At the Forefront of Antarctica

11 Jun, 2020

In 1996, Ukraine acquired an Antarctic station previously known as Station Faraday from the United Kingdom for a symbolic one pound. The station was renamed Vernadsky after a prominent Ukrainian mineralogist Volodymyr Vernadsky and until this day contributes with scientific research in biology, meteorology, geomagnetism, ecology, etc. Yevhen Krashtan, now Software Engineer at N-iX, spent a year as a part of the Ukrainian Antarctic Expedition back in 2007-2008. Ten years later, Yevhen shares his memories of working on the sixth continent.

Office job always felt like a routine to me. I wanted to travel, to see the world. My friend sent me the vacancy as soon as it appeared on the National Antarctic Center of Ukraine website, and I applied without hesitation. Honestly, I thought my chances were pretty low – on the interview, I was asked a series of questions that didn’t really apply to what my position was called – communications engineer. The interviewers made me feel as if I was going to a desert island, which is somewhat true. Anyways, the luck was on my side.

After the interview is passed, everyone who joins the Antarctic Expedition has to go through a medical examination, which takes about a week. A lot of attention is paid to mental health – there’s a two-week orientation program before the expedition, and if a person feels uncomfortable in the team or examiners don’t think they would be a good fit working in a restricted environment, the search for a perfect candidate continues. 

Welcome to Antarctica

Most people in my team have already been to Antarctica before. At first, I felt lost, there was so much information I had to remember. You have to understand – icebreaker comes to the research base once a year – it brings the new team, and takes the previous one back to the continent. Simultaneously, everything you might need during the polar year arrives – tones of food, equipment, and clothes. Up to 24 people can work at the station at the same time, in my case the wintering team consisted of 14 polar explorers.

Vernadsky Station is not just a tourist destination, but a working scientific institute that conducts research throughout the year. Some of the research can only be conducted in Antarctica – for example, you won’t find penguins or seals in Ukraine. In addition to biologists and meteorologists, there’re geophysicists working on the station all year round – they research the ozone hole and lithosphere. It was actually at this station that the ozone hole was discovered in 1985, mainly because of an interesting phenomenon – clouds seem to pass over the station. On the continent, you see clouds almost daily, while at the station it’s clear blue sky. Also, the air in Antarctica is so sterile that when you come back to the continent you are surprised by the variety of acute odors.

antarktika2I was amazed by the diversity of fauna in Antarctica. Seals are incredibly interesting creatures – many types of them live just around the station, and when small seals are born you can easily come closer and play with them. If you crawl, seals think of you as one of their kind. Sea lions are more aggressive, and cannot be approached that easy. And, of course, there are many penguins – from spring to autumn (polar autumn). In winter they don’t have what to eat there. Penguin colonies are located on the surrounding islands – you won’t find many of them around the station.

Since I love snowboarding, I managed to sneak in a snowboard to the station. I was later given a lecture by my management, but that year was my longest snowboarding season ever. Actually, when it comes to entertainment the Antarctic Station doesn’t trail far back other places – football, sauna, library, movies – choose whatever you like. Fun fact, the world’s most southern bar is located at the Vernadsky research base, it’s the legacy we got from the British. 

Engineer without an engine

My position was officially called communications engineer, but communications is a rather vague concept at the Antarctic Station. Basically, my tasks revolved around every technical and computer equipment. At that time, there was a lot of equipment left by the British and it was necessary to maintain it in working condition. Financing was sparse and there was nothing to replace old computers with. Moreover, there was no internet at the station. We used Iridium phones for communication – all you could was send short messages with their help. Right now, things are different as there are new satellites, and you can even do video conferencing.

antarktika4One of my tasks was to install an ethernet cable and set up the network before winter came. It was quite difficult, but in the end, it really helped with controlling magnetic field measurements – they were carried out in a small metal-free house far from the station (in order avoid measurement distortion) – earlier, to get the data, a scientist had to go there with a floppy disk no matter the weather. Also, I rewrote research software for Windows XP (DOS was used before). When I returned home, I received calls regarding my software even five years later.

As every person working at the Antarctic Station is responsible for a specific task, you mostly work on your own. Your schedule is your personal responsibility, and basically, you should only meet the rest of the team during lunch and dinner – breakfast is your private time. As polar winter comes, most people tend to start work later – the lack of sun makes your body clock change to night shifts. 

There’s a cook who works six days a week. Sunday is a cook’s day off and every team member has to cook in turns. I leveled up my cooking skills significantly that year, even tried to bake bread, something I would never have time to do at home.

Midwinter is the new Midsummer

I often get asked what’s worse – polar day or polar night. But honestly, the human body can adjust almost to anything – be it complete darkness, midnight sun, or constant cold. I remember, by the end of the winter, we were sunbathing shirtless when it was -5 outside. You just get used to these things. 

The most difficult thing for me was to cross out days on the calendar, realizing that the number is not really getting smaller. There were times when a storm outside was so severe, the research base was completely buried in snow and we couldn’t get out for a few days. By the way, the Ukrainian research base is not easy to get to even if the weather is good. Why did the Brits decide to give up the base? Because Galindez Island is so small, it’s impossible to build a runway there. During winter it’s completely inaccessible.

antarktika3

My brightest memory of that period is probably the people. It was the best team I’ve ever had and we stay in contact until today. Of course, work is the most important part of being at the research base, but the cultural experience is priceless. Antarctica is like another country – it has its own traditions, folklore, and holidays. For example, while people around the world celebrate Midsummer in June – we gather for Midwinter which is always followed by ice swimming. Another tradition polar explorers always stick to – is bringing a suit and a tie to the research base. Be it a holiday or a team member’s birthday – we like to suit up.  

The expedition has definitely changed my life, but more so – the girl who wrote me letters during that year, now my wife. I recently got a call from this year’s head of the expedition – he offered me to join the wintering team again, and I would love to, but I guess I have to discuss it with my wife this time.

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