Letter from Antarctica


A cook tells what it’s like to live in the basement of the world amid world-class researchers, cryogenic winds, and the stars of the frozen continent – penguins. 

Jerry Guo

MARCH 18, 2017  MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA —The world’s southernmost ATM is just downstairs from my dorm room. Two actually, courtesy of Wells Fargo. But aside from the penguin tchotchkes and a few other items in the town’s only shop, there’s nothing much you can blow your paycheck on.

So other forms of currency have naturally evolved, including the underground avocado economy, in which certain highly rationed fresh foodstuffs (or “freshies”) have become our equivalent of prison contraband. As a chef here on base, that makes me feel like a baron reigning over my own mini-fiefdom.

This is the part where I should talk about how life on the coldest, driest, most remote continent is really, really extreme. Indeed, most dispatches from the “end of the world” paint a romantic image of scientists working in the field, buffeted by the elements, an apotheosis of man versus nature. But the reality for most of us stationed in Antarctica is more man versus the temptations of 24/7 free and unlimited pizza. I should also point out some of the other amenities that exist: yoga classes, a hot tub, and the after-hours dance parties called “Math Club” (to throw off the higher-ups who might think there is too much frivolity going on). 

Until a few years ago, there was also a two-lane bowling alley. If all this sounds ripe for parody, you’re right – two sitcoms focused on the unique lifestyle here in the basement of the world are currently under development at Fox and HBO.

From the outside, the largest research base in Antarctica looks like a cross between an incestuous community college and an Alaskan mining town. At its peak summer population, 1,000 scientists, blue-collar contractors, and military personnel live in a community that churns out discoveries on a vast array of topics – from the vagaries of Earth’s magnetic field to the chemistry of subglacial lakes to the mineral content of meteorites arriving from across the solar system. 

But beyond all the revelations that end up in scientific journals and National Aeronautics and Space Administration seminars, McMurdo Station offers a window into one of the most interesting social experiments in the world today. For here is clustered a group of people, almost hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world, working and playing together in the freezer drawer of the planet. 

It may be the closest thing we have to what colonial life on Mars will one day look like. 

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The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) runs McMurdo, which serves as a logistical hub for much of the science conducted on the continent. It’s also the lifeline to the Amundsen-Scott Station, a research outpost that the Americans planted at the geographic South Pole in 1956, narrowly beating out the Soviets in an unspoken race during the start of the cold war.

While Antarctica has indeed been a showcase for international collaboration and peace since then, there’s still a geopolitical and strategic undertone to the presence of the United States here. Until the 1980s, McMurdo was operated largely by the US Navy. Nowadays, the US Coast Guard coordinates the once-yearly supply vessel that comes in, and an Air National Guard operates the three weekly flights to and from New Zealand.

Yet much of the science simply can’t be done in a less remote place. Just across the sound from McMurdo are the Dry Valleys, an ice-free desert area that is considered the most similar landscape on Earth to Mars. NASA used the harsh environment there to test its Mars rovers. 

Astrobiologist Sarah Johnson of Georgetown University is testing out lightweight real-time DNA sequencing on microbes that live in the extreme conditions, which she hopes to one day apply to the search for extraterrestrial life. “It’s exactly the kind of low mass-low power instrumentation we might one day use on Mars or an icy moon of Saturn or Jupiter,” she says.

Meanwhile, Ralph Harvey of Case Western Reserve University heads up a research consortium that’s been hunting for meteorites on the continent for the past 40 years. It has amassed 22,000 specimens from the asteroid belt, the moon, and a variety of planets, including Mars. The meteorites stand out from the background of blue ice, and they gradually “float” to the surface as the fierce katabatic winds erode the millenniums-old glacial crust. Most of the world’s meteorites come from Mr. Harvey’s consortium.

“For 1/1000th the cost of a space mission, we’re bringing back 100 kilograms of stuff from all over the solar system,” he says.

Harvey is backed by an obscure division of NASA called the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which hints at the relevance of the consortium’s work. We know shockingly little about near-Earth objects like asteroids – which, if they survive the fall through Earth’s atmosphere, are called meteorites.

The Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013, star of many Russian dashcam videos, injured some 1,500 residents and caused $33 million in damage. Harvey and his team are hoping these Antarctic meteorites will shed light on how to monitor and possibly prevent other meteorite collisions with Earth in the future.

