April 26, 2016

I found out that there was a newspaper at the South Pole during my senior year of college. I went back to my dorm room and immediately applied for a job there.

I didn’t get the gig — they suggested I reapply once I had some more science clips under my belt — and then life got in the way. But I’ve been obsessed with news at the South Pole ever since.

The newspaper at the South Pole is called the Antarctic Sun, and it’s had as many as three full-time staff members over the years. Like many publications in our industry, it has transitioned from a daily print newspaper to a weekly print newspaper to its currently online-only incarnation.

The paper boasts a somewhat captive audience: people who live at the South Pole for the winter season — aka now — are stuck there until the weather warms up enough for airplanes to fly in without fear of their fuel freezing. (It’s other audience largely consists of people like me who are interested in what goes on at the South Pole.)

There have been features written about the Antarctic Sun staff over the years: a first-person account from editor Emily Stone, a Hairpin interview with former editor Peter Rejcek, and a nice feature on how the paper is published — but I couldn’t find any accounts of what it’s like to live in Antarctica as a scientist and rely on the Sun (and other news sources) for your daily news.

That’s when I found Christine Corbett Moran. She’s got a PhD in astrophysics and is currently spending 11 months in Antarctica, where she’s working on the South Pole Telescope and playing electric cello in the South Pole Jazz Octet. She’s also writing a newsletter and maintains a Twitter feed to update everyone back home on what she’s up to.

I’ll give you a little glimpse of Moran’s world: Imagine spending months at a time with your coworkers in a place where temperatures can dip to 100 below zero and where sunlight is non-existent for six months out of the year.

That seems like an environment where someone could go crazy, but Moran’s newsletter makes her seem really normal. She does her work, completes various trainings and even participates in a variety of social activities with others who are “wintering over” at the Pole. I was curious about all of those things, but especially how Moran keeps up with news from the rest of the world.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of our interview. I emailed the questions to Moran, and she replied by recording her answers because her access to the internet is limited. (She responded on the day that Prince died, and yes, like the rest of the world, the folks at the South Pole both found out and then collectively played his music….)

I’ve really enjoyed your newsletter about life at the South Pole. How did you get there and what are you doing there?

I had a friend in undergraduate that came down to Antarctica a few times and I thought about going to the South Pole when I saw his many pictures and videos. I then became interested in coming down as a scientist but never really had the opportunity. In the last couple of years, I graduated with my PhD and started to think about what to do next, and put my name in the hat for one of the scientific jobs down here. I didn’t get it that year, which I consider lucky.

I then interned at SpaceX and got a fantastic postdoc fellowship instead and made the contacts that led me to hear about jobs related to another experiment called the South Pole Telescope, and started to communicate with the collaboration [of scientists working on that experiment.] I ended up getting a job with them.

My job over the winter is to help to run the South Pole Telescope as it collects data over the winter season. When planes can’t come in and out, they need people on site to monitor everything when things go wrong and to do local analysis and outreach. So that’s what I’m up to here.

How do you get your news at the South Pole? Do you still follow local news from back home? Are there newspapers there?

There is a Antarctic newspaper called the Antarctic Sun, which is updated at least once a month and is sent out to at least all of the American bases on the continent. There is actually someone here who writes for the Antarctic Sun. There’s also print-outs of older newspapers.

Mostly how I get my news is through my fiancé who I talk to everyday and who uploads some articles of interest to me, and a lot of us get our news through the Times Digest, which is a summary of the New York Times that we have a subscription to. It’s quite short — it’s just a few pages — so people print it out and leave it around the galley, which is our cafeteria. So you can just browse the newspaper. That gives me a lot of basic information that I might not see through my other filters.

Have you found that your relationship with the news has changed, particularly since you’re wintering over?

I do find my relationship with the news has changed. I keep in much less of an active contact with the news down here. A lot of it won’t necessarily affect me for a while or is really ephemeral and even when the news does make it down here, you’re like “Well, do I really need to hear about this obscure misstep by that obscure politician down here at the South Pole?”

I have been enjoying being here during the election season. The primary campaign is just so, so, so long, and I remember when I was at Caltech [where I was before the South Pole], and every day when I would go to get coffee, there was CNN everywhere and Trump’s face everywhere etc. You really don’t see advertisements or too much in-your-face news down here. It’s really up for the taking when you want it.

So what news stories are people following at the South Pole?

I think a lot of people follow news about deaths of celebrities, some politics of course down here, and people do talk about various interesting news stories down here. We get much less pop culture, so for instance today [April 22, which is April 21 back in the U.S.] you could tell that people had heard that Prince died shortly after our internet came up. We only have so many hours of Internet a day, and you could hear people were kind of playing Prince around the [South Pole] station. So there are those kinds of life events that people follow, but I think a lot of people get their news from that Times digest.

You write a monthly newsletter about your experiences at the Pole. I’m curious about how you decide what to include — it’s written like a human interest piece and I really enjoy it.

I try to take a few photos every day, partially to exchange with my friends and family but also because there’s a lot of beautiful, interesting things happening down here. I keep a daily diary and when I go to write my newsletter, I try to go through that diary in addition to the photos I’ve taken in the past month and try to select things that have maybe more of a wide interest [that would appeal to more] than just my close friends or family’s interests.

Let’s get back to that news organization based at the South Pole — the Antarctic Sun. It looks like they winter over because they’re still publishing articles. Can anyone at the Pole submit articles? How does that process work?

I’m not sure exactly how that process works. I know that someone on-site here is a volunteer to write for the Antarctic Sun, and I think he submits an article at least once a month. I’m sure if I talked to the right people, I would have — or anyone else might have — the opportunity to submit an article, but I know it is his particular volunteer job to do that.

How do the scientists and staffers at the Pole disseminate what they’re doing to the rest of the world?

So the scientists write a monthly report indicating all of their activities scientifically for the last month and they disseminate that to the National Science Foundation and then of course, all of the scientific data as its analyzed is put in a format that will be published and shared with other scientists around the world as well as with, eventually, if it’s written up in a popular science form, in articles and press releases for the general public. A lot of the research here is oriented towards climate science, especially in the summer where they tend to drill a lot of ice cores investigating climate. In addition, there’s always a meteorology presence here. A lot of the climate science here might be more quickly disseminated to the public as global warming is a hot topic — pun intended.

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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