Life in Antarctica is cold — but bloggers there can still get burned

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It was 85 degrees below zero, and Erin hadn't seen the sun in five months. Her skin had lost its pigmentation and she was sneezing blood because her sinuses were so dried out. A marine biologist turned dishwasher, Erin was working in the coldest, harshest place on earth, alongside 42 other slightly frozen, slightly insane people. None of these Polies, who were spending the austral winter at a tiny United States base at the South Pole, had seen a fresh face since March, when the last small plane had taken off for McMurdo Station, the largest U.S. base on the Antarctic continent, about 800 miles away. None of them had traveled more than a mile from where they slept, been outside for more than a few minutes or eaten a vegetable that wasn't previously frozen.

On Saturday, August 1, while everyone in Denver was enjoying a beautiful summer weekend, Erin typed up this list of things that she hadn't seen or done since arriving at the South Pole ten months earlier and posted it on her blog:

— driven a car



— seen grass, or a tree (or any evidence of plant life outside of items in the greenhouse)

— walked on any surface other than snow and ice

— seen a sunset

— played my cello

— had a decent cup of tea

— used a cellphone

— seen my parents or my sisters, or any friends from home

— seen anyone under the age of eighteen

— gone swimming

— seen or smelled the ocean (or seen any large body of water)

— watched live TV or gone to see a movie

Polies work hard — six days a week — which keeps them busy and tired, especially since the South Pole is more than 9,000 feet above sea level (about the same altitude as Breckenridge). And in their off time, there isn't much to do: They read, drink, watch movies until they run out of new ones, cook creatively, talk, drink, play cribbage, have sex, blog (satellite position permitting), drink and make up their own fun to deal with the extreme conditions.

For example, there's the "300 Club," which is convened only when the temperature drops below -100 degrees. "This is where you sit in a 200-degree sauna and then run outside to the pole marker naked...or with very little clothing on. It's just a crazy South Pole tradition... I do not think I will be heart broken if this does not happen," Erin wrote on her blog.

The United States has three permanent stations in Antarctica — McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole and Palmer — and conditions there are tough, especially during the winter (our summer), when it's dark 24 hours a day. The crew members have to be very careful when they go outdoors, and the constant darkness robs them of their normal circadian rhythms and the vitamin D that humans need. After a few months on the ice, many of them develop a condition they call "brain freeze," in which they start mumbling, and it can take seconds, even minutes, to complete a thought or form a cohesive sentence.

The three stations are operated by Raytheon Polar Services, a Centennial-based division of Raytheon, the $23.2 billion, multinational defense contractor that has 73,000 employees worldwide. Raytheon won the ten-year, $1.12 billion Antarctic Support Contract from the National Science Foundation in 1999 and reapplied this year, but it's facing competition from six other conglomerates that have spent millions of dollars just to prepare their bids. The new, thirteen-and-a-half-year contract is valued between $1.5 and $2 billion; it was supposed to be awarded October 1, but the NSF recently delayed its decision without explanation.

The contract involves not just supporting the NSF's scientific research — on climate change, astronomy, biology and atmospheric and environmental science — that has to be justified to Congress and to taxpayers, but also constructing and maintaining the buildings and equipment at the U.S. bases, providing water production and fuel operations, planning missions, transporting personnel and cargo, and maintaining communication. The contractor must also hire, train, feed, house, pay and protect the small army of support staffers who live in Antarctica, whether for five months or twelve, keeping them alive, warm, fed and happy.

That's not always easy, as Raytheon has discovered. Over the years, unusual activities and behavior have been tolerated — in the name of science, but also because word of any antics rarely reached the States before employees returned home. But as blogs, YouTube and social media sites became popular, employees who used to talk with friends and family only via high-frequency radio could start sharing every detail with the world.

Those details aren't always flattering: Stories about massive amounts of drinking and Jell-O wrestling (for which one person was fired), along with other tales of strange and wild behavior, have leaked out. In 2004, Modern Drunkard interviewed an anonymous staffer who told of bacchanalian orgies and cross-dressing parties. In June 2008, a national newswire wrote about a shipment of 16,500 condoms to Antarctica, where they were distributed, free of charge, just before winter began.

Bloggers have also criticized Raytheon and its corporate policies. As a result, say a number of current and former employees, Raytheon has cracked down both on blogging and on some of Antarctica's odder traditions — particularly as the new contract deadline approaches.

"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.

