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Last Flight Out (brr.fyi)
980 points by bo0tzz on Feb 15, 2023 | hide | past | favorite | 312 comments

These stories about the logistics at Amundsen-Scott are a fascinating glimpse at the level of logistical complexity that'd be required for an off-planet (Moon, Mars...) base.

Every time I see people get excited about Martian human habitation, I note a lack of discussion of the essential intermediate step: a fully self-sustaining base in the most inhospitable parts of Earth.

Where are the Biosphere++ projects?

And Amundsen-Scott has it easy: pressure, oxygen levels, and dust aren't a problem! (granted: Martian equator has easier temperatures).

Also, I've long wondered what is the comparable level of yearly insolation (for sustainable power) in the South Pole compares to Mars' equator?

Martian equator has milder temperatures, more sunlight (no polar night), but has worse access to water, and none to breathable air.

I'm certain that a self-contained habitation for a year is a solvable problem; nuclear submarines can be away in the ocean for a comparable time.

A habitat self-sustained for potentially indefinite time (at least half century), while producing its own food and oxygen, is a much taller order.

Unlike Amundsen's, such a station can have a nuclear reactor, with decades worth of fuel.

> Unlike Amundsen's, such a station can have a nuclear reactor, with decades worth of fuel.

Tangentially, McMurdo (the coastal Antarctica base) did have a nuclear reactor for a bit. It didn't go great.


An unfortunate early design. Hopefully the engineering knowledge and access to far better design tools that have developed in the interleaving ~50 years would allow for a much better design today.

Though my hopes must be tempered by the prospect of greed. It would be better if the government(s) created an open design which could reuse off the shelf or components that any corporation could compete to create.

Eh, no.. a failed concept, to grasp the techological deep roots needed to supply something with specialists and machinery at all times, at a location that is 9 months off limits.

DARPA and NASA are currently developing designs to do exactly that under Kilopower, Megapower, and similar programs. Enabling long duration unmanned deep space missions is explicitly one of NASA's goals with this.

And then the helium and hydrogen, turned the containement vessel into a sieve over the long run, pushing the vessel of course. The end.

Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

Don’t nuclear subs make their oxygen by electrolyzing seawater? Mars habitat would be a whole different problem from subs.

I'm no nuclear engineer, but my anecdotal experience has been that nuclear plants need access to large amounts of water for cooling.

I'm assuming a Martian reactor would need some other approach give the relative scarcity of water? Sure ambient temperatures are lower, but equally the atmosphere is not very dense.

Thinking about it, burning diesel is also not attractive (lack of oxygen) and solar is weaker than earth. But I'm not seeing a lot of alternatives to solar...

Primary cooling could be molten salt or liquid metal but unless you take the power out through the Seebeck effect like RTG’s on space probes, you still need water to make steam for turbines, I guess.

Mars does have water, mostly in form of ice. But it takes some digging.


Annual DNI or GTI at the south pole is surprisingly high. About 5-6kWh/m^2 which is pretty close to somewhere like california or western Australia.


GHI is quite low (your array needs to be very spread out) and seasonality is 1/0, but if seasonal storage were available then a solar array in antarctica is fine.

Mars GHI is about 550W/m^2, but there are no clouds. An array there would perform about as well as france or spain.

Thanks so much! I've been looking for this sort of information for years! (and didn't have the competence to calculate myself)

Don't forget protection from solar and other radiation. (Disclaimer: I am one of those that aspire taking humanity to Mars.)

> Every time I see people get excited about Martian human habitation, I note a lack of discussion of the essential intermediate step: a fully self-sustaining base in the most inhospitable parts of Earth.

I remember a pretty popular book and a Hollywood starring Matt Damon which primarily focused on this exact problem.

Unless you're talking about an entirely different story with the same title, it's about an individual person trying to survive alone somewhere with very limited resources. At no point is his situation sustainable, and he only barely just survives to be rescued.

It really has nothing at all to do with developing a sustainable base on any planet. It's about some clever survival strategies, all of which are considered temporary at best.

> Where are the Biosphere++ projects?


No, that was more of a psychological/social experiment that didn't seem to have closed life-support systems.

The first people on mars will be self replicating robots. Due to the way the exponential function works - I think enough terraforming could be done really fast.

We don’t have self replicating robots on Earth. The first people on Mars will be like the first people on the moon: very vulnerable human tourists.

But will humans be welcome afterwards?

Not if they load the robots with Bing chat

Bing chat 2.0, now with some of asimov's laws!

If you're interested in the people and personalities and activities at the South Pole, the Werner Herzog film Encounters at the End of the World is a revealing and interesting documentary. It includes a fascinating part about a deluded penguin choosing to leave its flock and begin a fatal journey towards the center of the island...

- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encounters_at_the_End_of_the_W...

- https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1093824/

FYI, many people who spent time at McMurdo around the filming of Encounters are not big fans. The interviews were intentionally set up to make people look weird. The narration implies there's something wrong with "polar people." You might find us dissapointingly normal.

A Year On Ice is a more accurate representation.

I'm in Frozen Planet, but you can't believe all the narration in that either.

I can see that, with only a few hours of footage to portray the situation they want. Is there not something interesting or an underlying personality trait that makes the voluntary inhabitants of the frozen world different from the average person? How much time have you spent there?

7 summer seasons, about 2 months each. Most of that was in a tent up on Erebus, but about a week transitioning through McMurdo at the beginning and end of each season.

Interesting, doing field research?

I remember watching this. Turns out BBC Natural History documentaries are more theater than just documentaries. If you watch the "making of" clips at the end of some of the series, you do get the sense that they may not be just captured natural footage as much as highly-scripted activities with the actions of the cameramen, crew, etc. edited out. Still fun to watch, but isn't being manipulated as a viewer disingenuous for a studio that calls itself "Natural" History? Maybe a better name would be BBC Studios Artificial History Unit.

At this point I can't really enjoy documentaries like that anymore. I keep thinking "they brought a steadicam down there?" or "where is all that light coming from?" The fourth wall is thoroughly broken.

Thanks, I'd rather watch a poorly lit Youtube video with a guy talking to his Gopro. I wonder what the equivalent of that would be for animal documentaries.

