Let's Talk with David Nold about Safety and Wintering Over in Antarctica

Part of the Antarctica: The Farthest Place Close to Home Curriculum Collection.

David Nold is a Safety Engineer with Antarctic Support Associates, the company that coordinates the support staff, equipment, and resources necessary to keep Antarctic research stations running. As a safety and health engineer, David makes sure that the workplace is safe, doing everything from accident investigations and safety training to health inspection in the galleys. In 1999, after his fourth summer in Antarctica, his company asked him to stay on through the winter season.

AMNH: Why should kids know about deep sea Antarctica?

David: Antarctica is one of the last remaining unexploited areas in the world. This isn't because the extreme cold keeps people from digging for gold or drilling for oil, but because international agreements prohibit the exploitation of Antarctic resources. At some point the Antarctic treaty will expire, and the international community will need to decide how to manage this pristine and delicate continent in the future. It is today's younger generation that will be making these decisions. Consequently, it is important for students to understand the political and environmental issues surrounding this most unique and beautiful ecosystem. Also, if you're on the show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," you should know there are no polar bears down there. Just kidding–but it really was a question on the show."

Close-up photo of scientist David Nold.

Field of Study Safety Engineering in Antactica
Hometown Warrensburg, Missouri
Life Lessons from the Field "I certainly don't take Sun for granted anymore. That's one of the neat things about wintering over; you take a lot less for granted. There are no plants down there, it's all black and white. When I got back into New Zealand, the leaves and grass have a whole new beauty, as if I'd never seen them before."
Number of Trips to Antarctica So Far Five

AMNH: What's so important about your field of study in Antarctica?

David: Antarctica is such a risky area that we really need to put a lot of emphasis on safety. That's why I'm there, to drive that point home. Sometimes there's a lot of pressure to get work done, especially for scientists who have a limited amount of time and money to complete their research, so they cut corners, and take risks they shouldn't. Often inexperienced people don't recognize dangerous situations. Fifteen years ago, before ASA, a couple of guys were out hiking around McMurdo. A storm was coming so they decided to leave the flagged route and take a short cut back to the station. They got into a crevasse field, fell into one, and died. One year, scientists were tagging leopard seals, which have huge jagged teeth. One of the seals turned around and bit one of them in the leg. If you're standing on the edge of the ice, orca whales will come and pluck you right off. You don't have to be in the water. Orcas will stick their heads up and look around, like seals do.

AMNH: Wow. Are there a lot of accidents?

David: We usually have a hundred or so small injuries per season. This year, 191 people wintered over at McMurdo, so it's a relatively safe program. Several decades ago there were some deaths. People were caught in white-out conditions, which happens when blizzard conditions make it almost impossible to see. Others fell in crevasses, which are deep cracks in the ice sheet. There are crevasses all over the place; snow builds up over the cracks and you can't see them. A team goes out each season to search out safe routes and flag them. There's a Search and Rescue team of ten to fifteen people always in the station, and a bigger team in the summer, with vehicles that have radar and other tracking equipment.

AMNH: This year you started wintering over. What's the big deal about wintering over?

David: Due to severe winter storms, twenty-four-hour darkness, and extreme cold, all aircraft traffic to and from Antarctica is discontinued for the winter season. Antarctica's winter season runs from mid-February through late August; so if you decide to stay the winter in Antarctica, you'll be staying for the duration. And from February until late August, there's no outside support at all. We do have e-mail and telephones, and can track the national news on CNN twenty-four hours a day.

AMNH: Describe a typical work day in the winter there.

David: I get up around 6:30, shower, eat around 7:00, report to work around 7:30. We all have a ten-hour work day, from 7:30-5:30. I usually read my e-mail first thing in the morning; now we're all hooked up to the internet. I start out inspecting the galley, then inspect each of the labs or work centers to make sure everything complies with the safety plan, and that everyone is using the safety equipment. I spend much of my day talking to people, listening to their concerns, following up on any injuries, making sure the same type of accident doesn't occur again.

AMNH: What about after work?

David: After work, there's always something going on. The recreation department makes sure the bars are up and running, that the bowling alley is operating. The bowling alley's really funny. It's really old, with manual set pins. It's one of the only ones like it left in the world. There's a really good gym, an indoor basketball court, things like that. Celebrations, things like the winter solstice and the 4th of July, are big deals down here. A lot of people are involved in long-distance classes over the internet. They can post questions right from their computer to the classroom. It's pretty funny... a question from so-and-so in McMurdo, Antarctica in the midst of all the other questions.

AMNH: Do people leave the station in the winter?

