Origins ANTARCTICA, Scientific Journeys from McMurdo to the Pole
Ideas Tools Place Live Field Notes

Wires roar in the blizzard at McMurdo. Click to view movie. (Get QuickTime)


Sounds Like Antarctica

Deep Listening
by Paul Doherty

December 28, 2001

The Wind

Roaring, continuous roaring like the sound of a distant jet engine. I am looking out the library window on the top floor of the Crary Science Lab during a blizzard and the wind is not only filling the building with sound as it tumbles over the building, it is also vibrating the entire building. I can feel the vibration through my hands as I lean on the window ledge. Outside, the roaring noise is louder, I look up and see that there are 30 different wires doing a wild dance in the wind, shedding vortices which reach my ear as sound. A 30 string wind harp at full volume in 50 mph (75 kph) winds. In a tent the taught fabric snaps and hums. The vibration of the tent fabric comes up through the tent floor, through my foam pads and into my body. I'm listening to the sound of the storm with my whole body. I am intensely interested in the sounds because if my tent is destroyed I am in deep trouble.

Shock Waves

Huey helicopters ferry us around Antarctica. They make a distinctive, sharp, whup,whup,whup sound which can be heard for miles. The sharp sounds are made by shock waves. The rotor blade tips move slower than the speed of sound, but just beyond the end of the blades the air that is rotating with the blades is moving faster than the speed of sound. This leads to the production of the distinctive sound. The loud sounds give us an early warning that helicopters are incoming, this allows us to say our good-byes and get to the helicopter pad in time for our flights.

The Whispering Volcano

Crouched deep inside the ice tower of a fumarole, the first thing I noticed was the quiet, but then I heard a deep hissing sound. It sounded like some giant hidden dragon? (Yes, Crouching Writer Hidden Dragon) Yet it was actually gas escaping from the volcano. Geologists had sampled the gas and found it harmless, water vapor flavored with a little carbon dioxide. Yet the warm gas had melted the ice out of this chamber and then frozen on exposure to the air creating the ice tower above us. It was doing the work of a sculptor, carving and building. Beneath all of this natural artistry the fumarole whistled as it worked.

  Melt water in the Antarctic.
Water sounds are unexpected in the
Antarctic. Click to Enlarge.

Streaming Audio

Christmas day was warm and sunny, temperatures were above 40 F (5 C). As I hiked downhill into town I heard a sound like the white noise on a television pulsing louder and quieter. As I approached town the volume increased. What was making this sound? Then to my surprise I saw something strange right beside me, the dirt was writhing, and moving downhill. It was a rivulet, muddy liquid water. Liquid water? Outdoors in Antarctica? Amazing! I was hearing the sound of running water, a sound I had heard all my life and yet here it ambushed me. Sometimes you hear what you expect, and the last thing I expected was to hear the music of flowing water.

Pump Sounds

The most amazing sound in Antarctica is the sound of silence. On a calm day out on the glacier far from McMurdo I paused and noticed the quiet. No sounds at all. As my brain adjusted to the quiet I began to hear a pulsing, throbbing beat. The sounds of pumps and machinery. My internal pumps. The blood rushing through my carotid artery breaking into turbulence and generating sounds to the beat of my heart.

field notes  
Origins Exploratorium ANTARCTICA


© Exploratorium