Could you survive in Antarctica today?
Sure, you’ve struggled with the lockdown. You’ve paced your building compound or terrace in frustration. Your window became the only connection to the world. You miss restaurants, cinemas, spas, streets, even warm hugs.
Now imagine spending those months in Antarctica, where lockdown is the default mode. The continent has no trees, no local people. Summer is freezing. Winter gets no sun. Thousands of scientists drop in between October and February to conduct research on everything from climate change and geological history to astronomy and penguins. They live in 40-odd permanent bases sealed against wind and ice. Supplies are flown in, showers are rationed and waste is shipped out. Getting around entails clearing snow from runways and helicopter pads, and hoping for good weather.
It’s currently the only place on Earth with no cases of Covid-19. And to keep it that way, most trips to Antarctica have been put on hold. For India, which operates two stations there, this year’s expedition has been dropped, though automated studies of the climate and the sea continue, and 50 researchers remain stationed there.
Over the decades, as outposts got repaired and revamped, they’ve expanded their focus. They’re still engineered for survival, but now for comfort and sustainability too. Take a look…
Our first permanent settlement on the continent was built in 1983 – late by Western standards, which set up official outposts after the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. The original station, Dakshin Gangotri, now serves only as a supply base. The active stations, Maitri and Bharati, are where scientists study palaeo climate, climate change and how polar changes influence our monsoon.
Because we were on a tight budget, we had to innovate. Bharati, which opened in 2012, pioneered the use of shipping containers as part of the core structure, saving assembly time and money. Some 134 of them form an insulated three-level base that includes living areas, a kitchen and gym, offices, labs, workspaces and support areas. The aerodynamic shape is crafted to resist snow build-up.
If you are stranded in Antarctica, Halley VI is the place to be. Eight pods rest on hydraulic legs mounted on gigantic skis. They link up like a train, can be relocated in bad weather and disconnected in case of fire. Inside, the interiors are brightly coloured to compensate for the white outside. There’s stylish lighting, a pool table, a bar, a spiral staircase, warm-toned bed linens and aromatic cedar panelling, to mimic the smells of the real world.
The Princess Elisabeth has the distinction of being the continent’s only zero-emission base. Built in 2009, it runs on wind and solar energy and has on-site water treatment and recycling.
The Neumayer III is rising. Its base pillars are designed to raise the two-storey structure by up to a metre every year, so it’s always well above the accumulating ice. At the station are living facilities, a hospital, labs, an experimental greenhouse (which grows lettuce), a meteorological-balloon-launching hall and a snow-melting plant.
Taishan, China’s fourth station, looks like a bright red flying saucer or a Chinese lantern. It features an aircraft runway, labs and observation areas, oil storage and an emergency shelter. It was raised quickly – 28 workers took 53 days to assemble it. And though it is expected to last a decade, China is already building a fifth station, which should be ready by 2022.
When their base burned down in 2012, Brazil knew it had to build bigger and better. The new Comandante Ferraz, which retains the old name and location, opened this year. It’s twice as large, with 17 labs, a heliport, cabin-style rooms and a lab to process biological samples immediately.
The Americans have Antarctica’s largest base. McMurdo, established in 1955, sits on rock, not ice, and has access to a harbour, landing strips on sea and shelf ice, a helipad, and is made up of over 100 individual structures. There’s a coffee house, attached to a small cinema. A barbershop, a carpentry zone, a basketball court, a post office, and they host a music festival, Icestock, on December 31, where scientists on site perform. There’s also the Chapel of the Snows, a non-denominational church. There are plans to turn the base, spread haphazardly across 160 acres, into a 17-building complex, doing away with ad-hoc additions and boosting sustainability and ease of movement.