The sentiment resonates, but on the other hand I took a lot of video in those caves and it's all unwatchable, so I have enormous appreciation for what the BBC did. It's an incredibly hard environment to film in and I was absolutely amazed by the final product. Gavin Thurston rigged up cables from ice screws in the cave walls and set up a travelling robot camera thing he designed on it. There was a huge amount of equipment and hard work; for example for the crater shots I helped them carry up an enormous crane system to the crater rim which didn't even produce any useful footage. Also, the BBC guys were so charismatic that they could talk their way around rules and into places. For example, the helicopter pilots flying in the crater did things that aren't normally allowed. So in a way it's fake, but actually when it comes to the cave visuals, their work captures the feeling of being there, which otherwise I would never really be able to share with anyone. It really is an unbelivably spectacular place and almost impossible to film.

I like the old Jacques Cousteau films where there’s no fourth wall to break, the people making it are also a subject.

I don’t like the nature documentary that tries really hard to pretend the makers don’t exist. I especially don’t like how almost all of the sound is faked.

Go ahead, bring a steadycam and a key light, just don’t stage shit like a fake reality show. Id like to see what’s actually out there. Also maybe don’t take every opportunity to say how everything you’re filming is doomed.


That short clip is absolutely breathtaking. Thank you for sharing.

(Heh, a taste of fooBBQ.) Thank you for sharing. While we're here and discussing the documentaries: care to share a highlight anecdote of your time there?

Oh ok one more story. There is a road connecting McMurdo (US) and Scott Base (New Zealand). I think it's only a few miles.

So I'm sitting in the McMurdo driving training you have to take before you're allowed to take a truck out. Get to the end of the lecture. Instructor: "Any questions?" I ask, "yeah... so, New Zealanders drive on the left, and we drive on the right, right? Which side do we drive on if we go to Scott Base?"

Instructor, looking totally bored and serious: "Drive in the middle."

To this day I don't know if he was kidding.

So where did you drive? I suppose encountering another vehicle was extremely unlikely.

I'm surprised they had a training for this. Is it more of a legal thing?

Ps thanks for the insightful stories!

Some of it was legal ass-covering but also rules about vehicle heaters, wheel chocks, radios, fueling, checking out and in etc. I only walked to Scott, never ended up driving. Drove to building 71 a lot to install and service radios taking to my equipment on Erebus, and to and from the helipad.

Oh yeah and some of the trucks have treads instead of wheels (matttracks) so those take some learning.

Oh man, so many stories. Well, here's a fun one. There's unfortunately a big divide between the contractor-employed support staff and the "beakers" (scientists like me) and I would try and break through the barrier sometimes. Had a brief romance with someone working in waste management (a "wastie"), so maybe that's how it started. But anyway, one day I was sitting in the McMurdo cafeteria at a table with people from Fuels ("fuelies") and people from Communications ("commies" ... yeah) someone asked me what I do and I said "I work up on Erebus." A fuelie looks daggers at me and goes "Oh yeah!? Well I work on the FUCKING MOON!" and storms off.

There were a lot of people at McMurdo for whom Antarctica wasn't quite the adventure they'd hoped it would be.

I suppose we're a little more adventurous on average than a random sample of Americans? Big spread there, though. Everyone's different.

any people who spent time at McMurdo around the filming of Encounters are not big fans

They didn't check out any of Werner Herzogs movies before letting him in? They would have known what they were in for.

Fair point. Actually come to think of it most of the people I talked to who were IN the documentary were ok with it (and my volcanology professor went in to make 2 more movies with Herzog after meeting him during Encounters). It was others at mcmurdo that were angry about the portrayal of the town and generalizations about polar people. Maybe people just seized on it as something to argue about when bored, I dunno.

I've seen "Into the Inferno", which I assume is one of the films your professor was in (is he Oppenheimer?). Visually spectacular, but Hertzog's commentary overlay and approach made it just...odd. He's a weird dude, but very talented.

Yep. On all counts.

It sounds like you either are or were formerly posted in the Antarctic — any advice about how to get involved, and maybe get a shift working there, as a civilian with a technical background but without much in the way of a research background? Or is it just totally off the table?

Used to be pretty easy to sign up as a dishwasher or that kind of thing. If you are in interested in science, find a PI looking for grad students. Edit: I read more closely. There are technical grantee groups as well, like UNAVCO and IRIS PASSCAL. Not too hard to get a job with one of those.

Lots of ways in... Everybody I know who has really tried has made it down there.

Thanks for the pointers! Hope I can get a spot down there in a few years too.

Just curious, what’s the male:female ratio of the typical winter crew?

I've never been there in the winter.

The famous scene[0] from this film is a masterpiece. It never fails to sink me to my nadir, so I avoid watching it even if I love it so much.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnTU_hJoByA

The top rated comment is spot on:

> Werner Herzog tells a joke:

> "Why did the penguin cross the road?"

> "To die. Alone. Insane and unnoticed."

Beautiful, thanks for sharing.

That penguin walked to his certain death, while his mates swam and caught fish, to their certain death. Sadness for it and his supposed insanity only exists for a fleeting moment. In a long enough timespan, it lived and died like any other penguin has or ever will.

Nihilism is not necessarily pessimistic. It presents our universe, and life itself, as a glass half full, but it's up to you to decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

Thanks for this evening philosophical reflection.

I speculate, but I imagine that that type of behavior by a group of individuals on a long timescale where most but not fail is one important mechanism of how remote Polynesian islands, ice age American via Beringia, and other areas of the world get populated.

That’s what I was thinking—-the occasional outlier’s success in pioneering out into the new.

> Nihilism is not necessarily pessimistic. It presents our universe, and life itself, as a glass half full, but it's up to you to decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

The nihil is nihilism is Latin for "nothing".

Nihilism says there is no meaning to existence: it does not matter if the glass if half-full, it does not matter if the glass is half-empty, it does not matter if the glass (or its contents) exist at all. It does not matter if you decide if life/universe/everything is good, or if you decide it is bad. It does not matter what, or even if, you decide something at all.

The nihilistic philosophy offers neither a good nor bad view of the universe, but people then assume that nihilism itself is good or bad, because of their preconceptions.

