Stunning photos show what daily life in Antarctic research stations is really like

Image: Australia Antarctic Division

For nearly 200 years, scientists have been exploring Antarctica, on the hunt for new organisms, data that could reveal Earth’s climate history, and signs of a changing environment.

Since Antarctica is the only continent with no native human population, the United States and 11 other countries signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 to ban military activity and promote scientific investigations. More than 40 other countries have joined the agreement since then, and the number of research stations on the continent has continued to grow.

Thousands of biologists, ecologists, and geologists conduct research in Antarctica, the coldest, driest, and most remote continent on Earth. The area’s largest base, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, belongs to the US, which also runs two other year-round outposts.

Take a look at some of the recent Antarctic research projects and the challenges these scientists face.


Environmental changes in Antarctica have global repercussions. If all the ice stacked on top of Antarctica melted, global sea levels would rise by about 200 feet.

NASAThe Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica.

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Antarctica lost more than 3.3 trillion tons of ice from 1992 to 2017, causing global sea levels to rise by nearly one-third of an inch. About 40% of that loss occurred from 2012 to 2017, according to a study published in Nature earlier this year.

Mario Tama/Getty ImagesMountains and land ice as seen from NASA’s Operation IceBridge research aircraft in the Antarctic Peninsula region.

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NASA’s ongoing Operation IceBridge is looking at changes in polar ice. Through a series of research flights over West Antarctica, scientists concluded that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may have reached a point of irreversible decline.

NASA/Jeremy Harbeck


Read more:
NASA’s photos of a perfectly rectangular iceberg in Antarctica are oddly satisfying


Jerry Mitrovica, a Harvard geophysicist, told The Associated Press in 2015 that parts of Antarctica are melting so quickly that it has become “ground zero of global climate change without a doubt.”

Ice mapped by NASA’s Operation IceBridge. Picture: Getty Images

Source: AP


Each year, thousands of scientists conduct research at stations on the continent.

SuppliedImage: Eric Kendrick/ Ohio State University.

Source: National Science Foundation


Scientists come to Antarctica to better understand its ecosystems. The continent’s clear skies and dry, cold conditions also allow researchers to make space observations.

Willem Tims/ShutterstockThe research station Port Lockroy is on the northwest shore of Wiencke Island in Antarctica’s Palmer Archipelago.

Newcomers face an extreme climate and a stunning remoteness. Field science in Antarctica is very expensive, so scientists don’t venture there for studies unless they need to.

erwinf/ShutterstockThe Almirante Brown Antarctic Base, run by Argentina, is in Paradise Bay.

Source: National Science Foundation


Scientists often travel to Antarctic research stations aboard large ships designed to break through thick ice.

Jack P./FlickrAraon, a South Korean ice-breaking research vessel, brought a group of scientists from New Zealand to the Weddell Sea region of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Source: National Science Foundation


Alex Gaffikin, a meteorologist who moved to Antarctica at 22 and spent 2 1/2 years at Halley, a British research station, told Reuters in 2007 that winters were tough because the constant darkness made her lethargic.

Jeffrey Donenfeld/National Science FoundationThe Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a US base, can house 154 people in dorm-style single rooms.

Source: Reuters


Gaffikin said she often went to bed exhausted but enjoyed getting up in the middle of the night to see the southern lights. “I love Antarctica because it is such an alien and magical place,” Gaffikin told Reuters. “You can see things in Antarctica that you can’t see anywhere else, like emperor penguin colonies, enormous glaciers, and gigantic sea creatures.”

Calee Allen/National Science FoundationA dorm room in the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station building.

As part of the NASA-funded Barrel mission in January 2013, scientists launched 20 balloons into the air to study how radiation belts around Earth are formed.

NASA/FlickrThe RRS Ernest Shackleton is docked near Halley Research Station in Antarctica. The British ship brings scientists and supplies to the station.

Source: NASA


“The study of near-Earth radiation is very important,” John Mather, the chief scientist of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said at the start of the program in 2007. “This research will provide information to mitigate problems here on our planet as well as permit better design and operations of new technology in space and safer passage for space explorers.”

NASA/FlickrScientists running under the payload as a balloon takes flight at the Sanae IV research station.

Source: NASA


NASA’s Barrel team wrapped up its last mission in 2016. The team conducted research at the Sanae IV station, which is led by the South African National Antarctic Program.

Jack P./FlickrA group of international researchers examining samples at a research station in Antarctica.

Source: SANAP


Harsh conditions can make it impossible for boats to come near a research station, so scientists often depend on planes to deliver cargo.

Cargo drop to Casey research station in Antarctica. Image: Chad Griffiths/RAAF © Australian Antarctic Division

Eating wildlife is now off-limits, but a 1950s recipe book from the British Rothera Research Station shows that scientists used to eat penguin eggs, seal brains, and grilled cormorant. At the Rothera base, people shot seals for dog food until 1994.

Adélie penguins, near Casey Research Station © Peter Layt/Australian Antarctic Division

Source: Reuters


Chefs now get the bulk of their supplies by ship. “You have to use what you’ve got in the store — frozen stuff, tinned stuff, and, if you’re really desperate, the dried stuff,” Alan Sherwood, a chef at the Rothera base, told Reuters in 2009

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Antarctic Division/Andrew DonaldAustralian expedition member Clint Chilcott with breakfast in bed

Source: Reuters


Any Americans trying to leave their station for field work or recreation are required to attend safety and survival courses first.

