2 workers at a remote Antarctic research station describe life cut off from the world, from extreme cold to chips that never go stale

·8-min read
2 workers at a remote Antarctic research station describe life cut off from the world, from extreme cold to chips that never go stale
A composite image shows Josiah Horneman and Antoinette Traub, two workers at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and a map of Antarctica with an arrow poitning to the location of the station.
Josiah Horneman and Antoinette Traub at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Josiah Horneman/Antoinette Traub/Google Maps/Insider
  • The Amundsen-Scott South Pole research station is now plunged in the dark polar winter.

  • But for 39 staff "over-wintering" at the station, life is far from boring.

  • From the music room to the climbing gym, 2 people living there told us what it's like.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Home to the South Pole Telescope, the South Pole Atmospheric Research Observatory, and the IceCube neutrino detector, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is a hub of scientific discoveries in the summer.

But from February to October, during the harsh polar winter, the remote Antarctic research station is maintained by a few dozen staff. The team is cut off from the world while the continent is at its coldest and darkest.

However, two people at the station - Antoinette "Toni" Traub, a supply and waste technician, and Josiah "Joe" Horneman, a physician assistant - have used TikTok to show that life for "winter-overs" like them needn't be bleak.

Josiah Horneman and Antoinette Traub sitting on the floor at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
Traub and Horneman are two "winter-overs" at the Admunsen-Scott South Pole Station. Antoinette Traub

There's a gym and a not-quite full-sized basketball court in the station

One of the favorite pastimes at the station is working out. "There's a great gym here actually, I tour it in one of my TikToks. Free weights, squat rack, a Smith machine, lots of cardio machines..." Horneman told Insider in an email.

The station has a basketball court that isn't quite full-sized. People also play volleyball there twice a week, he said.

One of the outdoor buildings has a climbing gym, home to an Antarctic bouldering club, Horneman said.

A male member of staff at the Amundsen-Scott south Pole station is hanging horizontally from a climbing wall made of plywood.
Joe demonstrates his climbing skills at the outdoor building climbing gym in April. Josiah Horneman

However, getting there means trekking through the icy plains in freezing temperatures.

Josiah Horneman is wearing a heavy coat and a head lamp in Antarctic wind as he heads to the Climbing gym at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
Horneman on his way to the climbing gym. Josiah Horneman

There's also a craft room, a music room, and movie nights

The music room is stocked with guitars, keyboards, and drums.

The music room at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station is shown, filed with instruments like guitars, keyboard and drums.
The music room at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Josiah Horneman

"Unfortunately, this winter, there are very few musically-inclined staff, and I'm not aware of any bands forming. However over the summer there was an all-ukulele troupe that I'm told was very entertaining," Horneman said.

Traub says she spends a lot of her time in the craft room, which has sewing machines, screen printing tools, and a model-making station, as seen in the post below:

The team can also gather for movies and TV shows, shown on Tuesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Unfortunately, the internet at the station is too slow and sparse to stream video, but they have a lot of DVDs.

Josiah Horneman standing in front of shelves stocked with DVDs at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
Horneman shows off the extensive TV show DVD library. Josiah Horneman
Josiah Horneman standing in front of shelves stacked with DVD boxes in the Admunsen-Scott South Pole Station.
And here the movie DVD collection at the station. Josiah Horneman

The air is so dry that chips and popcorn never go stale. It's less great for your skin.

Temperatures at the station over winter often drop below -70 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. Horneman and Traub showed how cold it is by tossing boiling water in the air, which instantly froze:

@antwuhnet

Answer to @lewithe13 @joespinstheglobe and i throw boiling water in the air. so cold. so fun. ##antarctica ##southpole

♬ original sound - toni on ice

Because it is so cold, the air contains zero moisture.

"It's the driest place on earth. This means flaky skin, constantly hydrating, bloody boogers, getting zapped whenever you touch metal," Horneman said.

But there are upsides. For instance, popcorn made on-site never goes stale, he said. Chips also stay fresh forever.

Josiah Horneman points to a popcorn machine in the background at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
Staff have an on-site popcorn machine that is useful on movie nights. Josiah Horneman

It's too cold for any animals to live there, so the team don't have to deal with any pests

"I haven't seen an insect in five months," Horneman said.