The National Science Foundation took over responsibility for the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) from the Navy in 1971, though the Navy maintained a significant presence there. The government had been hiring private contractors to support scientific operations since the late 1950s, and that increased in the 1960s and '70s. The first private contractor to operate an entire station was California's Holmes & Narver (now called AECOM, the company has teamed with Raytheon on its latest bid effort). It was followed by ITT Antarctic Services in 1980 and Antarctic Support Associates, a partnership between Holmes & Narver and EG&G (which is also bidding on the contract this year) in 1990. Because ASA had employees in the Denver area, Colorado became the headquarters for Antarctic support that year.

By the time Raytheon took over in 2000, the Navy was no longer involved, but the company inherited some military culture and traditions, like Midwinter's Day. Carroll notes that a major part of Raytheon's early mission was to help smooth the transition for a civilian population. "Any cultural changes occur naturally with time," she explains in an e-mail. "Some naval/military lingo still lingers, and many of our employees have previous military background, some of them when the Navy supported the U.S. Antarctic Program. I would say the culture has evolved continuously since the late 1950s. Then it was all Navy men doing the work. Today we employ a large number of women in every role imaginable."

The transition has hit a few bumps. In 2008, Raytheon canceled the extra day off.

The decision wasn't explained, and on June 11, 2008, blogger Nick Johnson posted the following message on his site, BigDeadPlace.com: "For those who haven't heard, someone in Denver has decided that U.S. Antarctic stations this year won't have the day off for Midwinter's Day dinner (June 21st). No big deal. However, coincidentally, on June 21, [Raytheon Polar Services] is sponsoring, for its 250+ employees in the office, a 'Summer Picnic' at a Denver-area amusement park called Elitch Gardens, including a picnic and a Randy Travis concert."

This wasn't the first time that Johnson, a heavy equipment operator at McMurdo, had been critical of his employer. In fact, his blog had frequently commented on Raytheon policies or procedures, and his 2005 Feral House book, BigDeadPlace, was described on amazon.com as follows: "When Johnson went to work for the U.S. Antarctic Program...he figured he'd find adventure, beauty, penguins and lofty-minded scientists. Instead, he found boredom, alcohol and bureaucracy.... Johnson quickly shed his illusions about Antarctica. Since he and his co-workers seldom ventured beyond the station's grim, functional buildings, they spent most of their time finding ways to entertain themselves, drinking beer, bowling and making home movies. The dorm-like atmosphere, complete with sexual hijinks and obscene costume parties, sometimes made life there feel like 'a cheap knock-off of some original meaty experience.'"

Johnson managed to remain employed after the book came out, and he started signing his name to his blog. And in May 1998, he began posting questions from Raytheon's anonymous suggestion box, along with management's answers. The exchanges seemed innocuous enough — but not to Raytheon. So instead of partying on Midwinter's Day in 2008, Johnson was called in for a teleconference with Sam Feola, the program director for Raytheon Polar Services.

"He told me I had made some blog posts that involved 'sensitive information,'" Johnson remembers. "I didn't say I would take anything down, I didn't say I wouldn't, but I asked, 'What information, specifically, do you want me to take down?' He replied, 'All the information.' I wasn't going to do that."

Although Johnson had worked in Antarctica off and on for a decade, Raytheon didn't renew his contract for the following year. "I was blacklisted," Johnson says. "That's how it works. No one is surprised."

Raytheon, which kept its Antarctic headquarters in the Denver area after taking over from ASA in 1990, has 354 employees in Centennial, including Feola, who declined to be interviewed for this story. Carroll, who's also based there, turned down a request to tour the facility, citing "the sensitive Antarctic Support Contract competition." She says she isn't familiar with Johnson's situation and so can't comment on it.

One Raytheon employee is not as reluctant to discuss Johnson. "Personally, I feel that if you use the web to air grievances with [Raytheon] and the USAP program, you are volunteering to never work in the program again," this employee, who asked to remain anonymous, says.

Still, the perceived censorship, along with the cancellation of Midwinter's Day in 2008 and other issues, remain a concern. "I have seen a big change in the way the companies have handled morale over the years," the employee, who also has a blog, says. "When I started, there was a big recreation department, dedicated to keeping us happy and busy. This winter there was zero recreation, at least fostered by the company or NSF. I used to tell my non-ice friends that the USAP program went out of their way to provide good morale to cut down on random drinking and negativity. There is no sign any more that anyone cares about that at all, at least in the winter.

"One of the most fun things we used to do is Bingo. We'd sell Bingo tickets for a buck or two, and the winners would get small cash prizes. My understanding is that Raytheon put an end to that, saying it was immoral. The company also stopped selling hard alcohol in the store last winter, making a lot of folks angry that the only role of the company was to say 'no' to anything that might be fun. Morale is at an all-time low."

