Living and Working in Antarctica

Living and Working in Antarctica

A Frozen and Beautiful Land

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and driest continent in the world, hostile to human life. It is a place with little to no naturally-occurring food, water, shelter, or fuel. But the continent is also majestic and beautiful, and it is populated by thousands of people: scientists, cooks, pilots, carpenters, and more. They come from all over the world, and many even come from Socorro, NM. Most Tech students don’t realize that Socorro is home to many people who spend time living in Antarctica. This week on campus I sat down with Christine Burrill, Kevin Nikolaus, and Aurora Roth to learn from their experiences living and working on our coldest continent.

Research and Work

Antarctica is an exciting place for research, and it has attracted thousands of scientists as well as those who work behind the scenes to support the science. Biology, glaciology, astronomy, and oceanography are only a few of the many things being studied there.

Christine Burrill, a Ph.D student at Tech, studies volcanology and spent several weeks last year living in Antarctica. In her research she aims to improve the methods used for dating the lavas found on Mount Erebus, to better understand the volcano’s history and the effects it has had on the rest of the world. Much of her field work involved flying out to sites, collecting rock samples, and bringing them back for analysis. All in all, she describes her experience as busy and exciting.

Kevin Nikolaus and Aurora Roth work for IRIS PASSCAL, which serves as a library of instrumentation for science groups. Some of these science groups check out instruments for  work in Antarctica and bring along people who work in IRIS PASSCAL’s polar group. Polar group members like Nikolaus and Roth provide on-site engineering support and technical expertise on projects in Antarctica.

Nikolaus has spent three seasons in Antarctica (a typical summer season is the warmest part of the year, and runs from about November to February). With IRIS PASSCAL he has worked on multiple geophysics projects. Roth has spent two seasons living in Antarctica, and has been part of the POLENET project, which is dedicated to observing the polar regions through a variety of measurements. Part of her work has involved flying out to research sites and placing seismic stations to collect data for studies. From waking to bedtime, she says, most days are filled with activity.

But on some days, weather interferes with the fast-paced research work. Roth says that approximately every week there’s a storm big enough to shut down camp operations and flights. During those times people do chores, watch movies, and find other ways to spend their time.

Community and Recreation

The research bases of Antarctica foster a unique and intriguing community. Roth says that all in all, the people are interesting and welcoming. Nikolaus describes McMurdo, a large Antarctic base, as a combination of a hippie commune and a mining town. He says a lot of the workers there tend to be fairly nomadic and they have many interesting stories about their life experiences. But in contrast to the friendly people, the land is barren. Nikolaus says when you look around, what you see is basically a “combination of rock, snow, and heavy machinery.”

Burrill says that in ways, the McMurdo base feels almost like Tech. People stay in dorms and eat together in the galley, where food is served buffet-style. Everyone is busy with their work, but when people have free time there are a surprising number of activities to choose from. For example, there are yoga classes, knitting groups, card games, races, hikes, and dance parties. People often get together to practice and perform music, and coffee shops and bars provide spaces for people to relax and socialize.

The Polar Pull

All three people I interviewed told me they would like to go back to Antarctica. They all found their work exciting and interesting, and each spoke highly of the unique and welcoming community. They also found the natural beauty and vastness of the place to be powerful. Burrill says “Antarctica humbles you and makes you feel small. The views just go on as far as the eye can see.” She says she feels lucky to have the opportunity to go to places where no one has been before. Nikolaus says that in addition to the science and research, he appreciates the culture of people who live there, and he finds Antarctica socially invigorating. Roth describes the breathtaking experience of flying over Pine island glacier and seeing the ice moving, with amazing patterns of cracks and crevices—“It just blew my mind, they were so beautiful.” Going to Antarctica is an incredible experience, and as Roth says “Going to the ice can be addictive.”

--James Nolan

Works Cited

  1. Redd, N. T. (2018, September 21). Antarctica: The Southernmost Continent. Retrieved March 17, 2019, from https://www.livescience.com/21677-antarctica-facts.html

  2. About. (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2019, from http://polenet.org/about


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