Antarctic plumber: Frozen pipes... again

  • 27 December 2010
  • From the section Magazine
Rothera research station, on the western shore of the Antarctic peninsula

When the British Antarctic Survey advertised for people to work in one of its remote outposts, thousands of people applied. So what has life been like for those who got the jobs?

The call went out for plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, electricians and doctors. They needed to have a love of adventure and be ready for "the most exhilarating experience of a lifetime".

In the summer of 2009, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) advertised a number of jobs on their most southerly research stations The contract was for 18 months. So as the time for the successful candidates comes to an end, has the job lived up to their expectations?

Mark Green, a 48-year-old plumber from Bristol, was sent to Halley Research Station on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula. His job is to keep water supplies going in temperatures of minus 50C.

Thirty-year-old Claire Lehman, a recently qualified Wiltshire GP, was posted to Rothera, on the western shore of the peninsula.

Both left behind the comforts of home and family for a place with no shops, minimal luxuries and 108 days a year without sunlight.

But they were not alone in seeing the appeal of life in this bleak landscape.

In an attempt to attract as wide a pool of applicants as possible, job advertisements were placed in publications ranging from Farmer's Weekly to red-top tabloids.

Out of more than 2,000 applicants, Mark was chosen. It meant leaving behind his wife Anna and son Jake. But his family were fully behind his decision to accept the post.

"Oh, 100%, I was told if I got it I had to go," he says. "I wanted a change, challenges, adventure and to see a beautiful place. I was particularly keen on all the new skills that I would be taught."

However much his trade might have been valued back home, it is crucial at an outpost like Halley.

While Antarctica is a vast natural laboratory, helping researchers understand how the world works, the scientists depend on the support of workers like Mark to keep the base going.

Miles from anywhere, with no mains sewage, the work of plumbers in particular is crucial.

"Everyone who works in Antarctica has a really important job to do," says Linda Capper of the BAS.

"To work in the Antarctic, you need to have a good support system around you. So we employ a lot of trades people - plumbers, electricians, carpenters, chefs - to make sure that the scientists are able to do the work."

Typically earning about £23,000, the trades people are briefed before they depart about the hazards of working in such an icy environment.

In particular, the job becomes especially arduous during the coldest months of the year because the bases are run by a skeleton staff known as the Winterers - among whose number included Mark and Claire.

Of course, no amount of instruction can truly prepare someone accustomed to the British climate for the harshness of this wilderness, as Mark remembers the first time he set foot on Antarctic territory.

"I got out of the plane and it was minus 16C and over 20 knots winds," he says. "And that was the first taste.

"The biggest surprise, apart from actually getting the job and not falling off the bottom of the earth, was the sheer savage beauty of the place."

However, he quickly came to appreciate his new home. Four weeks into his stay, he was taken on an expedition and promised a spectacular view.

"All the ice cliffs were revealed to us along with about 2,000 penguins, I would have thought, on the sea ice. It was just a fantastic sight.

"We spent about two hours in amongst the penguins. If you sit there and make yourself small and be quiet they will come and investigate you. They're not shy of having their photo taken. It was a day I'll remember all my life."

Most of Mark's time, however, was more prosaic, as he set about attending to the base's plumbing.

He saw how tasks which would be considered run of the mill in the UK were of critical importance in the Antarctic. When a melt water tank became blocked, for instance, it had to be quickly cleared to prevent the whole thing solidifying.

Chris Martin, who manages the facilities at Rothera, says plumbers face the additional pressure of knowing that thawing out frozen pipework can be virtually impossible in a climate like that of Antarctica.

"It can be very nerve-wracking for a plumber down there who maybe has a fault on something that he can't quite trace or predict how it's going to behave," he adds.

So far from civilisation, Mark found that the marking of special occasions takes on an extra ritual significance. One of the most important days in the Antarctic calendar comes when the sun disappears for 108 days, and the Union flag is duly lowered at the BAS bases.

For Mark, though, the most emotional was, unexpectedly, Burns Night. In his Bristolian tones, he read to his fellow revellers the Scottish bard's poem The Gowden Locks of Anna - with his wife, of the same name, in mind.

It was an event he recounted to Anna in one of his many e-mails home.

"She said she read it and had a tear in her eye," he says. "The e-mail contact is really precious.

"I'm not missing home - I'm missing my wife, Jake and my mum. You miss people more than you miss places, I think. This is a wonderful place to be. I'll see trees and stuff when I get back."

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