Posted: 06.12.2023 15:32:00

Life on the edge of the world

The station has internet and a sauna — Belarusian polar explorers talk about life in Antarctica and myths about themselves

Our polar explorers continue to conquer the mysterious and inaccessible ice continent. They will live in Antarctica for the next six months, working in conditions of stormy winds and aggressive sun. But there are also advantages. For example, where else can you drink cola with a piece of century-old ice? 

In honour of the opening of the 16th Antarctic season, the state flag of the Republic of Belarus and the flag of the NAS of Belarus were raised on the flagpoles of the Belarusian Antarctic field base Mount Vechernyaya

Let us recall that the ceremonial start of the 16th Belarusian Antarctic Expedition was given on October 30th at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) of Belarus. This year, 13 people went to Antarctica under the leadership of an experienced polar explorer, a participant in all previous 15 expeditions, Aleksei Gaidashov. The expedition includes scientists from the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus (Republican Centre for Polar Research, Scientific and Practical Centre of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus for Bioresources, Institute of Environmental Management, Physics Institute), Belarusian State University, Brest Regional Clinical Hospital and other organisations of the country. The team consists of 7 specialists who already have experience working in Antarctica and 6 newcomers.

Sweet home and fishing at the pole 

For ten years, Belarusian polar explorers have been building their own modern Antarctic station. It has laboratory and living quarters, a medical block with an ultrasound machine and x-ray, a laundry room and a sauna. In short, everything to live comfortably in permafrost conditions. Each expedition participant has a separate room with a heating and ventilation system.
The head of the Republican Centre for Polar Research, Vladimir Ryzhikov, says that desire alone is not enough to participate in the expedition. You need to go through a tough selection process. They check everything — from caries to chronic diseases. However, he hastened to dispel the popular myth that you need to get rid of the appendix and wisdom teeth in advance. By the way, there is a surgeon on the team. Just in case.
Internet is available at the station. Not as fast as at home, but it is there, says Arthur Ivashko, a participant in three expeditions, “I saw a time when, on a six-month business trip, everyone was given 10 minutes to call home. Now there is unlimited Internet, we can communicate via video calling, correspond in instant messengers. Our Belarusian television also works, so we are always up to date with the news.”
Free time is rare in Antarctica. Entertainment includes books and table tennis. Fishing is not a hobby, but an important part of scientific research. They go fishing with ice traps, sometimes with fine-mesh nets. You can fish with a regular fishing rod, but lowering the hook to a depth of 50 metres and reeling it back in is a headache. The catch is inspected, photographed and stored for further study on the ‘mainland’.
Antarctica hardens people, Artur Ivashko says. Now he watches the Titanic film without nerves: a floating iceberg as tall as a house is a common thing for him. But the animals never cease to amaze. Seals are unique creatures: they can lie under the sun for days. That’s why polar explorers secretly call the day off seal day. 

Four metres above the water 

A cook works at the Antarctic station. The menu is high in calories, but traditional — it was developed by specialists to provide polar explorers with a balanced and healthy diet from a limited range of products.
For breakfast, the classics are porridge, sometimes pancakes, sandwiches with sausage or red fish. For lunch — soup and main course; for dinner they serve meat with side dishes (mashed potatoes, buckwheat, beans), and salads. The polar explorers took with them more than 100 kilogrammes of food. Canned food, canned goods, dried fruits, coffee and tea —  everything that does not spoil is brought from Belarus. The rest — meat, vegetables and fruits — was purchased along the way in Cape Town (South Africa).
They are trying to grow some crops right in Antarctica. A rich harvest of cucumbers and tomatoes still remains a dream, although our neighbours, the Russians, managed to grow watermelons. But basil, parsley, and dill often end up on the polar explorers’ table. The guys joke, they say, we should try to grow potatoes, like in The Martian film. But it is prohibited to bring animals (for example, chickens and dogs) to Antarctica — they can harm the continent’s biosphere.
What about the water? It would seem that there is snow all around, there shouldn’t be any problems with it. However, melted water does not contain macroelements useful for humans, explains Vladimir Ryzhikov, “It can only be used for household needs, and the mineral one is brought to the station. Water for cooking is obtained locally. There are many fresh lakes near our station. True, the ice thickness there is about four metres. You can’t get water without a drill.”

Summer in winter and the southernmost tan

Perhaps the most myths about Antarctica concern the weather. It really is unpredictable there: it can change dramatically several times a day. From sunny with a plus sign to frosty with a gale wind of 50 m/s. Everyone knows that Antarctica is very cold. But few people realise that the minimum temperature recorded on this continent is minus 89 degrees. Now summer has come — the gentlest time of the year, says Deputy Head of the Republican Centre for Polar Research Igor Pilshchikov, “But in cloudy weather there is no contrast, the sky and earth merge together, and it is difficult to navigate where you are. Sometimes such strong winds blow from the ice dome of the continent towards the sea that visibility is a maximum of three metres. On such days, the ‘Storm’ mode is introduced, during which it is forbidden to leave the station.”
Polar explorers, like us, navigate using GPS. Although they don’t rely heavily on electronics. Special road signs help. There are them in Antarctica too, only different ones (wooden signal ones), they mark the main land routes of the expedition. The length of some reaches 100 kilometres. They stand at a distance of no more than 20 metres from each other, so as not to pass by in inclement weather.
The peculiarity of the continent is the very bright sun, which quickly heats everything around. On a polar day, the rocks heat up to 40 degrees.
To the surprise of their relatives, polar explorers return from the expedition with a gorgeous southern tan. The fact is that Antarctica has an uneven ozone layer and strong ultraviolet radiation. Without protective cream, the skin burns instantly. It is impossible to be outdoors without glasses: the sun is so blinding that you can get a burn to the cornea.
Despite the difficult working conditions, some polar explorers come to Antarctica more than once or twice. The icy desert is said to have a special attraction and romance that is very difficult to resist.

By Inna Gorbatenko
Photos courtesy of Belarus’ NAS press service