“You have the best in [their] field coming down to work here,” says Beverly Walker, manager of the lab facilities on base. “So in the science realm, you’re working with a lot of famous people.”

For every scientist (“grantee” in local lingo), there are about five support contractors who transport their scientific cargo, cook their food, maintain their snowmobiles, cut their hair, and staff the hundreds of other jobs that go into running a small town. 

Scientists and contractors often work side by side, and many are friends. It’s a close-knit community, where PhDs and GEDs can share a lunch table. Friends are made fast; romantic partners, even faster. 

But there’s an unspoken social hierarchy. Every person who comes on base is issued a high-tech Canada Goose jacket that costs more than $1,000. Yet it’s the light wind jacket that only the grantees get that everyone covets. 

The quote from “Animal Farm” is apropos here: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” As my season progresses, I realize George Orwell’s communist parable should double as an employee handbook.

For one thing, there’s full employment. (But you can’t just switch jobs and become, say, an artist. There’s an actual selection process for approved “artists-in-residence” to work here.) A corollary is that it’s pretty hard to get fired for doing your job poorly. 

Your basic needs are also taken care of: food, housing, universal health care, even the entertainment – all paid for by the NSF, which spent $260 million on Antarctic “facilities and logistics” in 2016 and another $128 million on research (including in the Arctic). 

And everyone shares what he or she has, donating leftover clothes and household items after the season to the next crew. The system’s called Skua, named after the Antarctic scavenging bird that skulks around town.

In our Democratic People’s Republic of McMurdo, the grantees and NSF administrators make up the Party. The Politburo would be “distinguished visitors” (DVs as we call them), which normally means members of Congress who oversee our funding and this season included then-Secretary of State John Kerry, who became the highest-ranked American official to visit Antarctica. While everyone else eats the cafeteria food, we prepare restaurant-quality dishes for them. They also get special housing, which may include the luxury of a private bathroom.

I would be part of the proletariat, for which life revolves around the work unit. In the cafeteria (“galley”), we eat generally with our immediate co-workers. Most of our friends end up being those we work with. 

Of course, in any centrally planned economy, there’s rationing. One day at brunch, we had to make a sign next to a bowl of stunted strawberries: “Please limit yourself to two.” 

There’s a healthy black market and barter economy, too, from massages to fresh milk smuggled down on a cargo flight. Yet even though money is mostly useless, other ways of exhibiting status inevitably emerge. An obvious one is Ice Time, which is determined not just by how long a person has been coming down to Antarctica, but also in what capacity. 

Someone who’s been here through the winter is higher on the rung than a summer-only newbie like me. But a summer at Amundsen-Scott Station at the geographic South Pole beats a winter at McMurdo. And for those who spent a winter at Amundsen, well, they’re minor rock stars. 

Your Ice Time dictates what kind of housing you receive as well as what “boondoggles” you go on. Boondoggles are sanctioned morale-boosting recreation trips. A fairly standard one, which I went on, takes you across the sea ice for two hours in a balloon-tired Delta truck to the expedition hut Sir Robert Scott built for his ill-fated race to the South Pole. One NSF administrator regaled an awestruck group with the tale of her boondoggle to the Italian research base, where she had real gelato and wine with lunch.

There’s also a propaganda department that carefully selects one or two journalists a year to take on orchestrated press tours of the stations. Government minders escort them around the entire time.

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People come down thinking Antarctica is a free-wheeling continent unshackled by strictures and sovereignty. Yet the research stations here are some of the most tightly controlled places on the planet, as they need to be for safety.

In a Condition 1 blizzard, for instance, you’re forbidden from even leaving your building. I once accidentally ventured outside the boundary of the neighboring recreational ski field at the New Zealand base – the entire station received an urgent warning via email.

But Antarctica is a place that often can’t be controlled. Employees can succumb to the intense psychological isolation by what we call “getting toasty.” In 2013, a small group mutinied during the winter over at the South Pole station, when the outpost is shut off from the outside world for nine months. They took their frustrations out on the furniture.

Or they succumb to the extreme conditions when venturing outside town. This season, renowned glaciologist Gordon Hamilton died after falling into a crevasse a few miles from McMurdo. He was one of the world’s leading experts on crevasses.

