By Isabelle Jeng, Environmental Journalist
Canadian-American physicist Dr. Steven Morris spent 12 extraordinary months at the South Pole in 1984 as a researcher for UCLA’s Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) post-doctoral program. Dr. Morris studied seismic patterns while experiencing life in one of Earth’s most challenging environments and troubleshooting finicky computers in a time of changing technology.
He concluded his career after teaching college-level physics and astronomy at Los Angeles Harbor College in Wilmington. Dr. Morris can now be found leading weekly hikes along the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
How did you get an opportunity to go to the South Pole?
In the summer of 1984, I was just finishing my physics PhD in Calgary and was footloose and fancy-free. I applied in response to an advertisement from the UCLA Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics and they hired me after a telephone interview, because they felt that my experience with telescopes and computers was sufficient to handle seismometers as well.
What did you do?
I kept the UCLA-IGPP seismometers running and calibrated. The seismometers at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station are unique, because seismometers everywhere else on Earth are strongly affected by the twice-daily fluctuations of the tides. At the South Pole we don’t move towards or away from the Moon and the Sun every twenty-four hours, we just sit there and rotate. Seismometers everywhere else cannot accurately measure the long-period fluctuations caused by earthquakes, because these fluctuations are overwhelmed by the strong tidal signal.
So, the South Pole is an ideal location to study earthquakes?
Yes. The Antarctic itself is fairly quiet seismically, but any seismometers near the coast would pick up vibrations caused by the ocean waves crashing onto the coastline. Seismometers at the South Pole don’t pick up the coastal noise or the tidal fluctuations. One signal that is particularly interesting for researchers is the multi-hour oscillation caused by the Earth’s solid core sloshing back and forth inside the surrounding liquid nickel-iron core, set in motion by any powerful earthquake. These readings give us information about the center of the Earth that we couldn’t get any other way.
I’ve read that there was also some ice core drilling going on.
The ice core drilling got down below the 2,000-year-old ice. They had one core that had broken apart after they’d extracted it, so for our Christmas party at the South Pole, we cooled our drinks with 2,000-year-old ice.
…so what did you drink?
On arriving at the South Pole, I had been assigned the position of National Science Foundation Representative, and by custom this gave me the task of concocting a new alcoholic drink. This had not been part of my PhD training, but I did come up with some appropriate Christmas-‘84 drink spectacular. I can’t say it was all that good, but it had alcohol in it, and nobody complained.
Tell me a little bit about the challenges of working in the type of climate at the South Pole. What was the temperature like, what lifestyle changes did you have to make, what did you expect, and what was the reality?
The South Pole during the eight months of winter is a cross between a luxury resort and a prison camp. Several amenities were provided to keep us from going stir-crazy. For example, the TV room had 300 VCR movies, and back in 1984, VCRs were novel luxuries. I saw a lot of classic movies like “Casablanca” and “Singin’ in the Rain” for the first time when I was at the South Pole. We had a gym, a sauna, a pool table and a library, and many of us brought private projects to work on as well.
But at the same time, we were all prisoners of the cold. If you were going to go outside the dome, you had to tell somebody. You couldn’t just wander, because the temperature got down to -100 degrees Fahrenheit, and you could easily get lost in the darkness. We had a winter-over physician for any injuries, but she also kept track of our mental health. Fortunately, our crew of 19 didn’t have any significant problems.
Wintering was an interesting experience; once the last plane flew out, there were only 19 people with nowhere to go, so you got to know everybody. There were no strangers. During the Antarctic summer we had as many as 200 people at the South Pole living in Jamesway huts left over from the Korean War. The Station was very crowded and very busy for the four months of summer when the planes could land, so people and equipment could come and go. But when that last plane left, 19 people remained, and if you had any problems you had to sort them out yourself.
What problems, for example, would you have to sort out on your own?
I was given the task of managing the computer systems as well, and in my winter we transitioned from an old computer that was hopelessly inadequate, to a new computer system that had some problems we hadn’t anticipated. The new computer system had terminals conveniently scattered around the station. Unfortunately, during windstorms the friction of air across buildings would create a large voltage across the network of wires, causing current surges that would fry the keyboard or terminal electronics. Eventually we had to abandon the distant terminals and just work adjacent to the new computer. Halfway through the winter, the U.S. Navy airplanes dropped fresh vegetables and mail onto the station, and I got some extra computer equipment as well.
Meanwhile, the old computer, which we used as backup, was just terrible. If it crashed, I had to mount a magnetic tape reel and reboot the system. If that crashed, I had to get out a length of ticker tape to reboot the system so it could read the magnetic tape, and if that crashed, as it did every few weeks, I had to sit there with a list of zeros and ones and spend half an hour typing in base-16 numbers so the computer could read the ticker tape. If I made a single mistake in that half hour, the computer wouldn’t read the ticker tape and I’d have to start over again.
How frustrating was that?
I’d sit there thinking, ‘I got a PhD in physics for this? Zero, one, one, zero, zero, one, one…’ A trained monkey could’ve done this part of the job!
