Midwinter Media Madness

Midwinter dinner is a week from tomorrow. Midwinter is kind of like the Winterover equivalent of Christmas. It takes place around the austral winter solstice, and for many folks, it’s halfway through the winter contract. From what I know, we have a big, fancy dinner in the galley, people dress up, and then we have a party at Gallagher’s. I will be playing music with my supervisor, Victoria, and decorating Gallagher’s for the dance party after dinner. And I’m hoping to make a fancy dress!

In other news…..

Back in April, one of my friends was interviewed by an online magazine about what it’s like to be LGBTQ at McMurdo. He and a half dozen other LGBTQ and allied folks, myself included, took a photo with a rainbow flag in front of one of the McMurdo signs. That photo and article has reappeared in a few dozen publications, including National Geographic Online, which I’m especially excited about. My bundled-up mug is somewhere on Nat Geo’s website! (Full disclosure: I’ve only seen the link, not the article)

I wrote another article for The Antarctic Sun, about the McMurdo science fair we had a few weeks ago. That can be found here: We Are All Scientists.

And my colleague Sabrina’s friends, who run a podcast called Radio Survivor, interviewed me last week. We talked about Ice Radio and adventures using shortwave radio in Mac Ops: Volunteer Radio from Antarctica.

The Radio Survivor interview was fun because the folks interviewing me sounded so in awe of where I was living. I’ve been here for so long now that McMurdo just feels like my normal life. Nothing special. Hearing the awe and wonder in peoples’ voices when they talk about Antarctica reminded me that for most of the world, Antarctica is still a pretty extraordinary place.

It’s good to be reminded. I forget sometimes.


“Fat, Tired, and Paid”

The above phrase was my tongue in cheek analysis of how my friends and I are faring here. The galley (cafeteria) food is making us fat, we’re tired because we work 54 hours a week plus optional volunteer jobs and stay up too late all the time watching movies and binge-watching The IT Crowd, but at least we’re putting away a lot of money since our housing and food are free.

I have definitely been healthier, but at least all my pants still fit, and I’ve been making an effort to eat healthier food in the galley, and walk on the treadmill a few times a week. My world has shrunk to just a few buildings and it’s amazing how fast time goes here. It’s almost JUNE! My winter contract is half over!

My radio show Esotera Australis has evolved into a classical music show, which is something I would never have done back home since Madison has so many classical music radio shows. But on Ice Radio, it’s the only one. Our only classical music is on vinyl, and playing an all-vinyl classical show is pretty neat.

I’m still writing the monthly station update for The Antarctic Sun, I started teaching myself the saxophone (spoiler: It’s hard!), I’m still doing retail assistance in the station store, I hosted and ran sound for an open mic a week ago, I’ve taught one friend to knit and have taught several violin lessons, I’ve been learning radio repair and maintenance skills at the Comms Tech shop with my colleague Marty, and on Sunday I volunteered as a guide at Robert Scott’s hut down at Hut Point. It was pitch-dark in the middle of the day, the wind chill was probably -40, and I had just three visitors, but it was still a worthwhile experience.

Being inside Scott’s hut in the dead of an Antarctic winter is a really different experience than being there when it’s sunny and 30 degrees above zero, as it was on my last visit. The hut is bone-chillingly cold and the stench of seal blubber is neutralized somewhat, but it also makes one appreciate how much suffering and misery Scott and his men endured to explore Antarctica and advance humanity’s knowledge of this vast, beautiful, and deadly continent.

I grumble whenever I have to walk the 100 feet between building 155 where I work and my dorm in a -30 wind chill, but I have it so good here compared to what the early twentieth century explorers had. These men were living in poorly-insulated huts and non-insulated tents in Antarctic winter. Eating seal and biscuits and barely anything else. Slowly trudging towards the South Pole, where the temperatures can drop to -100 below zero. They sacrificed and suffered so much.

Just writing about it makes my chest tighten a little and marvel at the lengths people will go for the sake of exploration and scientific advancement.

The Lucky Frozen Few

Twice now I’ve driven a 12-passenger van between McMurdo and Scott Base for American Night at Scott Base. I like the earlier shift more because you get to join the 12 people at Scott Base for dinner, which includes REAL ice cream (Frosty Boy… who knows what’s in the Frosty Boy ice cream machine we have in the galley). But I had the later shift last night, and just before leaving to start my shift, I got an aurora alert page from the Firehouse.

