “You never know exactly when you’ll get back.”
And his fascination with Antarctica is obvious.
“It’s gorgeous, beautiful desolation.”
The Montville Township Public Library hosts workshops, movies, concerts, kids’ story times, and computer classes. For more information, click http://www.montvillelibrary.org/