Ask the guy who worked in Antarctica

Hello Dopers:

I managed to work with scientific parties a couple of times, the first with the New Zealand program (NZARP), and the second with the US program via the NSF. Both times I spent most of my time at Cape Bird on Ross Island, but have also spent a bit of time at McMurdo station and Scott Base.

The first trip I was helping with a project on circadian rhythms in Adelie Penguins, and the second I was working on a project on siblicide in South Polar Skuas.

At Cape Bird, we stayed mainly in a small hut, but slept in scott polar tents.

I was there for 3 weeks the first trip, and 3.5 months the second.

I’ve read a fair bit on the early explorers, especially in the Ross Sea area, and have visited Scott’s hut on hut point, Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds as well as a trip to Cape Crozier.

Ask away - and if there are any other Dopers with Antarctic stories, feel free to chime in!

Find any meteorites while you were there? I’ve heard they’re easy to find in snowpack. Do the tents you slept in have a floor lining? I have very limited experience camong in snow in a tent, but the floor always seems to get a little soggy.

No meteorites… Cape Bird is a rocky area where penguins come out to nest. It has virtually no snow pack during the summer. The only time we spent on pack ice/snow was during survival training. I suspect that meteorites are not that easy to find, unless you’re on a team that is specifically looking for them.

The tents were pyramid shaped, double walled with a floor. We had them set up on rocky ground, so no problem getting wet. Even for those field parties that were on sea ice or snow pack, there was no melting going on, so nothing getting wet.

Was it cold? Or rather, what was the coldest temperature you experienced?

Did you find any alien organisms that took over animals and humans and went on killing sprees?

Someone here mentioned that there is some relatively large habitation somewhere down there–it might have been at the Pole, or maybe it was what they used to call Little America, or something. But apparently it was like an actual small town and there was even a bar. Does that exist? I was intrigued by that because it was reminiscent of remote space colony outposts in science fiction.

I was there in the summer, so it was relatively warm: -20 C was the coldest, +3 C was the warmest. We were in the “tropics”. During our radio skeds, the other field parties were routinely dealing with -30 C

The killing-spree-alien-organisms are able to copy your memories exactly, so there is no way of telling whether or not a simple code word from the mother ship will turn me into an alien killing machine.

There are quite a few bases in Antarctica, many of which are staffed all year. In the summer, the population of the bases increases a lot.
You’re probably thinking of McMurdo base, which is the largest (I think). Yes, there are bars there (three different ones when I was there). There is also a church.
It’s a strange feeling to stumble out of a bar at 3:00 am, into bright sunlight.

McMurdo is sort of like a mining town in many ways. A mining town run by the US Navy. We were very happy to spend as little time there as possible and get to our field site.

What’s the social life like?

So, what’s the deal with South Polar Skuas killing their siblings?

Also, what’s the privacy situation when you were living in the tent? Is it noisy in there? Did you have cots or bunk beds?

What do you do during your free time? Can you ever take a walk outside, or is that just asking to become an icicle? Were you happy to get back home?

At the main bases, there is often lots to do. Aside from the aforementioned bars, there are various clubs, games, etc. There are many parties, often with interesting “themes”. The Kiwis used to have a ski hill near Scott Base, but the Americans were not allowed to use it for liability reasons.

In our small field station, we had only 6 people, so the social opportunities were more limited. Thank goodness we all got along! We had a few games, and cooking was a highlight. We played trivial persuit against the other field parties a few evenings (via radio at Scott Base who read the questions out)

How many people would you say are down there in the summer? I ask because my uncle is a well known Adelie Penguin expert and spends every year down there.

What other kind of wildlife did you encounter other than birds?

Antarctica huh? Some guy told me it gets kind of cold down there. What kind of safety precautions did you take to protect you from the cold? Would it be easy to get lost out there? What kind (and brand) of clothes do you wear?

Also, what kind of medical facilities were available? What happened when someone got really sick? Is it possible to fly them back to the states? How often do flights go in and out of Antarctica?

