Living and Working in Antarctica Safely

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

jill ferris_thumb

Jill works for the U.S. Antarctica Field Program (USAFP), making sure that all staff and researchers have the right supplies, safety training, transportation, and anything else they need to live and work on Antarctica.

Why should kids know about Antarctica?

"Antarctica offers a pretty pristine environment in which to study. That really can't be found anywhere else. Right now, we're working in a pretty minimal space, but there's a huge amount of unexplored territory out there. The vastness of the continent is mind-boggling."

How can students everywhere be good stewards of our least known continent?

"The U.S. has taken on a pretty amazing role in terms of the environment in Antarctica. That's different than it used to be, and it would be nice if that carried over at home. We go to great lengths, at great expense, to protect the Antarctic environment; all of the garbage except human waste is carried out of there. We also do a lot of recycling. Our relative success with preserving the Antarctic environment is interesting, and could teach kids–and adults–more about protecting the environment back home."

Hometown Bay City, Michigan

Favorite Middle/High School Subjects Art

Interests Today Cycling ("my husband builds custom bike frames") and gardening

Life Lessons from the Field "I come back appreciating things and choices that I used to take for granted: fresh fruit and vegetables; going to the grocery store, taking a shower for more than two minutes without feeling guilty; privacy."

Kids Two stepkids–Arista, 13, and Don, 8. "Their dad also goes to Antarctica; he just quit going last year. They've been hearing about it for a long time, so they know a lot about it and think it's pretty cool."

Number of Trips to Antarctica So Far Seventeen, since 1984

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

Jill: Between 1,100 and 1,300 people travel to Antarctica with our program each year. There are 700 or so grantees in the program. The other people are support staff. They depend on us to not only do their work safely and effectively, but also to set up a temporary life there.

AMNH: What's a grantee?

Jill: That's a researcher who has received a grant to study something. Our program helps all the grantees and all the support staff.

AMNH: And you're helping all of them?

Jill: I manage field support services for the U.S. Antarctica Field Program. To bring people and supplies in and out of Antarctica, the USAFP uses LC130 aircraft, Twin Otter aircraft, and helicopters; our department handles the Twin Otters and helicopters. Part of our job is scheduling and coordinating all of the flight hours. Then we hire staff to load the helicopters and Twin Otters and to get researchers out to the field. We also run a couple of field centers down in Antarctica. From the field centers, we outfit scientists with climbing gear, camping gear, and special foods. About five people work down there to show the scientists how to work all the equipment. We also run a mechanical equipment center, or MEC. The MEC supplies field operations with transportation–all the snowmobiles, snowcats, and skidoos that scientists use to get out to their research sites. The MEC carries other small machines too, like power generators and chain saws. We use some alternative power sources, like solar panels and wind energy. Safety training is another part of our job. We send about five instructors down each year to run the field safety training program. During their first year in Antarctica, all grantees and support staff must take an overnight snow safety course. Every year after that, they need to take a refresher course. We try to tailor the courses to each team's activities and skill level, so people don't get bored and stop paying attention. There's a sea ice course, for example, and a crevasses rescue course. The courses are also tailored to the specific work people are doing; people working in the Dry Valleys, for example, need to learn how to anchor their tents in the rock to protect them from blowing away. My office also staffs the field camps in remote Antarctica. Every year there are two or three camps out in the remotest parts of Antarctica, plus a camp in the Dry Valleys. In deep field camps, we build a skiway for planes to land. Between three and ten staff stay there to run a camp, depending on what research is going on. It's really a fun area in which to work. I love the remote areas in Antarctica.

AMNH: Wow. That's a lot of responsibility. And the training isn't all about the most dangerous moments, right?

Jill: There are plenty of tasks that are simple to do at home that require more thought and preparation in Antarctica. For example, going to the bathroom, especially for women in the field. It's tough because there are so many layers of clothes. Drinking can be a problem too. If you take water with you, it freezes unless you keep it warm. In the field, you have to melt snow, which takes a while. Also, staying warm when you're sleeping can be tough.

AMNH: What ohter things do we take for granted that you can't? How about transportation?

Jill: There are vehicles called Sprytes; these are cars with tracks on the bottoms instead of wheels. Those are used out on the ice. We use LC130 aircraft or Twin Otters to put deep field trips out on location. The Dry Valley research teams and their camps are put on location by helicopter. Some groups do traverses across the ice with skidoos or Nansen sleds, which look like dog sleds. Once in the field, most groups get around by hiking. Some people ski, but mostly for recreation.

AMNH: What about communication?

Jill: In some places, e-mail communication is possible, so researchers can actually communicate with people all over the world, especially their families back home! One of our collaborative research groups, SOAR, is a sophisticated program. It's supported by a satellite system, so when they're in the field, they can communicate via satellite, phone, or e-mail. This year, we purchased ten iridium-satellite phones to try out in the field. They are still expensive and in a test phase, but I imagine we'll switch to that system at some point. But because it's so cheap, we still use mostly good old-fashioned high-fi radio. There's a work center in McMurdo that maintains radio communication with all the field camps; and everyone must check in daily.

