McMurdo Station is the largest research base in all of Antarctica. It’s one of the three primary US research stations (the other two being Palmer, near South America, and South Pole, near nothing at all) and during peak summer months has a population of around 1100. Despite what you may think, the base is actually 34% female. McMurdo is located on Ross Island, a straight 6 hours south of New Zealand and just a few kilometers away from the main Antarctic continent. Visually, it looks like an arctic mining town – snow, ice, ugly. The buildings mostly resemble storage units, and the surrounding area is covered in gritty volcanic rock. Despite the visual appearance, the most striking thing about McMurdo is how comfortable it is. For all its isolation there’s a large number of amenities and entertainment available: there’s a half-size basketball court, a gym, rockclimbing wall, two dingy bars, a coffee house, wireless internet (for the scientists), a cafeteria, and dorms. One guy described the base as being the perfect cross between university (the dorm and cafeteria) and prison (in that you can’t leave). An accurate description that leads into my next observation.
The dynamics here are strange. Women get a disproportionately large focus during any group coversation due to their relative rarity. There’s an entire language of acronyms and Antarctic references that would make normal coversation unintelligeble. Its a very confined community where rumours spread fast and anything you do is noticed quickly. While an innumerable number of rules and regulations are written up by officials in DC and Denver to prevent people from doing stupid things, there’s a large “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy. I’m not referring to the fact that there’s a lot of isolated men. I mean doing activities that break the rules. Safety is the main concern, though if there’s something cool you can do there’s an unwritten rule of keeping secrets secret, since some rules written from off the continent seem counterintuitive and oddly restrictive here. But if you’re going to have your fun, you have to accept the risk that there’s little to no medical help. As two people from the Pole put it, “You have to be tough to be stupid.”
I’m doing a poor job of elaborating on the strange dynamic here however. Perhaps a short example would paint a better picture:
Last night was Halloween. There was a base-wide costume party down at the basketball court where they blocked all the windows to pretend it was dark outside. Someone came as a giant banana. 4 girls came in “nude” painted cardboard around a guy dressed as the South Pole as a group costume of a “Hero Photoshot”. It was like being back in highschool – bad music, desperate boys, and awkward dancing. I will say it was pretty cool stepping outside and squinting my eyes because of the midnight sun on Halloween. I don’t mean to sound negative about the night at all. It was just a surreal experience to be at a highschool dance party in Antarctica.
So while the events make me think of what it would’ve been like growing up at an all-boys Catholic school, I’m writing this post from a high-tech, world class research library and just came from a packed public science lecture where people were genuinely interested in research.
With that in mind, I leave you with something that Abraham Lincoln said to me last night:
“A house divided cannot stand.”