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The longest night

Stijn Thoolen has been selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) to conduct research at Concordia, Antarctica from November 2019 up to and including the beginning of 2021. We occasionally receive an update from Stijn about his findings on this small, isolated part of the world. Today the seventh piece, where he tells us about the longest night at Concordia station.

Concordia, July 10, 2020
Sunlight: none
Windchill temperature: -84°C
Mood: still OK

The Antarctic winter solstice is special. As the Earth’s south pole is maximally tilted away from the Sun and the longest night falls over the southern hemisphere, people everywhere and since prehistoric times gather in tradition to celebrate the change of season and welcome the return of sunlight. But for a bunch of lost scientists and technicians on the Antarctic continent, that longest night lasts much longer. They won’t see any Sun for another one-and-a-half months. For them, mid-winter marks not just the gradual return of daylight, but much more so the midpoint of an extraordinary nine-month winterover adventure.

So it is an important moment. A time for celebration and for reflection (or perhaps just celebration…). To me it looks a little like Christmas, or New Year’s Eve, but with a twist perhaps (we are winteroverers, after all). Presents, dinners, parties, and (digital) mid-winter greetings from all the other Antarctic stations, kindly inviting us to come over to celebrate together. ‘The door is always open’, ‘generous parking space for motor vehicles and sledges’, ‘plenty of accommodation with ice sea vistas’, ‘bring your sleeping bag’, ‘COVID-19 free’. Anyway, you get the much-needed humor.

Our response. With -80 degrees Celsius windchill we didn’t get any further than several meters from the station. Credits: IPEV/PNRA – S. Guesnier

At first I wondered: being here only for about half a year now, how can such a completely new thing already hold such importance to people? No ritual, no guidelines, no one really knowing how to celebrate it, and yet the expectations are high in our crew, and the ideas plentiful. But looking back I have to admit: mid-winter is a beautiful tradition, even though never celebrated before…

While hints of daylight can be spotted on the horizon around noon, there won’t be any sun for another one-and-a-half month. Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–S. Thoolen

Winter can be harsh, without sunlight, far away from home, and with the same twelve people, for such a long time. And even in such an interesting and beautiful place, also I have recognized a few moments of disappointment. I guess, with all those different backgrounds and being the only Dutch around, it is not always easy to feel understood. Or perhaps it is just me who is getting a little less tolerant, in higher need for emotional support. And while that doesn’t make life always easy here, I recently read a beautiful sentence:

‘Do not worry that others don’t understand you. Rather worry that you don’t understand others.’

Can we still bring up that flexibility to try to understand each other, in a world where we are tempted to blame our problems on all but ourselves? On the ethical playground of Concordia, where walking away is out of the question and a lack of group cohesion can have direct consequences to our own wellbeing, I like to believe it is essential. And wasn’t this exactly what I was here for? To learn to become a better person?

Music: Yannick – Ces Soirées-là clip officiel

With such thoughts in the back of my mind and realizing we still have another half to go, mid-winter then becomes the perfect excuse to work a little on ourselves. To do an extra effort for each other, give rather than ask, and just share some fun. To collaborate in a positive way to get closer as a group, building that tolerance for each other again, and making us all a little more willing to see the best in each other. And as such, music went back on loud again, and we went to work…

Concordia can be anything we want it to be. A mountain cabin for example… Credits: IPEV/PNRA – S. Guesnier
For this very special occasion, Celas is surprising us with very special chips from home. Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–S. Thoolen

Brazilian night complete with exotic travel stories (you can imagine how popular these become here) and table soccer tournament, quiz night, cheesy fatty Alpine dinner, ‘kermesse’ games event including prizes to win, a spa (our hospital doctor decided that we could give the hospital a better use for the winter months), the first Antarctic championship of the traditional Italian game ‘Ruzzolone’ (Google it, and let your imagination do the rest), and, for once this year, an opportunity to actually go out for dinner (we eat in the same room all year long) in our ‘McDome’ fast-food restaurant (you may know it better as the astronomy shelter…). Ordered by radio and served upon arrival. Burgers, chips, milkshakes, and amazing reactions from the rest of the crew: everything a deprived winteroverer needs!

Perhaps we are less deprived than we may sometimes think. Each star is another sun…Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–S. Thoolen

Mid-winter was great! Each of us participated to organize some of the festivities, and it kept us busy for sure. We celebrated five days full of the most ridiculous activities, and we were all exhausted afterwards. I guess that all these efforts may seem trivial back home, and the details may not look like much from the outside, but here I feel it is pretty important to us. These ridiculous activities bring variety, make us smile, and get us fueled up for another four-and-a-half month together. These will become the memories that we take home after a year on ice, and I think that makes mid-winter worth all the effort!

It makes me wonder how I will feel after a yearlong of practicing the much-needed tolerance and social consciousness here in Concordia: do we put the same amount of effort in each other at home?

Welcome to McDome! How can we help you today? Credits: IPEV/PNRA – L. Faraldi