Big Dead Place

Nicholas Johnson has a lot of ice time under his belt. He spent five summers and two winters at McMurdo base on Antarctica, mostly working Waste Management (a fairly complicated job in a place where everything that comes in needs to be taken out again). Thus his bug’s-eye view of the workings of the United States Antarctic Project (USAP) are not colored by bureaucratic doublespeak or corporate banality. It becomes abundantly clear very early that Johnson is his own man, and a very cynical one at that.

Big Dead Place offers a fascinating overview of the workings of McMurdo and South Pole stations, the United States’ two primary outposts in the Antarctic. While the program is operated under the auspices of the National Science Foundation and its mission is general thought to be the pursuit of scientific progress, one quickly learns that there are other, stranger forces at work. For one thing, for every one researcher on base, there are about five support staff. They run the facilities (electricity, heating, plumbing), machine shops, supply yards, logistics, cafeteria, waste disposal, janitorial services, housing, human resources, and on and on. While Antarctica is often portrayed as a land of harsh mystery, marvelous wonder, and funny penguins, the day-to-day truth is far more asinine. McMurdo and Pole are just like any other job, except that the weather rarely tops 0 degrees Fahrenheit and six months of the year see no sunlight at all.

Johnson starts with the interesting facts and background of the continent and the origins of the program and transitions quickly to the quirky. He tells of the wacky hijinks of base staff, most of whom have to be at least a bit off their rocker to sign up for such a demanding and isolated job. He discusses the two dueling management structures, “Washington,” home of the NSF, and “Denver,” home of the Raytheon division contracted to manage all non-science aspects of the ice. As he draws the reader deeper into the culture of McMurdo, Johnson intersperses history and antecdotes about old explorers like Admiral Richard Byrd and Robert Scott. While the harsh environment has become a relatively tame one thanks to experience and modern scientific advances, there are still many parallels between the operation of early Antarctic expeditions and the present-day USAP.

As the chapters pile up, quirky turns gradually to cynical as Johnson dives deepers into the strange politics of a place run by people thousands of miles and a dozen timezones away in a sunny Denver suburb. Ridiculous and outlandish corporate proclamations and policies contrast sharply with day-to-day life and expectations of a frozen base perched above a thick ice shelf. With work and personal life inexorably linked on an isolated base of 1200 people, individuals get in trouble for the strangest reasons and personalities clash to ridiculous degrees.

At Big Dead Place‘s abrupt conclusion, one is left completely soured to the entire idea of American occupation of Antarctica, while at the same time far more aware of both the context for and purpose of that occupation. In short, our mission is one of soverignty and bet-hedging, and as soon as one recognizes that the myth of Science is just that, the whole house of cards comes crumbling down. One has to hope that if the government were really trying to run an efficient science operation, they wouldn’t put up with all the bullshit. But then perhaps assuming so would be highly overestimating the competence of the NSF and its congressional overlords.

Big Dead Place fulfills its promise, piercing the veil of the Antarctic myth and providing a fascinating and highly quotable view into the surprising underbelly of the beast. It is good vacation reading, but do not hold out any hope for an optimistic ending that extols the power of America and the mission of science despite all of the flaws of the program, for one never comes.