Reflections on living and working in Antarctica
Retired meteorologist Martin Crowe was stationed in Antarctica during the summer of 2002-2003. In this blog post he reflects on life at Davis base during that time, and some of the challenges that he faced living and working in Antarctica.
The Australian Antarctic Division ensures that the Antarctic experience is as safe and comfortable as possible. We were issued with a variety of clothing for different conditions (warm buildings, cold outside in the Vestfold Hills and very cold up on the Antarctic Plateau). We were given three hot meals a day (very good meals with a choice of courses) and coffee, tea and snacks were available at any time. There was also a chocolate ration distributed every month. Chocolate was “high energy food” and was required to be taken every time you went off base.
Every expeditioner had undergone a medical and a psychological test – you didn’t have to be supremely fit but you had to persuade the Division that you were unlikely to become unwell while you were in Antarctica. Everyone was trained in basic navigation with map and compass, crevasse rescue and the riding and maintenance of quad bikes. A few people were trained in nursing (to assist the doctor), boat handling, fire fighting and SAR (search and rescue).
The living quarters contained the hospital, individual bedrooms, kitchen, dining room, bar, video room, library and a snooker/table tennis table. Other buildings contained laboratories, workshops and the main store (for storing supplies, not selling stuff). Every Saturday morning, cleaning jobs were allocated and you could see anyone, whether plumber, geophysicist or base leader, sweeping the floor or cleaning the toilets. In addition someone was appointed every day for “slushie” duties, essential tasks like washing up, making the milk (from powder), replenishing the bar and mopping the dining room.
Daylight hours were unusual. I arrived at Davis on 7 December 2002 and the sun did not set until 19 January 2003. And then it rose again a few minutes later. Fortunately, the bedrooms had thick curtains and the converted shipping containers, where some people lived, had small windows with lightproof wooden plugs. Your individual living area was known as your donga.
Most of the people there had some kind of outdoor or adventure background – climbing, hiking, skiing – as well as their reason for being at Davis. They were good at what they did and were interesting to talk to. My favourite memories of my time in Antarctica are of the company there.
As well as scientific work in the Vestfold Hills, much work was done that year in the Prince Charles Mountains and on the Amery Ice Shelf, some 300 to 700 kilometres away. At times there was extra room in the helicopters and the base leader ensured that everyone who wanted got a trip in a helicopter. On evenings when winds were calm or light, the zodiacs took people out to get a close view of the icebergs.
As one of the two weather forecasters my work was much in demand and I felt under pressure to “get it right”. The other forecaster had five previous Antarctic summers’ experience and I learned a lot from him. On the days that I worked I started at 5am and worked till the helicopters had finished, which, on occasions, was 1am the next day because of the continuous daylight. I usually had a short sleep after lunch. We produced forecasts for Davis, Casey, Mawson, the Amery Ice Shelf, the Prince Charles Mountains and for any parties doing work away from the bases as well as for ships approaching and leaving Antarctica.
The temperature ranged from 9°C to -6°C at Davis while I was there. It was colder on the Amery Ice Shelf but the coldest I experienced was inland on the ice plateau where the temperature was -25°C and the wind was 30 knots, so the wind chill gave an equivalent temperature of about -45°C.
There was wildlife to be seen at the base itself. Adélie penguins were numerous, a few Emperor penguins visited for a while and elephant seals began gathering there later in January. Skuas hung around looking for unguarded penguin eggs or chicks. Away from the base Weddell seals could be seen and there were Emperor penguin rookeries further along the coast with thousands of birds. Snow petrels inhabit many parts of the Vestfold Hills. They are beautiful, pure white except for their eyes, beaks and feet. Land based vegetation was limited to a few areas where moss and lichen survived. I didn’t see a fly, mosquito or spider the whole time I was there.
By Martin Crowe
Martin will be speaking about the weather and climate of Antarctica at Mawson’s Scientific Legacy, Tuesday 5 June 2012.