The Boring Details of Life at McMurdo Station

Many of my readers (haha – I have readers) have asked what my living arrangements and day-to-day life at McMurdo Station are like. Life here is pretty good, although I have heard the easiest way to explain it is to have someone watch the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. Over and over.

So here begins the first of a multipart series on daily life in McMurdo Station.

I live in a dormitory with a roommate. During the summer season, when up to 1,100 people are here, nearly everyone has a roommate with the exception of some higher level staff. Currently, there are 980 people on station; peak population is in December and January when the most scientists and support staff are here. During the winter, there are only around 250 people, so they can spread out and have their own rooms.

Building 201; my dorm

Building 201; my dorm

Most people here for the first time live in Building 155 which is the main dorm and galley building. It also houses laundry (linens and such, not personal), the library and one of the three gyms on station. However, the Fire Department has its own dorm building, so I live in that dorm, Building 201. The dorm room itself is pretty small. We’ve got bunk beds, and we each get a wordrobe with drawers to keep our clothes. There is also a desk, couch (more like a loveseat), table, small refrigerator and small TV. My roommmate has been here before so he has the place pretty well set up. He’s got an external disk drive that connects directly to the TV. On the drive are over 100 movies and many TV shows (all 20 seasons of The Simpsons, Band of Brothers, etc.). He’s also got a DVD player, VCR and Play Station. All of this is run through a projector which is shown on a sheet covering the window. So we watch movies and TV on a six-foot screen. Not a bad arrangement. As for “local” TV, we get a few channels here that are run by the station staff: weather, flight information and 2 channels of station information such as times various offices are open, menus, recreation schedules, etc. There are two movie channels and we get sports and news broadcasts for US military overseas.

Our spacious living quarters

Our spacious living quarters

The temperature in the dorms is surprisingly pleasant. Most people walk around in t-shirts. The buildings are heated with a glycol system. Waste heat from the generators at the power plant is used to heat glycol which is piped to the various buildings. This is similar to a hot water or steam heat system in a house, except on a larger scale. And with glycol. The thermostat in the dorm rooms can be fussy. If you turn it too far down, the system simply bypasses the thermostat, but instead of getting too cold, it gets too hot.

My roommate and I work different schedules so usually, the only time we are in the room bumping into each other is before work, evenings and some Sundays.

There are washers and dryers in the dorms and laundry detergent is provided at no cost. If you don’t like what they provide, you can buy a couple of name brands in the station store in Building 155.

Laundry room

Laundry room

Bathrooms and showers are down the hall. I’m on the second floor, which is mostly men, so instead of a men’s and women’s room, we’ve got two men’s rooms. Downstairs is a lounge with a bigger TV, Play Station, Wii, pool table and the like. I presume there is a women’s room down there too although I haven’t looked.

This gender confused bathroom was once the women's room.

This gender confused bathroom was once the women's room.

Downstairs in the entryway are the recycling bins. Recycling is taken very seriously here, not only because it makes sense, but because everything has to be shipped off the continent anyway. By sorting it at the beginning, it is easier to deal with. Some items can be reused on station and others can be recycled, while some, such as food items, need to be seperated so they can be handled properly so as not to rot. It can be months or years before some of the waste here makes it to a landfill off continent. More on the recycling efforts here will follow in a future post.

Recycling is very important in Antarctica. It will be covered in a future post.

Recycling is very important in Antarctica. It will be covered in a future post.

Next in the Life in McMurdo series: The Food, and the Lure of Frosty Boy.

19 comments to The Boring Details of Life at McMurdo Station

  • johncarpenter

    Home is where the lava lamp is!

  • Kristen Kessel Ellison

    I’m having flashbacks to freshman year at college. Very much appreciated! ;-)

    Are you on the top or bottom bunk? I, being 5’2″, was never assigned the top bunk because of all the ruckus I caused ‘attempting’ to climb up, and the big thump every time I jumped down. Not fun for anyone at 4 AM.

    Is the air very dry in the dorm, or do they have some humidifiers hooked up to the heating system? I always remember it being very dry in shared buildings like my dorms and garden apartments of yesteryear. I assume humidity is low in general in Antarctica though…

  • Sue Frost

    Thank you so much for these very interesting details. It helps complete the picture of daily life. I also found the sunset information fascinating – tell us more about that. Is it weird to have it light all the time? Does your body eventually learn to listen to itself and not external cues? And, as you might imagine, I am waiting impatiently to hear about The Lure of Frosty Boy. Take care, Scott. You are missed at Station 40.

