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Happy Midwinter’s Day!

Antarctic: Happy Midwinter’s Day!

I’ve just finished reading Big Dead Place , Nicholas Johnson’s book about life at McMurdo Base and the US South Pole Station, with anecdotes from his time there in the early years of this decade.

It’s a fantastic book — very illustrative of how life really goes on on a distant research base, once you get beyond romantic notions of exploration of the wild frontiers. (Like many geek kids, I spent my childhood dreaming of space exploration, and Antarctica is the nearest thing you can get to that right now.) A bonus: it’s hilarious, too.

Unfortunately it’s far from all good — as one review notes, it’s like ‘M*A*S*H on ice, a bleak, black comedy.’ There’s story after story of moronic bureaucratic edicts emailed from comparatively-sub-tropical Denver, Colorado, ass-covering emails from management on a massive scale, and injuries and asbestos exposures covered up to avoid spoiling ‘metrics’.

Here’s a sample of such absurdity, from an interview with Norwegian world-record breaking Antarctic explorer, Eirik Sønneland:

BDP: I was working at McMurdo when you arrived in 2001. I remember it well because we were commanded by NSF not to accommodate you in any way, and were forbidden to invite you to our rooms or into any buildings. We were told not to send mail for you, nor to send email messages for you. While you were in the area, NSF was keeping a close eye on you. What did the managers say to you when you arrived?

They asked us what plans we had for getting home. The manager at Scott Base (jm: the New Zealand base) was calm and listened to what we had to say. I must be honest and say that this was not the way we were treated by the U.S. manager. It was like an interrogation. Very unpleasant. He acted arrogant. However, it seemed like he started to realize after a couple of days that we didn’t try to fool anybody. He probably got his orders from people that were not in Antarctica at the time. And, to be honest, today I don’t have bad feelings toward anyone in McMurdo. Bottom line, what did hurt us was that people could not think without using bureaucracy. If people could only try to listen to what we said and stop looking up paragraphs in some kind of standard operating procedures for a short while, a lot could have been solved in a shorter time.

One example: our home office, together with Steven McLachlan and Klaus Pettersen in New Zealand, got a green light from the captain of the cargo ship that would deliver cargo (beer, etc.) to McMurdo, who said he would let us travel for free back to New Zealand if it was okay with his company. At first the company was agreeable, but then NSF told them that the ship would be under their rent until it left McMurdo and was 27 km away. Reason for the 27 km? The cargo ship needed support from the Coast Guard icebreaker to get through the ice. Since, technically, the contract with NSF did not cease until the ship left the ice, NSF could stop us from going on the ship. At which point NSF offered to fly us from McMurdo for US$50,000 each.

He also maintains an excellent website at, so go there for an idea of the writing. BTW, it appears the UK also maintains an Antarctic base. Here’s hoping they keep the bureaucracy at a saner level over there.

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