Midwinter's Day did return in 2009, and its festivities have been chronicled on several blogs. The anonymous blogger acknowledges that Raytheon isn't always to blame for low morale, but adds, "When anything negative comes down from Denver, we are usually told that [Raytheon] is fighting for us but the big bad NSF is just being cheap. Sometimes I'm sure that's true, but there seems to be a consensus that the full-timers in Denver by and large don't give a damn about folks on the ice."

In the 1980s, the only way for Polies to communicate with loved ones back home was by writing letters (in the summer) or by making phone calls patched through by high-frequency radio. The radio didn't always work, however, and messages often had to be short.

The bad communication had its good points: Every little decision didn't have to be approved by headquarters, says Bill Spindler, a construction manager who wintered over at the South Pole in 2008 and has spent considerable time in Antarctica over the past three decades. But now there are phones everywhere and Internet access so that "anyone can put anything up at any time," he notes.

When Johnson started BigDeadPlace.com in 2002, he knew of no other blogs about Antarctica. "Pre-Internet, there were a bunch of photocopied underground newsletters that people had made. Two important ones were called The Shadow and The Antarctic Moon, from the early '90s, I believe," Johnson says in an e-mail from Afghanistan, where he now works for another private contractor. Because of that, he adds, BigDeadPlace.com got a lot of attention.

But within a few years, the blogging trend that swept the rest of the world had also moved onto the ice. "I started my blog a couple of years ago at the request of a relative who thought it would be a better way to stay in touch than my old method of sending out broadcast travelogue e-mails," says one blogger, who asked to remain anonymous. "The upside is that it can reach more people, but the downside is that it can reach more people, out of my control. I'm very careful with my web posting, both on my blog and on social networking sites like Facebook. I know it's important for a big company like Raytheon, or a big entity such as NSF, to control PR. Viral information which may or may not be accurate is a risk for them. I'm not surprised that there have been crackdowns on blogs and other web rants. I have no desire to use the web to alienate the company that signs my paycheck. If I thought there was rampant corruption or malfeasance, I would still go through other channels before ranting online."

Today there are dozens and dozens of Antarctica blogs — written not just by Raytheon employees, but also by scientists and people who work on bases owned by other countries. Some of them detail daily life, while others focus on science or photography. Examples include:

Antarctiken.com, from Ken Klassy, a systems admin at McMurdo who posts his gorgeous photos, but also details his daily successes and frustrations.

Icewishes.wordpress.com, which follows the life of a "peripatetic redhead" at the South Pole.

60south.com, which focuses on art and photography at the bottom of the world, but also features a discussion board and other links.

Vagabumming.com, a view from Palmer Station.

Harriettstomato.com, an unusual look at the life of a cook at the South Pole. "This here is the insane group of people that purchased the last bits of fast food at the Midwinter Auction at the South Pole," one post reads. "To celebrate, we made a ginormous dinner and the following day had a live concert and festival with putt-putt golf, tarot readings, ring toss, trivia games, and homemade beer. But the auction was a hoot. At left here you see the last Dr. Pepper on the station which took in a $20 bill. A Snickers Bar then went for $10...But the crowning glory, the most inane buy of the evening, was surely by our own David," who bought a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos for $66. "Wow. For that price, we hope he at least slept with it first."

Carroll is aware of many of the blogs. "I certainly do go look at them. I wouldn't say I have a list," she says. Like most major corporations, Raytheon has a social media policy, but Carroll declines to offer any specifics. "It addresses, and I'm speaking generally, common sense behavior and common sense use of government equipment and resources. There are policies to accommodate virus concerns, security, and especially sharing the limited bandwidth available at the bottom of the world."

A Raytheon employee provided the specifics of the social media policy, which begins: "Raytheon Company recognizes that employees may wish to create, maintain, and participate in external social media tools such as blogs, wikis, chatrooms, podcasts, microblogging (e.g., Twitter), discussion boards, and participate in social websites such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, LinkedIn."

But while the policy says the company "respects its employees' rights to personal expression," it also warns that Raytheon retains the right to "direct an employee to refrain from commenting on topics related to the Company or, take steps to remove or mitigate exposure of the offending material on the social media tool, to comply with applicable laws...and/or Company policy."

Spindler, who now works for an oil company in Port Arthur, Texas, maintains his own website, southpolestation.com, and says he has never been reprimanded or warned about it. "I do like the program, and I try to keep it positive," he says. "There are a few things I mention that may not be what everyone wants to see, but it's the facts, and it's newsworthy."

