This story and an accompanying photo have been corrected
MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica — U.S. research stations in Antarctica have much in common with the forward operating bases that servicemembers fight out of in places like Afghanistan.
Much like the large hubs such as Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, McMurdo Station serves at the main operating base in Antarctica. Just as Afghanistan is dotted with much smaller forward operating bases, Antarctica has its own remote outposts.
If it weren’t for the penguin colony and the snow-covered volcano next door, you’d probably never know the difference.
McMurdo Station, on Ross Island, is home to 1,100 people during the peak of the austral summer and fewer than 200 during the perpetual darkness of winter. The Antarctic Program was set up to establish a presence in Antarctica through robust and wide-ranging research.
The largest group of inhabitants here, known as “townies,” is the support staff employed by defense contractor Raytheon. Townies, who make as little as $8 an hour and stay on the ice from October to February, cook, wash dishes, clean, plow snow and drive vehicles at the base. They live in four-person bunk rooms and come from a wide range of backgrounds.
Military personnel, who live in two-person barracks rooms, make up only about 10 percent of the population at McMurdo, yet they play a vital role in the Antarctic Research program, flying and maintaining the aircraft that bring personnel, supplies and equipment to the base and ferrying them to camps all over the continent.
The rock stars of this icy inhabitant are the scientists doing the research.
All civilian personnel dress like they are on an expedition to climb Mount Everest, but it’s rumored that the most eminent scientists have the puffiest jackets.
One big difference between McMurdo and the combat bases is the presence of alcohol. There are two civilian bars — Gallagher’s and Southern Exposure — and one military bar, The Crevasse. Personnel are sometimes invited to the nearby Scott Base to drink with their New Zealand neighbors.
McMurdo includes an ATM, library, indoor basketball court, gymnasium and an activities schedule that includes everything from scientific lectures to Zumba classes and an annual Marathon across the ice.
Personnel can rent cross-country skis from an outdoor recreation office and explore the ice shelf near the base on marked trails. They can go on guided walks through ice gullies created where the ice grinds against the shore on Ross Island, hike to the top of nearby volcanic peaks or watch penguins and seals at play.
Although tourism isn’t the main attraction, personnel can visit the century-old huts built by early Antarctic explorers on Ross Island. The cold weather means food left inside the huts has been preserved far beyond its sell-by date.
In mid-January, Senior Airman Brianna Tator, 22, of Latham, N.Y., a member of the 109th, visited a hut built by British explorer Robert F. Scott near McMurdo. Inside, she found tins of Fry’s cocoa, Bird baking powder, Victoria Plums, Kippered Herring and Huntley and Palmers Digestive Biscuits. Old tools, fur mittens and pants and gloves made of what looked to be seal skin sat next to a fireplace. Several crates were stamped: “Special dog biscuits supplied by Spratt’s Patent Ltd. Navy Army Expedition.”
Not far from the old hut there’s a chapel where McMurdo chaplain, Air National Guard Lt. Col. Stan Giles, 56, of Knoxville, Tenn., preaches to a few dozen regular worshipers. Giles said he deployed to Iraq, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan before volunteering to go to Antarctica.
Downrange, he often counseled young soldiers who were having marital problems. In Antarctica, Giles said, most of the scientists are agnostic, although people sometimes need comfort when a loved one passes away back home.
“All creation is a gift from God,” said Giles, who can look out his chapel window across McMurdo Sound, teeming with seals and penguins, at a magnificent mountain range. “I find it amazing how the whole of creation is intertwined.”
Raytheon logistics supervisor Sean Tarpy served in Afghanistan and Iraq as a Marine from 2001 to 2006 before coming to the ice.
He admitted there’s less stress in Antarctica than in a combat zone because there’s no enemy like the Taliban outside the base trying to kill you.
“I’m doing the same stuff I was doing in the military but working with civilians,” he said. “There are so many different personalities, lifestyles and viewpoints here, from military to tree huggers.”
Most of the support staff who come to Antarctica are there for adventure and travel, according to Eric Kendall, 53, of Raleigh, N.C.
“We are all dependent on each other here,” he said. “Everybody has to do their job to get the science done.”
Col. Conrad Caldwell, 46, part of the Oklahoma National Guard, who is working as the 109th’s flight surgeon in Antarctica this season, said he dealt with injuries caused by bombs and bullets in Iraq in 2008.
Caldwell helped medevac seven badly burned fishermen rescued in the Southern Ocean in January, but he said most of the cases he deals with in Antarctica are minor. In one instance, a researcher was injured when a seal rolled over on her while she was taking a blood sample, he said.
Chief Master Sgt. Bill Nolin, 45, of Queensbury, N.Y., a loadmaster with the 109th Airlift Wing, said military personnel were more than half the population in McMurdo when he started going there to help augment Navy efforts in 1990. Gradually, civilians have replaced servicemembers in many jobs, he said.
“We have a good relationship with the other organizations,” Nolin said of the interface between military and civilians in Antarctica. “A lot of these civilians are here year after year. We see a lot of the same faces over and over again.”
The story originally named a walrus as the animal that injured a researcher. The first photo in the gallery incorrectly identified Mount Erebus as Mount Kirkpatrick.