Rumor has it that our communications link might be going down tonight due to some sort of power issue related to black magic or someone sneezing heavily. I thought that in the event that I wasn’t able to process pictures in time I would write a brief entry about the ridiculousness of communication out here.
One of the most common questions I’ve been asked is how the hell I have internet in Antarctica. It doesn’t stop at simply having internet – I have wireless access from my tent. The official reason for this is that as scientists we need a solid line of communication in order to transmit our data back to the real world. Thus, an incredible amount of resources has gone into communication. While I was at McMurdo I asked one of the IT guys how the data transmission process works. This is what I vaguely recall: My laptop -> Local wireless router -> Radio transmitter -> Radio repeater -> McMurdo -> Space -> Queensland, Australia -> The internet. If you didn’t understand that’s ok. Neither did I. Details aside, our internet speed is around 730Kb/sec (equivalent to 27 carrier pigeons per hour), which is why I have such an excellent ability to update and communicate.
Other forms of communication abound. All field camps also carry Iridium satellite phones, HF radios left over from the Vietnam War capable of transmitting around the world, and handheld VHF radios. The reason for the redundancy is safety. If one line of communication goes down we have three others as backup. Every morning we are required to check in by 10:00am or else Search and Rescue (SAR) is activated immediately. In fact, at the McMurdo communications center a flashing alarm starts going off at 9:45am. If we haven’t checked in by 10:00 on the dot, the SAR team is activated and a chain of commands goes through the system to begin our rescue. Sleeping through your alarm clock is a huge mistake.
By far the most common method of communication is our personal VHF radios we carry with us everywhere. We use them to report back to base, arrange pickups with helicopters, and relay profanities that would otherwise take too much energy to shout. Military radio protocol is followed; when we speak we sound like terrible impersonations of melodramatic action movies. “3 1 Lima , 3 1 Lima, this is Bravo 4 2 1 on Taylor Valley, how copy?”
When our small team is split up we occasionally need to get a hold of one another. That’s where our own personalized names come in when hailing each other. It’s a simple recipe to make your own: take your teammate’s first and last initial, add a bit of creativity, a heaping cup of insult; combine. My initials are MB. Let your imagination go wild.
If a lot of this seems convoluted that’s to be expected. To make matters worse Antarctica also has its own special language. Spawned from the terrible union of the military and scientific communities, acronyms abound and jargon is tossed carelessly about. As an outsider first arriving I found it nearly impossible to understand my first conversations with local residents. However, as time progressed I realized that this language existed out of necessity – it is essential that communication be understood clearly and that no time is wasted in relaying it.
To every useful phrase there exists an opposite but equally useless expression. And with that I leave you with my ten favorite Antarctic slang words:
10. Hollywood Shower: used to denote a shower in excess of 2 minutes. Only McMurdo residents get proper showers.
9. Boondoggle: a ‘working’ day-trip out to somewhere awesome like a penguin rookery or the Dry Valleys
8. Hero Shot: traditionally a picture of yourself naked at the geographical South Pole in -40F/C weather. Only boots allowed.
7. Antarctic 10: there’s not many women on base so standards change. Best used in context: “She’s a 10, but just a plane ride away from being ugly.”
6. Boomerang: to start a flight to/from Antarctica only to turn around due to bad weather. Think 10 hours of useless flight-time.
5. Crud: the strange malaise/sickness that circulates endlessly around McMurdo since it’s such a confined society.
4. Toasted: the burned-out appearance and demeanor of people who stay for the sunless winter. See my entry “Winter-over”.
3. Beaker: a nickname for scientists (occasionally derogatory)
2. The Ice: Antarctica
1. Freshies: fresh fruits and vegetables. Number one because we don’t get any in the field.
All I want is a salad. Please.