With some help adjusting my camera settings from my friend Liz, I finally got some decent aurora pictures. I only saw one green aurora with the naked eye, all the others were the shimmering white sheets that gently undulate across the sky, similar to what I saw in Talkeetna, Alaska two years ago.

At one point we stopped the van on the way to Scott Base and got out to look at one giant white aurora arching across the sky. It was at least -20 outside and my hands hurt from the cold within seconds, but the aurora made it worth it. I’d never seen anything like it.

The Aurora Australis (southern lights) looks identical to its far more famous northern hemisphere counterpart, but it felt extra special to see it because so few people see the southern lights. There are many companies in Alaska, northern Canada, and northern Scandinavia that cater to tourists on the hunt for the northern lights, but very few that help people look for the lights in the southern hemisphere. I’ve heard of cruises you can take from Tasmania and New Zealand that will take you south enough to see the lights, and very strong geomagnetic storms can generate auroras that can be seen around Melbourne, but usually, the only creatures that see the Aurora Australis are penguins.


Gods of the Underworld

Scott Base trivia winners! Photo by Carina Mattis

The April flight departed on April 16, bringing McMurdo’s population down to 133, the lowest it’s been since I’ve been here and likely the lowest it will be all year.

According to the National Science Foundation, McMurdo’s population, plus South Pole’s winter population of 40 and Palmer Station’s 33 means there are now just 206 employees of the United States Antarctic Program living in Antarctica.

I am one of those 206. And one of McMurdo’s 133.

And of our 133 residents, only 28 are women. Men now outnumber us almost six to one, whereas it was not quite three to one in summer.

We had the last sunrise until August on April 24. It was a trip to see the sun rise, glide lazily over the horizon, and then set an hour later. Even though the sun doesn’t rise we still get several hours of twilight in the middle of the day, when McMurdo is bathed in a deep blue light, reminding me of the white nights I saw in southern Norway around the summer solstice in 2014. The polar nights haven’t gotten to me too bad, although it’s getting harder and harder to haul myself out of bed every morning, no matter how much sleep I got. I now have a UV light on my bedside table and my desk at work, and we have a light room in one of the dorms, which has couches, fake plants, and a some books.

elizabeth delaquess in light room.jpg

I haven’t felt any Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I do think the darkness is affecting my mood. Polar T3 Syndrome, also known as “The Antarctic Stare,” is a medical condition that affects people living in polar regions in winter, and can cause irritability, fatigue, and forgetfulness. I don’t think I have it (yet), but I do sometimes feel my 6.5 months here wearing on me. It may also be 6.5 months of cafeteria food, the fact that I haven’t had a fresh salad in a month and won’t get another one until late June, or just the fact that I sometimes feel like a goldfish swimming in a little fishbowl in the underworld.

My winter friends and I, we are the gods of the underworld.

I look forward to seeing summer contractors returning and feeling just a little more hardcore than they are 🙂

Auroras and Mono and Glasses, oh my!

I check various aurora australis forecast websites about 100 times a day. That is not an exaggeration.

I went out last night, despite a recent mono diagnosis, just long enough to get another blurry nighttime photo of this aurora over Ob Hill. You can barely see the aurora (and I couldn’t see it at all with the naked eye), but the stars and shooting star are nice!

This year is not looking good for auroras. We are currently at the low end of the 11-year sunspot cycle, which peaked around 2013 or 2014, so even at 77 degrees south with four months of Polar Nights setting in, chances of seeing really good auroras are slim. Weirdly, according to the aurora forecast imagery that NOAA puts out, we are often too far south of the aurora oval to see anything. The Sub-Antarctic islands, as well as the continent’s northern coasts, are getting way more aurora action than we are.

But I’m keepin’ an eye out. The firehouse just set up an aurora alert on our pagers, so if someone spots an aurora and calls the firehouse, they’ll send out a pager alert to everyone who signed up.


In other news, my recent diagnosis of maybe strep throat (medical doesn’t have the resources to test for that) was upgraded to maybe mono. In better health news, I got new glasses for the first time in six years. Having lenses that aren’t old, scratched, and have been on my face since I was 20 is SO awesome.

Photo by Lindsey Clark