Each month we take the opportunity to sit down with some wonderful women and ask them questions on life, fashion, their careers and what inspires them. A moment to listen and learn, over an aperitif, and an occasional boujee fry...
This month we had the unique and extremely exciting opportunity to talk with Catherine Kircher, a Field Support at Scott Base, Antarctica! Catherine started her second season wintering in Antarctica as Field Support in February 2022.
Her role is to maintain and prep equipment for field camps for the upcoming science season, lead the winter Search and Rescue team and their training, and establish routes on the sea ice for the upcoming summer. Whilst on base Catherine enjoys long walks in the dark and is honing her skills taking photos of Aurora and amazing wildlife...
Location: Somewhere in Scott base – Antarctica
NOT NEW: Tell us about your role as Field Support at Scott Base – what is the purpose of your role and what does a typical day look like for you down there?
Catherine: My role is to prepare field camp equipment for the upcoming summer season, and also to provide field safety over the winter. Over the winter I have to check through all the field camp equipment to ensure it is in good condition ready for the summer, so on any given day I may be checking a stove, repairing a tent, or replacing food in a survival bag. I also oversee field safety over winter so as part of that one day a week I plan and deliver training for our winter Search and Rescue team. Another thing I am responsible for is the walking tracks and routes we drive, so I am often out walking or driving to check the conditions and route markers. Over the coming months as the sea ice starts to become thick enough to travel on I will be going on to the sea ice a couple of times a week to check the thickness of it and where the cracks are, to establish safe routes to travel on it.
NOT NEW: How many people are in the winter crew at Scott Base and how do you maintain healthy interactions with each other in such an isolated environment?
Catherine: This winter there are 16 people at Scott Base. Twelve of us are the winter base staff, who are here primarily to keep the base running over winter and to prepare all the equipment for the upcoming summer. The other four people this winter are working for the Antarctic Heritage Trust doing conservation work on items from the historic huts in the area. A big part of maintaining healthy interactions with such a small group of people whom are all working and living together is open communication. There are many challenges to living in such a remote and harsh environment and we all have tough days. But if you talk to people about what you are finding challenging, be it something that is going on for you or an interaction you are finding challenging, it stops little things becoming bigger issues. And remembering to have fun!
NOT NEW: What is it about winter on the frozen continent that brings you back for a second season?
Catherine: I love the extremes and challenges of it. There are the social challenges of living and working with a small group of people in an extremely remote environment. But you become really close to an amazing and diverse group of people. And the environment is like no other. You can have a completely calm day with a sky full of aurora and stars, or be in the middle of a storm in whiteout conditions and 100km winds. But fundamentally I love that I get to experience an incredibly unique and special environment and contribute in some way to the very important work that scientists do down here.
NOT NEW: Tell us about the unique challenges you face wintering in Antarctica?
Catherine: There are no flights for 5 months over winter – so there is no out and no fresh food! It is completely dark for about 6 weeks during June and July, and the sun is below the horizon from mid April until mid August, so your brain can get affected by the lack of vitamin D and become pretty slow at times. The environment both outside and inside is extremely dry and this can cause all sorts of issues such as with your skin or sleep. Because it is cold and dark outside it can sometimes take quite a lot of motivation to go outside, plus we are lucky in that all our living and working spaces are interconnected, so it is not unusual for someone to find they haven’t set foot outside for several days.
NOT NEW: We understand packing for Antarctica has its limitations - What is one item you have taken down with you that you simply wouldn’t be without?
Catherine: My camera. It is really hard for people to understand life and the environment down here, and it’s a place that so few get to experience, so by sharing photos it helps people to get a glimpse of Antarctica and what makes it so special. Last winter my camera wasn’t good enough to take photos of the night sky and aurora and it was my biggest regret, so this year I came prepared with a much better camera.
NOT NEW: What message would you like to share with NZ about the importance of Antarctica & the scientific programs which run there?
Catherine: The work that scientists are doing down here is more important now than ever, what with understanding climate change and how it has and can impact the world. Because Antarctica is such a pristine environment changes can be picked up earlier than other places. These changes, to climate and wildlife, are incredibly important to understand so that we know what damage we are doing and how to minimise it. Changes to the environment and wildlife down here can and will affect weather and ecosystems throughout the world. The more we understand the better we can protect not just Antarctica but the world.
NOT NEW: Do you ever have an occasion to dress up down there and what does that entail?
Catherine: Yes – there are many occasions to dress up! There are a few formal occasions like mid winters dinner so that is a chance to put on a dress and some makeup. There are also lots of theme parties so that is a chance to get out of your normal clothes and have a bit of fun. Just last weekend we had a party where a whole lot of us dressed up as bees (complete with wings, antenna, and yellow eyeshadow), a few weekends before that I was dressed up in 80’s attire.
NOT NEW: Tell us the story of your favourite piece of clothing down there:
Catherine: It would have to be my green and blue pompom beanie. I was given advice before my first winter that it is good to have your own beanie. We are issued lots of great warm clothing but it does mean we all look the same when we are dressed for being outside. Having your own beanie makes it easier to recognise people whilst you’re out and about, and in photos too. I also love my earrings. Most of them were given to me by friends and family over the years so wearing them reminds me of people back home. It is also a way I can feel feminine when I need to wear very practical boots, canvas trousers and fleece tops for work.
NOT NEW: Thank you Catherine!
If you would like to know more about the important work that goes on in Scott Base and take a virtual tour, visit here.