What It's Like To Live On America's Smallest Outpost In Antarctica

Antarctica Reddit

Photo: Reddit

Palmer Station, located on Anvers Island about 700 miles south of Chile, is one of three American research bases in Antarctica. Palmer has the distinction of being the only station north of the Antarctic Circle and the smallest U.S. outpost.   

See what it’s like to work in Antarctica >  
First occupied in 1967, Palmer has a maximum capacity of 44 people. By comparison, McMurdo base, the largest research centre in Antarctica, can hold more than 1,000 people.  

So what is it like to live and work in one of the coldest, driest, windiest (and arguably loneliest) places on Earth? 

A maintenance worker at Palmer station recently answered questions about the job on Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything.” The user provided a picture for verification.

We paired the responses (only edited for clarity) with some incredible photos of the research base to give you the full experience of being there.  

The team can only get to Palmer by ship because there is no room for an airstrip. It's a five-day trip from Chile.

'Palmer Station is so small that there's no room for an airstrip or anything, so we get here via ship. We fly down to the southern tip of South America, and then board an icebreaker for a week-long trip across the Drake Passage and eventually arriving on station. The ship usually sails once a month and is also our resupply vessel, bringing in supplies and such.'

Source: Reddit

For that reason, It would be difficult to get out of Palmer if there were an emergency.

'Our only link to the world is the ship, and it takes five days to get here from Chile (and then five more to get back). Even if the ship is on station, when you ask to leave, they're not going to alter their schedule and disrupt potentially millions of dollars worth of scientific work just because someone's family is sick.

Now, if there's a medical emergency, they will do everything they can to get the person out ASAP, but if the ship isn't in the area, it might take a few days for it to even get to station, before it can start the transport back to Chile.'

Source: Reddit

Depending on level and skill, people can make anywhere from $350 (i.e dishwashers or janitor) to $1,500 (i.e lineman and pipewelders) a week.

'Pay varies wildly based on the position, and there is an uplift based upon how many years you've been in Antarctica (starting with 16% for your first year, going to 24% for five or more). Also, the contract just changed companies this year, any most of my info is scuttlebutt from talking with other people, so these numbers might be WILDLY off-base.

The lowest-level jobs, the dishwashers and general assistants and janitors get around $350-$400/week, while the slightly-skilled positions such as 'Carpenter's Assistant' get around $500. PC techs can make between $700-$900/week depending on experience, and I hear rumours the very highly skilled trades like Pipewelders and Lineman make way more than that, in the $1500/week+ range.'

Source: Reddit

Even if the salary isn't great, you don't have to pay for housing, food or transportation.

'The pay here isn't brilliant, but the fact that you pay for nothing save for booze (housing is provided, as is food and transport) means that every dollar you make rots in your bank account, waiting for you to do something fun with.'

Source: Reddit

But because the staff is so small, everyone has to pitch in with assorted tasks. This includes kitchen duty and washing the dishes.

'We work 9 hours a day, six days a week officially for your job. But at least at Palmer, on top of that there's other station duties that you have to do on rotating schedules. Kitchen Help once or twice a week, and each Saturday everyone pitches in to clean the station by picking chores out of a hat.'

Source: Reddit

It's not as cold as you would think; temperatures can reach up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.

'It's not as cold as you'd think, currently around 30 F with some light snow falling. Winters are in the 0 F range and summers are in the 50s. This station is so far north that we're not actually in the Antarctic Circle, and the ocean currents coming down from South America keep things pretty mild. The other US stations get WAY colder, South Pole was -98 F a couple days ago.'

Source: Reddit

Most days are overcast and there is a lot of rain.

The food is surprisingly good. Because the population is small, the chefs have more freedom to cook what they want.

'Here at Palmer the food is pretty damn good, very good in fact. This is mostly a function of the small population and leeway the cooks are given to make whatever the hell they want. At McMurdo, where they have to feel 1200+ people and often just go from the US Navy recipe book, it can be less appetizing.'

Source: Reddit

Fresh produce, however, is scarce since a supply ship only comes every four to six weeks.

'Fresh fruits and veggies are the most prized and rare items and we miss them when we don't have them; we're only supplied once every 4-6 weeks, and the other stations are completely cut off over the winter...'

Source: Reddit

Rooms are small, but comfortable and come with bunk beds.

