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Subzero Heroes: 365 Days in Antarctica

by Caitlyn Bishop Blog

Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

Subzero Heroes: 365 Days in Antarctica

It takes a brave soul to travel all the way down to Antarctica with the goal of spending an entire year on the ice. Who would ever want to subject themselves to 24 hours of darkness, temperatures as low as -31°C (-25°F), and complete isolation from the rest of the world? However challenging it may seem, spending a whole year in Antarctica is the experience of a lifetime that thousands of people from across the world travel south for every year.   

Why Year-Round Stations in Antarctica?

The primary purpose of keeping a research station open year-round comes down to logistics. It’s much easier to keep a station open and running with minimal staff, or a “skeleton crew”, than it is to shut every single operation down and reopen it again every year. The winter crew is also in charge of ensuring the station doesn’t break apart or blow away during some of the more violent winter storms.

The McMurdo Station Antarctica Sign overlooking the Ross Sea - Source: commons.wikimedia.org

America’s McMurdo Station is the most densely populated station during the Antarctic summer. Over 1,200 people travel south to the station that becomes a booming metropolis from October to March. Researchers looking to answer questions about Antarctic wildlife, oceanography, meteorological conditions, and atmospheric carbon content take up residence in the station’s comfortable quarters, and have approximately six months to work before the winter conditions set in.

As the unbearable cold creeps in, the wildlife, researchers, and temporary staff all begin to head north. Many of the crewmembers have created bonds over the six-month summer period, making goodbyes and farewells rather difficult. It’s only when the last ship disappears from view or the last plane takes off that the reality of loneliness sinks in. From here on out, it’s just you and the rest of the winter crew. The next plane or ship you’ll see will be in six months, when the new summer crew arrives and it’s your turn to leave. There’s really nothing else like this that makes you feel like you’re the last person left on Earth. There’s no way out now, which means the real adventure has begun!

What’s in the Antarctic to do in Winter?

If you’re planning on becoming part of an Antarctic overwintering crew, it’s best to take books, movies, crafts, musical instruments, or just a good imagination along with you. Once these options are exhausted, which they most certainly will after a month or two, there’s quite a lot of free time that most people don’t know how to deal with. Before the winter storms set in, there are always hikes to take and scenic views to enjoy outside. There’s no such thing as a bad view in Antarctica, and it’s best to take in a little extra sunlight before winter banishes you to the confines of a station.

When it’s too cold to go outside, indoor activities such as eating or sleeping make up a majority of the day. For the support staff, however, the days can be rather long.  Cooking, cleaning, electrical work, fire monitoring, and weather station monitoring are endless tasks that consume most of the very limited daylight hours. Keeping a year-round station fully functional is no small task. Together, overwinter crews make the best out of a very long, dark situation with group games, parties, and even a continent-wide Antarctic film festival. One of the added perks of living on a continental overwinter station is the chance to see the breathtaking southern skies without light pollution, and the southern lights, or aurora australis.

Midwinter Solstice Celebration

Seeing as there are no ancient Antarctic traditions to celebrate during the winter, overwintering crews have found alternative ways to boost morale and bring in good tidings. The midwinter solstice or “midwinter” marks the shortest day of the year, and the anniversary of English explorer Ernest Shackleton’s heroic Antarctic expedition from Elephant Island to South Georgia in a craft no larger than a dinghy with five other men.

While encased in ice on Elephant Island, Shacketon and the crew of the Endurance, the ship they sailed from England to Antarctica, decided to make the best out of a pretty bad situation. Instead of wallowing in doubt and worry over their uncertain fate, the men threw a party to commemorate the shortest day of winter, June 22nd. The bow of the ship had been decorated with flags and lights, and converted into a theater where short plays and comedies were acted out by willing participants. A delicious meal of roast pork, applesauce, preserved peas, and a plum pudding dessert boosted morale to an all-time high.

Today, nearly every station with overwintering staff celebrates midwinter in its own unique way. Polar plunges, champagne breakfasts, pulk pulling contests, and musical presentations are just a few of the ways in which a good crew lets a bit of light shine in amongst the 24 hours of complete darkness.

The Winter Blues in Antarctica

Wintertime in Antarctica lasts from March to October, and can be especially taxing to those who are more accustomed to sun exposure. A peculiar condition “over winter syndrome” or “T3 syndrome” is recognized in individuals who have spent long periods of time indoors and out of direct, vitamin-rich sunlight. This condition is most likely caused by a drop in thyroid hormones, which can lead to memory lapse, depression, forgetfulness, and “the Antarctic stare”. Given the amount of time one has while overwintering and their surrounding environment, there must be lots of Antarctic staring going on!  Living without sunlight can be difficult, and many crewmembers choose to bring along vitamin D and E supplements, or “happy lights”, which mimic sunlight. Luckily, most permanent research stations also contain gymnasiums, where people can work out and naturally boost their endorphin levels to combat depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Meeting the Neighbors

70 different permanent research stations representing 29 countries from around the world dot the icy landscape of Antarctica. Few of these stations are close enough to be within walking distance of each other, making leisurely visits to meet the neighbors somewhat of a hardship, and usually not worth the hassle. There’s usually a glacier to cross, a frigid moraine to canoe, a perilous cliff to scale, or sometimes a deadly combination of all three. Some days, it’s just better it stay at home and keep communications on the radio.

Many stations celebrate the anniversary of the construction of their station, and will invite nearby stations, if there are any, to come partake in the festivities. A birthday party, complete with a full-course meal, dancing, drinking, and camaraderie is the best way to bring nations together. Poland’s Henryk Arctowski station, founded in 1977, is positioned in King George Island’s Admiralty Bay, and is neighbors with not only Peru’s Machu Pichu station, but also Brazil’s Comandante Ferraz station. Together, the three stations show what true Antarctic community looks like. Each station invites the other over for various celebrations throughout the year, including Christmas, New Year’s, and each of the stations’ birthdays. All of the stations are very welcoming, and very happy to have guests, especially in the winter! 

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