Talking to a Former South Pole System Admin
After we ran our piece about the new jobs at Port Lockroy, Antarctica, Sarah asked if we’d like to learn about what it’s really like to work at the South Pole.
Tell us a little bit about what you did in Antarctica. What was your job, and what did you do while you were there?
Here’s the basic setup: Nobody owns Antarctica. A bunch of countries operate scientific research stations down there. The U.S. has three permanent stations and occasional summer “off-and-on” stations. When you’re talking about jobs down there, it’s support staff for the science research.
My job was—well, I had a bunch of jobs. I was first hired on as “entry-level computer help desk,” and then I built my skills and kept coming back with better jobs. I did the classic progression from help desk to PC tech to system admin.
What prompted you to go to Antarctica?
As soon as I heard that there were jobs there, I said “sign me up!” Then it took me five years to get in. The U.S. program runs everything through the National Science Foundation, and they hire out the support jobs to the contractors, so it’s just like applying for a job with a private company.
So in terms of money: first of all, before I ask about your salary, I’m going to ask about how your needs were taken care of in Antarctica. Did they give you housing? Did you rent housing? Did they provide you with food and uniforms?
Room and board is provided, so you’re not paying for that. You get cold-weather gear, though you’re expected to bring your own regular clothes to wear underneath. But you get the Carhartts and the parkas and you’re expected to give them back at the end.
Excellent. So then your salary, I’m assuming, is something like “industry standard minus the cost of all of that?”
Not strictly. It varies according to the job, it varies according to the economy, and they get to knock off a bit because it’s cool, so that raises the demand for these jobs. For most jobs you’re making a bit less than you would in the States.
The upside is that if you can trim any expenses you’re stuck with back at home, which is generally easier for the younger folks and the older folks—I’d just put my stuff in storage and that was it—you can save a lot because you’re not paying for anything else. Depending on how much you drink!
Yes! You did tell me earlier that drinking was the major discretionary expense.
Bear in mind that my last time there was ten years ago, and I’ve heard secondhand that they’ve cut down on the hard alcohol, so now it’s just wine and beer.
When I was there, I was mostly at the South Pole, and they were building a new station so there were a lot of trade positions. Oh my God, I have never been around people who could get obliterated drunk every night and go to work the next day.
But yeah, other than that, you buy your T-shirts, you buy a polar fleece, and you’re kinda done. You run out of toothpaste and you buy toothpaste. Everything is regular U.S. prices, with no tax.
What about buying items that can get mailed to you? Does Amazon deliver to Antarctica?
We get to use the APO, which is the military mail service, so it’s just a question of whether it can get delivered to Port Hueneme in California and then shipped out. When I was there, Amazon was just starting to become mainstream. By the time I was done it was already starting to be a problem that people were just ordering stuff, and you’d get a plane coming into Antarctica that was filled with Amazon boxes! And you’re just paying U.S. postage, because you’re buying something that’s going to California! So I don’t know if they’ve instituted an Amazon quota since then.
If you’re there for the summer—and the bulk of the jobs are summer jobs, since that’s really when you get the work done—you’re there for four to six months, so it’s really not that big a deal. If you’re there for the winter, it’s a bigger deal because of the station close. When it’s winter there’s no transportation, so nothing is moving in or out. You do have to plan in advance. The South Pole has the hardest conditions because it’s interior; that’s eight months with nothing. The station has a store, but the stock does not change, and it’s the size of a large closet!
There must be a library somewhere?
There are libraries, both McMurdo and South Pole have musical instruments—Palmer is the third station and it’s a lot smaller, so it’s more limited—and you tend to get creative people there. People come in with hobbies, especially in the winter because things slow down a lot and there are fewer people there. People tend to teach classes, and there’s a lot of watching movies and whatnot. Most of the time you have some kind of option for going outside, depending on the weather. South Pole and McMurdo, I think, both have skiing.
Is there any kind of barter economy going on? Do people swap haircuts for ukulele lessons?
There’s some of that, but it’s not huge. People also do haircuts for cash.
Ha, that makes sense. What about the income variations between different countries and contractors? Is that an issue?
At the American stations, almost all of the workers are American. The majority of the scientists, too. Support staff is going to be all American, unless we run out of people.
So there wasn’t any “these are the poorer people, these are the richer people?”
Well, everybody knows there’s a pay scale!
Fair enough! What else should Billfold readers know about doing money in Antarctica?
It’s great if you have a tangible goal. I’ve known people who have been down there as couples—you can do that as long as both people have a job, you can’t bring your family with you—and they’ll say “We’re going to winter over, and then we’ll buy our dream plot of land in Montana and build a ranch.”
Another thing I should have mentioned is that a big part of your salary is a completion bonus. That’s what the company holds over your head so you behave yourself. If you punch somebody out in a bar, you don’t get your bonus. There’s good and bad to that system, like anything.
I really enjoyed my time there. Since contracts are generally for six to twelve months, it really only works for people who don’t have dependents. I left because my parents were getting older. That’s pretty normal.
Do you feel like your time there affected your finances in the rest of your life? Did it change the way you spent money?
Yeah, actually. The bigger thing was psychological. It’s been 10 years and I still stall out in grocery stores. Choice overwhelms me. I have trouble in the shampoo aisle. And I come through thinking “More people should be like me, darnit!” I know I can live with a very small selection of physical items, and it’s okay.
Otherwise I was raised sensible about money, and I don’t think Antarctica changed that.
Photo credit: Christopher Michel