Letter From - Summer 2008

Antarctica: Cold Comfort

The National Science Foundation funds dozens of projects in Antarctica to study the effects of climate change. As U.S. government agencies are stripped of their funding and autonomy, read this piece to remind yourself of the importance of scientific research.

By Emily Stone | June 1, 2008


When a thousand Adélie penguins congregate, they make a noise out of all proportion to how small and cute they are. Their collective caw sounds like a car engine turning over and over. I discovered this while sitting for a couple of hours in the midst of an Adélie colony near McMurdo Station in Antarctica. As a writer/editor/photographer for The Antarctic Sun, I’d come to interview penguin researchers who were camping out at Cape Royds, the same spot from which the Irish-born English explorer Ernest Shackleton launched his failed attempt at the South Pole in 1908. The researchers were collecting data on the impact of unusual sea-ice accumulation on the birds’ breeding patterns.

As I photographed the penguins waddling about and sitting atop their fluffy chicks, the scientists in their standard-issue red coats walked among the birds, jotting down tag numbers and nesting information in thick notebooks. If Americans have a picture of Antarctica, it’s likely this: scientists holed up in a remote outpost, with lots of penguins and lots of ice. They are working on dozens of projects that the National Science Foundation, a U.S. government agency, funds every year to study glaciers, seals, icebergs, and stars. The perilous condition of a Connecticut-sized piece of ice shelf that was discovered this winter to be clinging to the continent—and what that means about the pace of global warming—is a stark reminder of how important this research is.

But that’s only half the story. There’s another experiment going on, one that brings people to Antarctica to work for the five-month summer, from October to February. They are cooks, janitors, carpenters, and tractor mechanics, or, like me, the journalists who run the foundation’s weekly newspaper. It’s an experiment in what happens when you put a thousand independent-minded people in one of the most people-intensive environments imaginable. We live in dorms with shared bathrooms, we eat in a cafeteria, and we regress into cliques with cool-kid hierarchies that can make figuring out which table to sit at for lunch stressful. On top of that are the disorienting realities of 24 hours of daylight, no kids, no pets, no cell phones, and usually no family or friends from home.

McMurdo Station is the scientific hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program. It sits on the shore of frozen McMurdo Sound, at the edge of the Ross Sea on the New Zealand side of the continent, about 800 miles from the South Pole. Yet because we’re generally not allowed to leave the station, life there feels more like a stint aboard a submarine than a stay in a wilderness camp. We can stare across McMurdo Sound at the glaciers in the Transantarctic Mountains or at the smoldering Mt. Erebus volcano behind the station, but most people never get anywhere near those landmarks. We’re stuck in a supremely ugly town, sitting at desks and staring at computers like so much of the rest of the world. Except of course, we’re in Antarctica.

I’m frequently asked what McMurdo is like. Sometimes I compare a summer there to the requisite flight from New Zealand. We fly in a nearly windowless military plane in which it’s difficult to tell when we take off or land. The plane door closes on warm, green New Zealand, and five cramped, noisy, shaking hours later we step onto the flat, white plain of Antarctic ice. Like the flight, a summer at McMurdo is disorienting and transformative; we quickly become detached from our lives back home and concentrate on what’s happening around us. But unlike the flight, it’s also a bizarre retreat, both Bacchanalian and spiritual. We’re an obsessively, often indulgently, introspective group, addicted to talking about ourselves and our larger role in the world. Crammed together with others, with no private space or time alone, we confront demons and emotions that wouldn’t otherwise surface. Wild mood swings are the norm; we learn to cry in public. Just when life at the station becomes routine, something comes along to remind us of where we are—a helicopter ride to an iceberg the size of Delaware, a New Year’s Eve party inside a metal shipping container, a troop of penguins wandering by.

