Antarctica is the world’s coldest, driest and windiest continent. Although you can get to Antarctica on a tourist expedition, working in Antarctica is a whole different story. There are only about 4.000 people working in Antarctica during the summer and around 1.000 during winter. There are no permanent residents, meaning that researchers and other personnel fly in and out every few months or so. These brave souls work in any of the 75 research stations in different parts of the icy continent. I’d like to tell the story of one of these brave souls: Antarctica veteran Allison ‘Sandwich’ Barden.
Working in Antarctica
(a.k.a the story of Allison Barden)
(a.k.a the story of Allison Barden)
Introducing Allison ‘Sandwich’ Barden
For more than 10 years Allison would fly in by plane from New Zealand for either a summer or winter shift and stay at the McMurdo Antarctic research station, which is the biggest one on the continent with about 1000 people work there in the summer and about 250 in the winter. She would stay at the McMurdo station for months on end to study things like the effects of changes in temperature on Antarctic fish and she even got married at the station in 2014 (but that’s a whole story by itself). Her blog gives a great insight into everyday life on an Antarctican research station, where you will have to deal with extremely harsh weather and have to be resourceful to keep one (and one another) entertained.
The stories in this article are excerpts from Allison’s blog where she would little stories on what she was doing that day or how she felt. The photos are taken from her Flickr account. She talks about several different topics, from her scientific assignments to the parties and events organized by the McMurdo staff. All in all, it provides a unique and personal experience of how it is to work and (temporarily) live in Antarctica.
Side note: help me get in touch with Allison
First, some context to this article. In 2011, I asked Allison for tips on how to hitchhike to Antarctica since she has been working on the biggest scientific base on the continent (McMurdo) for more than 10 years. She gave me a lot of useful information, a lot of which I included in my article on how to travel to Antarctica that I wrote in 2017.
When I asked her if I could share stories from her (public) blog she initially agreed, but when I finished this article I wasn’t able to get in touch with her for months. Since I think the stories and photos are too good to not share, I decided to publish this article without her final approval. I’d love to show it to Allison however and get her feedback on it, so if you know her or can get in touch with her, please let me know!
First things first: finding jobs in Antarctica isn’t going to be easy. There are many, many people looking for a job in Antarctica and there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around. As I said earlier, there are around 4.000 people working on the continent in summer and 1.000 in winter; there are more people working in a city’s neighborhood. However, if you have your heart set on finding a job in Antarctica, who am I to stop you. In fact, I’ll give you a few resources that could help you find a job.USA citizens only
If you’re a resident of the United States, it might be good to look into its high-level Antarctica program. The program is managed by the National Science Foundation and deploys roughly 3,000 people to Antarctica every year to conduct scientific research or provide support to researchers through the operation and maintenance of the research stations and vessels.All countries
This US-run program provides opportunities for scholars in the humanities (painting, photography, writing, history, and other liberal arts) to work in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Non-US citizens are able to apply as well, but priority is given to US citizens. You have to be over 21 to participate.Canada citizens only
This Calgary-based airline (originally started in the 1970s by then-farmer Kenn Borek) has one of the largest Twin Otter fleets in the world. They are best known for their ski-equipped planes who can land in remote areas, which of course there are a lot of in Antarctica. They are mostly looking for skilled employees in the fields of Information Technology, Maintenance Operations, Flight Operations, and Management Professionals.USA citizens only
This Alaska-based company partner up with ESS Services to provide food, housing, recreational, retail, janitorial, and postal assistance for the companies working in Antarctica. They are part of the Lockheed Martin Antarctica Team supporting the National Science Foundation’s United States Antarctic Program. There are a lot of opportunities if you are a flexible multi-tasker who thrives in remote sites. Expect job positions such as baker, hairstylist, sous chef, and steward.
Common job openings:
The Australian government has an extensive Antarctic program which often posts jobs on their website. Roles vary from station support to medical practitioners, and from telecommunications to mechanics and aviation. They have a cool quiz about working in Antarctica with different scenarios that might occur, asking you to how you would react to them. Check out their website for job positions.USA citizens only
This Houston-based company describes themselves as a service-disabled veteran, minority-owned business that has been providing exceptional engineering, quality assurance, and IT resources and solutions for over 30 years. Their job opportunities are mostly in the technical and engineering fields.
Common job openings:
Telco / Radio
Marine Science Technician
Satcom Engineer / Technician
This company, founded in 1955, provides support to the Antarctic mission of the US government. Many of the work positions are in the field of mechanics and engineering, but there are some exceptions as well (how about being a plumber in Antarctica?). Check out their current openings.
Common job openings:
Logistics & Operations
Environment, Health, and Safety Engineer
Fire Systems Technician
Flight Line Equipment Mechanic
Heavy Equipment Mechanics / Operators
Human Resources Generalist
Maintenance / Construction Trades
Power/Water Plant Technician
Waste Water Treatment Operator
UTMB Health offers a full range of primary and specialty health care services in the USA, but they have a branch serving the National Science Foundation’s US Antarctic Program as well. Many health-related jobs can be found here, from physician to (flight) nurse to radiology technicians. Check out their job listings.
Common job openings:
Biomed Equip Repair
Medical Lab Technician
Nurse Practitioner/ Physician Assistant
This company, specializing in technology, engineering and science has 40.000 employees worldwide. Leidos is the prime contractor for the National Science Foundation’s United States Antarctic Program (USAP) and many of their job openings will be related to it in one way or another.
