Isolation at the extreme: What life is like spending winter in Earth's most inaccessible research stations

Being cut-off from normality is now an identifiable condition around the world. But what parallels can be drawn with life in winter-bound isolation in the world's most extreme place?

Monday, 6 April 2020,
By Dominic Bliss
Rothera Research Station in June. Antarctica only has two seasons, with summer – which lasts from October ...

Rothera Research Station in June. Antarctica only has two seasons, with summer – which lasts from October to March – experiencing rapidly lengthening, then total, sunlight hours. In winter, the inverse is true, with much of the coldest season from April to September experiencing near total darkness. 

Photograph by John Law

DOWN ON THE coldest continent, the scientists and researchers of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) know more than we will ever know about isolation – though these days, of course, we all know a lot more than we did.

But while coronavirus is thankfully (currently) absent from Antarctica, most of those in isolation elsewhere don't have to deal with quite the extremes these scientists must navigate simply due to the location of their chosen subject. During the Antarctic summer, there are around 250 of them working across five research stations. But during the winter, when the sun disappears below the horizon and darkness reigns for six months, this number dwindles to around 30.

While three of the stations (Bird Island, King Edward Point and Signy) are on the islands of South Georgia and Signy, well north of the Antarctic Circle, the remaining two fall within it, in a large wedge of the continent called British Antarctic Territory. The largest of these, open all year round, is Rothera Research Station, on Adelaide Island, halfway along the Antarctic Peninsula which stretches out towards the tip of South America. The other, which used to remain open all year round but now shuts in winter because of calving ice, is Halley VI Research Station – a group of moveable structures on a floating ice shelf on the edge of the Weddell Sea. This is the most southerly of all the BAS stations.

During the winter, as well as several scientists, the staff rosters at the stations include a chef, a plumber, an electrician, a carpenter, a boating officer and a doctor.

Below, two meteorologists and a marine biologist describe their life and work during the long dark months between March and October. John Law, originally from Kent, has spent two winters working at Rothera as a meteorologist. Last winter, he was one of 19 men and four women based at the station.

Aurelia Reichardt, a German marine biologist who grew up in Berlin, spent the winter of 2018 at Rothera working for BAS. Richard Warren, who normally lives in Cambridge, worked as an atmospheric scientist at Halley VI during the winter of 2014 (when it was open all year round), alongside 12 other men. 

All three scientists reported to the BAS headquarters in Cambridge.

Aurelia Reichardt, John Law and Richard Warren have all, as employees of the British Antarctic Survey, spent winter in isolated research facilities on the continent known as the 'white desert.'

Photograph by British Antarctic Survey; Michal Krzysztofowicz (right).

The station structures


Law describes Rothera as a cluster of buildings, some dating back to the 1970s, others more recent. Construction work is underway on a new wharf and science building. There is also a 900-metre gravel airport runway.  

With its eight connected pods, Warren describes Halley VI as “looking like it belongs on the surface of the Moon”.

“The pods are on legs with giant skis at the base, connected like train carriages,” he says. “With lots of windows for natural light, each pod has a different function: sleeping, cooking/dining, power generation, science et cetera.”

(In a cramped space? What the world can learn from this astronaut.)

The winter atmosphere


The sea water surrounding the island on which Rothera sits freezes in winter, “trapping the station in sea ice as far as the eye can see in all directions,” Law says.

“Heading into winter, our nights get longer and longer, reaching a point towards the end of May when the Sun remains firmly below the horizon,” he adds. “At this last sunset the flag on station is lowered and will stay down until the next sunrise in a few months time. While the Sun is below the horizon there are still weeks of the most amazing dawns and dusks where the entire landscape is bathed in pinks and purples. Once we head towards the darkest part of the year, there is a just a slight brightening during the middle part of the day. The dark, clear skies can be amazing for stargazing.”

Reichardt says she felt priviliged to experience the Antarctic polar night on Rothera. “We get to be part of something unique: the incredible night skies, the frozen sea, the silence, and being allowed to live on this incredible continent during the most extreme of conditions. It’s something magical. The moment the sun rose over the horizon for the first time after winter and everything was engulfed in golden light is something I will never forget in my entire life.”

Warren describes the atmosphere on Halley VI’s ice shelf: “Halley doesn’t have any topography for a long, long way; no hills or rises, no rocks, so a very flat landscape. The clouds are generally layer clouds, like blankets of grey rolling forwards slowly. When the sun is out and there are no clouds, the horizon is a stark line with brilliant white snow and ice under it, and vivid sky with every shade of blue above it.”

