Finally! Here we are in beautiful Antarctica where scientists roam free as seabirds in the summer and the sun never sets but just keeps circling elliptically.
What’s it like to live in Antarctica? Most of us would like to be told second-hand from our comfy armchairs beside a crackling fire.
So that is just what’s going to happen. Dial up the thermostat. Pour yourself some Mexican hot chocolate (Chef’s tip: just take some regular hot chocolate and ram a cinnamon stick in it). Get comfortable. You’re gonna wanna be really warm and indolent while reading about subzero temperatures, and polar winds, and the Frosty Boy ice cream machine. I have compiled below a list of Antarctic myths and then cracked them wide open, beaten them to a pulp and shipped them off continent. We don’t want any dirty Antarctic lies soiling the pristine snow-blanketed land! (Is Antarctica blanketed in snow??! Scroll to #8 to find out.)
How do I know so much about Antarctica, never having been there myself, you ask? Well, I hear about it incessantly from Dave who has gone there every field season (October-January) for the last five years. Turns out Antarctica is sort of the measuring stick and ne plus ultra for every uncomfortable or extreme situation.
Obviously, it is never as cold in New Mexico as it is in Antarctica, a fact I’m reminded of whenever I gripe about the cold. If I say, “Isn’t the landscape desolate and barren?” Dave would say, “Not as barren as Antarctica.” If I say, “We live in the southwest.” Dave would say, “Well, this isn’t really south. Not as south as Antarctica.”
Stuff like that.
So I know a whole frickin’ lot about Antarctica, actually, some of which I wish I could unknow, but I can’t. And so:
Antarctic Myths Unraveled
1) It makes total sense to have time zones in Antarctica
Sure. Sure it does. Because think about what happens to all of those longitudinal lines at the poles. They all converge, like stripes on a watermelon at the ends of a watermelon. This means that at the pole proper the time is always all times at once, or more accurately no time at all. It’s crazymaking. (See Myth # 4.) So how are time zones chosen at each of the bases? Some observe the time of the home country. Others, like McMurdo, the U.S.’s base, observe the time of their country’s official port of departure–Christchurch, New Zealand. As you can imagine, it is totally nuts and leads to lots of funny misunderstandings re:times of dinner parties and countdowns at New Year’s Eve, etc.
The view from McMurdo
2) You can pee anywhere you want in Antarctica
False. The overarching mantra in Antarctica is “leave no trace.” You cannot steal rocks or pee on the ground willy nilly or even bury a piece of macaroni with your girlfriend’s name written on it in ballpoint pen for future generations to discover. So if you’re working in the field, you pee into a Nalgene bottle. On a bad day your bladder holds more than a Nalgene bottle does and you need to switch bottles in an awkward urination interruptus.
Although the waste at McMurdo is treated and then dumped into the sound, the waste from the camps is either incinerated in what is known as a rocket toilet or shipped off continent on big ships back to America. Dave says the ships come bearing supplies and leave bearing poop, which could be a metaphor for so many things in life.
Don’t even think about peeing there
3) German engineers are the best glacier berry pickers
A glacier berry is a huge hunk of ice calved from a larger hunk that is “plucked” from the Antarctic landscape near a camp (in one of the many classic countermands to the leave-no-trace rule) and hauled back to camp via snowmobile to melt for drinking and kitchen water.
Although some German engineers at Lake Hoare Camp believed and perpetrated the myth that they had collected a new record-weight glacier berry, in fact, if they would have just looked out the window they would have seen a much larger glacier berry freshly plucked by someone else. If you are wondering about the nationality and scientific field and name of the person who did break the record for the largest glacier berry, yes, you guessed correct. It was Dave, American biologist and his science team Bravo 330.
The “berry patch” bin at Lake Hoare Camp
4) Impeccable mental health is a requirement for a tour of duty in Antarctica
Dave reports that although scientists who “winter over” at the South Pole station must undergo rigorous mental testing, the average work-a-day summer scientist does not. Almost every year, someone goes crazy, what with the cold and endless daylight and freaky-deaky time zones. Sometimes people just wander off into the Antarctic weald. Sometimes even people at the south pole snap and the FBI has to go remove them, like the galley cook who attacked another cook with the claw end of a hammer in 1996. Even when you don’t go crazy you may need to do crazy things, like the south pole doctor who diagnosed herself with breast cancer, biopsied herself, and administered her own chemotherapy while waiting for rescue.
5) The Antarctic soil is sterile
Wow, do not drop this as a fun fact at parties, because it is not fun or factual.
6) Rubbing your hands together is a great way to warm them up.
False. Dave says rubbing your hands together is crap. What you really want to do is drop your arms to your side and vigorously jerk-shrug your shoulders to forcefully shunt blood down to your hands.
7) Fumbling, mumbling, stumbling, and grumbling are nothing to worry about in Antarctica.
FALSE this string of behaviors is known as the “umbles” and is a good sign that you are suffering from hypothermia. This is one of the cutest and cleverest survival tips they teach you at snow school before you are allowed to work in the field.
A scene from snow school
8) There are brothels in Antarctica
Wrong. Though apparently Antarctica does go through an alarming number of condoms (16,000 a year, says Dave), the misconception that there are Antarctic snow whores probably is rooted in a miscommunications involving Lake Hoare (homophone for “whore”) and a small adjacent pond known affectionately as Dirty Little Hoare. The pond is not dirty, per se, but it kind of seems gunked up just because it is so close to Lake Hoare Camp.
Not what it looks like–these are scientists at work.
9) The food sucks in Antarctica
While it’s true that “freshies” are a rare delicacy, Lake Hoare Camp (soon to be featured in an upcoming issue of Food and Wine) is a culinary mecca by any standard grace à the impressive skills of Rae Spain, camp manager for the last 18 years. So while I am sitting at home slurping lukewarm soup from a box, Dave will phone me up (on the iridium phone) and report that he will be dining on paella or pad thai or freshly-baked bread.
The food is less spectacular at the McMurdo galley, save for the Frosty Boy ice cream machine, which Dave reports is very delicious. (If you thought it was a myth that ice cream is popular in Antarctica, you were wrong.)
10) Antarctica is covered with snow
I know this one is especially hard to swallow for those of us who picture an entire continent of shimmering snow drifts, unending as a Texas sheet cake, but it turns out that part of Antarctica is desert which means no precipitation, which means no snow. Dave, for instance, works in the Dry Valleys which gets around 10 centimeters of precip per year, most of which ablates. Here he is in what appear to be moon boots rather than snow boots.
11) Antarctica has a ton of polar bears and sled dogs
Wrong. Those things only exist at the north pole, which yes, I know, we should call them north polar bears. But still, whatever you do, don’t ask an Antarctic scientist about polar bear encounters. They will laugh at you and drop phrases like “biogeographical ignorance.” Although early explorers used sled dogs to slog from one creaky, frigid little shack to another, dogs are now illegal on the continent because they spook (and eat) seals. You can stop searching for a Puppies in Antarctica slide shows on Youtube and instead look at this cute picture Dave took of a seal.
Well! I think I have successfully identified and obliterated all of the long-cherished myths about Antarctica. Everything else you believe about Antarctica not mentioned here is probably true.
But do you have a question? I invite you to post them in the comments. Remember, no questions are dumb questions except for ones that are really ignorant.