Antarctica has been a captivating subject for scientists since the continent was discovered in the early 1800s. Despite Antarctica's freezing temperatures, disorienting sunlight hours, and complete isolation from the rest of humanity, researchers continue to flock to the South Pole for answers. But what do scientists study in Antarctica?
Scientists study weather, wildlife, and geology on the southernmost continent. For these brave researchers, living and working in Antarctica has its obvious appeals. But there are some difficult parts about living in the literal Antarctic tundra, and none of it involves hunting down a shape-shifting creature picking off your crew one by one with a blowtorch.
An Antarctic research base is like home to scientists, but just like in The Thing, living in Antarctica can make you feel like you're losing it.
During the Antarctic winter, which lasts from roughly February through October, most research facilities are inaccessible to the outside world. Planes are unable to fly over the continent due to its extreme temperatures; sometimes it drops to minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit - twice as cold as the temperature at which gasoline freezes. Researchers are on their own, so to speak, for nine cold, isolated months.
Those on a base during the Antarctic winter - known as the over-wintering crew - can find unique ways to entertain themselves. For example, some scientists can call themselves members of the 300 Club, a wild group that experiences a 300-degree temperature change by first going into a 200-degree sauna, then running out into the minus-100-degree Antarctic tundra unclothed. Others stick to more traditional forms of entertainment, like movies and games.
Light - whether from the sun or from electronics - can interfere with people's circadian rhythms, AKA their body clocks. Antarctica experiences the seasons in a much different manner than most of the rest of the world. Instead of going through the traditional four seasons, Antarctica has summer, which occurs from about October to February, then winter, which is the rest of the year.
During the summer, the closer someone is to the South Pole, the more daylight they will experience. The southernmost points of the continent don't experience any darkness during summer. In the winter, it is the exact opposite. Researchers and scientists are plummeted into nine months of darkness. Meteorologist Alex Gaffikin explained how it affected her body to Reuters, saying, "In the depths of winter waking up was a struggle. With 24 hours of darkness my body clock had gone haywire and I’d usually wake up feeling quite lethargic."
Roughly 70 research facilities run by more than 30 countries are spread across Antarctica, and they all have one thing in common: No one is ever alone. Unless someone is using the restroom or taking a short shower, other people are always in the same space.
It's not just a matter of close quarters, either. There's safety in numbers, and that's especially true in potentially hazardous climates like Antarctica. Dr. Nerida Wilson, who works on a research ship in Antarctica, told HowStuffWorks that "because of safety, you can't always roam the decks of the ship alone, so mostly you are in company."
Anybody with seasonal affective disorder can tell you that a lower amount of sunlight on a daily basis can wreak havoc on the psyche. Residents of Antarctica, whether temporary or more long-term, know this phenomenon all too well. Living in Antarctica, whether in eternal sunshine or complete darkness, combined with social and physical isolation, can lead to some trying emotional and mental times for researchers.
Researchers have a unique way of coping with the hostile environment, however, called over-winter syndrome. Psychologist Nathan Smith explained that this coping mechanism can happen in any case of extreme isolation, from Antarctic researchers to astronauts in space:
Previous research has suggested that this is a protective mechanism against chronic stress, which makes sense - if conditions are uncontrollable, but you know that at some point in the future things will get better, you may choose to reduce coping efforts in order to preserve energy.
Unfortunately, sometimes the stress gets the best of researchers, and the worst happens. For instance, in 1959, one Russian researcher ended another one's life after a particularly challenging game of chess at their research base.