Despite these dangers, the most desirable position – for both scientists and contractors – is to be out at a remote field camp, as far away from McMurdo as possible. Some research teams use helicopters and vehicles with tracks for their daily commute into the field, returning to McMurdo to sleep.

Phil Wannamaker from the University of Utah is on his last leg of a three-year expedition on Mt. Erebus, one of only half a dozen volcanoes in the world with an active lava lake. He and two collaborators are on-call every day, ready to jump in a helicopter on short notice if the weather clears enough to traverse the slopes and peer inside the crater. He’s placing tomographic instruments that can create a 3-D model of the internal plumbing of the volcano. “It’s not the kind of science where you find a pterodactyl bone and you’re done,” says Mr. Wannamaker.

Other groups just use McMurdo as a staging point. Filmmaker Jeff Wilson and his crew spent six weeks camped close to a colony of 600,000 Adélie penguins at Cape Crozier, a 20-minute helicopter ride away. Once there, they faced an hour walk, with 60 pounds of camera equipment, each way, to the colony. 

Since these penguins need snow-free rock for their nests, they invariably choose the windiest spots on an already-windy continent. This season, they faced only 90-mile-per-hour winds and minus 22 degree F. temperatures. 

“There’s a specific noise that sounds like five or six jet engines; that’s your best indicator that you need to get out of there,” says Mr. Wilson. “It can be equal parts terrifying and quite fun playing around in those high winds.” In 2009, when he filmed “Frozen Planet” at the site, the winds reached 150 m.p.h.

They share the site with David Ainley’s penguin science research group, which has been studying this colony for 20 years. It takes an entire week for the four researchers to walk through the 280,000-nest colony and check up on the nests of the 500 penguins, identified with bands, that they are studying. “In the last eight to nine years, this population has been going through the roof,” says Mr. Ainley. 

That sounds good – until you hear the reason: Warming oceans from climate change have opened up more polynyas, or small ice-free openings, that benefit the penguins. At the same time, overfishing of Antarctic toothfish has knocked out one of their main competitors for food. The food chain is going awry.

Living in these remote camps – where you have to melt your own snow for the occasional shower and blizzards can trap you in your tent for days – still gives you a sense of adventure. It’s the kind of office most people imagine when they think of Antarctica. The most extreme camps require a long ride, usually starting with a ski-equipped military transport plane.

Matt Siegfried of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego is leading a six-member team to study subglacial lakes and their effects on glacial flow. This season, they’re taking a squad of snowmobiles with them on the 560-mile flight. Once they land, they’ll barrel across the ice stream, setting up a series of four mobile camps over six weeks.

But it’s hard to completely shake off the Club Med attitude – they’ll be bringing some Cornish hens, among other things. “It’s kind of a silly nice life we have out there. Glamping,” says Mr. Siegfried of their attempt to create glamorous camping conditions. 

Among the support crew, a few groups stand out. There’s the One and Done, young people usually fresh out of school who often haven’t traveled much. They stay for a season, if that, and basically just tick Antarctica off their bucket list. One dining attendant this year quit on her first day. 

Then there’s the Perennial Contractor, like my first roommate. These people are at McMurdo for the money. They’ve often done a tour in Afghanistan and Iraq as military or civilian support staff, and you won’t be catching them at the Sunday science lectures. The Partyer is reliving his – or more often than not, her – college years; a guy-to-girl ratio of 3 to 1 means that women are often the center of any party.

“The community down here is extremely unique,” says Ms. Walker, the science manager here for the past seven years. “The people are adventure-seeking travelers, and everyone has a very cool story to tell.” 

Gossip spreads and characters quickly become legends. A roommate swears he’s met a guy in witness protection here. One friend says he knew of a guy who skied everything he wasn’t allowed to ski (which is basically everything) in the first week and was promptly fired. Just among the chefs, there’s a former guard at Guantánamo and a salesman who goes around the world selling glitter.

In my last month of the season, I will travel to the other side of the continent, where I will work as a naturalist guide on a 200-passenger expedition cruise ship. On board will be Tom Hart from the University of Oxford in England. Instead of being based at one of the national research stations, he piggybacks on these periodic cruise liners to conduct his studies of penguins. 

It’s an ultra-cheap version of the same sort of science being done at McMurdo. But while the passengers politely listen to his lectures, they’re really more interested in getting their close-ups taken with the birds. 

I already miss the geeks and misfits and bureaucrats of McMurdo. 


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