IamA South Pole winter-over who worked at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for 12 months straight AMA!
First of all none of my statements represent or are intended to represent the National Science Foundation, United States Antarctic Program, or ASC. I spent 12 months working at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station and also got to spend time at McMurdo and Scott Base. I was there for the double medevac/first true winter flight this past year. Most of the AMAs I've seen have been from people on the coastal stations like McMurdo so I thought it might be interesting to do one from someone at an interior station.
Also pictures I've posted on reddit over the past year from the Pole:
EDIT: Heading to bed now but please continue to ask questions. I will answer all of them in the morning :)
I was the network engineer. There is no online gaming at the South Pole. We have three different satellites that provide Internet access for about 11-12 hours a day. Each satellite provides a different speed ranging from 1.5 Mb to 30 Mb for the entire station. The satellites also shift their uptime by about 4 minutes per day so part of the year it's up during normal working hours and part of the year its up while most people are sleeping.
It's true that from mid February to mid October no planes come or go from the South Pole so we have to make due with what we have on hand. We do have limited ability for 24/7 communication via phone and e-mail by utilizing some Iridium modems.
Time to bust out the smash bros then.
Yes we did do a lot of multiplayer gaming like Mario Kart, Smash Bros etc... there :)
Oh man, who should I talk to if I want to do some Smashing while I'm there?
There's a Wii in one of the lounges and Smash Bros there too. Gotta organize events yourself ;)
Be honest. Is there a ice wall?
I mean theoretically yes. The station sits on a giant ice wall. But it's not circling the Earth like the flat earthers say :P
Why is there a lack of photos from the area?
From what area? We all take tons of pics including aerial pics every year.
Why a Wii, and nit a WiiU, ps4, xbox, etc?
Particular reasoning, or just cheap and small and nobody's donated anything else yet?
There are PS3's and XBox 360s as well. People played Call of Duty and Halo also.
Have you met Tom Cruise? He seems crazy but super likable. Am I right?
No I haven't met Tom Cruise lol Is this a reference to something?
What are the relationships like there? Are there married couples? Are the support staff and scientists in the same social groupings? Is it like high school, or is everybody professional, mature, and responsible? Gossip!
I'd there active monitoring of individuals mental health? What happens if someone is struggling to fit in, or whatever? Any examples of a toxic personality?
There were couples during my winter and summer. I'm not familiar with any that were actually married but I'm sure it has happened. At least for the winter at Pole it's pretty hard for the scientists and support staff to not be in the same social groupings. We had 46 people total on the station for the polar winter so you see almost everyone every day. Some of the best friends I made on ice were scientists.
As far as struggling to fit in it does happen. As far as the community's response to that it varies from winter to winter and person to person so it's hard to give a blanket answer to that. Both the Dr and Physician's Assistant will give pastoral care to anyone on the station though so you have someone you can speak to privately and trust that it will remain so.
So...how often did you hook up?
At Pole during my winter there were only 8-9 women with the rest being men and most of the women had significant others. So you can do the math from there :P
What are your thoughts on the rumors of Nazis having a hidden base there and that Antarctica is actually Atlantis before it froze over?
We did watch the Ancient Aliens episode on Pyramids in Antarctica while we were there. It's mostly just chuckle worthy stuff. It's a little surreal listen to these conspiracy theorists talk about where you are right now and spout off stuff that isn't event remotely accurate. It IS however interesting to think about what is hidden bellow the glacial abyss but none of these people that spout this stuff off have any idea.
Is T3 a real phenomenon when wintering over at the South Pole? T3 meaning brain fog, sleepiness, and other hypothyroid symptoms. Do human bodies require sunlight to generate thyroid hormones?
Absolutely it's a real thing IMO. Especially as the winter went on I definitely experienced memory issues, insomnia etc... and I know many others did as well.
Thanks for your reply. Is it commonly treated there with synthroid or left untreated? Is the cause something to do with the lack of sunlight?
Lack of sunlight is part of it. The pole is just hard on your body in general. Aside from the cold and no sun there is 0% humidity and you are at altitude which can change wildly. It's not uncommon to go from an equivalent pressure of 10,000 feet to 11,000 feet over the course of 24 hours. So you're dealing with pressure changes often without even realizing it's happening. Because of all of this it compounds your ability to get good sleep.
