A long-time Petersburg doctor is now living and working in Antarctica. Dr. John Bergren, 50, is currently serving as the Lead Physician at McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
Bergren is one of only 160 residents who will stay in McMurdo over the winter months, which runs from early February thru mid-October. Bergren arrived at the beginning of winter, when the population was about 1,000, he said.
“There were some exciting moments for the medical staff about two weeks prior to our arrival,” Bergren said. “A Korean fishing vessel operating in the Ross Sea caught on fire. The nearby U.S. research vessel MV Palmer came to their aid, evacuating six of their crew to the ice edge about 15 miles from here where they were helicoptered to McMurdo, stabilized, then transported via C17 flight crews to Christchurch. Three of the fishermen died. The other evacuees have done well.”
If McMurdo Station sounds familiar, it's probably because it is frequently mentioned in the 1982 science fiction/horror film, John Carpenter's ‘The Thing.’
“The environment is so austere that, even though I'd been to Antarctica before, it is startling none the less. To have no plants – nothing is green – is a little shocking to just step into,” he said.
However McMurdo, which posts below-freezing temperatures year-round, is considered the best place out of which to stage research since it provides a reasonably protected navigable harbor that is closest to the interior of the continent, Bergren said.
The station is located just south of New Zealand by about 2,500 miles. Christchurch is the primary staging area for the U.S. Antarctic program.
“We are about 850 miles north of the South Pole. The other two research stations are considerably smaller: Palmer station on Anvers Island along the Antarctic peninsula (south of Cape Horn in South America) and South Pole station,” Bergren said.
According to Bergren, the brave souls who stay throughout the winter months include those who provide a number of essential functions to maintain the unique equipment on station.
“Everything from heavy equipment operators to people who man the power plant and water treatment (our water is generated from seawater via reverse osmosis), the galley, the research labs, supply management, and field operators who specialize in laying paths or developing runways on the snow and over sea ice,” said Bergren.
Demographically, the population is about 3:1 male to female with a median age of about 45, which is older than he anticipated, he said. “The extensive medical screening required for deployment (winter especially) ensures a generally healthy group of people,” Bergren said.
The site was developed in the late 1950s and it includes a bar and a coffee shop, which is an old, converted quonset hut. Everyone lives in dormitories and share a common galley, Bergren said.
“Workweeks are six days, Monday thru Saturday, 9 hours a day. There is a church on station, a small general store with movie rental and a recreation coordinator that keeps a number of options open for activities indoor and out. I was surprised that there is access to television via AFN or Air Force Network,” he said.
For Bergren, this has been a personal and professional goal. “I traveled to Antarctica a couple of times about 10-12 years ago, working as a ship's doctor aboard an expedition-style cruise ship called the MS Explorer,” he said. “Those trips with my family, traveling across the Drake Passage and visiting the remarkable wildlife, seascapes and landscapes of Antarctic Peninsula were captivating. The ice alone had me hooked. We visited Palmer Station and talked to the staff there and I guess that was when I first entertained the idea of spending a season working down here someday.”
Life in Petersburg helped pave the way for this opportunity, he said. “Living and working in a small community, in a relatively isolated place at high latitude presents many of the same challenges. Like Petersburg, McMurdo is a small community of people highly reliant on one another for their well being. Living in rural Alaska also prepares one well for wearing many hats, as is the case here. I suppose that's why there are so many people from Alaska here, including our station manager.
“One can't help but be impressed by the sheer effort that goes into this scientific endeavor. It is inspiring to stop and think about all the resources being brought to bear – the equipment, the personnel and the risks taken – all in the interest of human curiosity. It's safe to say that for most people who come here, regardless of their job, the work is inherently ennobling.
Please extend my warmest regards to the community, especially my neighbors and all the staff at the medical center,” he said.