David: A lot of people run, or go out on dark night walks–there are a couple of marked recreational walks in the area. In the winter, you can go outside alone if you remain on station, which is about a half mile square. We know there are no crevasses in that area. If you leave the station, you sign out at the station office, bring a radio, and always go with a partner. A lot of people don't like that; they like to soak up scenery by themselves. But I think it is a good safety policy, and so far, no one has gotten hurt. If we run into a really bad emergency, we can pull someone out, but it's not easy. The cold isn't so much an issue there, but the night is–it's dark for the entire winter. And of course it's incredibly cold–not nearly as cold at McMurdo as at the South Pole, where it can get down to -50ºF or -60ºF. It's usually around -10ºF to -20ºF at McMurdo, which is relatively warm for Antarctica. We're right on the coast, though, so the wind comes right down off the polar plateau with nothing to stop it. Because of the cold, airdrops are less dangerous than actually landing. Once the landing gear door opens, the hydraulics freeze. If the landing gear freezes in the down position, the plane can't get back to New Zealand because the gear causes too much drag.

AMNH: Planes have to land in the dark during the winter, right?

David: Well, there are only a couple of months where it's pitch black. For a month on each side, there's a little bit of light on the horizon. It looks like a morning sunrise, like the light you see at about 4:30 in the morning back home. Town–McMurdo Station–is very well-lit. You don't get the feeling it's really dark and remote. It looks like any small city back here. There's actually light pollution. A lot of astronomers who need to see the sky complain about it.

AMNH: How do planes land in the dark?

David: Very carefully. We line the runway with fifty-five-gallon-drums, fill them with fuel, and burn it to light the runway. It's an amazing sight. There was an emergency landing at the South Pole this season which the air crew said was one of the most dangerous they'd ever done. The plane didn't break through the clouds until 300 ft. above the ground, and landed hard. An additional danger is that the weather can change completely in twenty minutes.

AMNH: After the long dark winter it must be a really big moment when the Sun comes up.

David: Wow! McMurdo is right on the Transantarctic Mountains. When the Sun first starts to appear in Antarctica, it stays low on the horizon, so the mountains block our view of it from McMurdo. It gets a little light long before we can see the Sun. We all pile in the trucks and go to a specific place, Observation Hill, at the exact moment the Sun is visible for the first time in eight months.

AMNH: And then the summer crew arrives.

David: First there's Winfly; that's the term for the first couple of flights in late August, the very end of winter. Planes fly 200 people in to open up the station. There are about 100 buildings in McMurdo and most are boarded up for the winter. There aren't enough people on winter crew to open all the buildings, construct the ice runway, and get everything ready for the summer season.

AMNH: Do things change drastically when the summer crew arrives?

David: It's hard to describe. Winter is more of a maintenance time at the station, very quiet and slow-paced. There's no mail, no fresh fruit, no salads, etc., but many of the winter-overs see this as a good trade off for the relaxed winter pace. And we have the place to ourselves; everyone gets a private room, unlike the summer where you must have a roommate. Most of the people who winter over are spoiled and wouldn't spend summers there because they don't want to have a roommate. Psychologically, the arrival of the summer crew is a shock to your system. The population goes from 200 to 1,000 in a matter of weeks. The pace picks up overnight. When summer comes, there are so many projects running all at once. You wait in line at the galley, at the coffee house, everywhere. Winter employees are not used to waiting in lines and can't wait to vacate the station.

AMNH: Is your work day very different when you return to ASA in Colorado?

David: It's a lot less physical! We put out a report on every single injury that occurred over the course of the season. I figure out how we should direct our efforts to prevent them from occurring in the future.

AMNH: What do you miss about Antarctica when you're not there?

David: The air is very, very clean. I miss the scenery; it's very beautiful in McMurdo. I miss the camaraderie among participants, being able to wear a pair of old faded jeans and T-shirt to work. I miss the wildlife; seeing the penguins and the whales. Once we were in a helicopter and the pilot landed on the ice edge on the permanent ice shelf. There were about ten orca whales right off the ice edge playing in the water. We all got out to take pictures; that was incredible. I miss being involved with the science; scientists are always sharing their findings and what they're doing. I don't miss being cramped up in a room with a roommate, or institutional food, or twenty-four hours of light. Nighttime is so nice, we don't realize it. It's like magic when you come back to New Zealand and see nighttime. Never being able to escape sunlight like that is a real pain. With my work, there's something new every day. It's not a job where you get in a rut. We see oil tankers, helicopters, freighters. You should see the freighters–they have four cranes that simultaneously unload equipment. The coast guard icebreaker can break ice that's twenty-seven feet deep! As a safety engineer down there, I get involved in everything you can imagine; I like being involved with so many different things.

AMNH: How did you end up becoming a safety engineer?

David: I studied chemistry in college, but I didn't want to be stuck in a lab all day, so I got a masters degree in industrial hygiene. It's like being an environmental chemist. You deal with the outside and with people a lot. When Antarctic Support Associates (ASA) had an opening, it was such a unique opportunity, I couldn't pass it up.