To find a workplace more remote and austere than Antarctica, you'd probably have to go into space. It's dry, unimaginably cold, and oppressively dark on the ice-locked continent. So naturally, the scientists and non-scientific contract workers stationed there for months on end pass the time in the same way we probably would: by getting drunk, fighting, and partying like hell — so much so that a government audit may result in breathalyzer testing at the largest U.S. research base.
Wired reports that a "health and safety audit" conducted by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Office of the Inspector General uncovered tales of Antarctica After Dark that make it sound more like a biker bar than a cold outpost full of devoted, clear-eyed scientists. The report told of "unpredictable behavior that has led to fights, indecent exposure, and employees arriving to work under the influence." One scientists was even brewing his own beer in his research lab near the South Pole.
Aside from the psychological factors that must be inherent in living in such a harsh environment for months with other intelligent, adventurous personalities, the NSF audit found that conduct issues at America's McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole and Palmer Stations were poorly tracked, if they were tracked at all. There is a cultural divide between the brainiacs ferreting out the secrets of Antarctica in labs and subcontractors doing the necessary grunt work that supports daily living there. The U.S. Antarctic Program's (USAP) Code of Conduct "is enforced differently depending on whether the individual who engaged in misconduct is a contractor or subcontractor employee versus any of the other types of individuals participating in the program (i.e., researchers, NSF employees, or guests)."
Wired interviewed radio telescope tech and sometimes bartender Philip Broughton about the stratification. Broughton said there is indeed "a very big cultural split" among Americans working in Antarctica, and "beakers" — science staf — "have a license to kill."
The report notes the dangers inherent in any kind of substance abuse as well as potential violence in Antarctica—the closest help outside limited base resources is at best "several hours away" in New Zealand.
It isn't clear yet whether the hammer will truly drop on the hard-partying scientists and techs working in Antarctica. There are technical issues related to altitude that might make breathalyzers worthless and there could be a dip in morale at the very least if officials 10,000 miles from McMurdo issue an edict to pull the booze off bar and store shelves there.
It sounds like now might be a good time to figure out a way to get a job in Antarctica, before someone takes all the fun out of it.
Photos by Liam Quinn/Wikimedia