Living in Antarctica
Working in the Antarctic is not an everyday experience. Quite simply, you are working and living in a station on one of the most dramatic continents on earth. Whether you’re based there for anything from two to 33 months, few people — if any — ever say anything negative about the whole experience. In fact, it is often a defining moment in their life.
There are some things to contend with — such as the lack of fresh fruit (tinned or dried can get a little dull) or periods of darkness or confinement. But it’s far outweighed by what you can do out there, what you can see and who you meet.
- Accommodation and food
- Travel to Antarctica
- Living and working in "the field"
- Contacting home
- Team work and social life
The buildings at the research stations are modern and centrally heated. They are in essence comfortable living quarters, with living areas and bedrooms, a kitchen, offices, communication room, generator rooms and facilities for when you’re off duty. Laboratories are sometimes an integral part of the main building. Bedrooms are shared in the summer, because of the higher number of people on the station.
We employ professional chefs to feed you while you’re there, and the food is similar to what you would get at home, although there is less fresh fruit and vegetables.
Antarctica is a remote, hostile environment surrounded by ice, snow and spectacular beauty. You can expect long periods of either 24 hours daylight or darkness, and it is the coldest and windiest of the continents — although not always as cold as you might expect. It is also one of the driest continents, despite being covered in ice sheets up to 4 km thick: there is low snowfall and most of the continent is technically a desert.
The coldest station is Halley with a winter temperature of around −50°C and a summer temperature of −10°C. At Rothera, the summer temperatures can vary between 5°C and −10°C while in winter it is rarely below −30°C. South Georgia is much warmer with winter temperatures rarely below −12°C and summer temperatures of up to 15°C.
You survive the cold temperatures by being well trained in advance of the activities, careful how you dress, by working in a team where each watches the other for signs of hypothermia, and by having all the required equipment to hand. Taking risks is not what you are trained to do.
Most people travel to and from the Falkland Islands by air and then continue to Antarctica by either ship or the Dash-7 aircraft. A few of the wintering staff going to Halley may get the opportunity to sail directly from the UK.
Your flight from the UK to the Falkland Islands will be by either TriStar from RAF Brize Norton or by commercial airline from London Heathrow.
Many of the scientists will have to live and work in the field in order to carry out their scientific research.
Field accommodation varies widely between the well-provided “hut” at Fossil Bluff, small field huts or caboose, to two-person tents deep in the Antarctic. If you are to stay in the field, you need undertake no extra preparations. The arrangements will be explained and training provided at the controlling station.
There are Field Assistants for each field party who have extensive mountaineering and field craft experience. They are there to help you do your work in the best possible way — and they will make sure everything is done safely.
You are usually sent into the field by Twin Otter aircraft or directly from a ship, but we also have support from Royal Navy vessels and helicopters when available.
Antarctica is not as isolated as you may think. There is a daily e-mail link between the ships, stations and home. Each person has a unique e-mail account, which allows you to send and receive mail on both an official and private basis.
Each station is also able to send and receive normal mail during the Antarctic summer, routing it through the Falkland Islands. Airmail takes about 15 days to reach the Falklands and parcels which go by surface mail can take up to 12 weeks.
Each station and ship also has a telephone and fax. Private telephone calls can be made and these are charged at the international rate.
Most people on the base tend to stick to email or post to communicate with family and friends.
Probably the most important thing about living in Antarctica is the social environment. The best way to enjoy yourself is to work closely with your colleagues and support everyone on the station. Being in such close proximity with the same people for an extended period of time can be difficult; but it could also bring out the best in you
But before you set your sights on going South, please remember that it doesn’t suit everyone. When you’re stationed in Antarctica, you need to have a positive approach and a real team ethic. There is nothing worse than a bad attitude where someone doesn’t want to join in or reacts badly to the feeling of isolation.
Wherever you are stationed, there are always jobs that need doing (away from your day job) and everyone must be prepared to take on work outside their own specialised field at any time of the day or night. The Antarctic is unpredictable: power plants fail, aerials blow down in storms and other unforeseen situations arise. Since the scientific output of BAS depends on the collaboration of everyone, it’s normally a question of all hands to the pump — from sorting out a problem to helping Chef in the kitchen.
We’ve got together some profiles of people who have been out there — and some who are still down south. Hopefully you’ll get a real insight into the amazing sights and sounds, but also the everyday reality of life in Antarctica. There is also a section on living and working in Antarctica on the main BAS website that gives more information on clothing, conditions, temperatures and procedures.