From the Bold North to the South Pole

Fresh out of college, with a degree in meteorology in hand, Janelle Hakala was willing to look anywhere for a job. And anywhere found her a job. Hakala is currently the senior meteorologist for the winter at the South Pole.

The 22-year-old Ely native has always been interested in weather. As a child, “I would watch meteorologists on TV and my parents both worked for the Forest Service and talked about fire weather,” she explained over email. As she grew, an excitement grew within her during science and math classes. After graduating from Ely Memorial High School in 2013, this excitement led her to pursue a degree in atmospheric science at the University of North Dakota, where she graduated last May.

“As graduation was nearing, I knew I needed a break from school for a while and wanted to work … ideally wanted to do more field work or something that got me away from the usually desk job at least some of the time,” she said. “I was willing to move anywhere in the U.S. to find a meteorology job like that to just get things started. When job searching, I came across a meteorology position advertised for Antarctica. I knew I couldn’t pass that up. I always love a good adventure or a new challenge and it would be a dream to do weather in one of the most extreme environments in the world.”

Just before graduation, Hakala singed a year contract to work at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station from November 2017 to November 2018. This is one of three year-round stations managed by the U.S. and the National Science Foundation manages the United States Antarctic Program.

“Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is located at 90 degrees south and at an elevation of 9,300 feet above sea level,” said Hakala.

At the South Pole, research is conducted and supported by other departments, one of which is meteorology.

“Our main purpose here during the austral summer is to support flight operations by taking hourly weather observations. I also send up weather balloons twice a day and some other duties,” explained Hakala in one email. In a follow-up she added, “The U.S. has a station for research at the South Pole. Weather just happens to be an element that is needed of course. Everything is in support of the scientists and research. We support aircraft that fly scientists, science cargo, and food in.”

The summer season, November through February, is when the bulk of research and transportation is conducted on the continent. During these few months, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station boasts a population around 150 people.

During the winter season, February through October, the population drops to the current 40 people. This is also the darkest time of year with the sun setting on March 22 for six months.

Of these 40 “winter-overs,” as they are called, they are mostly Americans but there are a few German scientists and Australians in the mix. There are a few people in their 70s but the population is mostly in their 20s and 30s. There are no children or families this year, but the past has found married couples at the station.

According to Hakala, as of winter 2017, only 1,523 people have ever wintered at the South Pole, and only 225 of them were women. By the end of the current season, Hakala will be able to count herself among this elite group.

To prepare for this adventure, Hakala received special fire training and team building with other winter-overs before departing from the U.S.

Unlike many people who move for their first job, Hakala didn’t have to worry about finding housing or the nearest grocery store. On the South Pole, she lives and works in the same building.

“My room is like living in a college dorm because of the size and shared bathrooms. Living is so easy. Everything is in one main building for the most part,” explained Hakala. “I live across the hall from the cafeteria and it only takes me one to two minutes to walk down to the end of the hall to my weather office to get to work each day. The gym is just down a level. Everything is so close and takes like a minute or two to walk to. I have never lived on a ship myself but that is another comparison. Everything you need is in one building. Expect for my job, I wouldn’t have to go outside everyday if I didn’t want to, everything is right there.”

In addition to housing, the facility also has a music room, craft room, lounge, greenhouse, sauna, post office, store, laundry, quiet reading room, TV and game room and laboratories and work areas.

Inside, they have everything that they need. Outside, they have the extreme elements.

Growing up in northern Minnesota, Hakala is no stranger to winter. This has prepared her well for her current surroundings — ice.

She is surrounded by ice.

“We really don’t have too much snow. It is just layers of ice eventually with a little snow on top build up over years,” she explained. “It doesn’t snow here. It is too cold and too dry. We just get snow grains and blowing snow making large drifts.”

Those drifts mean that even though there is not much precipitation, Hakala still takes her turn at shoveling.

Even though Hakala’s northern spirit finds itself in the southernmost location, she still loves the outdoors and takes advantage of outdoor activities. Skiing, hiking, sledding, frisbee golf, running, fat tire biking, football, kickball. She does it all. She even completed a half marathon while skiing. Also, as part of her job, she releases weather balloons daily. Needless to say, she gets her fresh air.

There is also time for her to just stand outside and be.

“It is a pretty harsh environment but also pretty amazing. It is very peaceful and quiet. If you go far enough from the station you really don’t hear anything,” she said. “Some people in the past said they have lost their taste a little and smell too just from the cold, dry environment. When returning to the U.S., I have been told that smells are overwhelming at first.”

Unlike our current melting weather, the average temperature in Hakala’s new home is 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. And although she already knew how to dress in layers, Hakala and all other personnel are given special cold weather gear. Her personal “big red” or specialty parka has her name on it.

You can see a picture of this gear and read about Hakala’s shenanigans at the South Pole by reading her blog online at www.janellesyearonice.blogspot.com.

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