Sorry for asking so many questions but it’s an interesting topic :slight_smile:

So… how do you phone home? Pay phone? Cellphone? Office phone and account with your supervisor/organization? Are there any banks or ATMs? What do you do for vegetables and fresh food? How do others phone you? Is there internet service? Sauna? Tim Hortons (archetypical Canadian chain donut shop) or other coffee shop? McDonalds? Pubs?

How do you deal with the isolation? I don’t think I’d last a minute out there, let alone the harsh conditions. Is there reliable internet access? I assume supplies are dropped via aircraft?

I thought I heard somewhere that you have to have your wisdom teeth removed to go to Antarctica. That sounds kinda odd, but is it true? If so, why?

They lay 2 eggs with asynchronous hatching. The oldest sibling most often kills the youngest. This is fairly rare in birds - eagles for instance will push a younger sibling out ot the nest, but birds rarely kill a sibling outright. Skua chicks are nasty little buggers. They literally peck their little brother (or sister) to death. We wanted to see what would happen if we gave certain nests an over-abundance of food. (no change!)

It was VERY noisy, especially when constant 60km/hour winds battered the double walls and they flapped together. No cots or bunks - we slept directly on thermorests on the ground.

Free time - read books, played board games, photography, solved the world’s problems, etc. Since the temp. outside was usually -5 C or so, it was actually really pleasant. We did quite a few walks, around the penguin colony and further South along the beach.

The summer population at McMurdo was around 800 at any given time when we were there. Scott base was more like 60. (There are many other bases scattered around the continent too) In the winter time, the population of the bases goes way down. I think McMurdo was going to be around 140 or so.

Adelie expert - David Ainley?

Other wildlife - Weddell Seals, Leopard Seals (yikes), Orcas. We got a chance to watch a team doing diving under the ice with an underwater camera - Awesome! Sea stars, fish, other interesting invertebrates.

Yes, cold, but in the summer no problem. We had excellent cold weather gear, and since we’re from Canada anyway… (my wife and I were both there as field assistants)
Getting lost was pretty much impossible where we were at Cape Bird - sea ice in front, major ice cap in back. I can’t remember the brands of clothing - supplied by National Research Council. It was nice and warm though.

There’s a doctor and dentist at McMurdo. For anything major, they’ll fly you back to New Zealand. One of our cabin mates broke a tooth at one point. He had to be helicoptered back to McMurdo (about an hour), where the dentist pulled it. No fancy root canal and porcelain cap for him! You may recall the doctor at the South Pole a couple of years ago that diagnosed herself with cancer. A little more serious since in the winter at the pole, they cannot get flights in and out for many months.

In the summer, flights go from Christchurch New Zealand to McMurdo on a daily basis, weather dependent.

The communications have probably changed since we were there (12 years ago or so) From our field station at Cape Bird, we didn’t phone home. We radioed Scott Base (Cape Bird is officially a Kiwi field station) once/day to tell them we were still alive.

Calls out of McMurdo were done by radio phone and were strictly limited. This may have changed, but I seriously doubt they get cell coverage. I think they have much better internet connections down there now though! No banks or ATM’s when we were there, but I bet this has changed too.

In McMurdo, when you wanted food, you just went to the mess and ate. As civilians, we pretty much had the run of the place, but if you were in the Navy, you followed Navy protocol. Think Navy Base. At our field station, we cooked all our own food. To get the food, we went “shopping” when we first got there. Filled up cart after cart of food, and then divided it up into 3 lots of resupply. (how much pasta do we need for 4 months??) We didn’t have to pay for anything… (quick, grab more boxes of king crab legs and sirloins!)

At McMurdo, it would be “isolation” in the form of living in a three story “apartment” block, and having 800 other people all crammed into a relatively small footprint.

I’m betting that they have good internet access now - not when we were there.

A lot of the supplies to McMurdo come via ship in the late summer. Others come via the daily flights from Christchurch NZ

At Cape Bird, all people and supplies move in and out via helicopter. Helicopters are widely used for field parties.