For one pioneering alum, being on top of the world meant finding a life and career at the bottom – a crossroads for scientists, vagabonds and voyagers studying and exploring Antarctica.
by Mark Walsh ’04
Alphabetical discrimination, also called Alphabetism, is a form of prejudice relatively new to mainstream study. Sociologists have found that people whose last names fall toward the end of the alphabet tend to have more modest ambitions and earn less money. These patterns are rooted in childhood, as one’s inevitable place at the end of the line or bottom of the list can produce a mindset of inferiority and submission.
Growing up, I spent much time toward the bottom of such lists, so I was well prepared to sit at the back on that muggy Sunday afternoon. An excited crowd had gathered before we walked onto that Cistern stage, and they eagerly awaited the close of graduation as Board of Trustees chairman Tex Small called for the School of Sciences and Mathematics. For me, this eagerness turned to expectancy as he approached the Department of Physics, and it eventually became suspense, as I was named as the final graduate of the College’s Class of 2004.
The bulk of the crowd remained as I walked across the stage. I could see the relief on their faces as I passed by in my white sports coat and Rainbow flip-flops, and I waved to them as they stood – all of them cheering, clapping and sweating. But unlike the sense of relief among our friends and families, there were feelings of fear and uncertainty hidden beneath the hugs and grins of many of us who had graduated on that Mother’s Day afternoon. I was one of them. I didn’t know exactly what would come next, but I only knew where, as I had applied for nearly any and every job within the U.S. Antarctic Program.
Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest, windiest, emptiest and harshest continent on Earth. It’s a frozen desert, where the temperatures drop to 90 below zero and the winds can gust up to 200 mph. More than 98 percent of the continent is completely covered with ice, making Antarctica so desolate and uninhabitable that there are no permanent residents or indigenous people.
It is for these reasons, however, that Antarctica is the ultimate laboratory, with almost every scientific discipline taking advantage of its virgin landscapes and pristine ecosystems. Luckily, both scientists and policymakers have recognized this importance and put protective measures into place that ensure its scientific legitimacy and productivity for future generations. The Antarctic Treaty was enacted in 1961 and was the first document that protected Antarctica from the political, economic and social pressures of the 20th century. The treaty forbids military engagements, commercial developments and any activities that harm or change Antarctica’s natural environments and ecosystems.
The treaty does allow for the building of infrastructure that directly supports science, but these government-funded buildings, airfields and ports are off limits to private businesses and the general public. The companies that support tourism in the region must be financially responsible for all operational and infrastructural needs, which adds a lot of cost to an Antarctic expedition, and therefore puts it out of financial reach for many college students. For those students, the USAP is the only option if they want to explore the continent.
As a branch of the National Science Foundation, the USAP conducts and supports scientific research in Antarctica. USAP funding is distributed either through research grants to scientists at U.S. universities or through support contracts to private companies. Thus, to participate in the USAP, you must either be a scientist conducting research or a government contractor keeping the bases operational (so the scientists have a place to conduct research). In either case, your time in Antarctica is of a different focus and priority, as life in Antarctica is centered around the advancement of science.
I first discovered the USAP during my senior year at the College. Immediately, I knew it was something I wanted to explore. Unfortunately, my physics degree would not qualify me for research grants, nor did it do much to get me the dishwashing, janitorial or general-labor positions that I was applying for. (Little did I know, many of these entry-level personnel have master’s degrees.) I needed to develop a skill that had a specific purpose to the daily operations of a remote scientific base. It was a lengthy process, but by 2009, I was a certified weather observer and was finally ready to deploy to Antarctica.
Weather observers are typically found at airports, where we report the current weather conditions to pilots and air traffic controllers. Our observations are also used by meteorologists and in forecasting models, but our primary responsibility is to aviation.
Long before taking off for Antarctica, I knew it would be the polar opposite (no pun intended) of the climate, lifestyle and footwear I had become accustomed to in Charleston. I was ready for the change – just the thought of spending six months surrounded by the world’s most unique people in the planet’s most punishing environment seemed extremely … well, cool (pun intended). I would be surprised, however, just how “normal” life could be at the bottom of the world, and felt very comfortable almost immediately after arriving at McMurdo Station in August 2009.
Built by the U.S. Navy on a volcanic island off the coast of Antarctica, McMurdo Station is the largest of the three year-round bases and multiple seasonal field camps operated by the USAP. It’s the closest thing to a city that exists on the continent, and it’s the logistical hub for almost all U.S. Antarctic operations. Everyone traveling to the South Pole or other deep-field camps passes through McMurdo, and it becomes a bustling mix of contract workers, scientists and military pilots during the summer months (October–February) with a maximum population of about 1,200 people.
While stationed at McMurdo, you live in dorms, have roommates and eat in the cafeteria. Besides work, there are recreational sports opportunities, clubs to participate in, churches to be a part of and libraries for your reading enjoyment. There is also an active social scene, complete with bars and occasional concerts provided by “local” musicians. Many of these creature comforts and cultural activities were unexpected, and they helped make my first season at McMurdo feel like a cross between summer camp and my freshman year at the College.
Just like that first year at the College, there was a lot to learn that first season in Antarctica. But I took the lessons and skills from my liberal arts and sciences education at the College – the openness and willingness to learn and grow from all types of people – and applied it to my life on the ice. It’s different than living in South Carolina, yes. But I’ve never forgotten home and I’ve kept my Southern heritage (and my Rainbow flip-flops) with me at all times.
Besides, it only makes sense that I’d end up thriving at the South Pole: I’m used to being at the bottom of lists, lines … and now, the world.
– Mark Walsh ’04 is a weather observer for the U.S. Antarctic Program.
Illustration by John Phillips