Working on Antarctica
Unlike the Arctic region, the continent of Antarctica does not have any native people. Its remote location and brutally cold temperatures don’t make it the easiest of places to live. If you need proof, just consider that the biggest native land animal is the half-inch long wingless midge, which is an insect! Penguins are considered ocean animals. But that doesn’t mean there are no people living on Antarctica.
Scientific Stations on Antarctica
Plenty of scientists and other workers live there for part of the year. Some of them even stay year round. Antarctica doesn’t belong to any country, and since it has no native people, it doesn’t have a government.
For many years, various countries argued over who should control the area. With no rules in place, seal hunters and whalers practically wiped out several species. But then in 1959, twelve countries signed the Antarctic Treaty, agreeing to use the land for peaceful and scientific purposes. For example, the countries all agreed not to test bombs there. These countries include Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Spain, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Russia (the former Soviet Union), and the United States of America.
Today, there are sixteen scientific stations on Antarctica. Various countries own and operate these stations. Most of the stations are located along the continent’s coast or within a hundred miles of it. Two of them, the South Pole Station and the Vostok Station, are located inland, though. Some of the stations are above the ice. Some are buried partially under the ice. Some stations are fairly small, consisting of just a few buildings or Jamesway huts and outhouses.
A Jamesway hut is a pre-made canvas building with wooden frames. It looks like a tube that has been cut in half. Other stations are large and can accommodate hundreds of people, offering many modern conveniences. Two of the largest stations belong to America. These are the McMurdo Station and the South Pole Station.
The McMurdo Station on Antarctica
The McMurdo Station was established in 1956. It started out as a few buildings on top of exposed rock on the southern tip of Ross Island. Now, it is a small town with nearly one hundred buildings including a church, library, and even a fire station. Like other stations, McMurdo has doctors and cooks and other workers who take care of and support the scientists working there.
Instead of traditional houses, everyone lives in dormitories. A dormitory is a residence hall that has lots of bedrooms and shared bathrooms. In the summer months (when tents and Jamesway huts can be used) McMurdo can comfortably house over 1,000 people. During the winter, only about 200 people stay, or “winter over,” at the station.
The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, also known simply as the South Pole Station, was first established in 1957. It is not built on land; instead it is built on top of the thick ice. When snow and ice damaged the first buildings, a new station was built in the 1970s.
This second station was basically a giant dome that covered several buildings. The dome was 165 feet in diameter and 55 feet tall at its highest point. It wasn’t heated, but it did provide a break from the wind and gave the 200 or so scientists and support staff a place to work when there was bad weather. Only about 60 folks stay for the winter.
The Third South Pole Station
Eventually, America’s National Science Federation decided they needed a bigger and more modern facility. The third South Pole Station opened in 2008 within sight of the old dome. This new station is made of two, blocked “C” shaped units. More units and stories will be added as needed.
Blowing and piling snow was a problem for the old stations. In fact, the first station is completely buried now. The new station is built on stilts. This way the snow will blow under the building. These hydraulic stilts can also be raised so the building can be used even longer; if the estimates are right, until the year 2050.
Despite workers removing it, the snow and ice will pile up about 12 inches a year. The new station will comfortably house the over 150 “Polies” (what the people at the South Pole call themselves) and has many modern comforts including a sauna, galley, and gym. A greenhouse will provide fresh fruit and vegetables. Both the McMurdo and South Pole stations have power plants for electricity.
These plants use stored fuel to run generators. The special fuel, which has anti-freeze mixed in to keep it from freezing in the extreme temperatures, is stored in fuel bladders. Bladders look kind of like giant balloons or waterbed mattress. Stations also use polar power.
Life At the South Pole Stations On Antarctica
Being in the Antarctic is dangerous. If you’re caught outside in a storm you can quickly die. This is why every person who visits or comes to work on the continent must attend Happy Camper School. Happy Camper School may sound fun, but it’s a survival school. In this “camp,” people learn how to survive in the extreme cold and how to avoid dangers like crevasses.
For example, campers learn that carrying a water bottle at all times is necessary. This is because dehydration is a real threat; you use a lot of energy moving around and keeping warm. People carry their water bottles inside their coats to keep the water from freezing. Campers also learn how to build an emergency snow dwelling. In order to make sure their snow dwelling is good enough, campers have to spend the night in them!