'Actually, right now the population is low enough that everyone who wants their own room currently has one. Livin' the life of luxury! But it won't last, the next resupply ship gets here on October 15th and will bring in a lot of the summer science personnel. We'll have a full population by then, and room mates.
The rooms aren't bad, comfortable but basic... Rooms here are about 8'x10', bunk beds with two people to a room.'

Source: Reddit

Two generators provide electricity.

'We have two big Caterpillar diesel generators that put out 150kW each, and we run one of them at a time. We have a backup generator that can put out about 70kW as well.'

Source: Reddit

There's lots of booze, DVDS and video games for entertainment.

'Pretty good entertainment; we've got a communal lounge/bar area with a 1080p projector and a 110' screen, Wii, PS2, and huge selection of DVDs. The Internet connection is reasonable enough that while you're not going to be watching YouTube very easily, you can look at pictures of cats without issues.

There's plenty of booze, and the male/female ratio is about 70/30, but on a station this small it can fluctuate wildly depending on which science groups are here.'

Source: Reddit

They also pass time with snowball fights.

During the summer, penguins are everywhere

'My favourite parts of living here is the rec opportunities, and the culture of people at this station. Palmer especially attracts the backpacker crowd, probably a little bit more hippy/granola-eating than the other stations, so I fit in well here. Once summer picks up there are penguins EVERYWHERE, and we can take the Zodiac boats out for recreational usage to drive around and take in the amazingly beautiful location we're in. It's just a really chill place to be in the off hours, the people are cool and the food is good.

Least favourite parts? Anything to do with fixing the sewage system sucks, or cleaning the grease trap in the kitchen. But it's pretty standard building maintenance stuff and I don't really mind much of it more than any other trades person does.'

Source: Reddit

Though sadly, the effects of climate change are very noticeable.

'..it's dramatically noticeable here at Palmer. The glacier behind the station has receded half a mile just in the last 30 years...the glaciers around the edge are receding rapidly and the sea ice is extending a bit less every year.'

Source: Reddit

During their stay, most people lose weight (due to the altitude and cold) and a lot of the men grow beards.

'There's a lot of facial hair, I will say. It helps with the frostbite and adds an extra layer of insulation, so it has it's practical benefits.

Grooming is important to maintain acceptability with other people, and if you're going to have a hope in hell of getting laid it's probably a good idea. But different stations have different requirements. For example, at South Pole you're only allowed two showers per week, of two minutes each, due to the absurdly limited water supply there. I'm told that you can always tell the Polies when they go back to McMurdo, they all smell funny.

And EVERYONE loses weight at Pole. Mostly because of the altitude and the ridiculous cold, you can eat 5,000 calories a day and most people will still lose weight, significant amounts. Many people report losing 15-20lbs or more in a season at Pole, and that's without actually trying. McMurdo isn't quite as extreme but it's still similar, most people lose weight due to the physical aspect of the majority of the work. There's very few sit-on-your-arse jobs in Antarctica'

Source: Reddit

Most people stay for six months. The die-hards stay for a full-year.

'We work by the season usually; you're hired for a summer season or a winter season. If you're really nuts, sometimes they'll let you stay a full year. Usually, people will do rotating seasons; they'll work consecutive summers or winters, so they do a sort of six-months-on-six-months-off thing. I plan on being at this job for another couple seasons, and eventually moving up the food chain to some higher-paying positions. I do love my job and wouldn't trade it for the world, but eventually I'll want to be able to save a bit more money so I don't have to hostel it around the world when I travel.'

Source: Reddit

'Antarctica breeds a very specific type of crazy, it's an extreme version of cabin fever known as 'going toast' or 'getting toasty' (hence my user name). It affects almost everyone to some degree, and the most common symptom is losing time.

Have you ever driven home from work or something, and you realise as you pull into your driveway that you remember leaving work, but you can't remember a single thing about the drive itself? That's what being toast is like, only it can happen with days or weeks at a time. You stop noticing things, you do everything by route and routine.

I heard once at South Pole over a winter, they shaved a guys head when he was passed out drunk as a prank, and he didn't even notice until someone pointed it out to him three days later.'

Source: Reddit

Still, most people who work in Antarctica LOVE their job.

'Ooooooh yeah. Most people who work here in Antarctica are here because they REALLY REALLY wanted to be in Antarctica specifically, very few people are here because 'Eh, it's a job'.'

Source: Reddit

There's more to see of the continent.

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