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What It's Like To Live And Work On An Antarctic Research Base

Updated December 3, 2019 22.9k views14 items

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. 

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  • Static Electricity Is A Problem

    Photo: Tech Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Antarctica, despite having layers and layers of heavy ice, is technically a desert. The cold, dry climate provides the perfect conditions for static electricity, especially when it is windy.

    This static electricity doesn't just make researchers' hair look funny or give scientists random shocks. Static electricty that is strong enough can ruin unprotected electronic equipment, potentially derailing off-site research projects. 

  • You Might Spend Some Time Traveling To Remote Field Sites And Camping Out

    Photo: Hannes Grobe, Alfred Wegener Institute / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5

    Traveling isn't much of an option during the brutally cold Antarctic winter, but during the summer, many researchers travel and set up camp for remote research. Scientists who set out to study glacial patterns and the Antarctic ice sheets, for example, camp out in tents of three to 10 people. 

    Scientists usually take a helicopter from a larger base to the remote research area. During this research period, which can last up to three months, these scientists are completely on their own. There is no showering or personal phone calls. In case of emergency, researchers use radios to reach the bases for help.

  • Your Showers Are Extremely Short

    You'd think that as a researcher stuck in the coldest place on Earth, you would get to relax and unwind at the end of the day with a nice, hot shower. Unfortunately, long showers are a luxury to those living in Antarctica's research facilities. 

    Meteorologist Alex Gaffikin spoke to Reuters about how showering works as a scientist in Antarctica:

    I’d probably been on the research station a matter of minutes before the plumber Cuz warned me against long "Hollywood showers." The usual procedure was tap on, tap off, soap up, rinse off. He was right, because later on I’d join a team to dig ice for over half an hour to melt down for water.

  • There's Not Much To Smell - Aside From Other People

    Photo: Lewnwdc77 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Odor molecules are easier for humans to breathe in when the air is warmer, which means Antarctica doesn't offer many pungent scents - except those of fellow researchers and scientists. Paul Doherty, late teacher and senior scientist at San Francisco’s Exploratorium museum, explained the aromas of Antarctica in a 2001 blog post, saying:

    Oddly enough, there are very few smells in Antarctica. Ice and snow have no smell, and in the cold temperatures, everyday objects hold onto their aromatic chemicals. So that when you stumble into an aroma, it stands out like a black volcanic rock on a snowfield.

    Dr. Jenny Baeseman discussed the sensation of scent with HowStuffWorks. Baeseman said her sense of smell returned in a strong manner once she left Antarctica:

    When you're coming back on the plane from McMurdo to New Zealand, about three-quarters of the way back, you can start smelling plants. Your sense of smell is so desensitized that the smell of pollen in the air just washes over you. It's incredible.