Life in Antarctica

Life in Antarctica

What’s double the size of Australia, covered by 98% ice, and has no permanent human residents? Antarctica.  

Antarctica is a desert of snow and ice surrounded by freezing ocean at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere. It has an average temperature of -49°C, katabatic winds of hurricane speeds (you know the kind that slope down hills and look like clouds), and a temporary human population that varies from 1,000 to 5,000 a year. 

New Zealand has a strong relationship with Antarctica. The advantage in living so close has proven itself with the Antarctica New Zealand association, the Crown entity that manages the most commonly populated area of Scott Base, the New Zealand research station. The station is situated at the southern end of Ross Island, 3,500kms south of Dunedin, an active volcano called Erebus looms over the green buildings that make up the camp. 

My dad, Andy Thompson, is the programme manager and outdoor instructor for Otago Polytechnic, as well as a professional photographer. He has been to Antarctica four times, staying at Scott Base on every visit. He has flown around the Transantarctic Mountains and climbed four peaks (one on each visit). His knowledge about the continent is extensive and personal, and when asked why anyone goes to Antarctica, his reply was: “why would anybody not?” 

“In truth,” he went on, “there are so many reasons to visit Antarctica. People go there to complete science projects to better understand … how Antarctica has an effect on [global] weather systems, eco wildlife systems and climate change. A lot of self-funded people go there to challenge themselves with adventure, and test themselves against extreme odds with journeys and mountaineering. There are cruise ships and some folk even sail down on their own crafts. There are also political reasons to visit Antarctica; because it holds many potential resources, minerals and oil, that have not been used, due to a treaty established in 1956.”

Andy Thompson first went to Antarctica to lead a field training school for four months, with two other staff members. He managed staff, and ran field training for people who came to Scott Base, teaching survival and mountaineering skills so that they could live and complete their work without incident. 

“We would take them out on the sea ice, into the ice fall, through crevasses, and they would build snow shelters to stay out in. This would be either a snow dome, an igloo or a trench,” Thompson explained, “once I was called out as part of a team to attend a rescue across the Polar Plateau. This crossed the South Pole and involved retrieving three Norwegians. The fourth had been killed in a crevasse.”

During the other three visits to Antarctica, Thompson guided and managed geologists during their research, which involved six weeks in tents deep in the field.

Typical life in Antarctica for Thompson involved early mornings and endless daylight. He explains his summer season as: “breakfast at 7am in a room with shutters to ease into the day. If you were working at Scott Base, then after breakfast you would head off to your respective areas … we would do introductions and briefings for going out, then head out in front of Scott Base and teach them about travelling on sea ice. In the afternoon we would go to an area called ‘Mound City’ where we would build survival shelters, i.e., snow mounds, igloos, trenches for the night. The next day we would travel through a section of glacier avoiding large crevasses and teach about this sort of travel.”

Of course, the days varied, “other times we would practise search and rescue. This involved flying by helicopter to … the Transantarctic Mountains and training on SAR [Search and Rescue] techniques. It all made me feel alive, and I had a sense of purpose. I loved interacting with the people, getting to know them, forming great working relationships. I loved teaching in this environment and never was bored – although for anyone to do that you need to make a conscious effort to remind yourself how fortunate you are and although you may be repeating tasks, remember to appreciate what and why you were doing what you were doing.”

Sickness could occur due to the vast change in temperature between Scott Base and outside, from dry cold to dry heat, so workers had to get plenty of rest to recharge. Thompson went for four summer periods, which meant 24-hour daylight. 

“It is important to keep regular hours, even in a tent in a deep field. This was challenging because if you get up in the night to pee it is bright sunlight. So you need to make a conscious effort to go back to sleep and not wake up too much. I had eyeshades that helped. However, if you were stuck in a storm, this could make you a bit fidgety.”

New Zealand and Antarctica have a strong relationship. Sir Edmund Hilary was the first person to visit the South Pole on a tractor (fame!), and NZ lays claim to the Ross Dependency, which encompasses a large area of sea, land and mountains. 

Another person lucky enough to travel so far south is Anna Carr, senior lecturer for tourism and my all-star mother. She applied to Antarctic NZ to work as a ‘general duties’ staff member at Scott Base for three and a half months. She also worked in the field on Erebus, in the Dry Valleys (a place almost normal looking, fairly ice-free), and spent a day at the very significant Cape Crozier, an Antarctic Special Protected Area (ASPA). In her free time, she took trips to the Ross Island Historic Huts and Scott Base ski fields, as well as trips out onto the sea ice. Before going she had to pass a medical and attend a weekend field camp at Tekapo, which included snow caving overnight as well as driving and first aid skills.

