Living in Antarctica means adjusting to altitude, high-velocity dry winds and periods of biting cold. That’s why one Laramie resident found Wyoming a perfect training ground for life on the coldest continent on earth.
Nate Master, a professional land surveyor, is spending his winter — summer at the South pole — working for the Antarctic Support Contract for the National Science Foundation.
Formally, Master is the U.S. Antarctic Program Survey Operations Department Supervisor. His deployment began in August and runs through late February.
He said the assignment is a combination of adventure, professional challenge and Wyoming-tested endurance.
“The South pole sits at 9,300 feet above sea level, so being from Laramie has helped in acclimating here,” Masters said, referencing the Gem City’s altitude of more than 7,200 feet. “The most deadly factor of the weather is the wind, particularly once the sun (is) up and stays up.
“It did not get fully light out until mid-September. Until then it was like a continual sunrise/sunset twilight … beautiful on the mountains surrounding the Ross Sea, where I was at the time,” he said. “You have only minutes to cover your skin before getting frostbite when the wind blows … not so much now that we have moved into the austral summer.”
Austral summer, or summer in the southern hemisphere, occurs on the opposite side of the calendar from Laramie’s winter. Dec. 21 is the height of summer weather there. Like much of winter work in Wyoming, summer work in Antarctica is often weather-dependent.
Master will live at South Pole Station until mid-January when he will move to McMurdo Station on Ross Island situated at the edge of the permanent Ross Ice Shelf and the frozen Ross Sea.
He arrived on the first personnel flight at the end of the Antarctic winter (before the sun came up).
Just another day
A typical day starts about 6:30 a.m. New Zealand Time with exercise and breakfast. Master takes care of administrative office work and planning for the day’s surveying work. As with many jobs, the day ends somewhere between 5:30 and 7 p.m.
“After work, I grab dinner in our galley and then text or call my family,” he said. “On weekends, I will have coffee with friends at the station, play games or mostly work on a couple of the Wyoming-based novels that I came down here to complete in the solitude of my downtime.”
The weather plays role in Master’s daily routine as he plans, collects survey data from his crew and sometimes helps with the active field surveying. Antarctica’s international treaty requires there are no permanent buildings, but there are temporary structures to be placed along with airfields and ports that must be located.
On the move
As with any construction project, builders have to know where to work, and survey data gives them the map coordinates they need. Although Antarctica is a continent with a bedrock base, glaciers and ice sheets dramatically change the landscape, creating a need for yearly updates.
“We keep an eye on it,” Master said of the ice shelves and uncertain terrain. “Some are moving relative to each other, luckily. Some places, that’s not the case. On rock, it doesn’t move, so that’s the standard. For the ice shelves, they move quite a bit.”
Because some ice fields move at different rates than others, the survey teams establish three control points as a starting reference. Teams are needed to refresh those points every year, he said.
A land-based ice field may move 33 feet a year, a manageable amount, Master said, especially when compared with the ice shelf on the Ross Sea, which can move 315 feet.
“That’s a lot,” he said.
Masters noted that a common misconception about Antarctica is that it receives a lot of snow. In fact, the continent is too cold and dry most of the time for snow to fall. But when it does, the wind piles it into deep drifts.
The solitude also makes for a dramatic experience, Master said. “It is just much more vast and quiet than anyone could expect.”
He also takes issue with the idea that that Antarctica is just a gigantic rolling desert of ice and snow.
“Antarctica is really as diverse as anywhere else with mountains, glaciers, frozen seas and even a volcano on the island that we live on,” he said.
Antarctica’s Erebus is the southernmost active volcano on Earth and is always smoking.
Soak in the summer
Despite the conditions, the summer season does allow work to go on outside, even when the cold can reach minus 50 degrees, not including the wind chill, which is the coldest temperature that Master has experienced.
“Ground-effect whiteouts are also dangerous, but can usually be anticipated and therefore can be planned around in the work day,” he said. “They happen after a storm and can last for several days.
“If we reach what is called a Condition One, we are required to shelter in place, which could be in our dormitory, the galley or huddled in our survival gear if caught out in the open on the ice shelf until those harsh conditions subside.”
Despite the dangerous conditions, Master said he has never felt in physical danger during his time in Antarctica.
“There is very much trust. Things break! We have found ourselves in whiteout,” Master said. “But honestly, Wyoming has more than prepared me for that.
“I was kind of like, ‘Eh, no worries, we’ll be fine.’ But really, there are so many levels of safety here. We are very, very cautious. We have many protocols, safety is No. 1. Planning makes things take a little longer, but it’s worth it.
“It’s making sure everyone is accounted for. Everyone watches out for everybody. It is kind of nice.”