People often say I’m brave for going to Antarctica to work for two consecutive summers. But there’s nothing brave about it. For five months I don’t have to cook a meal, clean a toilet, commute more than a few hundred paces to work, or pay for laundry, a haircut, or Internet access—not to mention room and board. Logistically, life at McMurdo is pretty easy.

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Rising steeply up from town is Observation Hill, topped by a cross dedicated to British Royal Naval officer and explorer Robert F. Scott and his four men, who died in 1912 on their return trip from the South Pole. Scott’s wooden hut from the ill-fated expedition survives near town, as do another of Scott’s huts and Shackleton’s lodgings from his earlier, failed attempt.

The 53-year-old McMurdo is by far the largest of the continent’s three permanent American stations. No country is allowed to own any part of the continent; when you’re in a country’s station, you’re in an outpost of that country. So phone calls home cost normal domestic rates, and we have a regular U.S. area code. This leads to amusing wrong-number calls at work: “No, sir, you’ve called Antarctica.” Domestic postage rates are also in effect, allowing one guy I know to belong to Netflix.

America’s McMurdo and New Zealand’s Scott Base both perch on Ross Island, a volcanic mass attached to the mainland by a permanent ice shelf. McMurdo’s 100 or so metal-sided buildings are scattered haphazardly on the black, volcanic rock, with waist-high fuel and water lines snaking between them. Most are office buildings and dorms, along with a power station, wastewater treatment plant, storage sheds, three bars, and a church. There’s no vegetation outside of the small greenhouse. Scott Base is about a mile and a half away, so on a nice day you can walk from the United States to New Zealand. No other countries have bases nearby, though the Italians use our airfield as a stopping point between the real New Zealand and their base. They stick around just long enough for us to admire the excellent cut of their cold weather gear, which, next to our government-issue red parkas and black snow pants held up with suspenders, looks hand-tailored by Prada.

The bravery mystique seems to stem from the cartoonish image people have of us living in igloos connected by underground passages so we can avoid constant blizzards. I’d get whining e-mails about Chicago’s mid-January cold snaps coupled with apologies for complaining, because I was in Antarctica, for God’s sake. Was it wrong not to tell my friends that while it was 20 below on the shore of Lake Michigan it was 20 above with 24 hours of sunshine at McMurdo? That it isn’t unusual at the height of summer to have days that top 40 degrees? It can get unpleasant when the wind rips through town or early or late in the summer when temperatures regularly fall below zero. But most of the time we can walk outside in a light parka, jeans, and sunglasses. I got a sunburn from standing outside for so long on New Year’s Eve, and on New Year’s Day we spent hours at the annual outdoor music festival and chili cook-off called Ice Stock. Those who stay the winter at McMurdo or spend time at the far more frigid South Pole have another story to tell.

People also assume that it’s a lonely existence, but I never once got lonely. I wish I’d gotten lonely. I would have paid to be lonely. Because that would have required being alone. And that doesn’t happen at McMurdo.

Everyone on-station, except a few people at the very top of the food chain, has roommates. My first year I lived in a room with two sets of bunk beds. There were three of us in there permanently. The fourth bunk was reserved for a “transient,” a scientist on her way in or out of the field or a worker going to or from the pole. At least one of my roommates, along with her boyfriend, was almost always home.

Leaving the room offered little respite. To begin with, the guys across the hall left their door open when they were home, which seemed to be constantly. They rigged up the TV in their room with one around the corner so that the two sets of roommates could play Halo nonstop; they’d run between the rooms hurling competitive taunts. I was with other people in the bathrooms, at every meal, in the gym, in the library, in the bars. No indoor space was mine alone. Outside offered some relief, but there were only two short hikes we were allowed to do by ourselves and I’d inevitably run into someone I knew out there. One can be alone while surrounded by strangers, but, of course, there are no strangers at McMurdo. Many nights I’d fall asleep calculating the minutes I’d spent in a room alone that day, including trips to the bathroom. The total often hovered in the high single digits.

