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Life on Ice

Judd Sakomoto, BS electrical engineering '91, travels to Antarctica for short periods to consult on construction projects. Photo courtesy of Judd Sakomoto

It is the world’s most exclusive summer camp. It sports breathtaking 14,000-foot mountain peaks, an active volcano, summer temperatures that hover around freezing, 24-hour sunlight, penguins, whiteouts and glaciers galore.

Antarctica is a mass of volcanic rock and ice that doubles in size to approximately 30-million square miles in the winter when the sea freezes. The continent had its first human visitors in 1820, and by 1899, the first humans had set up camps, ushering in whaling, sealing, exploration and science.

In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed, declaring the coldest, highest, windiest, driest continent on Earth as one dedicated to the pursuit of science.

You may already have known all that. What you probably didn’t know about Antarctica is that penguins stink, a date can be hard to come by, and oil wrestling is a good way to pass the time when you’re stuck in the middle of a barren, icy continent in the dead of winter.

The guy who cleans the toilet just might have a PhD.

Antarctica’s unique atmospheric conditions make the continent a prime locale for the study of atmospheric physics and chemistry, particularly regarding ozone degradation, according to DU Research Physicist Renate Van Allen, who has visited the South Pole nine times for her ozone research.

DU research physicists John Olson, Toufic Hawat, Ron Blatherwick, Pierre Fogal      (MS ’89, PhD ’94) and physics Prof. Frank Murcray also have studied ozone in
Antarctica. In 2003, Olson, Fogal and Hawat installed spectrometers at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and on the coast near McMurdo Station to study the chemical compounds that contribute to ozone destruction.

DU’s researchers are among a select few who get to make Antarctica their laboratory. With only 1,000 people on the continent during the winter (March through August) and 4,000 during the summer, grabbing a spot at one of Antarctica’s research stations is competitive.

Some, like Kristi Moore, BS ’97, do whatever it takes just to make it to the ice. “My degree was in biology, so I figured I could go,” Moore recalls. “They laughed in my face. But I said, ‘I’ll do anything to get down there.’ So I applied as a general assistant in construction. I ended up shoveling snow and moving two-by-fours here and there. It was crappy, but it got my foot in the door.

“They found out I was good at logistics and computers so they started training me, and I joined the construction logistics team,” adds Moore, who helped build a new South Pole facility and who now is wintering at McMurdo, where she also works in construction.

“They say that Antarctica is the most educated continent of the world,” notes Matt Harwood (pictured on the previous page), BS environmental science ’03, MBA ’03, who works as an assistant supervisor of laboratory operations at McMurdo. He recently finished a 14-month stint and then returned in February for another tour. “We have people with PhDs who come down to drive a truck all day or to be a janitor.”

Don’t expect a mint on your pillow.

Life in Antarctica is communal living at its best.

The United States operates three stations: The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Palmer Station and McMurdo Station, which is the largest Antarctic outpost and serves as the arrival point for most travelers. Other nations run 41 additional Antarctic research posts.

During the summer months, McMurdo houses about 1,000 people in dorm-style facilities. That number dwindles to about 250 come winter.

“You are graded by your ice time and qualifications for your job as to which of the dorms you get to reside in,” explains Susan MacGregor, PhD chemistry ’96, who worked in Antarctica as a senior analytical chemist in 2002 and 2003. “The uppercase dorms are for people with a higher job title or people who have gone there for a longer time.”

Unlike McMurdo, which resembles a mining town, all of the buildings at the South Pole are contained inside one large dome. There, large canvas huts house the guests.

“A welding curtain is hung over the front of the room entrance to provide some privacy,” Moore says. “But, you can still hear everything … snoring at night, people peeing in five-gallon cans so they don’t have to get dressed up and go outside to use the restroom, which is located in another building.”

Van Allen says that South Pole residents — who number 240 in summer and 102 in winter — joke that McMurdo residents are “city folks” since there are three bars, a bowling alley and large recreation department that plans organized activities. At the Pole, residents can’t even get a bath: They are limited to two, two-minute showers per week.

They don’t serve peanuts on the flight.

Antarctic adventurers travel to the bottom of the planet from Christ Church, New Zealand, via military planes flown by the New York National Guard. They sardine into a cargo hold for a trip that can take anywhere from five to eight hours depending on the wind.