Still, Spindler says he's aware of numerous times that blog posts have been taken down, either at the request of Raytheon or the NSF. One described an alcohol-infused Christmas Day 2007 fight in which two men had to be evacuated. Another concerned a woman who got lost while she was checking furnaces during the winter of 2005. The woman was rescued by other staffers, but an ensuing post created quite a safety stir.

"They warn you a couple of times to be careful what you say," Spindler notes.

In late June 2008, while Johnson was being admonished for his blog, the National Science Foundation was preparing to solicit bids for its next thirteen-and-a-half-year contract. By that October, the agency had finalized the request for proposals. Bids were due in February, and the NSF was supposed to evaluate them over next eight months, with a decision due October 1, 2009.

But something has delayed the process. NSF contracting officer Bart Bridwell says he can't comment on what that something was, but he insists that a new timeline should be posted on the agency's website sometime soon. The award will be based on the winner's ability to handle the mission, he explains; until that determination is made, Raytheon may be asked to extend its current contract work.

"It's a very complicated contract, and only the biggest and best can take it on," says Dr. Conrad Lautenbacher, vice president of polar programs at defense contractor Computer Sciences Corporation. "There are seven companies bidding, and each one has put together a team. Each of the companies that is bidding is trying to provide the best value."

CSC has teamed up with former Antarctic contractor EG&G (now a division of URS Corporation), while Raytheon has paired with AECOM, the former Holmes & Narver. Lockheed Martin Corporation has also submitted a bid. "It's a natural fit for us. It's a good contract, an important mission for the United States and for science, and it lasts a number of years," adds Lautenbacher, a retired Navy vice admiral and former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Lockheed Martin spokesman Joe Wagovich says his company is also a good fit because it has a lot of experience operating in difficult places, such as war zones, remote areas and even space. "We are really good at working in a scientific setting in a hostile environment," he notes.

Neither CSC nor Lockheed Martin was given a reason for the delay.

Raytheon is currently training new employees who will be flying to Antarctica for the summer, putting them through classes on ethics, IT security, diversity, survival skills, safety, energy conservation and many others. While she declines to talk about the company's push for the new contract, Carroll says that Raytheon is proud of its record and the accomplishments of the scientists who have spent time there over the past decade.

"Some of the 'hot button' issues for the NSF are to continue to improve the IT infrastructure on the ice, to move science data remotely, and to support more complex, large, deep-field science projects that will help answer some of the most pressing questions about climate change, as well as glaciology, geology, etc.," she says.

In fact, hundreds of scientists have made the trek to Antarctica to study everything from the extinction of an elephant seal colony to the flow dynamics of sea glaciers. Numerous discoveries have been made, including the existence of microbial life living in a previously unmapped reservoir beneath an inland glacier and a connection between tiny increases in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet. Raytheon is now involved with the NSF in something called Ice Cube, an energy-detecting array beneath the ice. The huge contraption will search for interactions between ice and neutrinos, which are impossibly small bits of energy from outer space.

If CSC were to win the contract, Lautenbacher says, the company would likely keep the polar support offices in Denver. As the former head of NOAA, he's familiar with Colorado and says he has a "great appreciation of the expertise of the folks who live in Denver."

He also insists that the more blogs there are about Antarctica, the better. "Many people I talk to aren't familiar with Antarctica; they don't even realize it's a continent," he says. "So the more opportunity the general public has to understand its value, I'm all for it."

On September 21, Erin cheered the first official sunrise, even if it was just a tiny peek above the horizon, and blogged about how the Polies were getting ready to see other people again.

"It has however been rather windy for the last few days meaning we have not actually SEEN the sun yet," she wrote. "But as soon as the wind dies down and the horizon cleans we should be able to see the beautiful wonderful glorious sun! Even though it is plenty light outside now the sunrise won't be real for me until I actually get to glimpse that sun for the first time.

"To celebrate the sunrise we had another dinner like with sunset and midwinter. Lots of wonderful food and drinks! And after appetizers and dinner we had a dessert and open mic night. I performed a few songs with various members of the community, and I think everyone had a good time. You can tell that most everyone is pretty exhausted, as almost everyone went to bed by 11 p.m. — that's pretty early for us polies!

"The first flight is scheduled for October 15! Just 24 days away. So that date is also our deadline to have the station opened. So people are busy with not only our normal daily tasking but also lots of additional jobs that need to get done like digging out "summer camp" and re-warming buildings that went cold for the winter.

"Everyone has been given their 're-deployment' dates which has made everyone start to think about their post ice travel plans. These dates are of course rather fluid because when we get out of here is all very dependent on the weather and how much it will cooperate.

"I am anxious to get home to friends and family but I've been told that it is good to take some time before returning home (mostly to re-adjust to the real world and normal life).

"Especially after spending a year on the ice."

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