AMNH: Do you get in trouble if you don't?

Jill: If you miss the daily check in, the next step depends on the situation. In some cases, a search and rescue is sent out. Some years there's a Sun spot problem, which makes radio communication difficult. If that happens, field researchers are expected to get a hold of someone somewhere else, like the South Pole station, and that team will then relay the daily check-in to McMurdo. We also give people a personal locator beacon. In an emergency, the team or individual can use the beacon to send a signal to a satellite; then we'll send a search and rescue team out

AMNH: Transportation, communication. What about food and shelter?

Jill: Shelter for field research in Antarctica translates to tents, and we use two types. The Scott polar tent looks like a four-sided pyramid. That design has been used in the Antarctic since at least the time of Scott. It has double walls and is pretty warm, and it's really sturdy in high winds. It's fairly heavy, though. We also use normal dome mountaineering tents. For food, we have a huge galley to feed the whole community.

AMNH: "Galley" is the term for a kitchen on a boat?

Jill: Yes. Our galley maintains stock foods in huge cafeteria quantities, which can be a problem for groups going out into the field. They need food in smaller quantities, so we also maintain a food room. It's kind of like a grocery store where field teams can select food to bring out to their camps with them. People take a lot of frozen stuff because it stays frozen. We use a little bit of dehydrated food, but usually just for special circumstances. Everything is in small packages. Camping in Antarctica is like car camping–you can take everything, because helicopters replenish supplies when you need them. We encourage everyone to take a lot of juices, since dehydration is a major problem. We stock a lot of high calorie foods, like candy bars, because people need a lot of energy to stay warm and work long hours in the field. Also, food freezes when you're out in the field during the day, so you can't make a sandwich for lunch.

AMNH: When you work in Antarctica, what is you're work day like?

Jill: I usually go for about five months at a time, in the spring and summer season. I really have no typical work day when I'm there because I'm dealing with whatever situation comes up. The biggest influence on my work day-to-day is the weather. The second is mechanical difficulties, usually problems with aircraft. We start with a detailed plan for each field season, but we get very good at managing change as the season goes on.

AMNH: For your work, you really have to keep up with weather reports.

Jill: Satellite imagery is used quite often now. There is a group of people whose only job is to keep tabs on the weather. They use information from the Antarctic Weather Stations, all of which is transmitted by satellite. The stations are unmanned, and are in remote areas. The team that monitors the stations do weather forecasting; we use their forecasts to plan flights and landings. When aircraft need to land at remote sites, we provide weather observers who are trained in basic skills, like judging the altitude and extent of the cloud ceiling. They provide weather information to McMurdo twice a day, and when a plane is scheduled to land at their station, they provide it hourly. Planes in Antarctica need a certain minimum amount of current weather information about the area before they can land. It can be really dangerous otherwise.

 AMNH: Many aspects of work in Antarctica can be dangerous. What do you like about being there?

 Jill: One of my favorite memories is of my first trip to Mount Erebus, an active volcano on Ross Island, the island where McMurdo Station is located. In 1988 or 1989, I was fortunate enough to go up there for four days. I walked up the side of this mountain and looked down a live, active volcano. You can see red lava in there, and the volcano throws out lava bombs. I've been back since, but the first time was the most memorable and exciting.

 AMNH: Not something you'll see back home

 Jill: Many aspects of work in Antarctica can be dangerous. What do you like about being there?

 AMNH: How did you ever end up planning field expeditions to Antarctica?

 Jill: Well, this certainly isn't what I thought I would do in my life. I was on a bicycle trip in New Zealand in 1978 and ran into a lady who had just finished working in Antarctica. I looked at her slides, and it looked like an amazing place. That was the first time I thought of working there. A few years later, when I was done with college, I applied to work in Antarctica. I had just moved to Alaska when I heard that I had the job, so it was a big decision to go. At the time there weren't many people going down there.

 AMNH: So you hadn't spent college preparing for this job?

 Jill: In school I studied psychology. In Alaska I was working with mentally handicapped folks, on outdoor programs and the Special Olympics. I was always interested in backpacking, skiing, and other outdoor activities, and that's what really got me in to it. My first job in Antarctica was to drive the shuttle bus. But while I was there, I started working in the field center; it was a natural place for me because of my outdoor background. Surprisingly, a lot of people that go there are not familiar with outdoor activities. When I went back, I switched to working in the field center all the time, and eventually that job grew into my present job.

 AMNH: You obviously like being there, are there any downsides?

 Jill: Working down there is interesting. It's a bit like going to work in a minimum security prison. I come back appreciating things and choices that I used to take for granted–fresh fruit and vegetables, going to the grocery store, taking a shower for more than two minutes without feeling guilty, privacy. Even though it's so remote, one of the hardest things in Antarctica is finding a place to yourself because camps need to be really tight for safety reasons. You can't see anything living except penguins and seals and birds. Nothing has a smell except diesel fuel. I really appreciate the smells and signs of life when I get off the plane in New Zealand, and seeing kids and dogs. With all of that, Antarctica is still a great place; it's quite intriguing.