LOGAN — Jonathan Pugmire spent most of January someplace warmer than his Logan home.
Pugmire, 27 and a proud graduate of Ogden’s Ben Lomond High School, spent 20 days in January in Antarctica, studying gravity waves with a team of scientists from Utah State University, where Pugmire did his undergraduate work and is now pursuing his Ph.D. in atmospheric physics.
“With the inversion here, it was colder in Logan than at McMurdo Station,” Pugmire said.
McMurdo Station is near the southern tip of Ross Island, and the temperature there is about 20 degrees Fahrenheit in summer, which is now, Pugmire said. At the geographical South Pole, conditions were a tad chillier.
“There, with the windchill factor, it was about negative 50,” Pugmire said. “People who work there wear heavy coats and pants, with hats and goggles. People with beards get them covered with frost, and people’s cheeks get burned from the cold.”
Pugmire made the trip as part of a team led by USU physics professor Mike Taylor, who initiated his South Pole project with a 2006 National Science Foundation grant. Taylor and his colleagues designed the Advanced Mesospheric Temperature Mapper — AMTM — to capture images of gravity waves 50 miles above the polar surface.
The mesosphere is the portion of the atmosphere from about 20 to 50 miles above the earth’s surface. The lower atmosphere can be studied with weather balloons and many existing surface devices, Pugmire said.
The upper atmosphere can be studied with satellites. The AMTM was specially designed to measure mesospheric conditions from the earth’s surface, and requires darkness. Devices placed in Antarctica take advantage of the length and darkness of winter at the South Pole.
The fact that the South Pole is currently in summer, with daylight for months, makes now the time most researchers fly in to collect data and place equipment.
Pugmire’s trip south began Jan. 11, when he left behind his wife and 8-month-old son, Isaac. Pugmire met his wife, Alisha Brandley Pugmire, when both were third-graders. She also graduated in the Ben Lomond class of 2003. The two began dating in their college years.
“When I came back, my son looked totally different,” Jonathan Pugmire said. “At first he didn’t know who I was, then he recognized me.”
Pugmire’s trip to Antarctica took him to Los Angeles for a long flight to Australia, then a short hop over to New Zealand. From there, his group waited for a break in the weather for the final, nine-hour trip, by military cargo plane, to McMurdo Station.
“You land on an ice shelf, floating on the water, and the plane has sleds instead of wheels,” Pugmire said. “We landed about midnight, then took the long ride from the ice shelf to the base. You can only go 25 miles per hour or the ice will start tearing up.”
About 13 hours later into the round-the-clock daylight, Pugmire was in his room.
“The blinds are thick, but I couldn’t sleep,” he said.
The USU group underwent a lot of training, required before they would be allowed to go to the South Pole. McMurdo Station in summer is home to about 800 researchers, technicians and staffers, Pugmire said, adding that the number drops to about 150 during the area’s winter.
Pugmire studied, read, ate at the station’s generous buffet of formerly canned and frozen foods, and even rented videos of “The Hobbit” and “Criminal Minds” to pass the time.
The next flight lasted three hours and took the scientists to a single building that housed about 150 people near the ceremonial South Pole — good for souvenir photos, Pugmire said — and the geographic South Pole, with a marker that must be adjusted each year because of shifts in the ice.
The Utah State University crew collected data from the AMTM devices, and gave guidance to technicians who remain year-round to monitor the equipment and the experiments of hundreds of other scientific teams.
Pugmire used an analogy to describe gravity waves, saying they are somewhat similar to the ripples that spread after you throw a rock in a pond.
“To use that same analogy, when thunderstorms or winds blow over a mountain, the mountain is that rock, and the wind blowing causes the ripples to go in the air.”
Measurement of gravity waves through the mesosphere gives scientists information that can be related to major weather disturbances.
Pugmire said he enjoyed taking in the South Pole sights in his off hours.
“We explored, and we looked at the ice,” he said. “One of my favorite things was when I saw penguins walking around. There were five or six that would waddle around us.”
On the return trip, the USU scientists surveyed a possible New Zealand location for future placement of an AMTM device, then flew back to Australia, then Los Angeles, then home.
“It was hard to come back to Logan after the warmth of New Zealand,” Pugmire said, with a laugh.
Pugmire hopes to finish his Ph.D in 2015, then perhaps to work as a teacher and researcher. He would like to return to Antarctica with Taylor’s team, if he is lucky enough to be chosen, he said.
But Pugmire’s recent trip already left him with memories of a land relatively few humans ever see.
“It was an amazing experience,” Pugmire said. “In short, it is the driest, coldest, windiest place, as remote as you can be without being an astronaut.
“You can graduate from little old Ben Lomond High School, and you can go anywhere.”