Working on Ice: The Pros and Cons of Antarctic ‘Summer’ Jobs

Kari Lydersen

Workers cut a trench in the snow at the South Pole to lay a communications cable for the "IceCube Neutrino Observatory," in 2010.

Across the country people are buckling down this week to head back to their workplaces after holiday breaks – unless of course they spent the holidays working long hours, or without jobs worrying about how they’ll make ends meet in the new year. Throughout much of the country, icy temperatures, driving snow and sleet, early darkness and slick dangerous roads or frigid waits on train platforms make the daily grind that much harder to face in the dead of winter.

This all inspired me to take a look at work in a part of the world where it is currently summer, yet still more frigid and snowy — though much brighter — than almost anywhere in the continental United States. That would be the Antarctic, where several thousand workers from around the world ranging from biologists, geologists and other scientists to garbage collectors, cooks and carpenters flock each austral summer for surprisingly low wages and extremely challenging conditions made desirable or at least palatable by the extreme beauty and sense of adventure.

Websites about Antarctic jobs note that contrary to widely held beliefs that workers will make two or three times a usual wage for their profession because of the remote location, Antarctic wages are actually about equal to or just slightly higher than mainland equivalents…and the jobs are in high demand and not easy to get. However, like the Alaskan fishing operations where many young Americans or immigrant workers push themselves to physical and mental limits in harsh gegraphic isolation, it is easy to save money since there’s not much to spend it on.

While researching the ancient past or future climate prospects amidst glowing blue ice bergs and waddling penguins might sound thrilling and romantic, daily work is often monotonous and repetitive for both scientists and the support workers that keep the bases running. In an anthology of Antarctic writings, editor Francis Spufford described the contract worker’s world as less a wide-open wilderness than a screw top jar full of managerial idiocies you just cannot escape…a kind of Dilbert on ice.”

An excerpt from a book by grunt worker” Nicholas Johnson in that anthology noted that the way to survive and succeed in an Antarctic job is not to work hard and learn quickly but rather to imitate and suck up to one’s immediate superior as much as possible.

For years, most of the skilled and manual labor support positions for U.S. government projects were run by the defense company Raytheon, though a new private contractor is taking over this spring.

People hired for all types of positions have to be in top physical and mental health, and hiring apparently includes rigorous exams and interviews to make sure this is the case, given the harsh conditions and the fact that medical or psychological help and support can be hard to access. This is exponentially more so for the much smaller number of workers who stay through the winter, when leaving the Antarctic can be almost impossible. Job websites also note that disabilities cannot necessarily be accommodated.

The Raytheon website says:

In addition to the environmental challenges of the Antarctic continent, the working conditions present their own challenges. Schedules are often hard to keep due to unpredictable weather and difficulties associated with transportation and communication. Six to seven-day workweeks are the norm. Housing for most participants is in dormitory-style rooms with roommates and shared bathroom facilities. Personnel supporting remote camps spend significant time in the field.

Writings about Antarctic work note the unique, memorable and often maddening nature of the inescapably close-knit community that develops at the research and field stations, mostly all featuring tight quarters. Scientists and support staff work closely together and roles blur, as people often do janitorial, watchmen and other basic duties regardless of their profession. But hierarchies, rivalries and divisions apparently also clearly exist.

Lots of alcohol, intense teasing and pranks, interpersonal conflicts and temporary or serious mental breakdowns are ever-present parts of Antarctic work, given the mental and physical stress. Johnson describes higher-ups warning workers of sleep problems, depression, irritability and intense boredom over a winter in Antarctica — with an estimated five percent of workers needing clinical psychological help. But the warnings rang hollow, he noted, since employees were still blamed for such symptoms and their manifestation in tardiness, drinking or accidents — whatever the initial intent of these academic psychological studies, their field application is as an orientation to employee culpability.”

Sexual harassment is also a common complaint, exacerbated by the lower ratio of women workers, the close quarters and the macho culture of the place.

1993 UK Independent story described the sexual harassment problem, including one Australian woman scientist who said:

I will never be able to react to men again without bitterness and a heart of stone. I just want the hurt to go away.’ For this woman, the upset came from being accosted by naked men in the middle of the night. When she tried to talk about it with male colleagues, the response was yet more sexual suggestions. Another Australian woman sat down to dinner 17 nights in a row in her station’s mess to find sealed envelopes with pornographic photographs put anonymously at her place. At yet another station, one female expeditioner discovered men were making large bets to see who could bed’ her.

It sounds like this situation has improved in recent years, as increasing numbers of women work in all capacities in the Antarctic. Men have been stationed in Antarctica on military and research missions since at least the early 1950s, while the first American women worked in the Antarctic starting in 1969 and went there in significant numbers only in recent decades. In 2004 Australian Antarctic worker Joan Russell wrote:

Thirteen years ago there was a marked tendency for women to be slotted into one of two categories – as station pets” or dragons.” ANARE stations were definitely a man’s world, in which women often recognised the advantage of attracting the protective patronage of one or more men. Along with the increasing visibility and higher profile of women has come a gradual change in our status. There are many subtle and more obvious signs that gender equality at work is an accepted part of current expeditions.

Workers from different sectors who might never cross paths in any other city or town live and work cheek to jowl and depend on each other to make daily life livable and literally often to survive in the Antarctic. While many describe this as the source of constant claustrophobia, annoyance, bickering and frustration, it is also clearly a memorable and intense experience.

Johnson’s 2005 piece describes the strangeness of decamping to Christchurch, New Zealand after a season, where people awkwardly strip off their jackets to expose their pale flesh and scatter to different hotels and restaurants. For the first time in months, they talk not about the details and minutiae of the workday but the overall experience.

We are no longer Carps or Fuelies or Plumbers. Our cold-weather clothes are taken away, our intertwining community vines pruned; we suddenly have separate destinations.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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