National Geographic : 2001 Dec
Affectionately called a fish hut, a portablefield station (left) shelters scientists camping on summer sea ice to study Weddell seals near McMurdo. With its solarpanels, computer, and telephone, the station is posh compared with the hut built by Capt. Robert Scott's expedition at Cape Evans (preservedas a museum, bottom). Setting outfrom here in 1911, three of Scott's men hiked 130 miles in the dead of winter to collect a few penguin eggs-and almost died. is a quirky existence of dormitory rooms, dining halls, bars, and insider jokes. "The first time you come down it's for the adventure," says Mark Melcon, a carpenter better known as "Commander," who has spent 21 of the past 24 summers working in Antarctica. "The second time it's for the money, and if you come after that, it's because the people here have become your family." Many full-timers joke that they are "bipolar," since they often spend the other half of the year working in Greenland or else where in the Arctic. "This is a strange, almost classless, society," observed Josh Landis, a journalist who gave up a rent-controlled apartment in trendy West Greenwich Village, New York, for a summer position as editor of the Antarctic Sun (circula tion 700), the weekly newspaper for McMurdo Station and the South Pole. "Everybody dresses in the same red government-issue parkas. It is impossible to tell who is rich and who is poor, who is a world-famous scientist and who is the janitor. Down here it doesn't matter. "The only social distinction," Landis said, "is mobility-who can get off the base and who has to stay. Mobility gives you status. A general assistant is one of the lowest paid jobs here about $350 a week-but since assistants often get out in the field to give scientists a hand, they are seriously envied." Nobody owns Antarctica. Earth's fifth largest continent has been set aside as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science since the signing of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. (Protection was extended to the surrounding oceans in 1982.) The treaty's 45 signatories represent about 65 percent of humanity. "This is the Switzerland of science," says Chris Martin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "Scientists and univer sities that would be competitors in the real world are collaborators and colleagues here."