8 Antarctic Traditions

U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force / U.S. Air Force

While we are looking forward to autumn leaves and apple cider, Antarctica is undergoing the annual spring influx of workers for the summer. The few who stay all through the dark Antarctic winter welcome those who will swell the continent’s population for the next few months. There will be no spring flowers, no local graduations, and no autumn leaves at the bottom of the world, but despite the fact that none of the residents are permanent, there are traditions to be upheld. Many were put in place because they broke up the monotony of the cold weather, brought people together, or just plain proved to be fun. Here’s some of the traditions that the new crew of workers can look forward to.

1. Race Around the World

Photograph by Flickr user Alan Light.

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station celebrates Christmas with a footrace, but if you want to join in on skis or a snowmobile, that’s okay, too. The annual Race Around the World is so named because runners pass through every time zone in the world as they race in a circle around the South Pole. Of course, you can do that in just a minute if you are close enough to the Pole, so to make the race interesting, a course is laid out to be a couple of miles long. The tradition began in 1979, as a South Pole adjunct to McMurdo Station’s Scott's Hut Race. Most participants run for fun, but the winner gets a great prize: a five-minute hot shower, which is a treat compared with the two minute showers residents are normally alloted.

2. Icestock Music Festival

Photograph by Flickr user sandwich.

The New Year comes in during the summer in Antarctica. It’s the perfect time for a music festival, and since 1990, that’s been Icestock at the U.S.A.'s McMurdo Station. Around a dozen solo artists and bands, all local, play for hours, accompanied by a barbecue for costumed concertgoers.

3. Moving the Pole

South Pole Station rings in the New Year with a solemn and meticulous ceremony to adjust the South Pole. The Pole is atop an ice sheet that moves slightly every year, so the marker for the South Pole drifts somewhat—about 30 feet every year. The location of the Pole is surveyed on January first, and a new marker is installed, with the flags rearranged around it. Almost everyone at the station attends the ceremony. This explains why photographs of the South Pole may vary as to its relationship with the buildings near it.

4. Scott’s Hut Race and McMurdo Marathon

Photograph by Flickr user Alumnae Association of Mount Holyoke College.

Scott’s Hut Race is an annual 5.2 mile run around McMurdo and nearby Scott Base. Held in January, it’s a warm-weather race for Antarctica. Runners must circle around Discovery Hut, still in place from over 100 years ago. A couple of weeks later, the 26-mile McMurdo Marathon takes place.

5. Ross Island Cup

Photograph by Flickr user Eli Duke.

The Ross Island Cup is the nickname of an annual rugby match held between the scientists and support staff of New Zealand’s Scott Base and their American counterparts at McMurdo Station. The match is a tradition that’s been going on for 30 years now. Although McMurdo has ten times as many people as Scott, the Kiwis always win. You have to remember that rugby is not a sport Americans are all that familiar with, and some Yanks suspect that the rules are being made up on the spot. The intimidating haka doesn’t help much, either.

6. Skua

Photograph by Flickr user Eli Duke.

The skua is a scavenging bird that takes advantage of the trash and food left around the research stations of Antarctica. The bird’s name was appropriated to describe the culture of recycling at McMurdo. Since bringing in supplies and taking out waste is a logistical hassle on the continent, recycling is crucial. Instead of carrying polar equipment home, many workers leave things behind, which are “Skuaed” by those remaining. Items are traded around in the dorms, or else they go to Skua Central, a shack where unwanted items are sorted to be recycled, such as worn out clothing made into rags, or picked up by other residents who can use them. Clothing, hats, boots, outerwear, cosmetics, and even food items find a new home out of Skua Central. Skua culture is such a part of Antarctic living that it stays with people even after they go home.

7. 300 Club

You can join the 300 Club if you are healthy, daring, and a little insane. The number comes from enduring an atmospheric difference of 300 degrees Fahrenheit, which is possible some days at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. On a day when the temperature outside dips to 100 below zero, you warm up in a 200-degree sauna, then run around the South Pole wearing nothing but shoes. Try not to slip and fall. If you survive, you are a member of the most exclusive club in the world. At McMurdo Station, the temperature outside doesn’t get that cold, but you can prove yourself worthy of the 200 Club, by streaking around a building to endure a temperature difference of 200 degrees.

8. Midwinter Day

Photograph by Flickr user booka17.

To those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice in June is the point at which the sun is the farthest north in relation to the earth in the entire calendar year. For those near the South Pole, it is the point where the sun is hidden the farthest from them, in the middle of a four-month-long night. But it also marks the turnaround point where the southern part of the earth will begin to turn toward the sun. That’s a cause for celebration, so Midwinter Day is a holiday for those overwintering in Antarctica. Traditions include a communal feast and greetings from the rest of the world, including the national leaders of those stationed at the bottom of the world. At the South Pole Station, the most isolated post in winter, there is an annual screening of the movie The Shining, as part of a scary movie marathon.

Antarctica Time lapse: A Year on Ice

The various stations in Antarctica have other special occasions throughout the year. See pictures of McMurdo’s prom, Christmas party, art show, Halloween party, Icestock, Freezing Man, and more here and here