Survival on the South Pole

Steele Diggles in front of a South Pole signScience graduate Steele Diggles reflects on South Pole winters, auroras and his famed South Pole marker. Caroline Jenkins spoke to him via satellite as his time on the icy plateau drew to a close.

For six months, Steele Diggles didn’t see daylight. When the moon was shining, he could make out shapes; when it wasn’t, he couldn’t see a thing. The temperature hovered around -70°C, and he enjoyed the close company of only 42 colleagues.

Welcome to the South Pole.

At just 31, Diggles, a B. Science in Applied Chemistry graduate with Honours in Forensic Science, has had a diverse career, from fitter and turner to his latest role as a machinist for the Science Coordination Office for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (The University of Chicago). In between, he put his forensic skills to use as senior armourer and later as forensic firearms investigator with the Australian Federal Police, serving in the Solomon Islands and in East Timor following the 2008 assassination attempt on President José Ramos-Horta.

“I was looking for something closer to my family in Tasmania and I inadvertently came across this position,” explains Diggles, who recently completed nine months at the Amundsen- Scott South Pole Station making and repairing machine parts used by astrophysicists.

With all supply chains cut off, and multi-million dollar scientific projects underway, Diggles’s presence over winter was critical.

“If anything breaks, we have to fix it,” he says. With his skills continuing to grow, Diggles’s drive and spirit of adventure is palpable.

“I’d hate to be at the end of my life and think, ‘gee, I wish I’d done this or that’. I look at all the different roles that people do and the places they go, and I’d hate to have to pick just one.

“I think it’s vital to experience as much as you possibly can,” says Diggles, who left school in Year 11 to commence his apprenticeship. “I loved it but at the end of the four years I decided I wanted a degree.

“[UTS Professor in chemistry and forensic science] Claude Roux was very supportive, but the UAI was high. I think at the time it was one of only two such degrees in Australia. I was so passionate about it, I quit my job and went back and did Year 12.

“I do miss aspects of what I did with the Federal Police, but I’m really glad I came to Antarctica – it’s been an amazing experience.”

In the freezing temperatures, Diggles looked identical to his 42 comrades each time he stepped outside in his “Big Red” insulated parker, overalls and big blue boots, but he says he’s been colder.

“Trudging through the snow in complete darkness in – 70°C temperatures can be a challenge,” he says. “You do get cool, but with the equipment we’ve got, I sometimes feel like I’ve been colder in Australia than here.”

Diggles walked the one kilometre from the station to his machine “shop” two to three times a day. Despite having a gym at the station, without that daily exercise, he claimed he could have piled on the kilos.

“We eat so well down here. We’ve got three chefs who do a magnificent job.” A small hydroponic greenhouse provided some fresh vegetables, but most food was frozen – hauled in from outside every couple of weeks.

“If I didn’t have to walk outside and use a lot of calories, I think I’d be as fat as a house,” he says.

Boredom wasn’t an issue for the group, known as “the winter-overs”. Besides being able to wonder at multiple auroras – the spectacular atmospheric phenomenon that produces thousands of colours in the sky – they had access to the station cinema, gym, indoor cricket pitch and volleyball courts.

“We got to know each other very well,” says Diggles, who is adamant his sleeping quarters were nothing like those in the movie Whiteout. “On weekends we go into the kitchen and cook for each other. I stayed in student housing at UTS, and it’s very reminiscent of that in a lot of ways. It’s a tight community.”

He says it would be strange to see the population grow to about 250 as the summer crew moved in. “We saw our first aeroplanes [in nine months] two days ago. We’re all very protective of the station now and it will be odd to have strangers here.”

When he has downtime, Diggles, in the privacy of his machine shop, is able to hone a new skill.

As machinist, he is not only tasked with the prestigious job of constructing the new geographical marker for the South Pole, he won the competition to design it. The marker is replaced annually to reflect the movement of the glacier on which it sits: it shifts approximately 10 metres a year.

“What a privilege that was,” says Diggles, whose design symbolised the two astrophysical projects he was involved with: IceCube, which is searching one cubic kilometre of ice for neutrinos from events such as exploding stars, black holes and neutron stars; and the 10-metre radio telescope that is searching for clues about the mysterious phenomenon known as dark energy.

The unveiling of his design took place on location on New Years’ Day. Soon to re-enter mainstream society again, Diggles plans to travel the world until he is redeployed to the South Pole yet again – in winter 2011.

“I have mixed emotions,” he says, as his time in the South Pole draws to a close. “I can’t wait to see my family, to eat some fresh food, to smell and hear rain again, but I certainly do love it here.”

He may not be able to match his Antarctic tales whilst on his travels, but “there’s always the North Pole”.