You're also not getting any fresh fruits and vegetables. Everything is frozen and often over the course of the winter we run out of various things. So there's that component as well.
What is the most interesting research being done in Antarctica right now in your opinion?
The South Pole Telescope is a super impressive structure and is trippy to be at in the polar winter when it is moving. It's not an optical telescope though. One of the awesome things the scientists do is give science lectures about their experiments to the support staff and their explanation about discovering B-Mode distortions in the cosmic microwave background was really cool.
Do you have a film library at the station, and is John Carpenter's The Thing in that library?
It is a tradition amongst south pole winter-overs to watch The Thing together after the last plane leaves at the start of winter. So yes we have it :) We also have a very large film library of movies, documentaries and TV shows.
What is something unexpected about living at the south pole?
Just how close you get with your winter over crew. Not just in a mushy emotional way but in the sense that we all share bathrooms, do each other's dishes, clean each other's toilets sort of way.
What's your opinion on countries potentially launching mining operations or similar in Antarctica?
Probably not a great idea on the continent proper from an employee safety standpoint. I am not super familiar with the Antarctic peninsula where it is a lot less frozen so I honestly can't speak intelligently there. Plus like most people I much prefer to see the continent as pristine as possible.
I am a new postdoc working on the SuperDARN radars. Gonna be heading down to McMurdo and then South Pole at the end of the month. Are there any cool things to do/see down there that I might miss if I didn't know about them?
Hrm, if there's an opportunity you could go to SPRESO. It's 5 miles from the station and you have to dig out the hatch into a room down a 40 foot ladder. The people who make it there sign their name on the walls. Not many people get to go out there though so it might be a longshot.
Also get someone to give you a tour of the ice tunnels. There are a lot of shrines down there that are pretty cool to see.
Lastly IMO it's worth it to take a walk out to "the end of the world". It's a spot far from the station where the heavy equipment operators stop grooming the snow. We built a snowman out there last year but it's pretty cool.
Most of the rest of the stuff like ARO, SPT etc... will be pretty well publicized.
Exactly what I was looking for. Thanks! I will definitely try and do that.
Also just as an aside. Understand that the Internet in the summer there will be super slow and sometimes unusable. There's nothing the support staff can do about it so don't get upset with them :P
How is the internet down there?
In the summer it sucks. No getting around that. At best it's a 30 Mb connection shared by 150 people and that's only for 3 hours. Most of the rest of the time it's 1.5-4.5 Mb for 150 people. It's a little better in the winter when there are far fewer people but don't expect gig like Internet down there :P It's also only for 11-12 hours a day and it shifts by 4 minutes a day so it's often up at inconvenient times.
What an amazing experience. During you stay, were you able to travel around the continent? Did you get to do any outdoor adventuring? I have a bit of a fascination with the Pole of Inacessibility... does anyone ever get go there?
You don't travel around a lot at Pole because of limited air traffic. There were a few boondoggles to AGAP and some other remote sites in January but I didn't get to go on them.
EDIT: However when I was going to McMurdo for a week of R&R before the station closed I got to ride the Basler (an old twin prop DC-3) and we got to fly really low through the Transantarctic Mountains. THAT was super cool. Getting to see an area of the world that even by Antarctic standards hardly anyone gets to see and certainly no one has ever walked on fairly up close.
What is your favorite species of bird?
Definitely the Kea from New Zealand!
I've been in NZ my whole life and they're definitely in my top three. Cheeky buggers with big personalities - one stole my Dad's keys and they're notorious for doing things alike. You should check out the Moa, my school has a sculpture of one... freaky big.
Yeah I saw two in Arthur's Pass and they were flat out mugging people without fear or remorse. They're the closest things I've seen to velociraptors.
How did you get the opportunity to go to Antarctica for work?
I kept applying. I applied for 5 seasons before getting a callback. The current primary contract holder is Leidos. For Pole positions like the winter site manager and research assistants are Leidos jobs. The bulk of the positions though are hired by PAE. IT positions are hired by GHG and galley positions are hired by GSC. Check out their various websites from between January and March which is when jobs for the following season typically get posted.