Getting from the plane to the station can be just as adventurous as the flight, says Deborah Foley, BA speech communications/psychology ’84, who was a vehicle operator and cook at Williams Field (McMurdo’s airstrip) in the mid 1980s. She was responsible for transporting cargo and flight crews to McMurdo from the airfield.

“The scary part of the drive is when the temperatures increase and puddles form from the melted sea ice. There is a sheer 60-foot drop from McMurdo to the sea ice if you miss the ramp that takes you to the station.

“Talk about silence in a vehicle when you drive through a puddle that reaches the middle of the door and you hope that you will make it to land,” adds Foley, who drove a truck with tires taller than she was.

Transporting material to Antarctica also is difficult. Although you can use the Internet to order items, don’t expect your purchase to be shipped the next day. Packages can be delayed for up to six weeks, Harwood notes, because scientific cargo and passengers are always given first priority. Only if there’s room does mail make it on board.

Leave your party clothes at home.

Unlike seals, whose 90-percent body fat insulates them, humans have to pack some heavy-duty extra layers to survive the Antarctic cold. The National Science Foundation, which runs the U.S. outposts, helps out a bit. Each Antarctic visitor is outfitted with all the clothes they’ll need — thermal underwear, fleece pullovers, gloves, socks, hats, boots and parkas.

“I got sick of wearing my long underwear,” Moore says of her second skin. “I wore them every day — every day.”

In addition to necessary scientific equipment, most Antarctic-bound luggage also carries the same sorts of items — sunglasses, a camera, books and the like — that people would take along on a cruise. But, Fogal says, if you’re bound for Antarctica, be sure to bring at least two more books than you think you’ll read.

“Music is a huge thing to bring because you are working nine hours a day, six days a week, and depending on your job, you may be working alone a lot,” Harwood adds.

Forget the insect repellent though. “The environment is so hostile,” he says, “no creepy crawlers can survive.”

Whatever visitors want, they’ll have to pack it because there’s no supermarket to run to. “At McMurdo, you can get potato chips and alcohol, but you shouldn’t expect to buy a pair of jeans or something like that,” says Olson, who scrambled to buy a towel before leaving New Zealand.

“My second season, I shipped several boxes of comfort items: an electric teapot, a CD player, favorite music, books and all sorts of girlie smelly good stuff,” MacGregor says. “You really miss scents in Antarctica.

“Most of all,” MacGregor adds, “you need to bring your sense of adventure — a child-like curiosity for new experiences, a genuine interest in your fellow tribe members, and, of course, a love of the great outdoors.”

The fairer sex is hard to come by.

Romance on the ice can be tricky. In 1961-62 when Paul Tyler, BA chemistry ’58, was the commanding Navy medical officer at Hallot Station (which no longer exists), no women were allowed on the ice. The sign on the runway read: 18 men, 1 boy and 100,000 penguins.

It wasn’t until 1973 that women lived in Antarctica, and even now the male to female ratio is askew.

When Foley was working on the ice, there were eleven men to one woman.

“If you wanted a relationship down there, you could find it easily,” Foley says. “But, a lot of the relationships that you build down there don’t last. I only know of two couples that have survived beyond the ice.”

“I never had to find someone to dance with at a party,” says Moore, who was one of eight women among 42 men wintering at the South Pole. “As a female, you get a ton of attention, and they look after you. Sometimes it was quite fascinating how primal it was. They would try to fight other men to get your attention.”

“At McMurdo, I’d say the ratio was about 1 to 3,” Harwood notes. “But then, some people come down married or dating so there aren’t very many available women. The single men go after the single women, and it’s a race to the finish line.”

It’s a lot colder than Fargo in January.

“The cold has a real physical presence there,” Fogal says. “When they drop the gate on the plane, it’s like getting hit by something. You hear the numbers, but if you haven’t felt it, it just hasn’t registered.

“There’s a profound feeling that it’s never been warm,” he adds.

With an average summer temperature of 26 degrees, McMurdo is actually considered quite toasty. Foley recalls seeing people walking around in shorts. But McMurdo (nicknamed Mud Hill for the mucky summer ground) also sports fierce, whiteout-inducing winds.

