Working in the remote, icy extremes of Antarctica for months at a time must take a toll. American scientists posted to bases at McMurdo Station and the South Pole apparently might be coping by having a few too many drinks, according to a report from the National Science Foundation.
The report was part of a health and safety audit of all American bases in the Antarctic by the Office of the Inspector General. It found that staff drinking too much alcohol on the bases "can create unpredictable behavior that has led to fights, indecent exposure, and employees arriving to work under the influence."
But, the report says, breathalyzers are rarely used to check if researchers are too drunk to be fit for work. And while they couldn't determine how frequently staff drink too much, "The limited information available about misconduct incidents demonstrated that alcohol abuse does occur in the USAP [United States Antarctic Program]."
One of the solutions the group suggests is to ship hundreds of breathalyzer units and make it mandatory for them to be used more often. But that's tricky legal territory: the U.S. does not technically own any part of Antarctica, although the government runs its research bases there. The report suggests that the government should look into whether or not it would be legal to require breathalyzers—and who would actually oversee that program on the ground, if it is legal. The test kits could also malfunction because of the high altitude of the South Pole base.
“Alcohol-related misconduct is not disproportionately represented at the Antarctic stations,” USAP/NSF spokesman Peter West told Wired in a statement. But even if drinking problems are just on par with what you might find in a regular work place, the isolation and the fact that researchers are working and living in the same environment make it a more difficult issue to tackle.
Other countries have different policies about alcohol on their Antarctic bases, according to the Telegraph, with the British bases having specific rules in place about when staff are allowed to drink.
While the report makes it clear that misconduct as a result of alcohol abuse is something the NSF wants to get better at tracking and minimizing on the bases, the group also says that the separation between researchers and contract workers who maintain the bases in Antarctica is perhaps an even bigger problem, creating two very separate communities who feel they are held to different standards.