Letter from… Antarctica

Alexander Finch talks about life in one of the most remote places on Earth – where his noisiest neighbours are a colony of penguins

Going outside is not easy. Before you even step out the door, you need to sign out, get a radio, fill a flask of hot water, find spare batteries for your torch, find your torch, pack a spare jacket in your rucksack, dress in three layers of clothing, put on a hat, goggles and facemask.

That’s because when you are going outside of our research base, Halley VI, into the dark Antarctic landscape during winter, you’re stepping into one of the most hostile natural environments on this planet.

Because we are so far South, for three months of every year we don’t see the sun at all – hence the need for a torch to go outside, even in the middle of the day. It’s also windy and cold, with the temperatures with wind-chill now at -49°C and dropping. But the most dangerous element of this environment is the isolation – we’re hundreds of kilometres from the nearest humans, and thousands of kilometres from the nearest civilisation.

It took three weeks of travel to get here, departing via ship from Cape Town. If we’re missing something, there’s no way for it be delivered. If we have a problem, we can’t get out – we have to face every hazard by ourselves, with the equipment and skills we brought with us.

Many of the small stresses of ‘real world’ life simply don’t exist here, which can make for a serene existence

Life for the twelve people at our base, who make up a part of the continent’s mere thousand or so winter residents, is nonetheless cheerful, if unusual. Many parts of life back in the UK have been brought with us (including an abundance of tea).

Since the base is a single structure, we are all living and working in close proximity to each other every hour of the day, every day of the year. There is little room for unresolved personal problems, so we make sure we get along and give each other the space we need. Fortunately, we all enjoy each other’s company!

We do have atypical responsibilities here. If we want water, for example, we need to dig some snow to melt. We need to dig our vehicles out of snow mounds and let them warm for an hour before we can use them.

Halley VI research station
Halley VI research station: -49°C and falling...

On the plus side, our commute is short – from one side of the building to the other. We don’t need to worry about taking our wallets with us, or if we need an umbrella or not. We’re never rushing to catch a bus and needing to go for a last-minute shop. There is no mud to clean off shoes or insects flying around, and our loudest neighbours are a colony of Emperor penguins.

Many of the small stresses of ‘real world’ life simply don’t exist here, which can make for a serene existence. The landscape around us is flat, white and desolate, but even so it possesses a strange beauty. And while the landscape never actually changes, its character evolves each day.

Four of us look after the scientific equipment and keep the experiment running, four of us look after the base’s vehicles and generators, and the remaining four look after the rest of us.

Ultimately, we are all here to conduct scientific data collection and investigation, predominantly of the atmosphere and the near-space environment, making observations critical to understanding the planet’s climate. On a personal level, though, we’re spending a year of our lives experiencing a place unlike any other on Earth.