The large amount of time being mashed together does weird things, not all of them bad. Getting together with friends, even in one of the world’s last cell phone–free refuges, is easy. And you make friends at lightning speed, with intense, probing conversations often occurring only hours after meeting someone new. A spontaneous night of laughter and silliness can be the best night ever, leaving you giddy for days, unable to imagine life away from these people. But a bad conversation or perceived snub can be devastating, which brings its own set of problems. There’s nowhere to be sad.

Many tears are brought on by the awful intensity of dating. Imagine going out with someone for the first time and then, regardless of how great or disastrous the encounter was, continuing to see that person three times a day at meals. Imagine that person walking into your favorite bar or restaurant or your gym, perhaps with someone else. It’s not normal.

In spite of the risks, there is a lot of pairing off at McMurdo. Thirty years after the first women started working there, the gender gap is narrowing. Still, with more men than women, there’s a slightly frenzied scramble for partners and a general sexual charge to the place. The conventional wisdom is that if a guy doesn’t find a girl by the Halloween party, he’ll spend the summer alone, though he could get lucky during the “midseason switch,” that magical time around Christmas when couples realize that simply spending every moment together doesn’t make them a good match. It’s a challenge, however, to find a place to carry on these relationships. Most wooers can quickly list all the locking bathrooms and saunas on-station.

Such activity is so common that the medical center supplies free condoms in the main bathrooms. The bins’ depleting levels aren’t necessarily an accurate reflection of what’s going on. Housing employees who clean out the rooms at the end of the season have discovered dozens of unopened condoms in guys’ dresser drawers. One garbage collector (“waste department technician” in McMurdo parlance) tells of a shipment of plastic waste arriving from the South Pole that contained a bag of frozen condoms. Because each of us is responsible for sorting our waste into about 15 different categories of recycling, this conjures up the image of a guy earnestly trying to figure out which bin he should use.

The loss of secrecy gives rise to a simultaneous scrapping of subtlety. Take this conversation I had on my way to breakfast with a man I had met only briefly, but long enough to know I didn’t need to spend any more time with him.

Him: Hi, Emily. I wondered if you wanted to go to that dinner and a movie thing they’re having tonight.

Me, uncaffeinated and uncomfortable: Ummm …

Him: Oh, do you have a boyfriend at home?

Me, lying but thrilled to see the out: Yes!

Him: Oh, that’s okay. I do too.


Him: I mean, I’ve got a wife. But I thought it would be nice to just be with someone.

 The best part was seeing this guy every day for the remaining three months of summer.

My friend Michael, a computer tech with homemade tattoos, an exclusively black wardrobe, and a Sylvester Stallone voice, was disputing someone’s statement about what activities were scheduled that day. “I didn’t think they ever had cosmic bowling and bingo on the same night,” he said, waiting half a beat and adding, “I will never have reason to utter that sentence again in my life.” That’s McMurdo, a place where people 18 to 80 are offered activities to rival any summer camp or retirement home, courtesy of the recreation department. There are volleyball, soccer, and dodge ball leagues, plumbing classes and jewelry-making lessons, and live music in the station’s bars. People who see an empty activity niche take the initiative to fill it—hence the club for antique-tractor aficionados who watch old Caterpillar promotional videos.

And, of course, all these activities can be enhanced by, or substituted for, alcohol. We do like to drink at McMurdo. Unlike 50 years ago when there really was nothing better to do and so the Navy men made “white-out punch” from their stash of medicinal alcohol, it’s not for lack of alternative activities. Still, everyone seems to drink more—or at least more often—than they do back home. Maybe it’s because you never have to drive home, or even stumble very far. Or the monotony of having the same array of choices with the same companions for five months makes you feel like you have nothing to do. Or it’s the why-the-hell-not attitude of being isolated at the bottom of the world.

There are the bars, but the station store also sells alcohol. An ordering glitch my second summer at McMurdo led to a shortage of hard liquor. I’d been warned before leaving home that the station was already out of vodka and short on good whiskey. So I stopped at a little liquor store in Christchurch, New Zealand, and as soon as the clerk heard my American accent he guessed why I was there.