That must’ve been very humbling.
You have to slog through a lot of busywork to make any project a success. Fortunately, both computers remained operational, and when the station opened up the next summer, the computer technicians came in with spare parts and optical relays to improve the new computer and remove the old one.
What does ‘winter-over’ mean?
A winter-over is a person who stays at the Station for a year. For the four months of summer, planes landed every day, weather permitting. Many of these planes delivered fuel so we wouldn’t freeze to death, and deliveries of frozen food were just left outside. The ‘freshie shack’ contained fruits and vegetables during the summer, and may have been the only refrigerator in the world that had to be constantly heated instead of cooled. Many researchers would come in during the summer with experiments that could be completed in hours or days. Some took air or snow samples, performed weather studies or attempted infrared astronomy. A winter-over would stay there for the entire twelve months – four months of hectic summer activity, then eight months stranded.
Was that to save on fuel?
No, it was because the hydraulics would freeze at low temperatures. Planes could land but they couldn’t take off again.
So, if at the time you’d had an opportunity to return, would you have?
Yes, I would have. However, I got married one year after leaving the South Pole, and I don’t think that my newlywed wife would have wanted to see me leave for another year. Other than that, yes, I would have gone back. For one thing, I was getting free room and board at the South Pole, and my paychecks were piling up in my bank account in Los Angeles.
It does take a certain type of personality to live at the South Pole. Truth be told, it was great training for the Covid-19 shutdown; being bottled up for a year and a half has been no big deal for me.
Did you ever get cabin fever?
I did not get cabin fever. I was with 18 other people, with books to read and movies to watch. Besides, I’d earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in physics, so I’d been leading a pretty monastic life already. “The Big Bang Theory” wasn’t a documentary, but it wasn’t entirely fictional, either.
What is your favorite memory of being at the South Pole?
My favorite memory of the South Pole was going outside when the temperature was -100 degrees Fahrenheit and watching a brilliant and fast-moving auroral display, dancing in front of the southern constellations. It was an other-worldly experience.
What surprised you the most?
The most surprising aspect of life at the South Pole is the danger of fire. Sub-zero air when heated to room temperature has a relative humidity of only a few percent, so the wooden structures were tinder-dry. We had fire drills and training, and those who smoked cigarettes were warned to be very careful.
What led you to the Sierra Club?
I’d heard about it for many years, and when I first came to Los Angeles, I attended the Sierra Club Singles group that met at Marina del Rey. In fact, that’s where I met my wife, Helen. She stayed in touch with me while I was at the South Pole which I thought was quite remarkable, so when I came back, I married her and we lived happily ever after.
What kind of hikes do you lead and how long have you been leading them?
I lead a hike somewhere in the Palos Verdes Peninsula almost every Saturday at 8:00 a.m. The difficulty level is moderate. I became a Sierra Club leader in January 2013, and for several years I would sweep for more experienced leaders like Barry Bonnickson, rather than lead. I’m now familiar enough with the available routes that I usually lead and others sweep.
What is unique about the hikes that you lead?
The hikes that I lead are along routes that other people developed, and I just follow in their footsteps. There is only a small number of routes that one can take in the Peninsula because it’s so built up, you can’t just wander freely. I have eleven routes that present a good sample of Palos Verdes scenery.
Which is your favorite hike in LA?
My favorite hike is walking through the South Coast Botanic Garden, near the intersection of Crenshaw Boulevard and the Pacific Coast Highway. I visit from 8 to 9 a.m. every weekday, and I never tire of wandering through its 87 acres. Once you pay the annual fee, the visits are free.
What other outdoor activities do you enjoy?
Stargazing. I have a 24-inch-diameter reflecting telescope in my backyard that gives me wonderful views of the sky, despite the light pollution.
Where is the most beautiful hike you’ve been on in the world?
That would be through the ice caves of Antarctica. The authorities gave the winter-overs the privilege of going to a part of the coast where glaciers had slowly flowed over the Ross Sea and shattered to form deep crevasses. The ocean water had flowed into these crevasses and created a flat floor when the water froze, so we could walk through these ice caves easily. Stalagmites and stalactites (icicles) had formed from melting glacier ice, and the caves were suffused with a wonderful blue glow that filtered in from the surface of the glacier. The ice caves were so much easier to experience than the caves I had explored as a member of the University of Calgary Caving Club, which were of course dark, and all too often a tight squeeze, with floors of sloping, unstable scree. Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico is a close second for beauty, but it is a ‘tamed’ cave for tourists.
What else do you enjoy doing now that you’re retired?
Now that I’m retired, I listen to classical music, and do some research in theoretical physics. I’m also digitizing some of my slides of the family to give to my nieces, so the upcoming generations of the family will know something of their ancestry. I’m 66 years old and have to be realistic about the future. My boxes of slides won’t last, but a thumb drive might.
To join Dr. Morris on a hike, click here for the hike schedules!