Animals like penguins and seals can be seen on the coast of Antarctica. But this far inland, the conditions are so harsh that "besides microbes like bacteria," nothing but the team can survive.

A marker shows the location of the Amudsen-Scott South Pole Station on a map from Google
The approximate location of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, as seen on a map. Google Maps/Insider

"I actually had to do a double-take the other day because I thought I saw a small bug. But it was just lint from my shirt floating away," he said.

When the last plane leaves at the end of summer, that's it

"We are the group of people that is hardest to evacuate if needed. It takes a matter of weeks to get a single flight here in winter," Horneman said.

Everyone has to go through a rigorous physical evaluation before deploying to Antarctica, to eliminate as much medical risk as possible.

"Once the station closes for winter, you're basically on your own. Backup medical help, via medevac, is weeks away at the earliest," he said.

The last routinely scheduled plane left in February this year. As he watched the plane go (as seen in the post below), Horneman admitted he had butterflies in his stomach.

@antwuhnet

the last plane to the south pole left a few weeks ago and now i’m here with nowhere to go for the next eight months ##antarctica ##southpole

♬ Leaving on a Jet Plane - John Denver

But he says it was also exhilarating: "Here we are, out here on the raggedy edge of the earth, with no one to rely on but each other until the end of winter," he said. "It's an amazing feeling, but I could definitely see how someone could feel pure anxiety instead of excitement."

Josiah Horneman, a man, is wearing a heavy red coat whilst walking in a corridor at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
Horneman in full gear as he prepares to walk out into the cold Antarctic winter. Josiah Horneman
An aurora snapped by Josiah Horneman at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
An aurora captured by Horneman in April Josiah Horneman

Because they are shut in together, the team has no choice but to get along

Traub says she was surprised at how quickly she fell in step with her "ice family."

"Thirty-nine strangers put on a station for nine months with nowhere to go. You get close very quickly!" she said.

To ensure peace on the station during the winter, every member of the crew had to go through a background check and a mental health history review before they can join the team, Horneman said in a post.

People also have to go through a personality test to see if they will "fit in," Traub said.

Antoinette "Toni" Traub standing just outside the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, behind her the sun is setting in the horizon.
Traub standing just outside the door of the station. Antoinette Traub

"I've always had a positive disposition and extreme optimism, which I believe helped me land this amazing opportunity," she said.

Over winter, there is no fresh fruit or milk. But the team grows vegetables and has chef-cooked meals.

Vegetables like zucchini and snap peas can be grown in a greenhouse on site.

Three people are picking from vines in a greenhouse lit with yellow light in the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
The greenhouse provides fresh vegetables to the station over winter. Antoinette Traub

"We have three wonderful chefs who make delicious meals every day, and constantly go above and beyond their duty to make our dining experience better," Horneman says.

Here is a selection of meals filmed by Horneman over a couple of months:

Eggs Benedict on a plate filmed at the Amundsen-Scott station.
One of Horneman's meals. Josiah Horneman
A burger salad and sides on a plate is filmed to show a meal in the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station
Another meal. Josiah Horneman
A slice of tiramisu on a plate, filmed by Josiah Horneman at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
A slice of tiramisu, prepared at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. Josiah Horneman

But because no planes come to the station over winter, fresh food is in short supply.

"I really miss fresh milk. I'm a milk-and-cereal-in-the-morning type of person, but the powdered milk here isn't palatable enough for me," Horneman said.

There are no toilets in the outer buildings, so planning is key

Asked if there have been any close calls at the station, Horneman said: "No close calls that I can think of, unless you mean running back from an outbuilding to get to the bathroom!"

The outbuildings usually don't have running water, and those that have toilets use the kind that needs to be emptied.

"So 'pee bottles' or good hustling skills are necessary if you head out to one of them," he said.

Over winter, staff usually spend a short time in the outbuildings, enough to check on maintenance or scientific equipment.

"Exception to being out there briefly is the atmospheric research observatory. Those guys are generally out there all day long because they need to take air samples and/or ozone measurements throughout the day," Horneman said.

"They use pee bottles as far as I know," he said.

The Atmospheric Research Observatory,  two-storied industrial building, is pictured here at night in 2018 in front of green auroras lighting up the sky in the background.
The National Science Foundation's Atmospheric Research Observatory building is part of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. Patrick Cullis/NOAA/AP

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