It’s a lonely life as a scientist stationed in the South Pole. On top of the normal pressures of work, love and life most have to deal with, workers for the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) also face chronic cabin fever, isolation, periods of 24-hour darkness and a stark snowy backdrop that could ice over the warmest of hearts. It’s perhaps no surprise that many of them turn to alcohol to chase away the Antarctic blues.
According to Wired, a health and safety report conducted by the NSF (National Science Foundation) in July 2015 uncovered that the McMurdo Station and the South Pole Station both have a widespread alcohol problem. The report said that the "alcohol consumption in the USAP can create unpredictable behavior that has led to fights, indecent exposure, and employees arriving to work under the influence." Despite the three bars at McMurdo Station, the report also found that researchers were brewing their own beer, which is against USAP policy.
Although the figures on alcohol abuse are vague, one of the HR managers estimated that "60 to 75 percent" of disciplinary action taken in the camp was related to drunken behavior.
The two U.S.-owned stations host an array of employees including scientists, engineers, drivers, construction workers, managers and chefs. In the summer, McMurdo Station holds over 1,000 residents but less than 200 in the winter. The South Pole Station is much smaller, holding less than 50 people during the winter. Temperatures at these Antarctic sites can drop to lower than -45°C (-49°F) during their winter months of July and August.
While this might sound like a massive sub-zero bachelor party, the report also found a very sour cultural divide between scientists and the other workers. The scientists, contractors and subcontractors tended to drink, eat and socialize separately – like something out of a high school cafeteria. There was also evidence to suggest that managers were a lot more relaxed when disciplining scientists compared to other workers.
Back home, in comparatively warm Washington, the NSF is suggesting there needs to be stricter rules about drinking on the job and more rigorous use of breathalyzers for suspected buzzed workers. However, while the report said that disciplinary action needs to be equal for all types of workers, there was no evidence to suggest the USAP is planning on addressing the emotional and psychological effect of working in this unforgiving environment.