How do you manage six months of darkness? How do you avoid an extreme version of seasonal affective disorder?
How does your body know what time it is?
Not only is it six months of darkness but during the polar winter the windows are covered so you don't even see outside. It's kinda like living on a submarine where you just have artificial light all of the time inside the station.
Winter-over syndrome is a real thing that IMO most people are affected with on some level every winter. Memory issues are frequent and I know I had some issues with that.
This is literally a place on Earth where time has no meaning. All time zones converge here so honestly time is a fairly arbitrary thing here. Many many people worked all sorts of weird schedules during the winter for various reasons so I'd say often your body doesn't really know what time it is.
What one thing did you miss while living out there and how did you cope? I don't mean things like products I mean feelings or things you done everyday in a everyday situation
Fresh fruits and vegetables for sure
which sort of animals there were around the settlement?
There are no animals at the South Pole. We humans are the only things crazy enough to live there! At McMurdo I saw plenty of seals and skua as well as an Adele penguin.
How many people stay at the base through the winter?
Usually between 40-50
What's the best way to be selected to work there? I'm currently studying applied math, but it's always been of mine to do research there. Are most of the workers engineers? biologists? environmental scientists?
Hard to classify "most". In the winter there are about 9 grantees that work on research. We also had two research assistants that were Leidos contractors. So that's 11 "science" positions plus two meteorologists that were also contractors out of 46 people. We had 5 IT staff members, 4 galley staff and the rest is pretty hard to classify as it is power plant mechanics, carpenters, facilities engineers etc... so I guess trades.
The best way is persistence in applying. I have no experience in coming down as a grantee so I can't speak to that but I applied for 5 years before getting selected. Some people get selected the first year but IMO if you have a decent resume if you just keep applying you'll get a callback eventually.
Did you ever see any hourglass dolphins on the way there? Because that would be amazing!!!
Unfortunately not. The main animals in Antarctica I saw in McMurdo were Weddell Seals, Southern Skua, and one Adele Penguin. I didn't spend that much time in McMurdo though and there are no animals at the South Pole.
EDIT: However on my way out I did drive to Akaroa from Christchurch and got to see Hector's Dolphin which was really cool and also a really rare dolphin.
Is it anything like The Thing on a day to day basis?
No lol we do not have flamethrowers in every closet.
What's the scariest or most un-nerving experience you've had down there? I'd imagine it could get a bit west in a remote location far from civillization.
We had a twin otter crash into the runway. That was pretty scary. Everyone was fine though and I hear they even salvaged the plane
Have you read "The Worst Journey in the World"? It's a memoir of the disastrous Scott expedition to the pole and it's absolutely riveting. Free on Amazon: http://a.co/8rLlFTQ
I have not, however the legend of Amundsen and Scott is shared often down here :)
Isn't it always winter in the south pole?
It is demonstrably warmer in the summer and the sun is always up instead of down so yes there is a "summer"
Did you ever get to eat anything fresh? Or was it all non perishable reconstituted stuff?
No "freshies" except during the summer when they bring some stuff in from New Zealand. During the winter we don't have any. Our food stays on berms outside until we order it and bring it in. So it's all perishable deeply frozen stuff that we have to thaw out.
Are there any suitable jobs in Antactica for a science teacher looking for a career change?
If you have a STEM bachelors degree then Research Assistant might be up your alley. Otherwise you could try generic trades like carpenter's assistant or come as a steward.
Are you monitoring UFO activity in the region? Whatchagot?
No UFOs :P It's high and clear though so we see a lot of satellites and shooting stars.
Obvious question: how seriously cold is it down there? I mean, we heard numbers quoted, but how cold is it really, in practical terms?
I think our winter the low temperature was around -107-108 F. It is the coldest you will ever feel. To put it in perspective when we got to leave and landed in McMurdo it was +10 F outside and we were all walking around in short sleeve shirts like it was the tropics. The wind absolutely KILLS you at Pole also. A calm -100 is way way better than -50 with 20 knot winds.
What's the vibe between McMurdo, Scott, and Palmer?
