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Starkly Beautiful: A Kansas doctor details his life at the South Pole

Check back in with a Wichita doctor stationed at the South Pole.

When we first talked with John-Michael Watson in January, he was preparing to travel to a National Science Foundation research station at the South Pole.

The kid who grew up in McPherson County reading National Geographic and dreaming of exploring the world arrived at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in February.

It's completely dark there now, and the sun won't return until September.

But Watson says that's one of the many things that makes the South Pole so interesting.

"The sun goes down over a period of weeks and months, and then it's darker and darker and slowly stars and planets and auroras and the moon and all these night sky objects, just start to take center stage," Watson said. "And it's just a really indescribable beauty to look up and see just the sky really … aflame with these bright green auroras.

"It's an incredible privilege to get to see."

Watson, a doctor, is among 44 people wintering over at the station. The last supply plane left in March and won't return until October.

Courtesy photo
The crew arrives at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

A typical day for Watson starts before 5 a.m. He works out in the station's large gymnasium before breakfast at 6:30.

Watson then spends the day taking care of crew members and teaching classes on topics such as CPR and basic life support.

"The crew knows that they're welcome to schedule appointments for medical, but they're also more than welcome to just catch me in the hall or just pop in anytime," Watson said. "And that's very familiar to growing up in a small town and having a father who is a physician. I'm well acquainted with the grocery store consults that may not fall into regular business hours."

Courtesy photo
The night sky at the South Pole.

He's normally in bed early: "When you're up at 4:45 every morning, you don't usually burn the midnight oil too late."

Watson said having a set routine helps compensate for the lack of sunlight. The sun set on March 21 and the station entered absolute darkness on May 12. The sun won't return until September.

Crew members work six days a week and all of them, including Watson, help with chores around the station, like cleaning bathrooms and washing dishes.

When he can, Watson likes to explore.

"I love to get outside every day and just take some time and really appreciate where we're at," he said.

"It's just so … starkly beautiful and barren and extreme.

"It is just a really remarkable thing to get to do a job that you love in such an incredible place. And then on top of it, to just be with people that you admire and respect. It's just … the greatest adventure you could imagine to be here."

Despite a busy schedule, Watson also has found time to practice his unicycling skills. There are six unicycles at the South Pole and the unicycling club meets Thursdays after dinner.

"We have a very vibrant unicycle community down here," said Watson, who is preparing for the Pole Olympics, an athletic competition. "It's been really great."

Scientists have conducted research at the South Pole since 1957. The station's altitude – 9,300 feet above sea level – plus the extremely dry and clean air make it the perfect place to study the universe.

Courtesy photo
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Observatory around sunset. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole station is in the background.

"I've never been in a job before where the topic of discussion at lunch is sort of the next big scientific discovery in astrophysics," Watson said.
The station also conducts climate research and studies the origins of the universe.

Watson has seen much of the world. He's studied archeology in Israel and climbed mountains in Nepal.

But he says the farther he travels from Kansas, the more he is reminded of home.

"I remember the first day when we arrived here at the South Pole," he said.

"I looked out the windows and in every direction … you're just looking out over this flat sheet of ice that goes farther than you can see, and there's ice crystals blowing out across the surface. And my first thought was, 'This looks like looking out over a field of wheat in Kansas.'"

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, serving as small station representative, a volunteer coach for League 42 and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.