The station store restocked hard alcohol on Sunday mornings. Midweek the liquor shelves were a sad sight. But like Shackleton’s intrepid crew who fashioned ocean-going vessels out of lifeboats, we didn’t let that deter us. Three of us invented a new drink by combining the available root-beer schnapps with Frosty Boy, an Australian brand of soft-serve ice cream (with the most wonderful slogan “Often licked, never beaten”). Schnapps plus Frosty was dubbed Schnäafty. I’ve never had Schnäafty off the Ice, and I suspect it might not taste so good elsewhere. But down there, as an alternative to canned beer or to pillaging our rationed vodka, it was heaven.

I know it sounds like we had nothing better to do than take a Pilates class, sit in the sauna, and then while away the night sipping scary concoctions, but we worked a lot. The standard workweek at McMurdo is six days from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. But when you finish work and don’t have to sit in traffic or pick up your kids at daycare or plan dinner, there’s an awful lot of time left in the day.

Scientific research is the sole reason any country has a presence there, and the entire infrastructure is geared toward allowing the scientists to do their jobs. Practically all of the science at McMurdo happens in the summer, when it is light enough and warm enough for people to gather data outside. The 130-person winter population is a support staff needed to keep the station running. My job at The Antarctic Sun was to write about this science and, along with two other journalists, put out a weekly paper, primarily for online readers back home.

Like chefs, firefighters, and plumbers, I was one of the lucky ones who did the same job in Antarctica as I did at home. But there are a lot of artists turned janitor and engineers turned dishwasher. Even the lowliest workers making less than $400 a week have little to spend it on all summer. Everyone leaves with money in the bank.

One of the strangest sensations, which hits within days of arriving at McMurdo, is realizing how quickly you accept everything as normal: bright daylight at 1 a.m., rigid meal hours, no grocery stores, no cars, no privacy, no freedom. And then you take stock of your distorted reality.

Like when the skuas arrive. South polar skuas are large sea birds that congregate around the station during the warmest months looking for a good meal. Both summers, the first time I spotted a skua I had the same reaction. First I thought, Huh, a bird. Then I immediately shouted, “Oh My God! Bird!”

Sometimes it was the simple majesty of the place that caused me to remember where I was. Little epiphanies would happen on my favorite two-mile hike, when the light hit the mountains across McMurdo Sound so that the glaciers glittered differently from what I’d seen before. Or on a coveted trip off-station, hiking along a massive glacier in the slightly golden midnight sun, passing waterfalls of glacial melt and the occasional mummified seal. Then getting back to my tent and remembering that I didn’t have to place my glasses in an easy-to-reach spot close to my sleeping bag because if I woke up in the middle of the night, it would be light.

Or a million single moments that would never happen anywhere else, such as sitting in a tent on a glacier, eating Thai coconut soup prepared by an ice-core driller, with background music from a generator-run iPod. Or sipping margaritas chilled with several-thousand-year-old ice. Mostly, it’s a place to figure out what’s most important to you and how to make sure you keep those things in your life, however you structure it post-Ice.

Despite all this, for most of us there comes a moment, usually about a month before the end of summer, when we declare: I’m over it. That’s when the things we’ve left behind outweigh the community and simplicity of where we are, when waves of longing for dusk and silk skirts wash over us without warning, when we start daydreaming about stars and humidity and sushi and draft beer and bathtubs and the freedom to walk in whatever direction we want. For me, it was a craving for continuity, a need to have work, bedrooms, and friendships that last beyond a few months.

My friends who returned for another season entered into that remote reality that I now have a hard time believing exists. Within hours of arriving home, that reality started to dissolve back into its spot behind the looking glass, where it sits firmly as the strangest, most fascinating, and probably most pointless little experiment in human interaction on earth.

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