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After 14th Antarctic winter, UMN astrophysicist set to go home

Robert Schwarz, an astrophysicist from the University of Minnesota, broke the world record for the most winters spent in the South Pole.
Robert Schwarz in Antarctica
Image by Courtesy of Robert Schwarz
Robert Schwarz in Antarctica

Signing an email with “all the best from the Pole,” University of Minnesota astrophysics researcher Robert Schwarz has spent his fair share of time in the South Pole — 14 winters, to be exact. 

From studying at Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich to making his first trip to Antarctica, Schwarz found a career path that has led him on some of the coldest adventures yet. He has spent more winters at the South Pole than anyone else. He will be finishing up his latest winter this month.

“It’s a very unique place,” Schwarz said from the South Pole. “Especially the night sky …  having all the auroras and beautiful star sky and no artificial light for thousands of miles. It’s absolutely incredible.”

Schwarz began his time in the South Pole by what he calls a pure coincidence. Waiting for his professor to get off a phone call during his graduate studies in Munich, he came across an advertisement to go to the South Pole for a year to work on a telescope. 

This started a chain of winters leading up to him breaking the world record for the most winters spent in the South Pole. 

“It just happened. It was never my intent to make history,” Schwarz said.

Schwarz maintains the Keck Array, a cluster of telescopes located at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, during the Antarctic winter. These telescopes are funded and run by the National Science Foundation and utilized for research by the University of Minnesota. They look at microwave background radiation. Specifically, the faint radiation leftover from the Big Bang, said Peter West, a spokesperson for the National Science Foundation. 

“The Antarctic winter, particularly the [in] Pole, is very long. It stretches from roughly the end of February to the end of October. That’s when … the [telescope’s] instruments are very active. There needs to be people on the station,” West said. “[Schwarz] could have not done 14 winters … but he chose to go back because I think he really likes it at the Pole.”

Born in Germany, Schwarz grew up with an interest in science. He recalled a moment when he was a teenager looking at the starry night sky on a volcano in Sicily that sparked his interest. He went on to study physics, astronomy and astrophysics. He interrupted his graduate studies to take his first trip to the South Pole as a 26-year-old in November 1996.

Twenty-two years later, Schwarz keeps the Keck Array telescope cluster running smoothly. 

“His work makes what we do possible. We need someone willing to go down and be in those conditions,” said Justin Willmert, a University graduate student who works at the station during Antarctic summers when Schwarz is gone.

The temperature at the South Pole is 60 degrees below Fahrenheit on average, but it can go down to 100 degrees below Fahrenheit several times during the winter, Schwarz said. 

“We can’t do too much outside because it’s just too cold,” Schwarz said. There are activities though, he said, that keep everyone busy. Between game and movie nights and Schwarz’s introductory courses in astronomy, it’s hard to get bored. 

He’s handed out candy for people’s birthdays, hosted Oktoberfest with pretzels and schnitzel and hosted Yuri’s Night, a celebration of the first astronaut in space, said Grantland Hall, a University graduate student who wintered with Schwarz last year.  

Isolated for almost eight and a half months, Schwarz said the South Pole starts to feel like home. Aurora activity paints the dark sky, which remains dark for half of the year. The colleagues that have worked side-by-side with him have become his friends, as well.  

“He is a large part of the tradition of the South Pole,” Hall said. “I would expect to see a major change in how the South Pole winters operate when [Schwarz] is no longer there.”

Schwarz said he is looking forward to taking a break from the South Pole after next year’s winter to spend time in New Zealand. His last full summer was in 2010. 

“[Schwarz] himself is an interesting character, but I think you’d have to qualify that for probably almost anyone who has spent more than one or two seasons working at the South Pole,” Willmert said. 

Despite the long, cold winters and a lack of daylight, Schwarz continues to appreciate his time in Antarctica. 

“If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t be here anymore,” he said.

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