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What happens when your dishwasher breaks down in Antarctica?

When you're living at the bottom of the world, you can’t just pop out to a hardware shop when something breaks, so your appliances are like part of the family.

Moving image: filmmaker Anthony Powell has yet to find cold-beating tech solutions on his feet. Image: Anthony Powell for his film "Antarctica: A Year on Ice"
Moving image: filmmaker Anthony Powell has yet to find cold-beating tech solutions on his feet. Image: Anthony Powell for his film "Antarctica: A Year on Ice"
Can you connect to the internet at the South Pole? It might not be the most obvious question to ask when planning a trip to one of the coldest, windiest and driest places on earth, but it has an unexpected answer: yes. We often assume that Antarctica is a lot like the moon or Mars – dangerous, uninhabited and with no wifi. In the past decade the situation has changed.

Felicity Aston, who in 2012 became the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica, explains: “There’s a gizmo which turns your satellite phone into a wifi hotspot, through which you can then connect a smartphone.” Mundane as it sounds, it’s transformative. Gone are the days of lugging heavy radio transmitters across the ice; and it isn’t just a piece of kit, it’s peace of mind. As Aston explains: “I’ve been able to tweet, I’ve been able to make podcasts, and it’s also my lifeline. It’s the way I can get help if something goes wrong.” The bandwidth isn’t sufficient to upload photos or video yet, but Aston predicts it won’t be long: “I think that’s more a case of them bunging up a new satellite in space than creating new technology.”

Out there on the ice, hundreds of miles from any other human beings, her phone enables her to call anyone on earth. But that’s a mixed blessing, as the tantalising prospect of a chat with your mum when you are utterly alone can play tricks with your mind: “It was too difficult to have those loved ones effectively in the tent with me one minute, and then press the disconnect button and send them back thousands and thousands of kilometres.” The potential link it represented was psychologically important, though. “The whole time I was in my tent, I would have my satellite phone in my lap, even if I wasn’t using it . . . It became a symbol of the connection to the outside world, and I was literally clinging hold of it.”

Yet technology isn’t just a guarantee of safety or a means of alleviating loneliness. For Anthony Powell, a film-maker who has worked on the BBC’s Frozen Planet, keeping his equipment going in viciously cold temperatures is vital to being able to do his job. “Cameras tend to start failing at about -60°C with mechanical and electrical problems,” he explains. There is also the problem of power – normal lithium batteries fail after about ten minutes in the cold, so he has to wire up his cameras to car batteries. Video cameras work in Antarctica only with difficulty, so he has designed his own timers and motion-capture techniques in order to get the magnificent time-lapse sequences in his films.

Powell has been working in Antarctica since 1998 (he and his wife, Christine, even got married there). His most recent film, Antarctica: a Year on Ice, chronicles life from the point of view of the mechanics, technicians, cargo handlers, carpenters, electricians, cleaners and cooks who keep the research stations running. Technical problems are on a different level there. As Powell puts it: “You can’t pop out to the local hardware store to pick something up.”

On the Antarctic Sun website in 2012, Beth Jennings of McMurdo Station (the largest community on the continent) mourned the passing of their dishwasher, named Bertha. “She may not have been flesh and bone, but Bertha was indeed part of the family – love her or hate her,” Jennings wrote, reminiscing fondly about Bertha’s ability to “unexpectedly spew slime” over kitchen workers. Next to the report was a photograph of black-clad people standing around a dishwasher with heads bowed. The report recorded, only half-mockingly, that a “dance was performed in her honour”. At the bottom of the world, you have to take care of the technology that takes care of you.