If you really want to believe that your life has meaning, you will find any philosophy saying your life has no meaning utterly abhorrent.

But if you accept that life has no meaning whatsoever, it is exhilarating and freeing.

So I'm agreeing with you, just pointing out that philosophy itself is neither good nor bad, it all depends how one approaches and judges it.

at least for most of us it is not pessimistic only as long as one can muse about it while sitting comfortably in a warm place with a full stomach.

You are mistaken. Being at peace with the universe isn't only available to wealthy people. This is a very materialistic view.

There is someone out there in abject poverty that is more content than anyone with a warm place and a full stomach. They are hungry, they are cold, yet they are at peace.

Likewise, I believe one can reach inner contentment even if fed and clothed. It is not a path accessible only to the poor.

Food and shelter isn’t materialistic. The lack of them have have severe psychological and physiological consequences.

"There is someone out there in abject poverty that is more content than anyone with a warm place and a full stomach"

This is a statement without meaning, e.g. so what?

I would wager that it's easier to "come to peace with the universe" if your basic needs are met: warmth, shelter, friends, food, etc. (it has nothing to do with materialism or wealth).

Insightful comment on that video by Chudea. Reposting here so I'll remember it:

"All death is certain. This penguin didn't go to the mountains to die. He went on the journey in order to live. Rest in peace on the top of that mountain, penguin. Your frozen grave will be your place of victory over monotony."

> It never fails to sink me to my nadir, so I avoid watching it even if I love it so much.

Of course the sound track to that scene is a Russian Orthodox religious chant:

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LVHl3HTBoA

Herzog laying it on thick with the music as per usual lol but that is a beautiful, haunting sequence nonetheless. I like to rag on Herzog but he really is a unique mind and an incredible documentarian.

Thanks. I remember that scene well. Herzog at his finest. I had the privilege of seeing Herzog speak in person at a conference around the time when this movie was released.

Understandable. It struck a deep chord with me, became a larger metaphor applicable to all life.

Amazing, thanks for sharing.

That has certain crossover with the mockumentary / sci-fi movie "The Wild Blue Yonder". I love that one. They use footage by one of the McMurdo station occupants of the film you mention, as if it were images from a remote planet.


There also is a japanese movie based on a chef in Antarctica: The Chef of South Polar (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1345728/)

The shower page was interesting, you get 4 minutes of shower time a week


I'm surprised they can't just melt snow water to run things like showers.

Oddly no suggestions on the page about doubling up your shower with someone else to have longer or more frequent showers.

> Everyone is free to stand in the physical shower stall as long as they want! As long as they keep water flow within the allocated quota.

I'm going to be turning on the water to get wet, soaping up, turning on the water to rinse. If I have some extra maybe I'll let the water just run for some seconds to enjoy it.

More people in the shower isn't going to help, they're just going to get in the way.

Also, at least 10 years ago when I heard from someone who was there, the over-winter population at the base was super-majority men, rather homophobic, and flaunting any hetereosexual couplings you had was... fraught, due to issues of jealosy and competition.

> I'm going to be turning on the water to get wet, soaping up, turning on the water to rinse.

Commonly called a military shower[0], and exactly what I do in my RV when boondocking.

[0] In the military, ironically, even in boot camp we didn't shower this way, we just went very quickly. just the pits...

I've heard that specifically called a Navy shower in most cases not generically military.

I wonder if there are libido-inhibiting drugs you can take, and whether that would help.

The British Army allegedly used Bromide in tea for this purpose in WW2 [0]

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bromide#Folk_and_passé_medicin...

Old joke from where I live

Two old vets (in their 90s) are sitting in a bench

The first says - Mate, do you remember the bromide they gave us in the military?

The second - yeah?

The first guy - Well it started to work.

Doesn't that post explain that this is just what they do, and that melting the snow is pretty involved?

There's also limited fuel that they have to conserve, so infinite snow does not mean infinite water.

Seems like a decent opportunity to use a nuclear reactor .. something like what you would find on a submarine.

I wonder what it'd take to adapt NuScale's SMR design. Probably a lot, given the unusual rigors of the Antarctic environment, but for basically the same reasons it seems like something that'd be worth funding.

We already tried that 60 years ago in Greenland, it didn’t end well.


That didn’t fail because of the nuclear reactor, it failed because the ice sheet movement deformed the tunnels over time and collapsed ceilings. Nothing to do with the feasibility of sitting a portable nuclear reactor on top of the ice like the settlements in Antarctica.

There is a fascinating film about that reactor:


With a 30 degree delta between temperature and wind chill, I'd think they're ripe for wind turbines.

Unfortunatly wind turbines are also not really a big fan of the cold. When ice grows on the blades they can become unstable.

2 people in a shower doesn't effectively decrease water usage per person, and the logistics overhead would eat into the 4 minutes.

If done with someone you find attractive, that also finds you attractive, 2 people to a shower, that want to participate in this shared activity of showering together, increases this thing called "fun". (Both parties wanting to participate is requisite for this "fun" to happen. If one or both parties does not want to, this "fun" does not happen. Even if both parties want to, that is not a guarantee that "fun" will happen.) Note that this "fun" is unable to spontaneously generate water, unfortunately. However, every rules lawyer will note that the limit is 4 minutes of water, and not a limit of spending 4 minutes in the shower. (8 minutes of water for two people.) Thus, two people may choose to spend additional time in the shower with the water off. If it is not clear to you what two consenting, attracted, naked, soapy adults could possibly do for "fun", please find and ask an adult that you know and trust.

> Note that this "fun" is unable to spontaneously generate water, unfortunately.

Ummm about that XD

It sure does. It's a lot easier (and thus, conserves more water) to get suds off someone else's body than your own. You spray and they sweep, or you aim it at their hair and they help get the shampoo out with their hands.

There's only a few centimeters of snow per year at the pole, it's a high desert, and digging the ice out is probably not worth the energy?

The same blog has a post referring to snow accumulation (evidently wind-blown, not precipitated) requiring enormous operations and infrastructural efforts to keep the station from being buried [0].

There seems to be plenty of snow available, if you want to melt it. Energy is the issue.