Common job openings:
Management and Science Support
Engineering & Science Support
Information Security Analyst
Marine Project Coordinator
Winter Site Manager
Perhaps the coolest (literally) job of all would be to work at this cute little post office which was established in 1944. It operated as a British Research Station until it closed in 1962. The abandoned base was designated a Historic Site and Monument under the Antarctic Treaty and in 1996 restored as a ‘living’ museum.
It is possible to apply for a position welcoming visitors, managing ship visits and running the gift shop. You don’t have to be a British citizen to apply, and the shop is only open from November to March each year. Read more about this dream job (for some) on the website of Port Lockroy and see photos of my trip to Port Lockroy.[/su_column][/su_row]
Be sure to check out Cool Antarctica’s article for a great FAQ section and to learn more about the national Antarctica Programs around the world.
Arriving in Antarctica
There are many routes from different continents to Antarctica. The most commonly used route for tourism starts in Ushuaia (Argentina) and takes you to the islands of the Antarctic Peninsula in the far north. If you work on Antarctica however, you will probably not be taking this route. The McMurdo research station, for instance, is on the east side of the continent (from the perspective of a traditional flat map) and you are likely to take a US Army plane there that lands on an improvised landing strip.
Antarctica can be equally intimidating and impressive, as you can read in Allison’s first post after arriving.
What it’s like to work at McMurdo, Antarctica’s biggest research station
As I have written before, Allison was working at the McMurdo research station off and on for more than 10 years. Sometimes she would work the winter season and sometimes during summer. Her work schedule was tough: she was working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. Add to that the unusual weather circumstances, as it is completely dark 24 hours a day for months in the winter or completely light in the summer. So what was she doing down there? A lot of it is more practical and less romantic than you might think. Allison writes:
Below are pictures shared from her Flickr album that show her and others at work. The video at the bottom is a timelapse of her scientific expedition on which she was drilling and fishing to study the effects of changes in temperature on Antarctic fish.
The upsides of working in Antarctica
Apart from the shocked looks you will inevitably get when you tell a new acquaintance you are working in Antarctica, there are many more perks of working in Antarctica. In general, setting foot on Antarctica is an absolutely unique experience that few are able to achieve in a lifetime. Your sense of self will surely diminish when you are around the vast mountains or the never-ending icy plains. These are a few of the upsides of working in Antarctica:
- Although the salaries of working in Antarctica is not as high as you might expect, you will have a lot fewer costs in your time on the icy continent. There is simply not enough things to spend money on, and your work-life balance will be much different than back home. This makes a job in Antarctica a great way to save money to eat, drink and do all the things you missed during your time down there.
- You will be around a lot of funny, quirky and likeminded people 24/7. Just have a look through the pictures in this article and you will notice that the people working in Antarctica are very creative when it comes to organising events and parties. It seems that there is an underlying understanding of the situation; you’re all in this together so why not make it as fun as possible?
- If you’ve ever been on a silent retreat, you know that although it can be excruciatingly hard mentally, it will also be one of the most rewarding things you will ever do. Add a ginormous amount of ice and some people and you pretty much know how it is to work on Antarctica, especially during winter time.
The downsides of working in Antarctica
If you have ever travelled for a long time and stayed in hostels, you will recognize the same questions that you get asked over and over again: “Where are you from?”, “Where did you come from?”, “What is your next destination?”. At a certain point in my travels, I had canned responses for questions like these which I would reply without thinking.
One of Allison’s posts tells us that this is a thing on Antarctica as well. but with questions like “What day do you leave?”, “How was winter?” and “Are you anxious to get out of here?”. It drove Allison mad from time to time. In her post, she describes her inner monologue: “why do you care what day I leave? you’re not going to remember anyway and you’re just going to ask me again tomorrow”. A day later she writes another post, elaborating a bit more on the way she feels:
Work hard, play harder: entertainment on Antarctica
Antarctica can best be compared to a blank canvas. There can be days where nothing happens, where you will do the same routine day in day out in whichever job or research you are involved in. This is exactly why people tend to get super creative here. On the McMurdo base, there are a few means of entertainment such as a poker room, bowling alley and the occasional organised trip to historic sights nearby. There is a local band which performs and rehearses regularly and there even is an annual Woodstockesque festival called Icestock, which is held on New Year’s Day. Work is important in Antarctica, but keeping yourself (and each other) sane is perhaps even more important!
Months of darkness: spending winter in Antarctica
The winter is a particularly hard time to be in Antarctica. The temperatures drop to -30 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) and the continent is wrapped in darkness for 6 months. You can imagine that this has a huge effect on a person’s condition. In an episode of the lovely “Allusionist” podcast, Allison gives us a taste of what daily life is like during the winter period: “From a personal experience, sometimes you would just stare into space or stop sentences in the middle of them. You would just go along talking and then just kind of forget what you were talking about. Sometimes you would lose the word for a common thing and you would just… slow down a little”.
Allison writes 4 things that happen to her every day on Sierra Nevada cardboard bottle separators.
Saying goodbye to McMurdo
February is goodbye month. the month where a thousand people depart this Antarctic outpost and leave behind a skeleton crew of 119. these are pictures of the departing’s last day. they will all be missed.