  • Noreen Kessel

    I was surprised to see some color on the ground outside your dorm. Color; not sure that’s what to call it, but it’not white. The whole scenario does remind me of Kristen’s dorm freshman year; only yours is much smaller. If I didn’t see the pix I wouldn’t believe the size of it, and two of you? Thank God for different shifts. Don’t turn too fast! WOW!

  • ChuckP

    Love the bathroom sign-

    “This restroom has been struggling with its gender identity, and has decided to become male.”


  • Kristen Kessel Ellison

    Is glycol the same thing as anti freeze?

  • Scott

    @ Kristen: Top bunk. I’m the new guy so I try to be accommodating. There is no ladder. It is very dry here, including the dorm rooms. Towels and sweaty socks dry incredibly fast.

    Yes, glycol (ethylene glycol) is antifreeze. It is most effective at a ratio of 70% (by weight) glycol and 30% water. This mixture has a freezing point of -60°F. Interestingly, as the percentage of glycol increases beyond 70%, the freezing point increases. 100% ethylene glycol freezes at 9°F. This is why straight glycol is not used for antifreeze; it must be mixed with water. At 70% glycol, the mixture has a boiling point of 240°F, the better to transfer heat.

    @ Sue Frost: It’s funny glancing at your watch while standing in bright sunlight and seeing it is after midnight, but it doesn’t really interfere with sleep. The dorm room has an insulating blanket covering the window which blocks out light, so yeah, the body listens to itself and sleeps when sleepy. If you were to watch the sun, it will appear to spiral higher and higher in the sky until the summer solstice in December when it will be at its highest in the sky. From there it will spiral back down toward the horizon, ultimately setting on Feb. 20, 2010.

  • Thelma

    Okay now you got me thinking of Alaska when we go in the summer. It is light most of the time and only grows dim around 2 in the a.m. and then starts back to light again. I never had trouble sleeping although I generally got to bed late because 1 a.m. didn’t seem like that time at all.
    Also here goes – recycling – what about the water from the showers, washing machine and the commode. What do they do with this?
    Thanks for all the other information. You make us seem to be BUT we are comfortably sitting in a warm place with lots of stores, etc.
    God Bless.

  • Matt V

    Which way does the water go when you flush the toilet?

  • Scott

    @ Matt V: Straight down.

  • kelly

    HI Scott,
    My boyfriend leaves in a matter of days to winter over at the fire department. He has never been to Antarctica and I am wondering what he may need to make live more enjoyable that’s not in the Raytheon Packet. Also, any other insider tips. Any ideas are greatly appreciated! Kelly

  • Scott

    Hi Kelly!
    You might want to remind your boyfriend to bring a calling card to be able to call you. I should have spoken to my wife more while I was there. Email is great, but hearing each others’ voices is better.
    I liked having little things to keep me busy like a hand held video game (like a Nintendo DS – thanks mom!) and Sudoku and other puzzle books. I spent a lot of time in the McMurdo library, so if your boyfriend likes to read, that’s a great way to pass the time.
    Make sure he brings an mp3 player with his favorite music and a camera with rechargeable batteries. I probably changed the batteries in my camera ten or twelve times so the rechargeables paid for themselves and didn’t contribute any waste.
    Lip balm is good to have. :)
    While winterovers get their own dorm room so it may not be a problem, having a sleeping mask and earplugs helped me to sleep. I’m not sure what the sleeping arrangements will be with the smaller staff he’ll be working with, but it won’t hurt to have them. I also used a small head lamp to read in bed. It kept me from having to get out of bed to shut off the light in the room.
    The people there are good folks and there is almost always something to do. If your boyfriend has any questions or needs anything, have him talk to John Cassidy. He’ll be in charge of the FD over the winter. John and I were room mates over the summer of ’09-’10; he’s a good guy.
    Above all, remind him to keep an open mind. Things aren’t always what they seem and don’t always go as planned.

  • leo

    Hi Scott, do you ever play with the penguins or do you watch them?

  • Dawn

    Did/does anybody there have full time jobs back home in the US? How long are most contracts?

  • Ben Locker

    What are the female and men percentages?

  • Ray R

    Hello: First Deployment for me 8/2015. anything you want to bust my balls about ?

    Ready to go back to primitive back packing mode ,should I bring a extra socks LOL

  • Donna H. Abbott

    These is fascinating. Thanks for sharing. Would love to visit, doubt that will happen.

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  • Peggy Farley

    I have been read up on this when some one work there and they won’t to come home do they have to pay for tickets to come home on the plane if they have a contract

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