A Small World After All

Roughly 9,000 miles from Tacoma, while serving as a hazardous waste supervisor at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, Lexie Carey ’11 saw someone carrying a water bottle with a Puget Sound sticker. It turned out to be Becca Ebert ’16, a waste management specialist. Carey would soon find out that she and Ebert weren’t the only Loggers in this small seasonal community of workers and scientists; there was also the couple of Robyn Thomas ’18, a senior lab assistant at the Crary Science and Engineering Center, and Patrick Johnson ’18, a fuels operator. 

U.S. researchers have been traveling to McMurdo Station since 1956 to study the icy continent and its relationship to the rest of the planet. The four Loggers were among the support staff at McMurdo during the Antarctic summer that ended last March—and all but Ebert are back again this season. We spoke to the four about what drives their longing for adventure, and what it’s like to spend several months on a continent most of us will never have the opportunity to visit.

Becca Ebert ’16:
I was working as a paralegal and planning on going to law school—I’m in law school now at Georgetown. And I wanted this transition time to do something that’s not working in front of a computer. I thought, What would be the opposite of working in front of a computer? And it was Antarctica. 

Lexie Carey ’11: 
McMurdo is the largest of the United States’ Antarctic research stations. In the Antarctic summer, between roughly October and February, the population might get up to 1,100 people. I spend a lot of the rest of the year in the interior of Alaska, working at Denali National Park, so people joke that I’m the only one who thinks it’s crowded down there. I handle a lot of the hazardous waste, since the Antarctic Treaty states that any waste has to be shipped back to its country of origin. It’s a lot of fuel, batteries, even things like exit signs and smoke detectors. We label it and load it onto shipping containers to be sent back to California, and then delivered throughout the country.

Ebert:
I worked more with solid waste like recycling and landfill items. But you can be a janitor or a hairdresser, too, and of course there are the scientists. There’s a post office, and there’s a couple of bars and a coffee house. There were open-mic nights—you’d be like, “That’s my friend, the NASA scientist, playing bass right now.” And beers cost three dollars, which was nice coming from Seattle! Everything’s so normal, and yet so surreal —I’d wake up, go to work, hang out with friends, but then see penguins.

McMurdo Station, the main research station in Antarctica, is built on the bare volcanic rock of Ross Island. It sits about 2,400 miles south of New Zealand and about 850 miles north of the South Pole. Research at McMurdo includes astrophysics, biology, geophysics, glaciology, and ocean and climate systems, among other areas. The highest temperature on record at McMurdo Station is 46 F; the lowest, minus 58 F. Photo by Mike Lucibella/National Science Foundation

Carey:
The penguins are friendly, because they have no terrestrial predators. We saw a lot more wildlife this year. Tons of seals. And whale watching, of course.

Robyn Thomas ’18:
I’d be on my lunch break with binoculars, searching for critters. And the station looks out toward the 14,000-foot peaks that are a part of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains on the mainland. [McMurdo is located on Ross Island, just off the Antarctic mainland.] When conditions are clear, it’s hard to beat that view.

Patrick Johnson ’18:
This was my second year there, and I worked a lot on transferring fuel and refueling aircraft. I honestly didn’t know much about it when I applied, but I wanted to see what it was like to work outside in difficult conditions.

Ebert:
It’s such a small community that you literally see the people who are responsible for us being able to survive. My roommate was the power plant mechanic. You know exactly where the wastewater treatment plant is, which is something I wouldn’t ever see in Seattle. People would know to sort their trash because I was one of the people who were going to have to deal with it. 

Thomas:
I assist with facility management and logistical support for 71 science teams and technical projects at McMurdo Station—everything from animal physiology to astrophysics. Most of the projects are related to climate change in some way, like investigating one of the most unstable glaciers in the world and long-term research on the Dry Valleys, near McMurdo.

Ebert:
They give you something called Big Red—basically a huge red jacket—and insulated Carhartt overalls and these things called bunny boots, which you’re required to wear on the ice. And there are hand warmers and toe warmers everywhere. The temperature was mostly in the 30s, but by the end of the summer, in late February and early March, it got down to about minus 40 with the wind chill. I’d come in from working outside and have icicles on my eyebrows.

Thomas:
The internet at McMurdo is notoriously slow due to the station’s remoteness, and smartphones can’t be connected to the internet— which I find to be a perk. It makes for great conversations, lots of games, music-making, and crafting when folks aren’t working. The creativity that people have on station blows me away every day. There’s always something social to do. And it’s a beautiful place. 

Johnson:
I’ll probably do this a few more years. I work half the year, save as much as possible, and live frugally the other half. It opens up opportunities for travel, pursuing my interests, and other seasonal jobs in the northern summer. Seasonal work gives me freedom I’d be hesitant to give up.

 

By Michael Weinreb
Published Oct. 12, 2020