At any given moment, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is cold, dry and home to an intrepid handful of scientists and support staff.
One of the Pole’s residents is Jeremy Bloyd-Peshkin, who works supplies and logistics for the facility. His responsibilities range from equipment maintenance to ensuring fuel doesn’t freeze solid in temperatures that regularly fall below minus 70 degrees.
Bloyd-Peshkin arrived at the Pole in Antarctic summer (October-March) and stayed into the winter months (April-September), which means he’s faced an unusual challenge: Adjusting to constant daylight, and then forgetting everything he learned as soon as the Pole descended into perpetual darkness. This makes for some interesting sleep patterns.
In his own words, here’s what Bloyd-Peshkin's daily life is like and how he's dealt with sleeping — and maintaining his sanity — at world's end.
A couple years ago, I met a guy at a conference who mentioned that he worked at the South Pole. After I picked my jaw up off the ground, I started asking questions, and several hours later he suggested that I just go ahead and apply. So I jumped in head-first, and landed a summer contract helping out in the garage. I signed a contract partway through the summer to stay for the winter in the supply department, and now here I am. I never had any desire to be part of a traditional job hierarchy, to climb any ladders or the like. I came down for the adventure and stayed for the love of the place.
Explorers like Amundsen and Scott, we are not. The station has most of the amenities of a reasonably-sized campus back home. There’s a small gym, a dining hall, a lab, a couple of lounges with absurdly comfortable couches and enough cribbage boards and cards to convince the arithmetically-challenged among us that it ought to be a fun game to play. If I worked in the station, I could most likely wear slippers all day.
A typical weekday has a specific routine and order. I wake up, eat breakfast, and walk down to the logistics arch, where my office is. There are four arches, ranging from 30-60 feet in height and width. They are all buried under the surface of the snow, with only two having ends exposed. The arches that house the power plant and fuel storage are completely buried, while the logistics arch and the garage arch are both accessible. The logistics arch is absolutely massive. The first time I ever went inside I felt like I’d just walked into the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
My tasks vary with the day, but I always take lunch at the same time, and always take the same amount of time to eat. Back downstairs, my work closely resembles that of a warehouse worker in the states, or a heavy equipment operator or a clerk. It all depends on the day. The only difference is the temperature: Averaging minus 70 degrees this time of year in the arch, it’s likely the coldest cold storage facility in the world.
After work hours, we all find our own ways to stay entertained. Some people sit and chat in a lounge all evening, some people play volleyball or Wiffle ball. We watch movies, marathon TV shows, and make phone calls home when we have satellite coverage to do so. On days off, we sleep in (or not), eat lots of food (or not), and generally relax before the new week ahead.
I work nine hours a day, six days a week on a regular shift. I work a fixed schedule from 0730 to 1730, so I usually get up at 0600 and get to sleep anywhere between 2200 and 0100.
Everyone who lives in the station has his or her own room. I have a twin-size bed, a small desk, a comfy chair and a wardrobe. I don’t spend huge amounts of time in my room, as if I’m not sleeping or reading I prefer to be somewhere else. But it’s a comfortable, quiet place to sleep or just be alone for a little while.
I’m a messy person, and have found that my mess expands to fill the space I give it, so my bedside table is covered in all manner of things, my sketchbooks and laptop getting the most use.
I responded to the winter very well. At Pole we really only have one very long day, with the sun up October-March and down April-September. In the summer, it’s bright 24 hours a day, and the opposite in the winter. I don’t tend to sleep long hours, and found the summer to be quite trying on my circadian clock.
I keep my room very dark, with tape over small lights and foam in the window. In summer, when I’d wake up in the middle of the night to get a sip of water, it was incredibly jarring to walk down a bright sunlit hallway. The sunlight was invigorating during the day, but not what I was looking for when I should be sleeping. The darkness is much easier, although slightly irrelevant in the aforementioned case as all the windows are covered in cardboard to minimize light pollution outside.
Around mid-April, I suddenly found myself feeling exhausted. Through what I did of college, I didn’t sleep many hours and worked hard while I was awake. I continued that pattern over the summer, and figured it might just be catching up. So I slept. I went to bed earlier and earlier, and optimized my morning routine so I could sleep later.
I went from sleeping five hours a night to nearly eleven. And I didn’t feel any more rested. In the last few weeks, I started sleeping less and found myself feeling more energetic again. That being said, while I am back to the 4-6 hour range, when I’m asleep I’m out. It’s like I became more efficient at sleeping.
I’d read and been told that one of the causes of fatigue was excessive rest, but I never believed it because it didn’t seem at all logical. It still doesn’t make sense to me, but I sure do believe it now.
I think your outlook during the long isolated winter is a lot about perspective. There are some biological things happening — vitamin D deficiency is common, as is seasonal affective disorder, but a lot is still controllable. I think an excellent example is that many people are quite ready to leave by the end of a winter, yet we have two people on station who have wintered ten times before and still love it here.
I’ve often thought it would be fun to take advantage of the constant darkness and remote location to try altering my sleep patterns, perhaps experimenting with polyphasic sleep schedules. Unfortunately, my job isn’t terribly conducive to such things.
Sure, we don’t have internet whenever we want and there’s no mail, but so many strains of the “real world” are removed. That and it’s just gorgeous here. I go outside every day so I don’t get caught up in my head and forget where I am, and I think that does wonders for my outlook.
I love this place.