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Dispatches from Antarctica: A New Reality

Unpredictable weather and old-school internet create out of the ordinary conditions for living and research.

ByCaitlin SaksNOVA NextNOVA Next
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Photo credits: Arlo Perez

October 28, 2018:

At breakfast one morning last week, a scientist who works out on the sea ice told me something startling: “Everyone here fails.”

This isn’t what I expected.

It sounds trite, but it is true: McMurdo really does feel like what I’d imagine an outpost on Mars to be. But not for the reasons you might think—it’s not because the landscape around me is so spectacularly alien, but rather it is that the personal experience is so far removed from anything I’d known in my ordinary life. It really feels like a whole new world, and I’m having to learn how to operate and be in this new reality.

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It has been exactly one week since Arlo, Zac, and I landed in Antarctica, and it has been among the most personally challenging—and rewarding—weeks of my life. I have been forced to look inward and trust myself, to become self-reliant and also trusting of my team members—two people whom I hardly knew when we set out. I’ve also learned how to light a camp stove, change a spark plug, and drive a snowmobile.

When you get to McMurdo, your life is turned upside down. It’s impossible to maintain the habits from home that define you. First, there are very immediate and obvious adaptations that must be made. Internet is painfully slow, only in limited locations, and smart phones are relegated to being expensive alarm clocks. Every system I have for keeping track of things: to-do lists, names, numbers, maps, calendars, ideas… it all usually goes in my phone. I’ve had to trade that in for a little green notebook that is standard issue to everyone that comes on station. It is affectionately referred to as a “green brain.” You keep it on you at all times and record notes. If you lose it, you panic and start asking around “I’ve lost my brain! Has anyone seen my brain?” To communicate with people, you can’t text them… but you page them. Yes – a pager. For those millennials who don’t know what that is, it’s sort of like how they texted in the 90s. And then, at meal times, people don’t check their phones—they talk to each other, sometimes for hours on end.

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Then there is the matter of dressing yourself. Sounds simple, right? Nope. There are gradations of cold that I didn’t know existed: the kind of cold you feel when you are just running from one building to the next—that’s COLD, but tolerable. Then the kind of cold when you are outside for a while, but still on station—that’s FREEZING. Then, there is the kind of cold you feel when you are out on the sea ice, when the winds are blowing—that’s REALLY FREAKIN’ FREEZING. And then… there is inside—and that’s WARM. They’ve invented a whole new category of gear to deal with the really freakin’ freezing zone, but the trouble comes when you need to stop for lunch in the warm zone before heading out to the freakin’ freezing zone—then the warm zone transforms into a SWELTERING zone. I spent the first week on station being either too hot (i.e., drenched in sweat) or too cold, and I mean toes tingling, numb and shivering. Figuring out what outfit will get you through the day comfortably is a challenge.

But the cold and the lack of internet isn’t why the experience is transformative—that’s just a little disorienting distraction. It is a new routine to be figured out. What is really transformative is that the continent makes the agenda, and you must adapt. The weather is relentlessly unpredictable, and weather dictates everything. In certain conditions, the weather mandates that you can’t even leave the building you are in. The environment is treacherous—laden with hidden dangers like cracks in the sea ice and extreme cold. With mother nature in charge, you are forced to be flexible, and self-reliant. You must learn to live with whatever is thrown at you, to trust yourself in extreme situations, and make the best of it. Adapt on the fly. Re-invent the project as you go. I can’t call home to make a new plan. I have to make the right decision in the moment, and have only my teammates to consult with. My own survival, and our project, is entirely our shoulders.

Over the past week, I have been learning skills for operating in this extreme environment. Now I know how to pitch a tent if we get stuck in a storm, how to find cracks in sea ice and check if they are safe to cross, how to identify the early signs of hypothermia, how to read the skies for approaching weather, how to use radios to communicate with McMurdo operations, how to work a GPS unit, how to drive a snowmobile… and yes, how to dress myself for the cold. The U.S. Antarctic Program does an admirable job of training those who have never been here to operate safely in the environment. A week’s worth of training has been frustrating because of the delay it means for our project… but satisfying in the confidence that it has inspired for us to be self-sufficient.

I have been thrust into the same situation as the scientists who come down here for research. Starting two years ago, when I worked with NOVA to assemble an NSF grant proposal for this project, I’ve had to put on the same hat as the scientists—figuratively, and now that I am here, literally. Every step of the way, I am tracing their experience, from planning the logistics to setting up a lab space (more of a camera workshop for us). Though my project is a media project, it still has deliverables, a deadline… a lot to accomplish in little time, and the Antarctic continent apparently does not know how to read my production schedule, for she has her own plans. This is the same experience that the scientists here have—they have goals to accomplish, they are working with finicky, expensive equipment that they’re nervous will not perform. And they, too, are beholden to the whims of the winds.

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I came here as NOVA’s science editor and the producer of a YouTube series, “To learn what it is like to live and work and do science at the bottom of the world.” That’s the tagline. I had planned in meticulous detail how I was going to follow scientists to discover what they are studying, and how they do their work—the process of science. What I didn’t realize was that here, the process of doing science in Antarctica is a highly personal, transformative experience. It is an experience in which you must disconnect from the rest of the world and rely on your own skills and intuition—and on the team that you have brought with you—to accomplish a goal that is quite possibly unattainable... but you will nevertheless make the best of it.

Science Editor Caitlin Saks and Digital Associate Producer Arlo Perez are in Antarctica for the next month reporting about science research in Antarctica as a part of NOVA’s “Polar Extremes” project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Joining them is Zac Fink, field director and director of photography. Caitlin is writing home frequently and tweeting about her adventures (@caitlin_saks).