The people who work at the McMurdo and South Pole Stations, as well as the other stations on Antarctica, can’t run to the store or place an online order when they need something. Because Antarctica is so isolated, stations receive all their supplies from airplanes and boats. The airplanes are mainly LC-130’s equipped with skis. Bigger, heavier planes could not land on the ice. Deliveries are made during the summer months.
During the dark winter, the weather is too cold and dangerous. So what if someone really needs something, like medicine? One winter, Dr. Jerri Nelson found out she had breast cancer while staying at the South Pole. Airplanes were able to drop boxes with medicine to her, but they couldn’t land the plane to pick her up until many months later. Another time, Dr. Ron Shemenski got very ill and needed rescuing, too. Fortunately, the weather cooperated and planes were able to land.
The extreme cold and dry air prevent waste from decomposing in Antarctica. People used to just leave their trash in icy landfills. Today, everyone is making an effort to keep Antarctica and the ocean that surrounds it as clean as possible.The landfills have been cleaned up and all trash, including human waste, is carried off the continent or carefully burned.
Life Is Fun On Antarctica
Life at the bottom of the world is difficult, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. People who work on Antarctica have many ways to entertain themselves. On their days off, folks go skiing or sledding or stay inside playing board games. Some like to take photographs or play music. Other times, they may have a “beach party” or hold chili cook-offs.
Holidays are celebrated in special ways. For instance, on Christmas, Polies at the South Pole Station hold a “Race Around the World.” The outdoor race path goes around the geographic South Pole and the ceremonial South Pole marker. It’s called the “Race Around the World” because you’re technically going through all time zones. Racers go three laps, or about 2 ½ miles. Because the high altitude makes running difficult, racers don’t always actually run.
Sometimes they let bulldozers or snowmobiles do the work! And on New Year’s Day, the people at the McMurdo Station have a dance and music festival. This event is known as Icestock, a twist on the 1960s music festival Woodstock.
What Do Scientist Study On Antarctica
So just what are the scientists studying at the bottom of the world? A lot of things! Ocean animals such as penguins, plant life, the Earth’s magnetosphere, and glaciers. Melting ice and other climate changes, global weather patterns, and Lake Vostok, the 500,000 year-old lake buried under the ice.
Because the landscape is barren, similar to the surfaces of other planets, scientists also use the Antarctic to study space exploration. For instance, scientists can test out robotic land explorers to see how well they’ll perform in hostile environments.
The skies near the South Pole are very good for studying stars and planets, so many astronomers and astrophysicists work there. The South Pole is especially good for viewing stars because there is less water vapor in the air so the air is clearer. Secondly, there’s no artificial light to distort viewing. And third, in the winter, the stars are visible 24 hours a day!
The scientists put up their telescopes and other equipment in a place called “The Dark Sector.” This is an area about half mile from South Pole station that is kept free of excess light and electronic transmissions. Less light and electromagnetic pollution helps scientists get more accurate readings.
Another very important thing scientists in the Antarctic are studying is Earth’s ozone layer. The ozone layer is a special layer of gas in the upper atmosphere that helps block out the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun. In the 1960s, scientists noticed an alarming thing: every spring, a very large part of the ozone layer thinned out over the Antarctic.This thin area is called the ozone hole. Scientists also discovered that chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were causing the hole.
Since the 1970s, CFCs, which used to be in things like aerosol spray cans and car exhaust, have been phased out completely. Scientists are hopeful that the ozone hole will eventually fix itself. There is also an ozone hole above the Arctic but it’s much smaller and not as big a concern.
How To Visit Antarctica
Scientists and other workers are not the only people who visit Antarctica. These days, it’s possible to be a tourist in the coldest place on Earth. There are no hotels on Antarctica, and while it’s possible (for a lot of money) to stay at the South Pole Station, most people choose to visit Antarctica by cruise ship.
Tourists typically visit the Antarctic Peninsula; other areas are just too hard to get to. These cruise ships usually travel along the coasts or visit the Southern Ocean islands, but occasionally, tourists might visit land for a day. Because Antarctica is so far away, trips to see “The Ice” can cost $10,000 to $20,000 per person. And the trip can be dangerous.
In November 2007, the cruise ship Explorer sank after hitting ice. Fortunately, none of the passengers or crew was hurt, but they all had to wait for hours in lifeboats in the bitter cold before being rescued.