Palmer: The Basics

I know the title of the last post would indicate at least one more post about science, and don’t you worry your pretty little head: there will be plenty more science posts. But I realize that before we get too much further into the season, you might want to hear just a bit more about the details of life at Palmer.

I know what you’re thinking. “This is supposed to be a blog about Antarctica, so when are we going to get some actually interesting information about what life is like in Antarctica?!? She knows we have questions. Do they sleep in snow forts? Do they eat seal blubber and drink melted snow? Who else is down there? I mean, we’ve slogged our way through… well, I guess it’s only been about five posts, but I swear it’s felt like a hundred at this interminable, trudging rate. Is she doing it on purpose? Make us read her weird cartoons and ill-executed italicized self-referential second-person rambles hoping, like a dog at her table, that she’ll accidentally let some interesting scraps of information slip? Withhold the juicy details that have to exist just to keep us coming back? Has Susan been some sort of evil blogging mastermind the whole time??!?!”

I mean, no. But I get it. So here’s a quick FAQ for a lot of the questions I people tend to have about life in Antarctica.

Do you sleep in tents?

No. In fact, let me just qualify this entire post right here: our life is much, much cushier here than you’re probably imagining. We sleep in two-person rooms, with bunk beds, and share a communal restroom.

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Welcome to Palmer!

What do you eat?

Pretty much…normal food? Less fresh fruit and vegetables than I would at home—Palmer depends on “freshies” deliveries from the Gould to restock on perishables. But we get three hot meals a day, plus a 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM snack in our galley. Cuisine is varied in style but consistently delicious, and if anything, overabundant. And there is so. Much. Dessert. Forget the “Freshman 15”; meet the “Palmer Pudge.”

How many people are there?

There are 41 people on station right now. Palmer can hold up to 45 at full capacity, but there’ll only be 41 people on station at its fullest this summer season.

Who is there?

Well, right now, there are eleven grantees on station, and everyone else (I believe) is a contractor. The latter category includes administration, logistics, electricians, technicians, mechanics, and basically everyone necessary to keep the literal and proverbial lights on. The grantees are, more or less, the scientists. People like Jodi (if you haven’t been following along, Jodi our lab’s principal investigator) write proposals to the National Science Foundation (NSF) if they have a compelling project that requires fieldwork in Antarctica. If they secure a grant to come here, then they find out how many people they can bring (limited often by how many beds there are available), and decide who will come. I know PIs must come sometimes, but this year, it’s all graduate students and lab technicians. (Not to be confused with the station technicians. Labs back in the states often have technicians or assistants who participate in research, but aren’t necessarily working toward a degree in doing so. Palmer technicians are experts in different areas, some of them directly relating to science, such as the lab instrument tech, and some of them more tangentially, like the marine techs who run the little boats we use for sampling.)

How long are the days?

Long. Right now, the sun sets between 9 and 10 PM, and the sun rises around 4 AM. Not that I can confirm the latter from direct observation. (Although there have been some late nights in lab where I’ve come uncomfortably close to seeing the sun rise.)

Are there polar bears?

Nope. That’s the other pole. Also walruses. We don’t have those here.

What do you do for fun?

In the not-particularly-abundant free time that we have, there’s no shortage of fun stuff going on. We have a BYOB bar on station, as well as a lounge where we have a large number of movies and TV shows available. On Halloween, for example, we had a double feature of Hocus Pocus followed by The Shining. (The latter being especially appropriate, atmospherically). And that following weekend, we had a costume party—some costumes people made themselves, some they brought, but many are available in a big box in storage, the refuse of many years of occupation by patriotic, Halloween-loving Americans. Also in communal storage are gear outdoor recreation—snowshoes and cross-country skis for wandering the “backyard” and our neighboring glacier—and crafting supplies. This year, the instrument tech has taught a bunch of Palmerites how to knit, so the common spaces are often filled with one or more people practicing their stitches. And then, we play a lot of games. On a recent “day off” (in quotations, because Hannah and I haven’t really had a full day off since we’ve arrived), I got into a game of spades that lasted four grueling hours.

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The all-important decks of cards live in the galley, along with games, puzzles, books, binoculars, and some instruments. Many more books and movies can be found in the lounge.

It is a constant surprise to me how multi-talented the station residents are. The station waste manager crafts and sells hand-made rings. The network engineer designs Antarctica-themed stickers. We have skilled painters, photographers, weavers, and woodworkers, not to mention the professional-grade sculptures that are welded on station: all “amateurs” in name only. This stuff is crazy good. And on top of that, NSF also awards grants to artists to come down for short deployments. Right now, we have a professional painter on station, who is here for twelve days to create art based on the amazing sights Palmer has to offer.

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Sculptures welded by station residents.

We also get to go recreational boating from time to time, when it doesn’t interrupt essential station operations or scientific sampling, which is always worth the trip if you can spare the precious time. I probably haven’t covered all there is, but to summarize: you would have to really try to ever be bored at Palmer.

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Gentoo penguin sighting during rec boating. 

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