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Hidden beneath the ice: life in Antarctica
November 4, 2022
The windiest, driest, and most elevated continent in the world, Antarctica, is home to 70 permanent research stations. This landmass has no permanent residents, but its research stations and field camps are staffed seasonally or year-round to gain access to Antarctica’s unique features.
Although the extreme weather and struggles of daily life in Antarctica make it seem like an undesirable location for professional studies, its virtually untouched environment allows researchers to study not only Antarctica but the entire world.
“The first year of working there is astonishing. While doing anything, you find yourself putting ‘in Antarctica’ at the end. ‘I’m taking a shower, in Antarctica!’ or ‘I’m eating a sandwich, in Antarctica!’” said Andre Fleutte, a fire captain who has worked nine seasons in Antarctica.
The deserted environment is bare and scenically unique, but despite its aesthetic benefits, traveling to Antarctica is not simple. Field science in Antarctica is expensive, so scientists only venture to the continent if the work cannot be done anywhere else in the world.
Researchers and staff spend most of their time near the research stations, as transportation on the continent is time-consuming, and the weather is extreme. Primarily located along the coast, the research stations are equipped with materials calculated to suffice the staff’s exact needs during their stay.
Communication with outside resources is restricted, so extensive preparation is a requirement. For seven months a year, there are no planes, no boats, and no link between Antarctica and the rest of the world.
Winter in Antarctica
The months avoided by visitors, March until September, mark the winter season in Antarctica.
Due to the freezing temperatures, transportation to the continent is halted. Temperatures drop below the freezing point of gasoline, sea-ice forms, and there is constant darkness, making travel dangerous.
During these seven months of winter, 1,000 people at most continue to reside on the continent, according to AntarcticGlaciers.org. Compared to its 5,000 residents during summer, winter is drastically less populated.
“Despite the difficulties and dangers, most of those who have ever overwintered in Antarctica agree that the winter is the best time to be there and is why they wanted to be there in the first place,” said Paul Ward, who has spent over two years in Antarctica and currently writes for Cool Antarctica.
Summer and winter are Antarctica’s only seasons; however, summer being the preferred season for travel does not mean all research is halted during the winter.
As a safety engineer working with the Antarctic Support Associates (ASA) during the winter, David Nold ensures safety at McMurdo Station, doing everything from accident investigations to health inspections in the galleys.
“I get up around 6:30, shower, eat around 7:00, and report to work around 7:30. We all have a 10-hour work day, from 7:30-5:30,” Nold said. “First thing in the morning, I usually read my e-mail. I start inspecting the galley, then inspect each of the labs or work centers to ensure everything complies with the safety plan.”
The maintenance staff, like Nold, is the personnel likely to stay in the stations through the winter. To keep the research base running, they continue to live on the premises while the rest of the staff wait until the summer months to return.
“For the most part, once the last plane leaves in February, everyone still in Antarctica is stuck there until the following November. Only a small number of people, 45 in the case of the South Pole Station, stick around to keep the bases running,” said Sam Denby, an environmental and economics educator for Wendover Productions.
Outside of work hours, residents of Antarctica can hike into the scenery in groups and enjoy the recreational activities organized by the research stations.
For the most part, once the last plane leaves in February, everyone still in Antarctica is stuck there until the following November.
— Sam Denby
“After work, there’s always something going on. The bars are up and running, there’s an excellent gym, an indoor basketball court, and the bowling alley is operating,” Nold said. “The bowling alley is actually really funny. It’s one of the only ones like it left in the world— it’s ancient and still uses manual set pins.”
To participate in the indoor activities organized by the recreational department, there are no weather-related risks involved. But, in the winter, going outside is restricted to the half-mile square of the station. To leave, one must sign out at the station office, bring a radio, and go with a partner.
Regardless of the extensive safety policy during the winter, the mean temperature of -76°F also plays an important role in the decision to head outdoors.
“A lot of people run or go out on dark night walks — there are a couple of marked recreational walks in the area. We know there are no crevasses in that area. Nonetheless, many people don’t like to leave the station accompanied by a partner; they like to soak up the scenery alone,” Nold said.
There are few places humans can go where they are seven months away from medical care, food, and civilization. According to Denby, the scenery of Antarctica alone does not justify the dangers and the cost of traveling there, but the opportunity to expand humans’ understanding of the environment is a different story.
“In a sense, the people who stay the winter in Antarctica are even more isolated than the astronauts on the International Space Station. Those living and working on the continent endure some of the harshest conditions on Earth; but for the pursuit of science, all this hardship, all this work, and all this cost is worth it,” Denby said.
Summer in Antarctica
From October until February, the days get longer until, eventually, the sun does not set at all.
While the sun’s presence in the sky is prolonged during the summer, the temperatures still rarely exceed -4°F, although it is a significant escalation since the winter season.
As the temperatures rise and the sun reappears in the sky, transportation into the continent can recommence, bringing in new staff, researchers, and tourists.
According to Fleutte, as the population within the stations gets denser, the temporary discontinuation of research and the partage of ideas thaws.
“In Antarctica, part of the contract stipulates that you must inform the public of what you’re up to. So, weekly, the different science groups give lectures on what they’re doing, and anyone can attend,” Fleutte said.
In these months, when research is most accessible, numerous scientific domains are explored. Fields of study include astronomy, biology, environmental science, glaciology, marine biology, and oceanography.
Antarctica’s location gives researchers insight into what could not be performed in an area more easily within reach.
“The most life-changing experience I’ve ever had was the summer I spent in the Antarctic. Seeing that incredible, pristine environment all to myself put everything into context,” said Ella Gilbert, an atmospheric physicist who spent November through December 2017 in Antarctica to finish her Ph.D. with the British Antarctic Survey.
There is no continent on Earth with the same conditions as Antarctica. Its weather, pollution, landscapes, and experience are entirely unique.
“I’ve spent five full years on the continent, and even though five full years anywhere makes you lose track of the wonders you see, the feeling of wonder here never truly leaves,” Fleutte said.
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