Although Sanitarium, the maker of perennial breakfast favourite Marmite, has temporarily closed its Christchurch factory, the staff wintering over at Scott Base report they have a surplus. Two hundred and fifty jars, to be precise, and plenty of Vegemite too. They’d like to trade it for some fresh fruits and vegetables, and maybe a little bit of light as well. Since the sunset of April 24th, the fourteen staff have seen no natural daylight and nor will they until August 19th. Resupply flights won’t resume until then, so in the meantime there is plenty of Marmite plus canned, dried and frozen food.
So why does the sun disappear for months at a time down at the bottom of the world?
It all has to do with the tilt of the earth’s axis, which is what gives us seasons. Astronomers know it by less understandable term the obliquity of the ecliptic. The tilt is 23.44° at present but is changing very slowly due to planetary perturbations.
So when the earth is tilted away from the sun, in the Southern Hemisphere winter season, the daylight in Antarctica dwindles to nothing. In the summer the reverse happens. From October to February it is light for 24 hours a day. Most of the research stations have a full complement of staff in the summers, who work hard to do science projects and set up monitoring equipment in the long days. In the winter some bases close, while others are manned with reduced personnel. New Zealand’s Scott Base is open year round, as are bases belonging to China, Australia, the United States and others. Argentina’s Esperanza Base is one of only two civilian settlements, and has families with children as permanent residents. It is the birthplace of Emilio Palma, the first person in history known to be born on the continent of Antarctica.