[0] https://brr.fyi/posts/south-pole-topography

I’m game if you are

Strangely enough the South Pole Mega Shower is still shorter than my average shower time.

Maybe you can catch and reuse your own water. Then you’d just need to bring a jerrycan and water heater every time.

I'm more curious about what they do with the greywater. If you just dumped it you'd end up with a giant, evergrowing pile of dirty ice.

the rodwell where they melt the ice for their water makes a big cavern in the ice. the previous rodwell is used for all greywater/human waste, indeed making a giant shitcicle. when the current freshwater rodwell is done, they start a new one and that one becomes the new dumping one.

There's another post on his blog about visiting the sewage treatment plant at McMurdo (not Pole, I don't know what they do there). At McMurdo it's like any other sewage treatment plant: they release the cleaned water into the sea.

Which can't be done at the pole. The options are either drive it (and all waste) out to McMurdo, or leave it there.

>I'm surprised they can't just melt snow

They do get their water by melting snow and they use waste heat from the generation of electricity to do some or all of the melting.

Apparently, it takes a lot of energy to melt snow.

As someone who has lived rather isolated for long stretches, I think the one thing that helps fight feeling isolated is to find your joy and practice it. My joy is in creative outlets. When I'm alone, I sing, woodwork, cook new recipes, garden [indoors or out], sew. If I had a large indoor space I'd probably practice slacklining, aerial arts, tumbling, parkour, climbing. And then there's the computer, where I can create music and endless programs, websites. I haven't even touched on painting, drawing, playing music. And all that can be supplemented by podcasts, music, movies/TV, reading, chores, working out. There's really so much to do indoors if you can cultivate a creative mindset.

Or, instead of all that. You can spend your entire summer at the south pole playing a single game of Factorio.

the joke's lost on me? I know the game (never played it, though) but why "a single game"?

A single game of Factorio can take a long time. Mine usually take around 100 hours.

The craving to (tweak|move|refactor|grow) the base for certain personality types that are richly represented on HN can mean you can spend hundreds more on it too.

Try installing the Space Exploration mod, and you can easily add an extra zero to that figure.


I played more hours than I care to admit during the pandemic and I think that was... 3, 4 games?

You can practically play it forever.

I think a lot of those physical things you suggested, like parkour and climbing, would be extremely risky because the last thing you'd want is to injure yourself in the middle of an Antarctic winter.

I just finished reading “Alone” by Richard Byrd [0]. It’s about a man who wintered alone in Antarctica during the dark night in 1934. I found it very captivating and I think a lot of those on HN would find it interesting; especially those who find this blog interesting.

[0] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/368563

Thank you very much for the recommendation! I now how I'm spending the day today :)

I thought those fuel bladders were pretty cool! Never thought about transporting volatiles in anything other than a rigid tank. Also had to look up what AN-8 Fuel is:

"AN8 is a special fuel blend unique to the Antarctic and Arctic. It has a lower flash point of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which also lowers the gelling point when extreme cold temperatures can cause wax crystals to start forming in the fuel. AN8 will remain liquid until about minus 72 degrees."


Yeah, the SPoT part was fascinating. It takes them 40 days to drive to the South Pole. I guess they drag along a container that is converted in to a living quarters along with the fuel and other heavy things. 40 days... then the return trip which is supposedly quicker. ~25KM a day. No idea if they stop for the night or take shifts and keep the tractors running 24x7.

Curiously, they refill the empty bladders with air before sledding them back to McMurdo. "For safety", but the article doesn't explain why this is safer.

Now I wonder what the cost per gallon is!

With these type of operations it becomes a bit semantic and depends entirely on how you define costs and over what timespan.

You have to ship it there via tanker, store at McMurdo, and ship across the ice on special purpose vehicles. If you divide the whole cost of all that up per gallon of fuel you get a price. But if you need more, the margin cost for the next gallon is going to be an interesting one, and probably come with a free extra 9999 gallons or something.

roughly $3 dollars per gallon purchase price for 5-6 million gallons. Plus tanker costs to McM at between $25k-$70k per day for roughly 90 days. Plus the cost of the ice breaker, between $3.5-$11 million per year. [0] That's just to get it to McM and doesn't include the labor costs of the fuelies based in McM. Then you gotta get it to Pole, which is a combination of the overland traverse and lc130 tanker missions. [0] https://erdc-library.erdc.dren.mil/jspui/bitstream/11681/243...

And then you find out you're 20 000 gallons short and you fly it in from Christchurch....

The "About" page shows an interesting fact. This guy applied to the work position in Antarctica back in 2017 and it took almost 2k days for the hiring team to get back to him for the next steps of the hiring process. Quite a long wait, but I guess it was worth it. A "one in a billion" lifetime opportunity.

It's ~5000 people per year, 1 in a million humans per year (and of course most humans aren't interested in going)

The prospect of a medical emergency would be terrible. I think there was an unplanned cancer surgery at this base many years back, but there are so many other things that can go wrong with no ER or quick evacuation to turn to. Even a dental emergency would be a disaster.

ETA: The cancer emergency was in 1998 required a special air drop but they had to wait until October to fly out the patient. https://antarcticsun.usap.gov/features/1812/

There was the case of the doctor who developed appendicitis, and with no other doctors around, did his own appendectomy...


I feel like my Emacs setup would be perfect after the winter isolation. :) - Has anyone studied the Antarctic winter with respect to deep focus and personal productivity?

Interesting. To me it sounds quite the opposite. Lonely, depressing, and boring.

Somewhat related, I've seen mentions here and there of people using cruise ships for the same thing. Minimal distractions from the outside world (via the internet anyway), and most personal concerns out of the way (food, laundry, etc).

Heh, As in the more extreme the cold, the deeper focus? Perhaps ignoring the ever-looming dread of facility malfunction and death by freezing... Perhaps other cold environments are better suited?

Don't think it'd be about deep focus, but definitely spiritual.

Is there anything a C-130 cannot do? What an incredible aircraft. That landing, complete with reverse thrust, was incredible.

Just to make it a little crazier, all LC-130s (the ones with skis) fly out of upstate New York!


A C-130 with JATO is also fun to watch. I am not sure they do it any more, but the Blue Angels used to do a demo of it with Fat Albert[0] during their air show appearances.

