January 15, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Leigh West recounts her past Christmas experiences spent doing research at Palmer Station at the South Pole.

24/12/2020
Leigh West

Children know that the North Pole is home to Santa’s workshop and is bustling during the holiday season. He and his elves work tirelessly to get ready for Christmas Eve. What you may be surprised to hear is that the South Pole, or the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), to be more specific, is just as busy at this time of the year. Palmer Station is one of three United States Antarctic ‘workshops’ based on the WAP, and between a ramping-up of research and Christmas festivities, December is one of its busiest months. The station is usually at maximum capacity around the holidays, housing around 20 scientists and 20 support staff that are busily collecting data.

The work at both poles is quite different. While the North Pole elves are busy making toys and stuffing stockings, the scientists are conducting research to understand the polar marine ecosystem’s response to a changing climate. Researchers from a myriad of disciplines cycle in and out of Palmer over the course of the southern summer, studying topics from insects (Belgica antarctica – the continent’s largest land animal) to ocean circulation. Although much of the research on station varies from year to year, the Palmer Station Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project constitutes the focus of the base’s scientific study. This interdisciplinary research program was established in 1990 as part of a network of long-term ecological research sites created by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). The makeup of each LTER program varies from site to site, but at Palmer it is a collaboration five labs—marine geochemistry, phytoplankton, zooplankton, seabirds, and whales.

Although all of Palmer’s scientists and contractors are dedicated to producing the best science possible during their time on station, the research community is also a spectacularly warm and familial place to spend the holidays. During my most recent stint at Palmer, I worked with the seabird lab to study penguins, giant petrels, and brown skuas. Fieldwork at Palmer is at the whim of the elements, with sea ice, wind, and inclement conditions regularly keeping boats off the water. In 2019, the sea ice stuck around at Palmer until mid-December, delaying much of the seabird work. By Christmas, we were still playing catch-up, traveling outside of station’s standard boating limits to visit Biscoe Point. Every season, the ‘birders’ conduct a penguin census at Biscoe, counting all of the adults and chicks on the island. We completed this annual count on Christmas Eve last year, bringing a festive air to the work with Santa hats.

At the South Pole
Photo by Anne Schaefer

This is standard for a holiday ‘on the ice’—many scientists and support staff work long hours on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In the Antarctic, time is money – it takes a phenomenal amount of resources to deploy someone to Palmer, and everyone understands that they must prioritize their research endeavors. For many of these scientists, the samples obtained in their few months on the WAP are the only data they’ll collect all year, with the rest of their time spent analyzing and writing. Still, all Palmer personnel know how to keep spirits high, especially around the holidays. Reindeer antlers, sleighbells, and other yuletide accoutrements are a common sight in the field and labs throughout December.

This is not to say that the holidays at Palmer are all work and no play; the community on station never fails to roll out a jolly celebration. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, community members sign up to contribute desserts to the holiday meal, staggering their pie, gingerbread house, and cookie bakes to share Palmer’s small kitchen. Depending on the weather, station members may take part in a celebratory polar plunge, jumping into the icy Southern Ocean alongside their friends.

December is also crunch time for white elephant preparations. This annual gift exchange is another Palmer tradition. Some Palmerites bring gifts from home, but many craft their contributions while on station. Palmer is home to some wonderful artists every year. Without fail, at each gift exchange, there are handmade paintings, wood carvings, glass etchings, and delectable confections. Usually, everyone makes it back from the field to take part, and good-spirited rivalry ensues as the gifts are swapped back and forth. After the gift exchange comes the indulgent holiday dinner. At Palmer, we are spoiled by incredible chefs who prepare all of our meals. They go all out for Christmas, invariably concocting a three-course feast comprising of all the traditional favorites.

opening presents by the Christmas Tree
Photo by Zee Evans

As Christmas presents a rare two-day weekend at Palmer, community members often choose to take part in their own celebrations in addition to the station-wide activities. Sledding was a personal tradition of mine, taping up cardboard boxes as makeshift toboggans and boating out to a nearby island to find a perfect slope. Once my friends and I had grown exhausted from trudging uphill time and time again, we would plant ourselves at the bottom and build a snowman.

Group photo by a snowman
Photo by Carly Quisenberry

Christmas camping is a final tradition in which I’ve taken part since beginning to deploy in 2015. Community members gather at the ‘rec hut’, a cabin-like structure behind station, to chat, listen to Christmas music, and drink hot cocoa as they look out on Palmer’s resident glacier. Many choose to stay all night, pitching tents in the ‘backyard’ and waking up Christmas morning, hopefully to softly falling snow and penguins waddling past camp. A white Christmas indeed!

tent surrounded by south pole landscape
Photo by Leigh West