McMurdo Station, one of three research stations operated by the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) and the largest on the continent, sits on the volcanic rock of Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island. Needless to say, it’s cold—it averages an annual temperature of zero degrees Fahrenheit, with 24-hours a day of sunshine or darkness, depending on the season.
Not everyone would consider hospitality work in the Antarctic to be a dream job, but Karen Duey, who earned her associate degree from Johnson & Wales University in 1995 and is now working towards her bachelor’s through the JWU College of Online Education, had been determined to get to the southernmost continent since she was 18-years-old. Her goal finally became a reality in 2013 when she became a chef at the station. She spoke with SkiftX about the unique challenges that come with feeding a staff in such a barren location.
According to the Antarctic Treaty signed into effect in 1959, nothing originating from the continent can be consumed—so no fishing, no hunting for seals or any other wildlife, and no foraging—not that anything can grow in such extreme conditions. This, combined with the fact that shipping to such a remote area can be incredibly challenging, means that McMurdo’s inhabitants, who total about one thousand in summer, and 150 in winter (and who must pass stringent physical, dental, and psychological evaluations), rely fully on deliveries and are limited in what they can eat.
As Duey explained, “Once a year during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer season—usually around the last two weeks in January—a vessel from Port Hueneme, CA, delivers enough food for the entire year, consisting of both dried and frozen food.” According to an article published by Food Quality and Safety in its August/September 2017 issue, the 2016 shipment included more than 800 crates of food weighing 800 pounds per crate, totaling close to one million pounds, including 640,000 pounds of frozen food. “The vessel also delivers supplies and equipment, and removes our trash and unused or broken equipment,” Duey said.
Duey went on to describe how the station receives its fresh food—a luxurious commodity in Antarctica. “During the summer, we receive fresh food called ‘freshies’ on planes from Christchurch, New Zealand, with dairy, fresh fruit and vegetables, and eggs. If the weather is good and the planes come on time, we’ll usually receive an order once a week, though sometimes it will be delayed or cancelled. During December and January, we usually don’t get fresh food unless there’s a little extra room on the plane—and of course, in the food budget as well.” Because the station is always stocked with sufficient food supplies, whether fresh or not, any passengers or needs related to science and research take precedence over food when there’s any extra room on the planes carrying shipments to the station.
Antarctica’s environment is extremely sensitive, so disposal of waste is carefully regulated as well. “There’s a matrix we must follow when disposing of trash, which is vital to keeping everything in check,” Duey explained. “Food waste must be double-bagged and can’t be mixed with any other garbage. We have some items that are strictly for landfill—they can’t be recycled and there must not be any food in them. So much importation means that we must monitor if any insects or other outside species arrive in the food that could contaminate the environment as well. If we do find anything, the environmental department is called so they can log this information and appropriately dispose of it.”
A recent episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown featured McMurdo Station and the crew who has made it their home. As Bourdain described, “There is a curiosity in everyone who comes here. It’s a continent of travels, of seekers, united in the continuation of exploration, learning, the search for greater understanding, the pursuit of pure knowledge.”
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