[0] https://avgeekery.com/watch-fat-albert-rockets-into-airshow-...

That also reminds me of the C-130 modified with JATO for landing


That is awesome!

What happens if someone has a true medical emergency? Like heart attack or burst appendix? Are they stranded?

I feel like this fear would be lingering over me the entire time.

Well, yes. There's the famous case of when a station's only doctor had appendicitis so he removed his own [1], and another who had to do her own cancer biopsy and chemotherapy [2]. The equations may be simple but they are still very cold.

[1] Leonid Rogozov, 1961. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32481442

[2] Jerri Nielsen, 1998. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerri_Nielsen

Usually in such outcast places they have a room equipped for light surgery and some emergency procedures. You won't receive the same level of care that you would have in a proper hospital, but they should be able to at least do some "temporary fix" while transportation to a proper hospital is arranged if needed. Appendectomy shouldn't be a problem.

>but they should be able to at least do some "temporary fix" while transportation to a proper hospital is arranged if needed.

I believe the person you're responding to is moreso asking what would happen if it was during the months where no inbound or outbound transportation is possible.

You could cut it out yourself [1]

But I've read that doctors do need to have their appendix removed, but not other people. I can't find a source on that, however.

[1]: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32481442

Probably not if it burst!

> It was not an easy choice. Rogozov knew his appendix could burst and if that happened, it would almost certainly kill him - and while he considered his options, his symptoms got worse.

(From your link.)

That's why in Villas Las Estrellas they require residents to have their appendix to be removed: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180810-villas-las-estre...

International rewatch "The Thing" day

Too early for that! "The Thing" is traditionally midwinter viewing.

Aren't the northern-hemispherians close enough to midwinter?

Now I wonder if they watch other Antarctic media. I'd recommend "A Place Further than the Universe" but I have no idea if it's something they'd want to watch.

"The Thing" was best viewed when alone on nightwatch just before walking across to the meteorological building in the dark at 03:00.

My favorite writing about Antarctica is "Big Dead Place": https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-30/big-dead-place-the-wi...

You can find the blog in the Internet Archive: https://web.archive.org/web/20120402141259/http://www.bigdea... or grab the book.

Silver medal to Maciej for this one: https://idlewords.com/2016/05/shuffleboard_at_mcmurdo.htm

Big Dead Place was great: it gives you a great idea of the terrain, the characters who come through, and the politics, all from the perspective of a grunt who works there.

Very sadly, the author of that blog committed suicide back in 2012.


Blows me away everytime I see these bases and the amount of 'stuff' they have there considering it's literally in the middle of nowhere.

If you zoom in on the first warehouse picture, you see there's ice inside the stores warehouse.

I guess they let everything that can tolerate it freeze?

Check out his previous post: https://brr.fyi/posts/frost

> We don’t heat spaces unless we have to!

> The ice isn’t really “wet” per se. It has the consistency of shattered automotive safety glass. On a related note, the snow doesn’t really behave like “frozen water crystals”. It’s more like “very cold sand”.

I got sucked into reading a few other posts by the same author and one is about exactly this! https://brr.fyi/posts/frost

Pretty incredible.

Agree! Interesting read which got me thinking about how we take our current systems (hvac, phones, laptops) / constructions materials and the environments we use them in with the expectation that they should work 99% of the time.

Down the rabbit hole... how long would my phone last in strato/meso/thermo spheres before memory starts flipping due to cosmic rays?

Thanks for sharing!

Yep, see this other post: https://brr.fyi/posts/frost

Another blog, about the french-italian base Concordia.


In years past there was also ABigDeadPlace.com, which has since lapsed due to the author's unfortunate death. Thankfully it was published as a book, _Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica_ by Nicholas Johnson. If brr.fyi strikes your fancy, I bet that book would as well.


I can second Big Dead Place. It's an entertaining and slightly cynical take on the Antarctic, including such details as the head of an American base personally removing the "Made in China" stickers from the souvenirs in the gift shop, and a description of how an item brought inside from the outdoors radiates cold like a campfire radiates heat.

100%. I would describe the subject matter as "dysfunctional office politics in Antarctica", which doesn't sound fascinating but it really is!

I just love the domain name!

This is a great blog, thanks for sharing. Definitely looking forward to following along during the winter.

I wonder what kinds of science are done at the South Pole.

A couple of my ex-colleagues worked on the Troll station. The Norwegian Polar Institute usually publish the vacancies a year ahead, as there is a lot of prep to get to right people.

Anyway, both of 'em worked as IT/communication engineers some 10 years apart, but told me that the first movie they watched together (with rest of the crew) was John Carpenter's The Thing.

One area of research at the opposite side, McMurdo, apparently is around glaciers melting.

> Warming seas are carving into massive Antarctic glacier that could trigger sea level rise https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/02/1...

Q: I wonder if the South Pole station is also involved in active climate research or if the North Pole is somehow more scientifically relevant to near-term climate change?

Enlightning observation:

> [...] researchers have determined that warm water is getting channeled into crevasses in what the researchers called “terraces” — essentially, upside-down trenches — and carving out gaps under the ice. As the ice then flows toward the sea, these channels enlarge and become future potential break points, where the floating ice shelf comes apart and produces huge icebergs.

> "Slow and intermittent Internet access."

Hmm, how long until Starlink (or similar) reaches the South Pole?

The only Starlink satellites that can hope to reach the north pole are the satellites that reach 82.4 degrees north/south (orbits at inclination of 97.6 degrees) and there's currently only 187 of those operating so very few will be in view at any one time and the Starlink dish needs to pick an orientation so you will only see some of them at any given time (FOV is only part of the direction it's facing, missing at least the other half of the satellites, if not at least 2/3 of the satellites in view).

Whether that makes service impossible, I'm not sure. US government may work with SpaceX to make a customized 360 degree antenna that can reach them. Or they may mount it on a tower. I think a customized antenna would be needed anyway to survive the temperatures there. Starlink is technically only rated down to -30C though people do use it below that temperature and it seems to work. I doubt it'd work at those -60C temps however.

Maybe just put the antenna under a heated dome?

