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How Norwegians stay cool about Antarctica

EVEN in today's Antarctic age of snowmobiles and satellite phones, surviving a Southern Hemisphere winter, when the polar sun departs in May to reappear only in October, is a rite of passage. Tharles J. Hanley looks at the big chill

Trapped with his ship in Antarctic ice a century ago, explorer Frederick Cook dreaded the approaching "blackness of the long polar night," the grim winter that would darken "the inner world of our souls."

A nice soak in a hot tub was what the man needed.

That's the dread that haunts today's winter denizens at this Norwegian outpost. "It's my big fear: The tub won't work," laughs Asbjoern Djupdal.

Djupdal was educating a visiting reporter to the crucial role played by the steamy wooden tub sitting on the Troll station's outdoor deck, where he and Troll's five other "over-winterers" plan to take daily communal dunks in the long night, and "lean back, look up and watch the stars and the Southern Lights."

From the days of the dogsled to today's Antarctic age of snowmobiles and satellite phones, surviving a Southern Hemisphere winter, when the polar sun departs in May to reappear only in October, has been a rite of passage.

The tents and fur blankets of Cook's heroic era have given way to prefabricated housing, central heating and shelves of movie DVDs to while away hours between tub times. But on this continent of ice, twice the size of Australia, the old dangers persist - in the frigid waters, in the ice's deep crevasses, even in injuries deemed routine up north.

When one of Troll's winter crew suffered a compound leg fracture last October, it took two weeks for his comrades to clear Troll's ice runway and for the Norwegian Polar Institute, Troll's operator, to get a plane in to evacuate the badly injured man.

"We saved his leg, but just barely," said Jan Gunnar Winther, institute director.

The Norwegians are new at wintering here. Although Troll was established 20 years ago, it wasn't until 2005 that they expanded, winterized, and put in new, double-redundant electric-generation capacity to shift to year-round operation. The generator's exhaust warms the main building.

In Antarctic terms, Troll's half-dozen red-painted buildings have a good location - in a stony valley amid East Antarctica's 2,300-meter-high Gjelsvik Mountains, 235 kilometers from the South Atlantic, 5,000 kilometers southwest of South Africa. The valley doesn't get heavy winter snows, and temperatures rarely plunge to the minus-50-degree Celsius level experienced farther inland.

Why year-round operation? Nationalism, for one thing. Norway's claim to this pie-shaped slice of Antarctica, dubbed Queen Maud Land, looks more serious when the claimants don't lock up and go home for half the year. Though suspended under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, such claims haven't been withdrawn.

But the institute also hopes to "stage more science" at Troll, said John Guldahl, who oversaw the upgrade as the institute's Antarctic operations manager. The winter staff already maintains equipment monitoring atmospheric pollution and other phenomena. There's a business motive as well: White domes are sprouting around the station, housing antennas for polar-orbiting satellites.

Troll, whose summer staff of two dozen dwindles to a winter cadre of science technician, mechanic, electrician, plumbing technician, doctor and cook, still remains a tiny presence in the Antarctic "community." The big United States station at McMurdo Sound, for example, has a winter staff of 153.

Why choose to winter in the planet's coldest place? It's not the money, since Troll's March-to-November caretakers, who are specially recruited each year, actually are paid less, for less work.

The quiet, precise Djupdal, 31, a PhD computer engineer who will be winter station leader, said he'd welcome the change after the grind of doctoral studies up north. Besides, "the polar regions have always fascinated me, since reading the Norwegian explorers' books - Amundsen and Nansen - as a boy."

Asked the same question, just hours before the last plane flew off on February 25 with the summer staff, chef Britt Simones, 47, smiled.

"I don't know," she said. But she then explained that her work in Norway as a nursing-home cook had been wearing her down, she spotted a newspaper ad for the Troll job one Sunday, her teenage children told her to do it, her husband agreed, and here she was.

Her true ambitions grew clear, however, as she gazed out a station window - at the "blue and purple and gray and some yellow." An amateur painter, she looked forward to getting out her oils to catch the horizontal sunlight and colors of the southern winter.

"When the sun is so low, you have red light in the mountains and blue glaciers," said departing staffer Trond Lovdal, 38, who over-wintered at Troll two seasons back. "Hiking, skiing - it's special to be here for a whole year."

And when the sun finally flees north, darkness settles in, and the mercury dips past minus 30 or 40 Celsius, Simones said, "I'll have the tub!"

"All you need," joked Guldahl, "is a good hat."


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