I understand they're wildly different from a size and scope standpoint, but is Palmer the stepchild because it's not in the circle? McMurdo feels like a metropolis in comparison.
Metropolis is probably generous for McMurdo :P It's more like a small coastal town in Alaska. I've never been to Palmer so I can't speak to that but Pole is a very small close knit community where you get to know everyone. Whereas McMurdo to me seems more like you get to know the people you work with and a few others.
What's the most amazing wildlife encounter you've had?
On our last day on the continent as we are on Pegasus Field getting ready to board the C-17 someone shouts "Look a penguin!". We had not seen a penguin the entire year but sure enough a single Adele penguin was sprinting across the runway and came and stopped next to us to hang out for a while. Was really cool.
A few late questions, you mentioned that you pretty much get no fresh fruit or veggies down there and it got me wondering... how come you guys don't have a small indoor vegetable "garden" - (if you know) is it because of the extra strain on people & resources? I'm assuming most of the solid waste (food waste, general trash, etc) is bagged & shipped out when the planes come back, but what about sewerage, what happens with that shit (if you'll pardon the pun)?
Lastly, have you gotten to see any of the other nations bases down there, or no chance because it's just so damned huge?
I've been wanting to get some summer work on the Aussie base, but unsuccessful so far in my 1 application, so I appreciate your advice of keep applying. Thanks for doing the ama, even if you don't reply there's enough motivation here for me to keep trying. Cheers mate :)
Yes the waste is boxed up and shipped off continent on LC-130s in summer.
We do have a greenhouse but at best it gives us a salad a week. Not really anything other than some lettuce/kale.
The only international station I've been to is Scott Base, the New Zealand station on Ross Island. Very cool place.
Are you mei?
Do you ever interact with the other bases, and do you have amusing rivalries like people who go to different high-schools? If there was an Antarctic brawl for dominance who would win?
McMurdo would probably win based on sheer numbers. They have more people than anyone else by a large margin. We do have some interactions with the other US stations and Rothera (the UK station on the other side). We also have a Film Festival every year where every station on the continent makes a 5 minute film and each also votes on the winner. I believe Arctowksi (the Polish station) won this past year.
Please excuse me if this is an inappropriate question but how do people go to the bathroom in such extreme cold weather? Also, if you peed outside would it freeze mid-stream?
I don't know of anyone who tried but I don't think it would freeze mid stream. As far as going to the bathroom you do that in the heated indoors lol
How entertaining is it to you that flat earth theorists believe Antarctica is actually a wall that keeps the water in the frisbee model of the earth?
I mean we ARE kind of sitting on top of a giant ice wall :P There's 9300 feet of ice between us and the ground. We did have several discussions about this and it was kinda a running gag.
Hello /u/AStrangerWCandy great AMA, I'm curious, hypothetically if something would go wrong, and there was need for police intervention down there, who would intervene? How is law applied down there? Thanks :)
I believe there is a marshal in McMurdo. Also the law of whatever country owns the station you are at applies.
You think you'll ever come back? I know I'd like to do the pole thing at some point but I really like the seasonality of mac town.
I probably will come back if they have me. Probably do Pole again too as I like the smaller community.
How do you travel in and out of Antarctica?
By plane. Pole to McMurdo is via LC-130. Remote sites are usually via Twin Otter
Have you seen any of these guys down there?
The joke is from the movie elf starring will ferrell as an "elf" from the north pole. He encounters Peter dinklage in a business meeting with his father and makes a faux pas by calling him an elf, as he grew up around other vertically challenged toy makers in the north pole, and Peter dinklage responds by kicking will Ferrell's ass in a comical manner, to which ferrell responds by exclaiming "you must be from the south pole!".
Ahh got it, thanks :P
How many scientists believe that global warming is a fact?
None that I'm aware of!
I JUST watched a documentary on Antarctica on neflix about McMurdo and Scott base yesterday. Super interesting. As I understand it during the winter you get no supply shipments for several months with the only communication to the outside world being internet. How fast was the internet? Could one reliably play online gaming in Antarctica? Did you experience T3 syndrome? Would you do it again? What was your favorite thing about it?
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