Once inter-satellite links are operational, presumably. Looking at [1], there are already some polar orbit satellites, but without these links, that doesn't help Antarctica much. (I'm also not sure if the polar satellites are operational for regular traffic yet.)

[1] https://satellitemap.space/

The inter satellite links are working now, with present high inclination satellite density, starlink service uptime to terminals in Nunavut is about 80% right now and increasing. A number of people with "RV" plan and maritime starlink terminals also now report them working in the middle of ocean crossings.

The laser links are active, have been for a few months now

Can someone explain to me how you can have geostationary orbit around the poles?

You can't. Starlink satellites are in LEO, not geostationary orbit.

> Can someone explain to me how you can have geostationary orbit around the poles?

You can't. For high latitudes you use highly-elliptical orbits, like tundra or Molniya.

Or you can use polar orbits, which is what Iridium does! I believe that‘s what the antarctic stations are currently using.


There are polar orbits that make that possible since McMurdo is out of view of the standard starlink orbits. It should work at the South Pole just as well.

Starlink isn't sending many satellites into the polar orbits because there are basically no customer there to make the extra cost worth it. To make the whole network cover the poles you'd need even more satellites to cover the tiny fraction of additional customer it would bring.

Also until recently there wasn't a way to downlink from polar sats even if they were lofted. Most Starlink data is immediately downlinked instead of being sent to neighboring satellites so you need a downlink relatively close to the customer which isn't possible on the poles.

Now with the intra=constellation lasers online, though I think they're still around 50% of satellites only, it could in theory be done but the required extra birds makes it really tough economically.


Edit: as someone pointed out this is McMurdo.

That's McMurdo, not the South Pole, a orbit a lot easier to achieve.

I thought that Starlink satellites wouldn't orbit that far on the poles, but looking on trackers [1] it does look like there a few stragglers up there (or down there in this case, he). Maybe there are some special talks with the military and other countries on getting some good internet. I don't believe polar orbits would be commercially viable otherwise

[1]: https://satellitemap.space/?norad=48119

McMurdo is served by the polar orbits. They cover the South Pole just as well.

That is something i've long dreamed of doing. Would love to work with british antarctic survey etc. Not sure if my background in robotics/engineering would be that useful there though unless I push in a tangential direction like radios

If you like that kind of thing I can recommend the book Time on Ice: A Winter Voyage to Antarctica - it's about a couple overwintering in Antarctica in their yacht:


Edit: If I remember correctly they also sailed from and back to Sweden to do this...

There are often openings for people with electronics engineering backgrounds for roles supporting science and met, as opposed to comms and base IT. It doesn't hurt to apply.

Edit: https://www.bas.ac.uk/jobs/careers-at-bas/operational-suppor...

Another over winter opportunity - for Ice Cube https://jobs.hr.wisc.edu/en-us/job/516435/winterover-experim...

> Winterovers enjoy a variety of job duties during their estimated 12 to 13 month deployment at the South Pole. Technical duties include operating and maintaining the IceCube detector subsystems; operating and maintaining complex computer data systems at the South Pole; uploading the research data via satellite to the northern hemisphere; analyzing and resolving problems with the detector electronics; providing critical hardware and software support; writing and submitting weekly reports to the collaboration and monthly reports to the National Science Foundation; and participating in Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center outreach activities.

(Note that if that does interest someone, the application deadline is March 1)

This guy is living my dream! Unlikely I'll have have the chance to work in inland Antarctica as I'm not from a country that sends people over there for tech stuff, but I still hope someday I'll have the chance :)

If you really want to go, be a dishwasher or cook or something similar.

I've had 4 friends do exactly that. The work was crap, but the experience was well, well worth it.

My grandpa did the same thing when he was 72 years old. Applied for food services, worked in the cafeteria but did extra stuff like DJ a radio show, drove a shuttle, and gave tours. A couple weeks into his stay, my grandpa ended up being the "most qualified" person at the station to take over the greenhouse (he had an agriculture degree which he hadn't used in 48 years) but ended up doing a good job. He travelled a lot but Antarctica was his favorite adventure.

I think that would work for US nationals, for example, but I'm pretty sure they don't accept people with a Portuguese passport.

How do you apply though? I'd assume vacancies would be extremely rare - quite interesting you've had four friends do it.

Vacancies are extremely common, they have regular old job fairs

Just apply with whatever country applies to you


US: https://www.usap.gov/jobsandopportunities/

Australian: https://jobs.antarctica.gov.au/jobs-in-antarctica/

It feels so magic to live in places with extreme conditions. Lack of comforts, internet on/off and the real danger that something really important suddenly brokes, I imagine that it let you feel more alive than ever!

Don't know if it's something that's only poetic and beautiful when thinking about it or if it's the real deal, but imagining myself, after a long day with -50°C outside, to be 10k miles from everyone and everything, just with my blanket and a book or a movie that I waited 20 days to have fully downloaded.

Why do they make the buildings black and white? Both of those blend in with the snow at night (which is 1/2 the year).

Why not make them day glow yellow or something, so they are always visible?

Black to save on heating?

During a polar night it gets so dark that once you’re out of flashlight range it doesn’t matter.

The issue is the wind blown snow reducing visibility.

> During a polar night it gets so dark that once you’re out of flashlight range it doesn’t matter.

During the polar night the moon is up 1/2 the time, and it's from 1/2 full to full to 1/2 full, so there is still a source of light at least 1/2 the time.

Making them black to save on heating is a good point though. Same with wind blown snow being the main issue with visibility.

Black would also radiate more energy out though. And there's a lot more energyv that can go out than in, in winter. I would imagine using silver colored would be best for insulation.

I wonder if material color was actually a design consideration? Or if material lifespan was more important?

Either way, very interseting project to get to work on, designing such a station.

Curious what that drive from McMurdo is like. Do they have a regular ice road? Or do they just follow directions "Uh, keep going south. Can't miss it"

"995-mile-long (1,601 km) flagged route over compacted snow and ice"


I recently learned about the Belgian Antarctic research station princess Elisabeth, which is not only zero emissions but utilizes passive heating as well - completely heated by incoming sunlight and the human bodies inside.


No fresh food? Some Antarctic stations have hydroponics setups, is South Pole an exception?