“They’re called ‘herbies,’ and it’s basically a hurricane with snow,” explains Harwood, who recalls a May squall with 188-mile-per-hour gusts. “The wind created a pressure differential on the inside and outside of one of the buildings. It sucked a Plexiglass window out of the frame in a room, and we found it on the other side of the station with the wood from the building still connected. When the guy came back to his room, everything was covered in snow.”

“You get icicles on your eyelashes and eyebrows,” says Moore, who wintered over at the South Pole for her construction job. “When summer comes and it’s -10 degrees, it is so nice and warm you are just loving it!”

You can do lots of fun things with Jell-O.

Life in Antarctica isn’t all about science. McMurdo has a recreation department that plans events every weekend: holiday parties, sushi nights, wine tasting, cross-country skiing, sightseeing trips to Scott’s Hut or the penguin rookeries. They even brought in mountain bikes one year. Hitching rides with scientists conducting work in the field is another way to get away from the station and see something new.

“There were always activities to be found to keep one busy,” Foley recalls. “Twenty-four hours of daylight for six months does make for long days. If you put an effort into the things you do or make an effort to meet people, there were plenty of opportunities.”

For example, on Christmas Day, the South Pole hosts a “Race Around the World.” “They create a track around the ceremonial South Pole that everyone has to complete three times to get a free T-shirt,” says Moore, recalling her shock when she showed up ready to run only to find participants making the trip by any means possible. “People were dressed up in costumes, using tow ropes and snowboarding behind snowmobiles, and there were huge sleds hooked up to forklifts that were loaded with couches and living room chairs!”

But even with organized activities, cabin fever sweeps Antarctica, especially midway through the summer and during the winter when no planes can fly in or out and outdoor activities are limited.

“It’s not the cold that is the problem down there,” MacGregor says. “It’s the isolation.”

“You are isolated from society in general, but you are in very close quarters with lots of people,” Tyler adds. “You could really never be alone.”

But, Van Allen notes, “The human mind finds something to entertain itself.”

Sometimes, that entertainment comes in the form of Jell-O. “We had all this expired Jell-O that had to be thrown out,” Harwood recalls. “So, instead of wasting it, one of the chefs cooked up 500 pounds of Jell-O. He created a ring out of pillows and thick plastic, and we had a Jell-O wrestling championship.”

Jell-O was an instrument of mischief at Williams Field, too. Foley recalls using green Jell-O powder to outline a football field for a Thanksgiving game.

The food isn’t half bad.

Early Antarctic residents may have subsisted on seal meat and canned goods, but these days, the food is practically gourmet. Meal times in Antarctica bring people together and boost morale.

“There was no hardship as far as the food was concerned,” says MacGregor (pictured, upper right).

“The cost of shipping food is so much that the cost of the actual food is irrelevant,” says Fogal, who dined on steak, lobster, chicken, vegetarian selections and “amazing” baked goods.

Grub is ordered a year or more in advance, and there’s always plenty of freezer space. Fresh fruits and veggies are hard to come by, but during the summer, “freshies” are flown in from New Zealand.

“When I go back there, it reminds me of going back to DU — the cafeteria, the serving trays and going through the galley line,” says Judd Sakomoto, BS electrical engineering ’91, who travels to the ice for short periods to consult on construction projects.

Foley was appointed as the Williams Field close-out cook after complaining about the food. But to prepare food up to her own standards, she had to be resourceful. “I learned very quickly that if I made sweet rolls for the flight crews, I could give them a special shopping list,” Foley admits. Once, she traded a case of beer to another station for two eggs so she could make a birthday cake for her roommate.

There truly is no other place like it.

Adjusting to the 24-hour daylight of the Antarctic summer can be a challenge. “The sun spins around your head and never goes up or down,” Sakomoto says.

But, “After the first couple of days, I just started sleep when I was tired,” Fogal recalls.

“Some are much more affected by it than others,” MacGregor says. “I was totally energized by it. You just don’t get sleepy. You tend to go, go, go until you hit an exhaustion point and crash. We called it ‘toast.’ You get a trance-like look and just sit there and don’t talk.”

In February, winter starts to settle in and darkness begins to replace the 24-hours of light. Most of Antarctica’s human population returns home, leaving only a few hardy souls to keep things running.

By the end of March, winter arrives in full and the continent deepens into six months of persistent darkness.

“The day that the station closes down for the winter, you are standing near the runway watching that last flight take off into the sky,” Moore says. “Then there is silence, and you are stuck for eight months.”

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