The months avoided by visitors, March until September, mark the winter season in Antarctica.
Due to the freezing temperatures, transportation to the continent is halted. Temperatures drop below the freezing point of gasoline, sea-ice forms, and there is constant darkness, making travel dangerous.
During these seven months of winter, 1,000 people at most continue to reside on the continent, according to AntarcticGlaciers.org. Compared to its 5,000 residents during summer, winter is drastically less populated.
“Despite the difficulties and dangers, most of those who have ever overwintered in Antarctica agree that the winter is the best time to be there and is why they wanted to be there in the first place,” said Paul Ward, who has spent over two years in Antarctica and currently writes for Cool Antarctica.
Summer and winter are Antarctica’s only seasons; however, summer being the preferred season for travel does not mean all research is halted during the winter.
As a safety engineer working with the Antarctic Support Associates (ASA) during the winter, David Nold ensures safety at McMurdo Station, doing everything from accident investigations to health inspections in the galleys.
“I get up around 6:30, shower, eat around 7:00, and report to work around 7:30. We all have a 10-hour work day, from 7:30-5:30,” Nold said. “First thing in the morning, I usually read my e-mail. I start inspecting the galley, then inspect each of the labs or work centers to ensure everything complies with the safety plan.”
The maintenance staff, like Nold, is the personnel likely to stay in the stations through the winter. To keep the research base running, they continue to live on the premises while the rest of the staff wait until the summer months to return.
“For the most part, once the last plane leaves in February, everyone still in Antarctica is stuck there until the following November. Only a small number of people, 45 in the case of the South Pole Station, stick around to keep the bases running,” said Sam Denby, an environmental and economics educator for Wendover Productions.
Outside of work hours, residents of Antarctica can hike into the scenery in groups and enjoy the recreational activities organized by the research stations.
For the most part, once the last plane leaves in February, everyone still in Antarctica is stuck there until the following November.”
— Sam Denby
“After work, there’s always something going on. The bars are up and running, there’s an excellent gym, an indoor basketball court, and the bowling alley is operating,” Nold said. “The bowling alley is actually really funny. It’s one of the only ones like it left in the world— it’s ancient and still uses manual set pins.”
To participate in the indoor activities organized by the recreational department, there are no weather-related risks involved. But, in the winter, going outside is restricted to the half-mile square of the station. To leave, one must sign out at the station office, bring a radio, and go with a partner.
Regardless of the extensive safety policy during the winter, the mean temperature of -76°F also plays an important role in the decision to head outdoors.
“A lot of people run or go out on dark night walks— there are a couple of marked recreational walks in the area. We know there are no crevasses in that area. Nonetheless, many people don’t like to leave the station accompanied by a partner; they like to soak up the scenery alone,” Nold said.
There are few places humans can go where they are seven months away from medical care, food, and civilization. According to Denby, the scenery of Antarctica alone does not justify the dangers and the cost of traveling there, but the opportunity to expand humans’ understanding of the environment is a different story.
“In a sense, the people who stay the winter in Antarctica are even more isolated than the astronauts on the International Space Station. Those living and working on the continent endure some of the harshest conditions on Earth; but for the pursuit of science, all this hardship, all this work, and all this cost is worth it,” Denby said.
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