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Twenty, on our own for twenty weeks

Updated: Apr 11, 2020

On Thursday May 23rd at about 08h30, the R/V Laurence M. Gould pulled off from the Palmer Station pier, leaving twenty people to winter-over for a little more than twenty weeks. My team, consisting of Kirsten Steinke, Julia Fontana and myself, are part of this small group. As the LMG (as the ship is affectionately referred to) pulled away into the dark, we stood, barefoot, on the pier waiting for the ship to be a safe distance before plunging into the icy cold waters. This is our way of bidding farewell to our friends on the LMG and it's a fitting start to our winter-over.

The R/V Laurence M. Gould (LMG) pulls away from the Palmer Station pier at about 08h30. It's dark and below freezing. Photo credit: Hannah James.

There are a couple of things people have asked me about when I’ve told them I’ll be overwintering in Antarctica. First, what happens if there is an emergency? Second, do you get enough food? And third, how will you keep from going crazy? These are all very good questions…

I’ve already written about the Physical Qualification exams that you must pass before being allowed to come down to Antarctica (at least through the US Antarctic Program, but I would imagine it’s similar for other nations). We have a doctor on station, and he ensures that we are all taking care of our health and oversees the Trauma Team, who’s task it is to respond to any medical emergencies and assist the doctor as needed. There are numerous other potential emergencies that also need to be considered and planned for too. Fire is a major concern and there have been some devastating fires at Antarctic stations. As such, we have a Fire Team at Palmer and we practice fire drills once a month. The doctor is responsible for coming up with different, challenging scenarios and the Fire Team must respond accordingly. There are also teams for Search and Rescue (SAR), both on the Ocean (OSAR) and Glacier (GSAR).

Keeping twenty people well-fed during the winter is a major logistical challenge. We won’t have any “freshies” (fresh vegetables and fruits, eggs, etc.) deliveries for the next 20 weeks. The amount of food that came down with us on the R/V Laurence M. Gould seemed staggering, but we’ve already almost gone through the freshies and only those hardiest of vegetables (cabbage, potatoes) still look good. Our frozen food delivery took several hours to unpack from the containers it was shipped in and repack into the two freezer vans where all of our frozen food for the winter is stored. Keeping track of it all must be a nightmare, but our chef, Lisa, does a fabulous job and keeps us so well fed I’m concerned I might not fit into my jeans by the end of the winter!

Holly, Ed, Hannah and Mike getting ready to unpack frozen food. There were a number of pallets this size to unpack. Photo credit: Kim Bernard

Julia (front) and Kirsten (back) help Hannah and Ed label boxes of frozen food. Photo credit: Kim Bernard

It’s Sunday as I write this, one of my favorite days of the week at Palmer. Not because we don’t work, because as scientists we’re always working, even though it sometimes appears that we are starring off into space. It’s my favorite day because everyone else on station has the day off, everyone is relaxed and happy. It’s often a slow start to the day, as it was today, folks gathering in the galley around the New York Times crossword (we both love and hate Will Shortz), mugs of steaming tea or coffee in our hands, the flames of the fire warming our bodies and souls. It’s a day of catching up with yourself, for some people this means getting outdoors, for others it means resting. It’s our day of renewal, ensuring we are ready for the week ahead.

The morning sun hitting the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula. This is our view from the galley, not a bad way to start your Sunday. Photo credit: Kim Bernard.

Tomorrow, and for the rest of the week, we will prepare for our next big series of experiments. I’ve just fed the krill and they are looking great. I can’t wait to see what this next round of experiments will tell us! Stay tuned for more.

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