Overwintering at SANAE IV
Hi! My name is Will Jelbert. I am one of the team currently overwintering at the South African Antarctic research base SANAE IV. We are a team of ten staying here all year, a mix of scientists and engineers, making sure the base systems run smoothly, and also maintaining the scientific equipment that collects and transmits various data.
We all started together in summer, taking over from the previous overwintering team. We had a lot to learn about our upcoming assignment, the base, the environment we would be experiencing, and of course each other. On top of all that the base was undergoing a fairly major upgrade, so there was a large team of construction workers installing new systems and giving the base a bit of a facelift.
There were scientific teams from South Africa heading out on field work to collect samples, as well as a delightful Swedish research team of eight who were using our base as the hub for their field work. It was busy and chaotic and wonderful. We all got to learn new random skills like driving dozers (bulldozers to move snow where it is needed/ build etc.), repairing pipelines, rope work and crevasse rescue, operating a crane, cargo work, snowmobiling, and many others. There was lots of physical work also, like shoveling snow for the smelter to get fresh water, carrying new supplies into the base and removing waste that will go back to South Africa. There was always something going on. And always in this incredibly stunning location, with mountains to our south, and ice sheets as far as the eye can see, glinting in the 24 hours of sunlight. It was utterly spectacular!
Then suddenly summer was coming to an end. Flights were taking people away and the last of the cargo runs left for the ice-shelf taking the old team and the rest of the construction crew. Suddenly we were alone for the first time as a team in this vast wilderness, and the sunlight was fading!
At first there was a sense of excitement and novelty as we moved into the base and settled in for the winter. We each now had our own rooms, were sharing the cooking and cleaning duties, taking on the responsibilities of our actual jobs, while exploring the surrounding areas a bit more when we had the chance. We celebrated the first sunset of the year and watched as the temperatures got steadily colder and the storms steadily stronger. Temperatures dropped from between -2 to -16℃ in summer to between -20 to -60℃ in winter! We had months where the average temperature was -24℃, and that’s not taking the wind chill into account! The storms got more regular and much more severe, with winds reaching a maximum 174km/hr, but would commonly howl at 75-95 km/hr for days on end, shaking the whole base.
Because our base is located 71° south, we never had complete darkness during winter. At midwinter solstice we still had a glow on the northern horizon for about two hours, a kind of early sunrise and late sunset all at once. These extreme sunlight phases definitely affected my sleeping patterns, and those of the whole team.
On the occasions when we did have quieter days, we would be able to go and fill the smelter and do any outside repair work. We had a few significant technical challenges. Our water pipeline that takes melted snow from the smelter up to the base developed nine shattered gaskets, which had to be repaired. Not easy to work with your hands in -40℃ with a steady 40km/hr wind! Heading outside in those conditions can be likened to a spacewalk! You don’t even consider it without layers of protective equipment covering every piece of skin.
The scenery is always spectacular and never gets old. Seeing the first sunrise after two months was a special moment. I wish I had a picture of it but my camera didn’t function since the temperature on that day was -50℃! We have seen the Aurora Australis a few times, which was an awesome privilege! And I’ve had some wonderful times with a group of 9 other men who I’ve come to know and cherish, having shared all the challenges and all the good times of living in these circumstances.
However, winter in Antarctica wasn’t the crazy adventure I imagined. Perhaps I thought I would experience a kind of isolated, romantic loneliness, while overcoming exciting and even heroic challenges. But actually, I experienced the opposite of loneliness, sometimes needing to retreat for a while to my room for some quietness. Anywhere you went in the base there was invariably someone there who would want to chat, as I would also of course. But sometimes you just want to be in your room, and you want to be alone. This wasn’t always easy to achieve!
And the work is mostly mundane and routine. A lot of cleaning and organizing after the chaotic construction during summer. And of course, taking inventory of the various stock rooms, so that orders could be placed for the coming take-over period.
Despite the severe weather outside, the base is modern and comfortable with internet connectivity and underfloor heating. Most of the time I wear jeans and a light fleece jacket.
There are things now that I am starting to miss and think about, as time moves on and the frenetic pace of the summer take-over period draws near. Fresh fruit, sun that warms, greenery, being able to go outside without donning several layers of protective equipment. We are kept busy with reports, gym and yoga for those interested, domestic duties, our jobs, and dealing with the occasional technical ‘hiccup’ and whatever hobbies and games that we have here!
All in all, it has been an incredible once in a lifetime, life-changing experience. I’ve done things that I might never do again. Experienced mother nature at her most hostile, and also at her most beautiful. Made lifelong friendships. But it has also been a challenging year, isolated and often lonely, despite being always around people. I missed my other friends and family. Knowing what I know now, if I could go back in time, I would definitely sign up for this program. But I would also not do it again, if that makes sense.