Cold Comfort: Why People in Antarctica Are Such Boozehounds

antarctica south pole
Antarctica's South Pole station under aurora borealis. (Image credit: Marissa Goerke/U.S. Antarctic Program)

Amid reports that scientists and contractors working in Antarctica have gotten into fights, exposed themselves and shown up to work drunk, the National Science Foundation is considering sending breathalyzers to the most southerly continent.

Over a nearly 20-month period, 57 people working on the frozen continent had violated the U.S. Antarctic Program's (USAP) code of conduct, according to a July report on health and safety of the USAP. In the report, one human resources manager speculated that about 60 to 75 percent of the disciplinary action taken by her company was linked to alcohol misuse.

One scientist was even found making his own beer on base — a violation of policy, the report authors noted.

What is it about the coldest continent that drives people to drink like sailors? It turns out that the beer-guzzling behavior isn't surprising to experts, given the workplace of Antarctica. Life on the ice combines isolation, boredom, cold weather and a hypermasculine environment, all of which contribute to excess drinking and related shenanigans, experts say. [50 Amazing Facts About Antarctica]

Cold comfort

Many people living in frigid climates may want to warm up with a hot toddy or a nip of whiskey. It's a long-held assumption that people in colder locales tend to consume more alcohol.

Some studies do suggest that cold, gloomy weather tends to nudge people toward indulging in more "hedonic" pleasures, said Nitika Garg, a marketing professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, who has studied climate and alcohol consumption.

"If it's extremely cold, you feel worse emotionally, affectively, and that pushes you toward consumption that you find rewarding and hedonic," Garg told Live Science. "For alcohol, it's a double whammy."

That's because alcohol also widens the blood vessels and causes blood to rush to the skin, making people feel physically warmer. (But although alcohol makes people feel warmer, it actually makes them more prone to lose heat, so it's important to stay out of the cold after consuming alcohol.)

Garg and her colleagues have found that in the United States, people in states with colder and rainier weather tend to drink more alcohol than people in sunnier, warmer climates.

However, other factors — such as culture, economics and religion — are sometimes more important than climate in driving drinking habits, Garg said. For instance, people from Russia do tend to drink more than people from Greece, but people in equatorial Uganda drink more than people in chilly Afghanistan, where Islamic law prevents most people from imbibing, according to the World Health Organization.

Manly environment

Gloomy weather isn't the only factor in Antarctica's booze problem; a hypermasculine environment could also be at play, said Esther Rothblum, a women's studies professor at San Diego State University who studied the psychological effects on women based in Antarctica more than two decades ago.

"When we did our research, only 15 percent of the people were women," Rothblum told Live Science.

Scientists on the bases typically work in overwhelmingly male-dominated fields, such as geology or atmospheric chemists. In addition, many of the people at the major Antarctic bases, such as McMurdo Station and Palmer Station, are affiliated with the military, which supports the scientific operations but does not conduct military exercises. The remaining group includes contractors, such as electricians and plumbers, who work in traditionally male-dominated fields, Rothblum said. This testosterone-dominated environment can lead to riskier, macho activities, such as drinking heavily, Rothblum said.

In addition, the few women who do sign up for a yearlong tour of duty in Antarctica typically don't have kids at home and may already feel like they are bucking stereotypes by going to the frigid wastelands of the world, Rothblum said. [Extreme Living: Scientists at the End of the Earth]

"You've got women who often have to prove themselves," Rothblum said. "They have to show they are one of the guys, and if drinking is part of that, then they're drinking."

Isolation and boredom

Antarctica offers sweeping vistas of purple, blue and turquoise ice; flocks of penguins squawking away; seals and whales gliding by; and an almost otherworldly light.

"It's the most beautiful spot on Earth," Rothblum said.

Scientists have the opportunity to adventure outside the camp to gather data, but most contractors and other workers never get a chance to explore beyond the bases, she said.

Living in Antarctica also means being fairly isolated, often parted from friends and family. Both human and animal studies, including one published in September in the journal Behavioral Pharmacology, have found that social isolation and stress are tied to higher alcohol consumption.

But boredom may be the biggest factor, said Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, who co-edited the book "From Antarctica to Outer Space: Life in Isolation and Confinement" (Springer, 1991).

"From my personal experience in many field trips to many extreme environments, the primary reason folks turn to drink is that they don't have meaningful work to focus on," McKay wrote in an email.

Of course, there are ways to counter that sense of boredom, McKay said.

"When I lead trips, I make sure everyone is a stakeholder in the scientific outcome of the trip (no one is along just to carry the bags) and everyone has a specific set of tasks that they are leading, and we discuss things as a group," McKay said. "Keep everyone busy doing meaningful work, and no one gets bored and drinks to excess."

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Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.