Elaine Hood/National Science FoundationUS Antarctic Program participants at a field-safety class in McMurdo Station’s Crary Laboratory classroom.

Britney Schmidt, a professor of planetary science at the Georgia Institute of Technology, went in the field with Artemis, a 25-foot-long underwater robot that drills holes through several feet of ice, in 2016. Schmidt said she hoped the testing would pave the way for underwater exploration of Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon.

Peter Rejcek/National Science FoundationScientists setting up a tent on the McMurdo Ice Shelf for a field camp.

Source: Antarctic Sun


Joe Levy, a professor of geology at Colgate University, has also drawn comparisons between Antarctica and Mars. Levy has studied water tracks as they move under the soils of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, a phenomenon that may be similar to patterns on Mars.

Peter Rejcek/National Science FoundationLevy, a planetary scientist, setting up a digital thermal-imaging camera.

Some researchers focus on the sea, studying marine macro-algae and invertebrates in the water.

Maggie Amsler/National Science FoundationTwo scientific divers, Chuck Amsler (left, in red) and Sabrina Heiser (right, in black), enter the water from Rigil, a Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat used at Palmer Station, on May 10, 2017.

As more scientists and tourists visit Antarctica, however, seeds, lichens, and mosses are introduced to the continent.

polarman/ShutterstockScientists taking samples from natural water bodies in the Antarctic.

Some of the biggest discoveries in Antarctica have been unexpected. In July 2015, NASA scientists discovered the first meteorite impact craft under the Greenland ice sheet. Hiding below more than half a mile of ice, the crater has a depth of about 1,000 feet and a diameter of more than 19 miles.

Mario Tama/Getty ImagesJohn Sonntag, a NASA Operation IceBridge mission scientist, walks to the hangar after a long science flight aboard NASA’s research aircraft in the Antarctic Peninsula region on November 3, 2017.

Source: NASA


The researchers spent three years verifying their findings, which were published on November 14 in Science Advances. “The crater is exceptionally well-preserved and that is surprising because glacier ice is an incredibly efficient erosive agent that would have quickly removed traces of the impact,” Kurt Kjaer, a professor at the Natural History Museum of Denmark who led the study, said in a press release.

Mario Tama/Getty ImagesSea ice floating near the coast of West Antarctica as seen from a window of a NASA Operation IceBridge aeroplane on October 27, 2016.

Source: NASA


Inside research stations, scientists work to better understand some of Antarctica’s mysteries. The bodies of some Arctic and Antarctic species, such as sea spiders, are unusually large, and researchers are trying to figure out what led to that.

Mike Lucibella/National Science FoundationBret Tobalske, a biologist, scooping up one of the smaller giant sea spiders that his team is keeping in a chilled ocean water tank in the Crary Lab.

Read more: Humongous sea spiders from Antarctica are baffling scientists


Scientists also study how the effects of climate change, such as warming waters and ocean acidification, are affecting marine animals.

Mike Lucibella/National Science FoundationKevin Johnson and Juliet Wong pulling a set of bongo nets out of the water, bringing in thousands of tiny sea snails.

Bill Fraser, a scientist at the Polar Oceans Research Group, has been studying penguins since 1975. He looks at the effect of environmental changes on the marine ecosystem.

Keri Nelson/National Science FoundationFour members of Fraser’s research team analysing krill in a biology lab at Palmer Station.

Many projects also analyse ice samples to find new information about Earth’s climate history. Tiny air bubbles within ice cores can help scientists understand what the atmosphere used to be like.

Mike Lucibella/National Science FoundationMurat Aydin, the lead scientist for the South Pole Ice Core, cleaning cutting fluid off an ice core as he prepares it for storage.

Read more: The US government keeps a massive archive of ice – here’s why


In this West Antarctic ice core, the dark band corresponds to a layer of volcanic ash that settled about 21,000 years ago.

Heidi Roop/National Science FoundationAn ice core from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide.

In addition to researchers, the US Antarctic Program hires hundreds of workers to maintain internet and phone service. The workers reach remote locations via helicopter to make sure all the equipment functions properly.

Chris Kannen/National Science FoundationUS Antarctic Program communications personnel checking a battery pack.

Employees at McMurdo Station’s Berg Field Center also provide support for the scientists, repairing equipment like sleds and stoves for field missions.

Travis Senor/National Science FoundationAn employee outfitting tents with rope lines, and melting the ends with a lighter to keep them from fraying.


To prevent ice sheets in the Antarctic from collapsing and flooding the world’s coasts, some climate scientists have come up with a potential solution: building giant walls under the ice sheets to keep them from falling apart.

Torsten Blackwood – Pool/Getty Images

Source: Business Insider


The solution focuses on only one aspect of climate change, and it would not eliminate the problem of global warming. But it could buy enough time for coastal cities to adapt and for people to reverse some of the climate change we have caused.

NASAThe Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica.

Source: Business Insider

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