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From North to South: UND grad makes a home in Antarctica

Janelle Hakala, a student of the University of North Dakota’s atmospheric sciences program, has been living and working in Antarctica since last fall. Submitted photo.1 / 2
The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. Submitted photo.2 / 2

GRAND FORKS — Recent University of North Dakota graduate Janelle Hakala is no stranger to chilling temperatures, having grown up in Ely, Minn., before coming to Grand Forks.

But her current home may as well be in a different world of cold. That’s because Hakala, a student of UND’s atmospheric sciences program, has been living and working since last fall in Antarctica — specifically, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which Hakala says is one of three year-round installations maintained by the U.S.

By the time her contract is up, she’ll have spent a year at her distant post, working on supporting the flight operations side of the research post. Like many college students, Hakala was in job-hunting mode during the months leading up to graduation. She’d previously done internships and other activities that led her to seek out opportunities for field work or “something that got me away form a the usual desk job.”

“I was willing to move anywhere in the U.S. to find a meteorology job like that to just get things started,” Hakala wrote in an email. “When job searching, I came across a meteorology position advertised for Antarctica. I knew I couldn’t pass that up.”

Though far past the bounds of the greater U.S., Hakala wrote that she’s always loved a “good adventure or a new challenge,” both of which clearly presented by a meteorology gig in one of the planet’s most extreme environments.

Hakala found out that she’d got the job — which is based through the National Science

Foundation and the U.S. Antarctic Program — before her May graduation. She spent her summer working with the North Dakota Cloud Modification Project, a program of the state water commission and office of the state engineer, and getting things squared away to move to the deep, deep south.

That preparation work included finalizing work with doctors and dentists, as well as a psychology examination. By the end of it, she had been cleared as physically qualified and deemed “officially ready to deploy” to Antarctica, where Hakala notes the average winter temperature is a balmy negative 76 degrees.

The main research function of her new home is astrophysics, she says, with some of the world’s most powerful telescopes on-hand and pointed at the skies above. The base’s population is only about 40 in the winter months, with a summer high of 150 people. Many of those are support staff — a number that includes Hakala — who keep the lights on and the water unfrozen for research to continue.

Day-to-day life on the South Pole isn’t entirely alien to Hakala, who says the experience sort of reminds her of being a college freshman, one who perhaps also lives on a ship.

“We all have small but cozy rooms in little wings with shared bathrooms that we all take turns cleaning every week,” she writes.

The crew is largely unplugged, in that wifi and cell phone service are nonexistent. Residents have about 8-10 hours of internet access provided daily through satellite networks, Hakala says, which is about enough to make calls home and check up on email and social media. The lack of constant connection opens up opportunities to learn more about the base and its residents, a feature Hakala has found compelling.

And, like a true resident of the north, she has made the most of her environment despite its  often-harsh nature — perhaps leaving little excuse for people back home not to do the same.

“Another part of everyday life here is trying to get outside every day despite the cold,” Hakala writes. “It is so peaceful and beautiful out and great for skiing and other outdoor activities.”

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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