The aurora australis lights up the southern skies above Halley VI during winter, 2016. Halley VI is the most southerly of the British Antarctic Survey's research stations. 

Photograph by Stuart Holroyd / Alamy

Winter weather


This far south, extreme cold is a given. But temperatures and conditions vary enormously between Rothera and Halley VI. “Compared to some of the other stations, the weather at Rothera is much milder, but in winter we still see our fair share of cold and wind,” says Law. “Our coldest temperatures often occur beneath areas of high pressure after a cold, southerly wind. For the winter of 2019, temperatures dropped to minus 32 C, cold enough for a cup of boiling water to freeze instantly when thrown into the air. On windy days, gale force winds whip up the snow, reducing visibility to less than 100 metres at times. Many times you find yourself having to dig your way out of the building after a windy, snowy night.”

(Find out why life is far from lonely at this Arctic research station.)

At Halley VI, Warren remembers once recording a temperature of minus 55.4 C – but that was exceptional. “You’d be surprised how comfortable it feels down to minus 20C on a still day,” he says. “Because the air is so dry, it really isn’t as bad as in the UK. A surprisingly thin fleece will suffice if you’re doing something active like walking or digging. Think about how nice a 30 C dry heat feels compared to a 30 C humid heat. It’s exactly the same [with] the cold. That said, when the wind picks up, it rapidly becomes unpleasant, and when you hit about minus 35 C it changes all together. That’s when exposed skin starts to hurt and ache, and any moisture in your breath instantly freezes into your beard or neck buff. Minus 50C is another level: breathing starts to hurt as the air is so cold. It’s a strange sensation to feel your lungs go cold when you take a deep breath.”

Meteorological observations continue throughout the year. Here, Meteorologist Richard Warren of the British Antarctic Survey collects surface samples with the lights of Halley VI in the background. 

Photograph by Michal Krzysztofowicz

Darkness filling the ship-like windows of Halley VI, Richard Warren works on meteorological data.  

Photograph by Michal Krzysztofowicz

John Law checks readings within a Stevenson screen – a housing designed to protect meteorological instruments whilst allowing them to still make measurements – near Rothera Research Station. 

Photograph by John Law

Day-to-day work


Law’s job was to maintain the meteorological records for Rothera. Many datasets such as temperature, humidity and wind speed can be monitored by machine, however others, such as cloud observations, hoar frost and precipitation type, need a human observer. Law also launched radiosondes on helium balloons which would monitor temperature, humidity and wind speed and direction high up in the atmosphere. All this information was sent back to the Met Office in the UK and used to predict weather and monitor climate change.

Another of Law’s jobs was to measure levels of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and particles such as volcanic ash and sea salt in the atmosphere by observing the absorption of different wavelengths of sunlight. 

Marine biologist Reichardt, on the other hand, was studying the physiology of polar seaweed. “I focused on how changing conditions, such as increasing temperatures and decreasing salinity due to glacial melt, would impact different species.” 

She was also part of the diving team, collecting animals and conducting underwater surveys. “To enable us to dive in winter, we cut holes into the sea ice,” she explains.

During winter, working hours at both Rothera and Halley VI tend to be 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday – but there’s regular overtime. The essential workers such as the generator mechanic or the doctor are on call at all times for emergencies. Everyone is expected to help with cooking, cleaning and night watch. 

Reichardt explains the role of the latter: “This dedicated person will be awake during the night, ensuring the safety of the station and checking on essential services, such as heating and water. In the middle of winter, a failure of the heating when it’s minus 20 C outside can have extreme consequences.”

Richard Warren sits on a sled of supplies – with the otherworldly buildings of Halley VI research station in the background. The station was designed to shift with the ice, but increasingly unstable conditions have forced the facility to close in winter. 

Photograph by Michal Krzysztofowicz

“Minus 50 C is another level: breathing starts to hurt as the air is so cold. It’s a strange sensation to feel your lungs go cold when you take a deep breath.”

Richard Warren

Station facilities


At Rothera, Law enjoyed indoor exercise in the gym, on the climbing wall, and football and badminton in the hangar. In early and late winter there were opportunities nearby for both downhill and cross-country skiing, as well as mountain climbing. If snow conditions allowed, the gravel runway occasionally doubled up as a running, cycling or football pitch.

Indoors there is a film and book library, a craft room, music room and carpentry workshop. At Halley VI, Warren and his colleagues took turns in imparting their professional skills to one another. “Where else in the world are you living and working alongside a vehicle mechanic, a chef, engineers and doctors?” he explains. “We spent a lot of time putting on classes for each other.”