Not sure why I’d never learned or noticed the altitude of the South Pole is so high, no wonder it’s extra chilly. I assume the screenshot is off by a bit maybe because it’s estimating altitude from barometric pressure or something?

Wikipedia gives the altitude for the South Pole station as:

> The station is located on the high plateau of Antarctica at 2,835 metres (9,301 ft) above sea level.

The screenshot shows air pressure, expressed as altitude and pressure. 685mb is mildly thin air for humans, but the top of Everest is about 250mb. Earth sea level is 1000mb, and the surface of Mars would be about 6mb. BYO oxygen and pressure.

The South Pole is also closer to the center of the earth than the equator. Not sure how that effects altitude:temperature relationship .

Good question. I guess that temp is driven mostly by altitude above sea level, so proximity to Earth’s center doesn’t affect temp, but I’m not certain. At least I looked it up, and the coastline of Antarctica is about 40C warmer than the high altitude plateau…

What's harder to terraform? Hot rocky/sandy desert or cold snowy artic?

More free energy in the form of solar but less water vs. Abundant water but locked in the form of ice with access to energy being the constraining factor

How are the interpersonal relationships like being stuck with others for months

From the 274 page NSF report on sexual harassment/assault in the Antarctic[1]:

>“a very young woman, [who] had never been on the ice before. Somehow, she slipped away from us and went out to the bar . . . and I was like ‘Oh my god, did we forget to tell her she was prey?’” One survey respondent wrote, “I was told [of] certain guys, by name, to stay clear of and there were several guys who harassed me. Hell, my very first day at McMurdo I was told to stay clear of Building [X] unless I wanted to be raped.”

Wow, I had no idea it was this bad. Being stationed at one of these sites is a life-long dream come true for many of these scientists. It must be terrible for the women who learn of this situation when they get out there.

[1] https://www.nsf.gov/geo/opp/documents/USAP%20SAHPR%20Report....

Maybe a bit of a leap for an American mindset but perhaps bringing some professionals into this might help the overall atmosphere a lot. Not just between the men and women. Normal work relations would also benefit from not having pent-up desires.

I'm from Holland and we have a lot less taboos on this stuff. But it's kinda weird to me to expect people to forgo a basic human need like sexuality. And celibacy often leads to terrible things like abuse in the church. Their other needs like food, healthcare and heating are met, really it should be possible to talk about this one. If they'd send a massage therapist or a psychologist it would raise no eyebrows. Is this really that different?

Jesus christ.

"In one online survey published in PLOS ONE and covered by Science in 2014, 71% of 512 female respondents reported being sexually harassed during fieldwork; 84% of them were trainees."

"In the NSF report, one interviewee said she’d been told on her first day at McMurdo to stay clear of a certain building unless she “wanted to be raped.” Another woman said she felt like she was seen as “prey” no matter where she was physically on the base."

"Another was so "freaked out" by the pervasive sexual harassment that she began carrying around a hammer."

"Another survivor of sexual harassment said she didn't report the incident for fear her employer would fire her; when she could no longer cope, she quit."

This fucking David Marchant guy was a fucking terror. Holy shit. (https://www.science.org/content/article/disturbing-allegatio...)

"Boston University suspended prominent Antarctic geologist David Marchant with pay. Multiple women had come forward with allegations of sexual harassment against him"

"The first complainant, Jane Willenbring, now an associate professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California, San Diego, alleges that Marchant repeatedly shoved her down a steep slope, pelted her with rocks while she was urinating in the field, called her a "slut" and a "whore," and urged her to have sex with his brother, who was also on the trip."

"According to Willenbring, Marchant told her repeatedly that his brother had a "porn-sized" penis, and said she should have sex with him and feel lucky for the opportunity." "One week, Willenbring alleges, David Marchant "decided that he would throw rocks at me every time I urinated in the field." She cut her water consumption so she could last the 12-hour days far from camp without urinating, then drank liters at night. She says she developed a urinary tract infection and urinary incontinence, which has since recurred. When blood appeared in her urine, she alleges, Marchant prohibited her from going back to McMurdo for treatment."

"The second complainant, Deborah Doe (a pseudonym), who was in Antarctica for two austral summers during this era, reports that Marchant called her a "c--t" and a "bitch" repeatedly. She alleges that he promised to block her access to research funding should she earn a Ph.D. She abandoned her career dreams and left academe."

"A third woman, Hillary Tulley, a Skokie, Illinois, high school teacher, describes her experience in a supporting letter filed with BU investigators. "His taunts, degrading comments about my body, brain, and general inadequacies never ended," she writes. She claims Marchant tried to exhaust her into leaving Antarctica. "Every day was terrifying," she says in an interview with Science."

The documentary "Picture a Scientist" https://www.pictureascientist.com/ describes some of this--it's gutting to watch.

How do you become that evil?

Be surrounded by enablers who look the other way.

Power + no responsibility = excellent environment for sociopaths.

That's a shame. It sounds like a workplace from the 70's, or worse.


We enforce rules in our society because they make that society better. Basic shared rules of behaviour are a precondition for social cohesion and prosperity, _not_ a luxury that we can only afford when everything else has been taken care of. This goes 10x in small groups in rigorous environments.

I wouldn't call resources in the Antarctic winter "incredibly scarce"; expeditions have been wintering South for decades now. We know what's required, and it's available, in quantity, with backups. It's true that people are trapped together for months at a time; we also rely on each other for survival. Under such circumstances, it's entirely backwards to claim "local society can't afford to have such strict standards." Just the opposite; strict standards of social behaviour are _required_ for the group cohesion and trust that's necessary for collaboration and survival.

A candidate who demonstrated this attitude would never get through BAS' hiring process. If, by some mischance, they did manage to make it South, they certainly wouldn't be overwintering.

Source: Wintered in Antarctica. Did not regress to the state of a caveman clad in penguin skins, nor did I become "prone to sexually harassing women."

Yes, you have a personal anecdote but the data suggests that people do indeed become prone to sexually harassing women.

I certainly won't claim that no harassment ever takes place; every wintering team is different, and I have no doubt that plenty of women _do_ experience some form of harassment or unwanted attention. When you live in a small, close-knit community with (generally) a large gender imbalance, there will be tensions.