Anna had a decade of outdoor experience, background knowledge in first aid as a paramedic, training in a ski patrol that dealt with avalanches, as well as a heavy traffic driver’s license. She described her typical routine in Antarctica: 

“I had to share a room with someone who worked the night shift so mornings were quiet, up at 8am. I performed general duties, so either kitchen and chef assistant work, or cleaning the base. This included the laboratories, the library and the glasshouse. I also did first aid on the base and travelled with several parties to help with field camps. Everything there is regimented, like in the army, so things run like clockwork. The climate is so extreme, you can’t muck about. We had to sign in and out every time we left Scott Base for a simple walk, or to take a shuttle bus to MacMurdo Station, where there was a coffee shop, a hairdresser, a bowling alley, basketball courts and a gym. I was there over summer and I found the 24 hour daylight quite invigorating and, by January it wasn’t that cold.”

Anna currently works with the university, but remains a member of the International Polar Tourism Research Network. “I love Dunedin’s relationship with Antarctica,” she said, “the university has strong links through the Geology and Physics departments, and two great explorers - Scott and Shackleton - from the ‘Heroic’ era, departed from Port Chalmers.”

In 1901 an expedition intent on discovering the South Pole departed from Dunedin itself.  The voyage ended tragically with the crew perishing on the continent two years later. Nevertheless, Port Chalmers has maintained its reputation as the starting point for Antarctic journeys, with the first people to step foot on the Antarctic mainland leaving from its port in 1894.  

Of course, it is not only humans who manage to live in Antarctica. The continent really belongs to the waddell seals, elephant seals, orca, baleen whales, albatross, krill, and Adelie penguins that populate its coast. The penguins stand at around 55cm high, and are pretty cute in a dorky kind of way. The little birds steal each other’s rocks for their nests and walk with absolute purpose. 

But the better recognized, and much loved, animals of the land have to be the famous Emperor penguins. They are the tallest and heaviest penguins in existence, reaching 122cm in height. The penguins look dignified when standing still, with their coloured features and dinner-jacket markings. However, when they walk they have a desperate waddle, quite similar to that of the Scarfie on a hunt for loo roll mid-booze pooz. 

Emperors are curious and brave, and will approach humans and vehicles. Their ability to survive in such a harsh climate is nothing short of amazing. They keep warm by huddling together in large colonies, rotating members from the outside to inside. When swimming in the sea, their feathers provide little insulation.  Instead, they have a sub-cutaneous (under the skin) layer of fat that keeps them warm. They breed exclusively on ice and lay their eggs around May or June, when the females leave the males in charge of the eggs for four months to hunt. 

They are remarkable creatures and the main soft toy of my childhood. But they may not be here forever without help. Global warming is melting the sea ice, which is diminishing the availability of krill and fish for the penguins to eat. As you may have seen in Happy Feet, it is only a matter of time before climate change causes more damage to these animals. While Antarctica is too huge to be obviously affected yet, its West Peninsula is one of the fastest warming areas on the planet. 

Antarctica is a vital domain for remarkable and unique animals, as well as a hub for scientific experiments.

So how can the average Joe make it there? There are several ways:

  • If you are lucky enough to be a rich playa then the world is your frozen oyster, and you may freely board a Quark cruise ship to sidle some 4,868 km down the world to stand with giant penguins and lose a few fingers.
  • You can potentially score a staff job with a National programme, like Antarctica New Zealand.
  • Like to climb? You could be trained as a mountain guide and go through companies like Adventure Consultants, who have operated in Antarctica since 1976. 
  • If your grades are good enough, you could participate in a research project and get funding. Many students go to complete their masters or PHD.
  • If you aren’t so scientific (#feels) there is, magically, a media, writers and artists programme you can apply for, now called the Community Engagement Programme. If you polish your craft and get some work out there, you are eligible.

It’s not easy getting there, but if you had the chance, why wouldn’t you? Living in a small, beautiful country like NZ, it’s easy to settle and feel content, but don’t forget that there are unusual and life changing places not far from us. So if the opportunity presents itself, I say take it and run.

This article first appeared in Issue 8, 2017.
Posted 12:20pm Sunday 9th April 2017 by Jessica Thompson Carr.