Scientists in Antarctica drink a lot. Maybe to much…
WORKING IN ANTARCTICA can be one of the most exhilarating jobs on Earth. Or one of the most depressing. Owing to distance and the difficulty of getting onto and off of the continent, most people who go spend months there. The beauty and isolation both inspires and crushes. So to stay sane, many scientists, technicians, cooks and drivers at the main US bases—McMurdo Station and the South Pole—employ the social lubricant of alcohol to decompress.
But as the austral summer research season gets underway this month, a new teetotaling mandate from Washington may dampen the spirits of the tight-knit Antarctic community. And to enforce it, the National Science Foundation is thinking about deploying breathalyzers to the driest, coldest, weirdest continent.
Here’s what happened: Last year the Office of the Inspector General conducted a health and safety audit of US bases. OIG had a wide remit, including discipline, training the US Marshals who police Antarctica, and even figuring out how to deal with a pile of expired prescription medications at McMurdo. The report also explored the idea of using breathalyzers to tell if personnel are fit to work.
NSF officials in Antarctica told auditors that drinking has created “unpredictable behavior that has led to fights, indecent exposure, and employees arriving to work under the influence.” But the real problem seemed to be an ongoing culture clash between scientists in Antarctica (“beakers,” as they’re known down there) and contract workers.
The divide between the scientists and the contract workers is a long-standing one. They tend to eat, drink, and socialize separately, just like officers and enlisted in the military. “There’s a very big cultural split in Antarctica,” says Philip Broughton, who wintered over at the old dome-covered South Pole station back in 2003. Broughton served drinks as a bartender to both groups when he wasn’t working as a technician on the South Pole radio telescopes. “The beakers have a license to kill,” Broughton says. “There is little consequence for what they do down there.”
And indeed, the auditors found that scientists often get away with breaking the rules more than the contractors who keep the bases running. During a site visit to the South Pole, auditors found a researcher brewing his own beer in one of the science labs. That’s a violation of rules, though it’s true that the South Pole station has a small general store where anyone can buy a six-pack for $6 or $7, as well as the harder stuff, and take it to a small BYOB lounge in one of the base’s fire-proof survival pods. And McMurdo, the largest settlement on the continent, has three bars.
But drinking on the job or during work hours is a big no-no. It’s also illegal to distill or brew any spirits on the base. The auditors pointed out that while the university researcher went home, he kept his job. A similar offense by a contractor, the report suggested, may have led to that person getting fired.
Would Breathalyzers Help?
NSF managers in Washington say they’re still looking at whether shipping a few breathalyzers to McMurdo (which houses about 1,000 people during the busy summer season) or the smaller Scott-Admundsen South Pole Station (150 staff and scientists) is a good idea, or even legal. Even though the US government owns and operates bases there, Antarctica isn’t US territory. Who would administer the tests? Where would people challenge the order, or the results? Antarctica doesn’t have any courtrooms or, thankfully, many lawyers.
Even science itself conspires against breathalyzers. South Pole Station is at an altitude of 10,000, atop a high plateau. That makes the device difficult to calibrate. “In terms of meeting requirements for the contract, there is a convincing legal argument to be made that ‘you can’t make me do this,'”Broughton says.
NSF officials say they just want to reduce alcohol-related problems, and that things aren’t as dire as the report makes out. “Alcohol-related misconduct is not disproportionately represented at the Antarctic stations,” says USAP/NSF spokesman Peter West in a statement. But the fact is, out-of-hand drinking could cause serious problems. Antarctica is at a minimum several hours away from the closest comprehensive medical care in New Zealand. So, yes, the problem is drinking during working hours and not afterwards at the bar—just like any big company or office. Except that HR is 10,000 miles away.
Still, that means a supervisor’s judgment is the only thing keeping the base safe when someone has a few too many and climbs on a fourteen-ton ice tractor. “It’s a fine line because you have to let people do their own thing and be responsible,” said one worker, who says he plans on returning and declined to use his name. “The South Pole is such a small community, there’s only one person for each job.”
Story by Eric Niler of www.wired.com
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