What I object to is the unsubstantiated claim that Antarctica "brings out the animal in each of us"; that the environment is one of such privation that all those who venture there necessarily regress to some more basic form and that standards of civilized behaviour become something we can't afford, sacrificed on the altar of survival.

This is patently false, and frankly a very limited and limiting view of the human condition.

What you like to dismiss as a "personal anecdote" I'd prefer to call "multiple seasons of lived experience in the environment under discussion."

While I can't speak for the hiring procedures of other nations, the majority of the interview process for the British Antarctic Survey centres around the interpersonal side. If you're sitting in the interview in the first place you're assumed to be technically competent; once that bar is passed they select primarily for people who will survive the isolation and be able to work as independent members of a small society. Are the results perfect? Of course not -- failures happen and bad winters happen. But they are well aware of how important social dynamics are to the overall success of the winter.

So much preventative process and yet so much violence still occurs. The environment must be truly stressful. The concept of the animal within each of us isn’t metaphor—we are literally animals. Our environment strongly affects what sort of behaviors appear in the aggregate. This isn’t to disparage your character. This is to be aware that we are all capable of evil and we must be aware of it. Process alone cannot snuff out our instincts.

Just to recap your argument:

> We enforce the rules in our society because we can afford to. In the Antarctic winter where resources are incredibly scarce and the people are trapped for months a time, their local society can’t afford to have such strict standards. The animal within each of us comes out in Antarctica more than anywhere else. This is of course part of what makes living there so exciting on an elemental level.

And your point brought home:

> Because in those conditions it’s not wrong, it’s adaptive.

You have to be a pretty ignorant person to think "I don't have many resources, so sexual harassment and violence is not only normal, it's a good idea".

Other human societies around the world live in conditions close to those at McMurdo, and they do not have this problem. But amazingly, McMurdo is better equipped with more supplies, with the same seasonal inaccessibility as those other societies. So your argument is factually incorrect. Limited resources and an extreme environment does not implicitly result in a culture of sexual harassment and violence.

Nor it is "adaptive" in any advantageous way. It is much more likely a result of psychological breakdown, combined with a lack of social consequence, and a position of power over trainees who do not anticipate this treatment. Basically, psychos who can't deal with stress and take it out on the most vulnerable to make themselves feel better. In no way does this reflect human society, nor normal human behavior, as even in hunter-gatherer societies, people work together and prevent abuse.

You also have to be pretty morally bankrupt to suggest that this condition of abusing other humans for fun is totally fine. I don't think you would hold this position if you were the one receiving the treatment.

I didn’t say it was totally fine, I said it was expected. Is the violence in ghettos and prisons the result of bad people or a stressful environment?

Othering these people and calling them psychos is a convenient way to excuse yourself. We are all human and we are all capable of evil. It is the environment that dictates our behavior.

> "The animal within each of us comes out in Antarctica more than anywhere else. This is of course part of what makes living there so exciting on an elemental level."

It's supposed to be a science station, not some kind of wild survival game. I don't think any of the women scientists signed up for "excitement on an elemental level."

That’s a fine goal but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Antarctica is a hostile environment which makes it hard to establish civilization.

I’m describing reality, not my own personal wishes.

We don't "establish" civilization. We take it with us.

The soldiers who go abroad and commit murder and rape are also taking their civilization with them. Civilization is vital for our species’ continued success but it requires specific conditions to maintain. Each of us is capable of atrocious things.

Fascinating. I wish I could do something similar. My personality traits naturally favor isolation, darkness and the cold. Unfortunately, I doubt there's any need for software engineers in Antarctica.

I would love to try this out for a week or two, but I can't imagine doing this for 9 months. For me the feeling of claustrophobia and loneliness would be overwhelming.

Perhaps contact a Tibetan Buddhist teaching center. They have meditation and introspection programs ranging from weekend intro courses to multi-month retreats where you isolate in a cabin on site (but you are checked in on). I know a few who have done it for a week or a month, and all say it's very interesting and enlightening, tho also suggest working up to it. The one I'm most familiar with is Karmê Chöling in northern Vermont [0], and there are others. Even the short retreats yield wonderful states of mind. Check it out!

[0] https://www.karmecholing.org/

[0] https://www.karmecholing.org/

Don't miss it on the FAQ, it's' hilarious.

This is a great read. Not sure if it is answered in another post, but what is the story behind your decision to leave San Francisco for the South Pole?

Is it possible to land a plane there mid-winter, if absolutely necessary? Obviously fraught with difficulty, and dangerous, but... is it possible?

Yes. I can’t find the outcome of this attempt a while back, but it was obviously tried.


Thanks for sharing! Wild to hear that the plane literally froze to the ice. What a bold pilot.

Those far north bush pilots have a reputation for being bold (er crazy :) )

A man committed self-surgery on his appendicitis (in the 1950ies, granted), so it seems a single man’s life is not enough to warrant a full flight in winter. What would warrant it? Escaping the apocalypse of the modern world, maybe?

These stories are always interesting and I feel like a lot of us have a strand within us that wouldn't mind doing a tour in a place like that

Always wondered if at least one-way resupply was possible (containers airdropped and guided by GPS to land at precise point)?

Always loved reading about adventures in Antarctica. It feels like the closest thing we can get to going to an exoplanet.

> Our water comes from a “Rodwell”, which is basically a big hole in the ground.

TIL some people call a borewell a "rodwell"

TIL, thank you for this!

Closest you get to the "another" world experience on this planet. That and mount everest.

Except that Mount Everest is full of people supposedly.

Mount Everest is full of trash and bodies too iirc. There's a couple spots where you pass bodies on the way up that no one will recover.

And those bodies are waypoints. For example "green boots".



Somebody has to be the step of the stair to success on the motivational calendar.

And trash.

And Iceland's rocky beauty. And deserts.

When the author refers to AN-8 fuel, do they mean JP-8? Jet fuel / Kerosene?

AN-8 is kerosene, similar to JP-8, but with a lower freezing point specification.


What a tastefully designed and executed blog site. Well done.

fascinating blog. just read the one article so far, but sure to read the rest. what a great experience!

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