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Group of people with photo or aurora above.
Photo Courtesy: Weeks Heist
The South Pole Station Midwinter Day greeting sent to dozens of other winterover crews in Antarctica. Midwinter Day marks the halfway point through Antarctica's cold and dark season. The day is marked with a feast and other activities.

Midwinter Day 2013

U.S. research stations observe unique Antarctic holiday

Spending a winter in Antarctica is often compared to a marathon — slow and steady wins the race back to summer and sunlight.

Scientists and support personnel at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s External U.S. government site three research stations crossed the midwinter hump on June 21, 2013. The occasion, known as Midwinter Day, is a tradition unique to the southernmost continent.

Celebrations take place at the stations of many nations that have a presence on the continent. It marks the point when the sun begins its return back south.

It is a tradition that has for more than 50 years has been recognized by the President of the United States.

Dwight D. Eisenhower began the custom of sending an official greeting to the Antarctic stations on Midwinter’s Day. President Barack Obama External U.S. government site continued that tradition this year, with his own message to the international Antarctic community.

“In Antarctica, the drive to study and explore has generated groundbreaking insights into Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and ecosystems, and has shed light on the complex processes determining our climate,” he wrote. “As you conduct your research during harsh winter nights, may your talents continue to make the world better for all of us.”

For McMurdo and South Pole External U.S. government site stations, where 24-hour darkness currently reigns, midwinter hit at 5:04 p.m. Friday. Both stations follow the clock in New Zealand, which is located across the International Date Line. At Palmer Station External U.S. government site, which is farther north off the Antarctic Peninsula and observes Eastern Standard Time, the shortest day of the winter season actually falls on June 20, with three hours, 44 minutes and 39 seconds of daylight.

McMurdo Station during the night.
Photo Courtesy: William Henriksen
Midwinter Day greeting from McMurdo Station.
Palmer Station midwinter greetings.
Photo Courtesy: Bob DeValentino
Midwinter Day greeting from Palmer Station.

The first Midwinter’s Day was celebrated in 1898 by the crew of the Belgica, a Belgian vessel that became stuck in pack ice and was forced to overwinter until it finally broke free in February 1899. Unprepared to spend a winter in Antarctica, many of the crew suffered from scurvy, which was only alleviated after the men began to eat seal and penguin meat that provided essential vitamins.

Midwinter feast fare has improved since then.

For instance, famed polar explorer Capt. Robert Falcon Scott lauded the 1902 midwinter dinner in his journal. The menu included turtle soup, mutton and plum pudding.

Today’s midwinter celebrations are perhaps more appetizing to today’s palate.

More than 50 people at Palmer Station, which includes researchers and crew from the research vessel Laurence M. Gould currently in port, will enjoy roast pork and peach cobbler, among other dishes.

“Taking a brief break from the many ongoing science and construction projects, the station and vessel plan to celebrate the arrival of midwinter with an evening of good food and great camaraderie,” said Bob DeValentino, Palmer Station winter site manager.

McMurdo Station’s 141 residents will hold their midwinter dinner on June 22 with a travel motif.

“The idea behind this theme is to celebrate the intrepid spirit of winterovers and recognize that many of [us] are brought here through a desire to travel the world,” said McMurdo Station winterover Meghan Brown.

Planning of the midwinter celebration by volunteers began in May, with various committees organizing events, invitations and decorations. About 20 people participated in a one-mile midwinter run around the station earlier in the week. Nearly 30 people were invited to a special meal at New Zealand’s Scott Base External Non-U.S. government site, which is located less than two miles away from McMurdo on Ross Island.

The 44 South Pole Station winter-overs endure the longest period of isolation, with the facility inaccessible from mid-February to at least late October. It’s no wonder that one of the midwinter South Pole traditions is to watch “The Shining,” a movie about a hotel caretaker driven mad during his own winter isolation.

Midwinter dinner will actually be held on Saturday, June 22, preceded by a scary movie marathon for off-duty personnel. Another movie marathon will follow on Sunday.

“So, lots of movie watching and probably some impromptu stuff,” said Weeks Heist, South Pole winter site manager.

Another Midwinter Day tradition — once accomplished by ham radio but now conducted via e-mail — is the exchange of greetings between about 40 winterover crews scattered across the Antarctic. Most messages include a picture of the station crew, the facility itself or a scenic Antarctic shot, along with a brief note wishing fellow winterovers a happy and healthy season.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs