A human community in the heart of Antarctic ice

Imagine a continent the size of Europe with barely more than 900 inhabitants during the long polar winter… Inhabitants isolated in bases made up of metal structures placed in the middle of the ice.

Like a piece of cake cut into a triangle, from the coast close to the polar circle to the geographic South Pole, Adélie land is home to the Dumont d'Urville research station (DDU).

France has two scientific stations in Antarctica. Dumont d'Urville, which it operates independently, and Concord which has the particularity of being jointly managed with Italy. The first is located in the Adélie portion of the land, the second is located in the Australian zone.

View of the Lion. Docking platform for the ship L'Astrolabe. It is here that equipment, fuel and food intended to supply the bases of Dumont d'Urville, Cap Prud'homme and Concordia are unloaded. It is here that the equipment and waste from these stations will be reloaded onto the boat and intended to be sent back to France.

French Polar Institute, Provided by the author 

Located on the island of Pétrels in the archipelago of Geology, the station of Dumont d'Urville materially extends over two, or even three, spaces. Le Lion, an unfinished project for an airstrip 1100 meters long, built in the 1980s by linking 3 islands together, serves as a docking station for the ship Astrolabe, landing area and storage area .

At each rotation, those who call themselves "the fucking Sherpas of the Lion" - because of the work they consider painful, thankless, not very rewarding - manage the garbage cans, transport and unload tons of goods (equipment technical, scientific and food supplies), then transported by helicopter to the DDU base. The return boat will carry in its holds, containers loaded with all the waste intended to be sent back to France in order to be treated there, under the regulations adopted in the Madrid protocol. entered into force in 1998.

This team is made up of men with often advanced technical qualifications but recruited to work part of their time on the base as dockers. In this supply chain where the survival of each stage depends on the previous one, those of Leo occupy a central role.

The manager Yann, known as "Yannoch", a permanent member of the Polar Institute, supervises the operations of his team with nicknames recalling a kind of tradition which is gradually disappearing, that of replacing first names with images, qualities or mention of the place of origin… I thus meet Zazou, Pirate, Mac Plouf.

Cape Prud'homme

On the mainland, 5 km from Île des Pétrels, DDU is linked to a third location, Robert Guillard (Cap Prud'homme), the basic element of a system whose main objective is to organise, depending on the year , in addition to scientific expeditions, two or three raids to supply fuel and equipment to the Franco-Italian station Concordia.

Photo of the Robert Guillard station at Cap Prud'homme.
French Polar Institute, Provided by the author

Prud'homme is a small unit, of 10 to 20 people depending on the moment, and which is defined as "a village", administered by an "elder", named with a touch of humor, the "mayor". An unelected mayor, without specific status, but simply considered, thanks to his experience, as responsible for coordinating a team of men and women. T., in his fifties, holds this position, which he performs collegially with the others. His constant presence for more than twenty years during all the summer campaigns (from the first to the last rotation), his skills and his human qualities make him a respected and appreciated personality.

The village is mainly made up of mechanics in charge of preparing and accompanying the raid, a real physical feat, a 20-day round trip across the frozen continent, in tractors pulling containers mounted on skis, loaded with fuel tanks. and material. It is a veritable umbilical cord without which Concordia, built at an altitude of 3 meters and 200 km from the coast, could not survive.

From village to city

If the inhabitants of Cap Prud'homme feel they belong to a small village, by contrast the station of Dumont d'Urville represents in their eyes the "city". It is true that with a population fluctuating between 80 and 100 people during the summer period, DDU is not only more extensive, but it also welcomes very heterogeneous groups in terms of age and professions.

There are thus technicians managed by the French Polar Institute, researchers attached to their laboratories, professionals recruited by the TAAF (French Southern and Antarctic Lands) such as the district manager, the postal manager, the radio or the doctor .

The base's technical maintenance activities mobilize nearly two-thirds of the base's personnel and sometimes make people forget the exceptional environment that is nevertheless close at hand. Only the ornithologists, often placed in the center of the penguin nests, or even the glaciologists who explore the ice floe or the biologist divers maintain a visual, tactile and sound close relationship with nature.

Wintering team 2022 (72ᵉ team in Adélie land).
French Polar Institute, Provided by the author

This small company is built according to an organization which places the whole of the base under the responsibility of the head of the district then is declined according to the statutes. The technicians report to a technical manager who programs their activities, the soldiers and the researchers work independently. Differences in status, hierarchies, salaries are sometimes sources of tension, but the fact remains that people work together while adopting smooth behaviors as much as possible to avoid hampering the system.

Base life

Life on the base is organized around the “living room”, the nerve center of social life, a vast building comprising the kitchen, dining room, living room and linen room. Near the stay the GP (postal management, mecca of philately, an important activity in the TAAF, and headquarters of the radio); all around are scattered technical and scientific buildings, dormitories, stores (places for storing food and technical equipment).

