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The Big Chill: Ch-Ch-Chatting with the IT manager at the South Pole

Is there a difference between -60 and -100? Absolutely!

By Robert L. Mitchell
December 10, 2007 12:00 PM ET

From the start, Henry Malmgren was determined to get to the South Pole. After graduating from Texas Tech University in 1998 with a degree in MIS he applied for a job in the Antarctic every year before NSF contractor Raytheon finally hired him as a network engineer in 2001. Since then he has alternated between the Denver headquarters and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, spending two summers and two winters there before finally working his way up to IT manager.

Staying over is a commitment: Once the winter starts, there's no way to get in and out of the base until summer begins eight to nine months later. "I thought I would just do this for a single season, but somehow it always seemed too easy to keep coming back," he says.

Ok, I have to ask: How's the weather down there?

Right now it's pretty nice. We're at nice -64 degrees Fahrenheit with only about a 6.3 knot wind so it's what we would consider a really good day.

Whatever possessed you to work in Antarctica?

I had never traveled out of the U.S. at all until after I'd graduated from college. I had dated a girl who was an exchange student to Europe, and after hearing all of her stories, I knew I wanted to get a job out of the U.S. Somehow, the Antarctic job popped up on a job search, and I latched onto it as the perfect ticket to be able to travel for a while.

Is there really an official South Pole?

Absolutely. It looks like a barber pole. It's right outside our front door.

If you're on an ice sheet that moves about 30 feet a year, how do you know that the pole is really in the right spot?

We have a ceremony every New Year's day where we relocate the actual pole marker. Some years the United States Geologic Survey comes out and does an actual measurement with the sun, and other times we just use a surveyor-quality GPS to get a pretty close approximation. We actually put up a new marker, so you can see the line of previous markers stretching out away from the station.

The pole gets closer to the station every year. In about 20 years, it'll be right under our power plant.

What is your role at the station?

My domain includes everything from the IT superstructure to the satellites to the telephones systems and handheld radios. Anything telecom or computer related I'm ultimately responsible for. I have a staff of about seven supporting about 250 to 270 people during the summer season, which is where we are right now. During the winter, which runs from about mid-February to mid-October, we drop down to just four [staff] supporting 60 to 70 people.

What is a typical work day like for you?

We work nine hours a day, minimum, six days a week. I spend the first couple of hours answering e-mails from the Denver folks. [Then] I go out and talk to the scientists to see if they're getting what they need and if there are any problems we can solve. I love the fact that, although I'm on the management side I get to stick my hands in the technology a whole lot. I very much feel like a player coach because I have five years' worth of experience with these systems while most of my employees are here for the first time.

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