PALMER STATION - Sometimes it's easy to forget that
I live in a place so unusual. We have many of the same benefits and
challenges of any small community, making our lives feel very normal.
The 35 of us are the workers, the fire department, the customers and
employees, the dishwashers and toilet scrubbers. We come from diverse
backgrounds but usually behave like one big family, for better or
worse. We eat three meals a day, usually of a gourmet nature, work out
in the gym, surf the Internet and drink good coffee.
My room has a beautiful ocean view. The sights
outside include the sky, a glacier face and the ocean, which is
sometimes filled with ice. They each appear in various shades of grey,
white and blue depending on the weather and time of day. It hasn't
gotten dark in weeks because the sun doesn't set until 11:46 p.m. and
rises again at 2:32 a.m.
Around such hours those flat colors turns orange, pink and gold
for extended periods of shocking beauty. We are truly lucky to be here
and temporarily consider this place our home.
Thus is life at Palmer Station, one of three research station
run by the US Antarctic Program. We live over a thousand kilometers
from the nearest traffic jam, ATM or tree. Living and working in
Antarctica has its challenges, but nothing compares to the hardships
faced by Shackleton, Byrd or Mawson within the past century.
This is a continent capable of unimaginable
harshness with plunging temperatures, deceptive elevations and blinding
starkness. It can quickly drive the mind to madness and limbs to
We endure it all, the pleasure and frustration, even the
gourmet food, for science. Palmer is in the heart of the Antarctic
Peninsula, one of the fastest warming areas of the planet. Within the
last 50 years, mean annual temperatures have risen over 5.5 degrees
Celsius, leaving less ice both on land and in the water.
Penguin populations are changing as true
Antarctic species such as the Adelie head further south while
sub-Antarctic varieties move in. Scientists can study the
concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere thousands of kilometers from
the nearest factory and thousands of meters down into the ice.
They look at the phytoplankton that consumes some of that CO2
and the krill that feed on them and provide the foundation of the
ocean's food chain. The ozone hole opens overhead in its annual
fluctuation, forcing us to cover our skin with clothing and lotions
that protect from up to four times the typical levels of solar
The research at Palmer encompasses many of Earth's natural
systems mainly analyzing local climate change, its affects on this
region and potential ramifications for the rest of the planet.
Station population tops out at 45 people and consists of two
groups: scientists and those who support them. Scientists are known as
Grantees because they are awarded grants through the National Science
Foundation to do their research here. I work in Logistics on the
support side and am responsible for the materials that come and go from
Our monthly supply ship travels out of Punta Arenas, Chile, our
logistical hub and a four-day boat ride away. A typical day for me
includes operating heavy equipment, warehouse data entry, shoveling
snow, assisting scientists, washing dinner dishes and any number of
I'm also on the search-and-rescue team and in charge of our
fire department. For a location so isolated, we keep plenty busy
maintaining all station operations while working at least six, nine
hour days a week.
People choose to work in Antarctica for wide ranging reasons.
Grantee Lab Assistants tend to be unpaid undergraduate students gaining
experience in the field. Trades people come here as part of lifelong
careers practicing their skill. Management is usually promoted from
within, some having spent decades coming to the "Ice."
All are adventurous people looking for an alternative
lifestyle. Most have an interest in science and delight in working
closely with the Grantees. Few leave unchanged by the stark beauty of
At Palmer, most employees work at least a six-month contract,
often the hardest part of which is being away from family and friends.
My family is over 12,000 km north and in the opposite season.
days get longer here and summer arrives, their temperatures fall below
ours as winter envelopes and snow blankets. We work long hours, so the
rare extra time is easily filled with hobbies and projects.
Some play cards or other games. Others escape into movies and
books. We have a band that practices at least once a week and an
exercise group that works out in the gym every morning.
This season we're even enjoying delicious homebrewed beer made
by one of our scientists who also happens to be a brew master. Most
everyone brings a different expertise to station and loves to share and
learn what others have to offer.
When weather allows, we take the opportunity to explore nearby
islands and coves in Zodiac inflatable boats. This provides not only an
escape from station but usually close interactions with wildlife.
On neighboring Torgersen Island, over a thousand Adelie
penguins lay eggs and raise their chicks. Leopard and elephant seals
stretch out on rock and ice between underwater feedings, unbothered by
a passing Zodiac with clicking cameras. The most popular creatures tend
to be humpback whales, especially when their enormous mass curiously
studies our dwarfed boats from as close as a few meters.
A longstanding tradition at Palmer involves jumping from the
pier into the -2 degrees C ocean when our ship departs. The shock and
pain involved for those who swim draws cheers from departing friends
and laughter from the others still on shore.
We all spend enough months here to see this process on several
occasions, knowing that some day it will be our turn to see the event
from the ship's point of view.
Leaving Palmer is always bittersweet, departing our cozy and
predictable community to return to a world with green grass under
barefoot, night-time hours that are actually dark and fresh bananas.
The traffic jams are there too, but returning to society is part of the
fun of leaving it for over six months. Besides, most of us end up back
down here again for another season, or maybe five.The research at
Palmer, one of the fastest warming areas of the planet,
focuses on climate change, its effects and potential ramifications.