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Seals on ice by sea

Bottom of the World, Part 2 {format} {format} 7:45 Scott Carrier

Six months of Antarctic winter darkness.

Broadcast: Jun 21 2005 on NPR Day to DaySeries: Antarctica Subjects: Acoustic, Technology, Science, Labor, Travel

Profile: Penelope Chilton's experience at a scientific base in Antarctica

June 21, 2005 from Day to Day

ALEX CHADWICK, host: This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Today, the sun reaches its northernmost position of the year. We call this the summer solstice, the longest day. Below the equator, though, it's winter, and at the very bottom of the world, the solstice marks the middle of a very long night, six months of darkness. Yesterday, writer Scott Carrier introduced us to Penelope Chilton, a woman from Utah who spent a year working as a janitor at McMurdo Station. That's the US research center in Antarctica. Penelope says that during the unending night, the darkness does strange things to people.

Ms. PENELOPE CHILTON: Because I was just--everything around me felt so slow in my brain. So my brain had ceased to work.

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CHADWICK: Now with the conclusion of Penelope Chilton's Antarctica story, here's Scott Carrier.

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SCOTT CARRIER reporting:

There's this thing that happens to people who spend the winter in Antarctica, a hormonal imbalance called T3 syndrome. Some researchers think it's caused by the lack of light. Others think it's the prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. This symptoms are forgetfulness, lack of focus, anger, irritability and depression. Some people get it; some people don't. Penny got it.

Ms. CHILTON: The darkness itself didn't bother me, but, God, I wanted fresh food so badly and I became so slow and so stupid. Oh, I just--sometimes I couldn't think and I could never remember anything that I needed to remember and I could sit and stare at a blank space for hours and be wholly entertained because I was just--everything around me just felt so slow in my brain. So it was--my brain had ceased to work.

CARRIER: It's a scenario for a science-fiction movie with a bad ending: 200 people living in what is essentially a space station. Outside, the natural elements are nothing less than hostile. Inside, it's the same people every hour of every day, but then there are no days because there is no sun. And at least some of the people are slowly going crazy. There could be monsters and demons, but it didn't turn out that way. Penny learned to manage by making close friends.

Ms. CHILTON: My friend under the name Mombak(ph) set up a game where we all became assassins, and the idea was that everybody involved, you would receive a name and you would assassinate them and the assassination had to be real enough that it actually had to be played out. If you stabbed somebody, you had to stab them with a fake knife, and if you had a bomb, you had to have a pretty realistic-looking bomb and instructions how to defuse it. Like, there was some elaborate rules to this game, and so it got to the point in the beginning of winter where you locked your door even if you didn't need to lock your door. You locked your door because--and you watched over your shoulder for fear that you could be assassinated at any moment. A friend of mine was assassinated while playing cards in the coffeehouse. A masked person came in and stabbed him to death in the coffeehouse, and it was exciting and it was fun and I looked forward to every day of trying to figure out how I was going to kill my person, waiting for my opportunity. And I knew at that moment that winter was just filled with good times.

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CARRIER: Plus, she still got to go outside, not for very long and never very far away from the station, but it was a way to reconnect and get grounded.

Ms. CHILTON: I loved that. I loved to walk outside in the middle of the afternoon and see stars, just a sky filled with stars, and I loved watching the moon circle McMurdo. And it was when the moon was dipping for half of the month and you couldn't see the moon, there was Mars and Mars was so beautiful and just--oh, it was incredibly bright and red and exciting to see.

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Ms. CHILTON: It was the year that, you know, Mars and Earth were close together as they'd been in, like, 50,000 years or something like that, and it was very bright. It was the second brightest thing in the sky. On the worst days, I could walk out in the middle of the winter and look up and see Mars at its brightest and be so happy and feel almost as if Mars was shining bright just for me and it was--we were in it together 'cause you knew you had the best view of it, better than anybody.

CARRIER: The worst part of the whole year for Penny came at the end of the winter. By the end of September, the sun is back up circling just barely above the horizon and the planes start coming in, bringing back the scientists and the extra support staff. In a few weeks, the population goes from 200 to more than a thousand, and these new people, for Penny, were too much to handle.

Ms. CHILTON: Well, you have developed these habits and you've become rather complacent in your habits and you know what to expect every day 'cause there's not a lot of change in McMurdo and you know when you're going through the food line, you know that when you look up, you're going to know that person across from you and you can expect that and that never changes. And when that first flight comes in, there you are in the food line and you look up and you're staring at this person you've never seen before and it's terrifying. It scared the hell out of me. I could only focus on one person at a time, and I wouldn't understand what they were saying and I couldn't comprehend the conversation and it felt very embarrassing and it made me mad at them. I was less upset with myself for not being able to understand them. I was mad at them for invading my space and trying to make me understand them.

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CARRIER: Penny caught a plane out of McMurdo in September, a year after she'd arrived. She flew to New Zealand, then to Hawaii, but not back to Salt Lake City. She had left Salt Lake in order to change her life, and while she was in Antarctica, she realized she wanted to go back to school and study marine biology, and that's what she's doing now in Seattle. A couple months ago, I asked her if she misses her year in McMurdo.

Ms. CHILTON: I do. I do. I miss the light and I miss the quiet and I miss that cold chilling feeling when you breathe in that freezes your lungs and it feels so fresh and crisp and it wakes you up as soon as you inhale, and I miss that feeling. I'm very happy to be where I am right now and I'm glad to be on the road that I'm on, but I definitely feel a connection, and I guess that's why people keep going back no matter how much they hate it 'cause in Antarctica if you say never, you'll be back the next year for sure.

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CHADWICK: Penelope Chilton and helping tell her story, writer and producer Scott Carrier. He's part of the radio group You can hear all of Penelope Chilton's Antarctica story at our Web site; that's

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CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.