Spaces and temporalities intertwine, because in this restricted environment nothing really distinguishes what separates the professional from the private, even the rooms are often shared. This porosity between spaces leads to specific practices and representations, such as going to the office in slippers, wearing above all IPEV endowment clothes, not wearing too much makeup for girls (even if, as C. says, "this is not because I live on a base that I have to look like a doormat"), take advantage of this parenthesis to grow a beard for the men or even try, for the girls as for the boys, haircuts extravagant things that "we wouldn't dare in normal life".

The blurred boundary between private and public space also impacts the perception of time. L. tells me “I no longer take my watch, I just need an alarm on my phone to remind me of meal times”. Meals structure the days; Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings the cook offers a soup (these are working days), Friday evening pizza (beginning of the weekend announcement), Saturday an improved meal, Sunday evening it is " leftovers” of the week.

“You have nothing to do but work”

Whatever the mission to accomplish, it is not uncommon to see some working late at night or on weekends.

“Here, finally, you have nothing to do but work; no shopping, no cooking, no friends to go see, no transport between your home and your place of work. »

Meeting at the Geophy laboratory (geophysics).
French Polar Institute, Provided by the author 

However, there is a collective organization respected by everyone. Thus, according to a defined schedule and in turn, any person from the base with a partner, owes a whole day, "the base day", during which he is responsible for cleaning the common areas (living room, bathrooms, toilets, corridors), as well as midday and evening meal services, cleaning of tables and dishes.

The intense and almost continuous activity, the polar day or the polar night, the proximity between the professional and private worlds, the daily promiscuity also generate a particular perception of time: "I remember that that year, when I lived one year, I had the impression of having lived ten years in my experience of life”, or yet another: “relationships are exacerbated, everything is going faster than in mainland France; You can experience something very intense that will take years elsewhere, as much the construction of a friendship as the deconstruction of a friendship”.

The representation of a "rushed" time, compacted in a restricted space, the question of the ephemeral nature of relations in a closed space have already been the subject of studies - for example in the world of sailors or submarines - and the testimonies always relate to the intensity, and at the same time the fragility, of the relationships built in such a condensed time.

Life on a base located at the end of the world not only impacts practices and representations of space and time, social relations, it also influences professional practices.

Resourcefulness, inventiveness, flexibility are all terms that come up in the comments:

“Working in Antarctica is different. Already people are not 100% on their job, because you have collective tasks, days for the base service, that's good, you have on-call duty for the plant then for the winter workers you have safety training , ice pack, firefighters, rescue, etc. In short, you do not work in your job – for example, plumber – 100%. In addition, we plumbers take care of the diesel transfer, we have this hat, help with polar logistics… well, we have to do it. So why is the plumber called upon for the diesel? I don't know… Maybe just because we know the pipes! [laughs] The qualities for working in Antarctica are versatility and the ability to manage yourself, to work, to look for work, it's not given to everyone. Here, we work in conditions where we don't have everything we could have if we were next to a store… sometimes a tool is missing. On a base we do not throw anything away, it can always be used. We are MacGyver, Geo Trouvetou! »

"Here you are free"

This intense professional activity cannot, however, make us forget the multiple motivations of those who have chosen to undertake this journey. The life stories of each other, whatever their trades, reveal a particularly sharp curiosity, atypical paths in which the taste for travel, activism or even a habit of activities in nature hold a place of choice.

While some explain their attraction to this still little-known continent by the opportunity to advance scientific knowledge, many others emphasize the taste for freedom, adventure, the need to live outside a consumer society and saturated with information, to discover a human experience, to get to know each other better or even the desire to live in a community... "I don't need much to live and I wanted an extraordinary adventure" , “I want freedom at work and not work for a commercial company. I'm not looking to make money, to get rich, I want to be free, I don't want to work in a world of dough”; “I wanted to live with people who do jobs that I would never meet in my ordinary life”; “Here you are free”…

One of the characters from Werner Herzog's film The Encounters at the End of the World (2008) expresses this phenomenon very well: “I often say that people who do not have too many ties on earth tend to tumble down the planet”. 

T., a boilermaker, devotes all his free time in France to taking care of children after traveling around the world with his parents when he was 8 years old. G., a technician, lives only for freedom: “I hate constraints, I like to live what comes along and above all not to go sightseeing. Already when I was younger, I said to my parents: I'm going on vacation for two weeks in Norway, and I came back after eight months, quite simply because I had met people who had taken me there, then there had been another thing after, the trip is my freedom.. ". L., a meteorologist, has been active for years in associations for the protection of nature and the reception of migrants, and she wanted to go to Adélie land: "it was there, and I could have changed jobs and trained in bakery if that had been the way to get there…”.

From March to October, when the pack ice closes, only about twenty “wintering people” will live in the base, cut off from the rest of the world. Thus, for many, the South Pole represents the ultimate adventure and as A. says: “after the South Pole you have nothing left… you fall into space”.

This article describes the “Ethnography of a Scientific Base in Antarctica” Project (Isabelle Bianquis, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tours and Bernard Ancori, Professor of Epistemology and History of Science at the University of Strasbourg). Project supported by the French Polar Institute Paul-Emile Victor.

Isabelle Bianquis, Anthropologist, University of Tours

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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