By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
"What is most disturbing is the censorship," one Raytheon employee says in an e-mail. "We are told to never speak to the press. Raytheon fears a PR black eye and doesn't want things to get out. Two people who are blogging down here have been told to stop."
Raytheon spokeswoman Valerie Carroll says the company has no anti-blogging policies, but employees insist that posts are closely watched and that critical ones have resulted in retaliatory actions.
It's a brave new world of information on the southernmost continent, and whatever company wins the U.S. Antarctic Support Contract will have to deal with the fact that its employees, no matter how isolated they are physically, are technically as close as the next cubicle. And that what happens in Antarctica no longer stays in Antarctica.
An Antarctic year begins like this: Every August, the U.S. Air Force flies a series of C-17 jumbo jets to McMurdo Station from Christchurch, New Zealand, carrying supplies and more than a hundred people; they are the first flights in since the last plane left the previous February. Over the next few weeks, many more people will arrive, including scientists, repair crews and support staff. By October, there will be more than 1,000 Americans on the continent, living at the three stations, on two seaside research vessels and at temporary scientific research outposts.
The staffing process, called Winfly, began this year on August 22, shortly after the first official sunrise of the year in Antarctica; it had been delayed by two days because of bad weather.
Aside from the scientists and their crews, the majority of the people are contract employees hired, trained (sometimes in Centennial) and staffed by Raytheon Polar Services. There are airfield operators, firefighters, electricians, doctors and physician's assistants, heavy-equipment mechanics, pilots, engineers, computer techs, logistics managers and cooks.
Every job includes room and board in Antarctica — typically in two-person, dorm-style accommodations — as well as travel expenses and the possibility of bonuses. While Raytheon won't reveal its pay scale, salaries are "competitive," Carroll says. Most of the contracts are for five months, covering the austral summer, October through February, when temperatures at McMurdo can reach 50 degrees, the sun shines all day and all night, and conditions are right for scientific experimentation, repair, construction, transportation and the occasional game of disc golf.
McMurdo is by far the largest and busiest of the stations, and it operates as a small town during the summer, complete with mail service, trash collection and a general store, a doctor's office, a bowling alley (recently condemned), a restaurant, a coffeehouse, two bars, art shows and a music festival called IceStock. There are also a variety of clubs and group activities involving everything from hiking to photography to knitting.
In January and February, almost everyone leaves, making the 9,000-mile journey back to the United States. But a winter-over crew stays behind, keeping the stations going. In 2009, 153 people wintered over at McMurdo, 43 at the South Pole (where temps rarely rise above 0 degrees in the summer), and 16 at Palmer Station. In addition to medical tests, members of the hearty winter-over group are required to pass psychiatric exams.
After March, planes are grounded because of the cold and darkness, though there have been some dramatic rescues. In 1999, the New York Air National Guard rescued physician Jerri Nielsen, who had developed breast cancer months earlier but couldn't leave. (Nielsen died of the disease earlier this year.) In April 2001, another doctor, Ronald Shemenski, was rescued after diagnosing himself with a severe pancreatic condition.
Midwinter's Day, the darkest day of the year, marks the halfway point of winter, when the sun stops moving north and begins heading south again. It also marks the biggest holiday in Antarctica. On Midwinter's Day, which is usually June 21, the winter-over employees have the day off and typically celebrate with an all-out, all-day party.
The scientists and staffers start by putting up decorations and dressing in the finest duds they can scrounge up; some bring clothes just for the occasion. There is a cocktail hour, of course, and activities and games. Then the residents of each station set the table and cook a huge meal, often using ingredients that they have saved for the day. They dance, they drink, they play more games, they drink and they generally keep their minds off the darkness. "It is a big deal down here," says one staffer, explaining that people look forward to the holiday for months and often begin planning weeks in advance.
Midwinter's Day is a tradition that dates all the way back to 1898, when the crew of the Belgica became the first people to spend the winter in Antarctica after the Belgian ship got stuck in the ice. Since then, the day has been celebrated to some degree by nearly everyone who's spent the coldest month on the Continent, including explorers like Ireland's Ernest Shackleton in 1907, Norway's Roald Amundsen in 1911, and American Richard Evelyn Byrd in the 1940s.
The United States Navy opened McMurdo Station in 1956, and the crew there partied on Midwinter's Day from the start. In 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower sent the first White House Midwinter's Day greeting — a tradition that has continued to this day. That was the same year that nations around the world signed the Antarctic Treaty, which bans military activity while allowing freedom of scientific research. There is no government in Antarctica, and no country owns it; more than thirty countries have set up one or more research stations there, and many exchange greetings on Midwinter's Day.