While internet speeds are not as fast as back home, satellite connections do allow for phone calls, email and social media. In winter, when digital traffic is low, even video calls back home are possible.

Food and drink


For Law’s winter spent at Rothera, the final delivery of fresh food was in May, lasting him and his colleagues until October. They stockpiled large amounts of fresh fruit and veg in the freezer. Some potatoes, onions and even eggs lasted right through the winter.

“The bulk of what we eat is frozen, canned or dried, but our chef produced amazing food each day from loaves of bread right through to a decadent midwinter’s meal.”

On Halley VI, Warren says the stories of polar explorers such as Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton living on biscuits, pemmican and the odd seal or penguin couldn't be further from modern-day reality. “We have a proper kitchen that wouldn’t look out of place in a high-end restaurant, with huge amounts of frozen and dried foods, and a full-time professional chef. Typical meals would be pies, stews, pasta dishes, risottos, curries, tagines – all generally very hearty and tasty dinners. I genuinely eat a more rounded diet and better-quality food when I’m south than when I’m north.” Both stations have well-stocked drinks bars.

Researchers out on the sea ice near Rothera Research Station. Situated on an island off the Antarctic Peninsula, the sea around the facility is frozen for much of the year.

Photograph by John Law

Aurelia Reichardt during a mountaineering field trip. 

Photograph by Aurelia Reichardt

Richard Warren visiting an emperor penguin colony. The evening wear suggests an innovative approach to entertainment such isolation encourages. 

Photograph by Michal Krzysztofowicz

Winter field trips


Given the temperatures and darkness, winter field trips are very limited. However, there are opportunities to explore the local area with a field guide, travelling on skidoos and sleeping in tents. At Halley VI, Warren once visited a colony of Emperor penguins during a winter trip.

(Photos: 100 years of exploring Deception Island.)

Cabin fever


The isolation affects different people in different ways. But there’s no doubt human beings are not designed for extreme cold and permanent darkness. Warren describes the situation well:

“I remember some winter storms lasting over a week, with visibility of just 10 metres, howling wind and utter, utter darkness. In these conditions, after a few days, I found myself irrationally annoyed, or stressed and on edge for no apparent reason. Then, when the stars and moon break through, it feels like you’ve been nursing an unyielding thirst and something has finally satisfied it. I remember the day when the sun came back to Halley VI on August 12th, 2014: I went outside with a few others and we just sat there staring at the tip of the sun cresting the horizon.” 

Reichardt describes “the isolation, the darkness, the lack of any colour but whites and blues, the lack of smells, and the distance from home”. “Quickly, little issues can become very frustrating, such as empty toilet paper rolls or crumbs around the toaster,” she adds. “Having a private room massively helps and provides a safe haven to retreat to.” 

“The moment the sun rose over the horizon for the first time after winter and everything was engulfed in golden light is something I will never forget in my entire life.”

Aurelia Reichardt

Personal relationships?


Close proximity is bound to result in the occasional relationship between station staff. All three interviewees knew colleagues who embarked on romantic relationships that blossomed during an Antarctic winter. Some even married. But they warned how the lack of privacy is a challenge.

“Especially in the early stages of a relationship,” says Reichardt. “In such a small community, secrets don’t stay secret for long. It can be complicated to explore feelings with pressure from fellow winterers. Back at home it would be possible to take someone out for coffee and then see them again in a few days. Here we spend every meal, the evenings and in some cases even the working day alongside each other. I spent my winter at Rothera with three couples, one who was already married and two who got engaged during our time there. It can be quite successful. But if it goes wrong it can cause heartbreak and complications for everyone in the team.”

During the summer months, Warren even witnessed love triangles between colleagues. “In the Antarctic there isn’t anywhere to go to avoid it. For everyone else on station, dealing with that situation can be a minefield.”

Transport in and out of the Antarctic bases ceases during winter; supplies must be cached from the previous season. 

Photograph by Michal Krzysztofowicz

In case of emergency


Once the aeroplanes leave Antarctica for the winter, BAS employees are all alone. Fortunately they have access to a well-stocked surgery and an excellent doctor. “We all take first-aid courses and some of the team take on additional training to help the doctor out in an emergency,” says Law.

In a life-threatening medical emergency, aeroplanes will attempt an evacuation, depending on the weather. However, they have to fly all the way from Calgary, in Canada. Otherwise staff would rely on the generosity of the Chilean or Argentinean air forces.

In 2016 Rothera’s runway provided a stopping point for an emergency evacuation by plane from the Amundsen-Scott south pole station. The medical details weren’t revealed. In previous years, however, cases of pancreatitis and breast cancer have necessitated air evacuations.