Doing Science in the Antarctic

December mornings on the continent of Antarctica bring brilliant sunshine and temperatures as high as -25 degrees. However, the gale-forced winds that blow across this two-mile thick glacier bring a wind chill that could freeze any exposed flesh. A strong case can be made for the South Pole being the harshest location on the planet.

One of the most isolated and important scientific outposts is a permanent U.S. station located in this climate. There was a time when only specified workers and analysts were permitted at the Pole. This is no longer the case, however, as there are flights chartered by affluent adventure seekers and tourists that have begun to visit this extreme location.

All that can really be seen is white. Within a thousand miles of the Pole there is not even a penguin. But that does not diminish the want, need and desire to be somewhere where most people cannot even fathom of coming to visit.

Many of the scientists and officials who live and work at the South Pole do not like the idea of the outpost being used as an attraction. This is particularly true when they have to deal with diesel bulldozers and cranes working to develop the place. While researchers are busy working during the season, uninvited guests will often arrive. Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done to prevent it.

Antarctica belongs to no one and everyone. 43 nation agreement states that scientific research can be done as well as other exploration expeditions but that does not include exploitation of the land. The U.S. staffs three large stations throughout the year, even during the Pole’s winter, which lasts for eight months without a ray of sunlight. There is an unspoken law that gives aid to anyone who is foolhardy enough to make the trek to the Antarctic.

Since it can often be difficult to survive down there because of the high altitudes, it’s not recommended that people idly visit. They then often are rescued not only almost hypothermic, but they are also suffering from dehydration and from the high elevation.

Originally, in 1975, the dome slept thirty-three men. Now, crammed into every little spot they can fit, they can fit two hundred men and women. “Summer Camp” is the name that has been given to the bunkhouses assembled of plywood, plastic, and canvas, that cover the glacier.

Because of the nature of the ice, Summer Camp does not have to worry about fresh water. This is true for many of the camps on the glacier. Laundry, flushing toilets, and showers are infrequent treats due to the melting ice and fuel costs of $ 12 per gallon. The long trek to a communal bathroom can be a perilous and bone-chilling experience even underneath the blazing sun at 3:00 AM.

The very first woman who came to Antarctica needed military escorts. Today, at least a third of the summer staff are female, and they are treated as colleagues. The Pole takes its toll on the work and the work force.

Research indicates that it takes three times as long to finish a basic task when people are working in extremely cold conditions. The theorize this happens because the human brain has issues trying to produce the right types of chemicals to get even the simplest task done in such extreme cold. This deteriorates further during the harsh winters.

Starting in mid February each year, no aircraft flies to the South Pole. Only a crew of 28 winter-overs remain for the next six-months. It is not until October that the sun shines again and the airplanes return.

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