Airspace: The Practical Use of Radio in Antarctica

Summer 2010: v.06 n.01: 2010 CAA Conference Edition, 2010

Andrea Polli
Director, Interdisciplinary Film and Digital Media (IFDM) and ARTS Lab and Mesa Del Sol Chair of Digital Media
College of Fine Arts UNM Center for the Arts, Bldg 62, MSC04-2570, University of New Mexico ABQ, NM 87131

The Antarctic and Arctic International Treaties and the long history of International Polar Years have contributed to a public perception of the Poles as utopian science-villages of global cooperation and collaboration. Potentially, sound transmission (radio and otherwise) could be a part of international collaboration at the Poles, but at US bases in Antarctica in 2007/2008, radio is highly regulated, without widespread use beyond logistics and survival. McMurdo Station is an Antarctic base founded by United States in 1956 that is currently operated by the global defense contractor Raytheon through the US National Science Foundation (NSF). Built on top of volcanic rock on the southern tip of Ross Island on the shore of McMurdo Sound, this science facility holds the largest community in Antarctica, up to 1,258 residents in what appear to be very temporary buildings. McMurdo is also a logistics base for half the continent. (Pacheco 2009)

Although a limited amount of broadcast radio for news and entertainment is available to residents, at McMurdo, the travel demands of the science and the unpredictable extremes of the weather make distributed radio communication much more prominent than broadcast radio. Every researcher is issued a personal two-way radio and trained in local and long-range radio communication.

Fig 1: Historical field radio kit on display at Scott Base, Antarctica (Polli 2007)

Fig 1: Historical field radio kit on display at Scott Base, Antarctica (Polli 2007)

Fig 2: Antarctic researchers setting up a radio antenna to contact the South Pole Station (Polli 2007)

Fig 2: Antarctic researchers setting up a radio antenna to contact the South Pole Station (Polli 2007)

Any significant travel, even on foot, without a radio is forbidden at McMurdo and the other US-operated bases including the South Pole. Researchers are expected to check in on a regular basis, and if the radio check is not received by the home base within an allotted time, a search party is immediately deployed. McMurdo residents hold radios in the front pocket of a vest, a kind of “technical prosthesis”, as electro-acoustic music pioneer Pierre Schaeffer calls radio In Traite des Objets Musicaux (Schaeffer, 1966). Schaeffer defines radio as the electro-acoustic chain that connects a human being to the environment. However, at McMurdo the importance of the electro-acoustic chain between radio and human beings was not in how it connected residents to the environment, but in how the radio protected residents by connecting them to people who could save their lives in an emergency. As a NSF-funded visiting artist working with sound in Antarctica I visited and made recordings at several communications sites and reviewed triangulation maps of the paths the radio signal takes in various situations: if interference was high in one area, or if a mountain was blocking transmission, the signal might be routed through transmitters on various outlying islands.  The meaningless blank white places gained significance through their role in relaying life-saving messages.

Fig 3: Radio Antennae at McMurdo (Polli 2008)

Fig 3: Radio Antennae at McMurdo (Polli 2008)

Despite the many successful examples of international scientific cooperation with regard to the Poles, extreme systemic resistance to international communication was highly prominent during my experience living in Antarctica. The communications specialists I interviewed on the ice were well aware of outside Ham radio operators, and found their listening relatively benign. However, during radio training given by employees of Raytheon, I was cautioned about outsiders ‘snooping’ and told not to use the conventional radios for anything other than routine contact to maintain privacy and to control the public’s perception of the Antarctic research.


To engage McMurdo residents with sound, I staged an open soundwalking workshop called a ‘Soundwalkabout.’ Soundwalking is a well-established interdisciplinary practice first described by acoustic ecologist Hildegard Westerkamp in which individuals or groups walk through an environment in order to closely listen to the soundscape. (Westerkamp, 1974) This may be done with recording equipment or without. As sound scholar Brandon LaBelle states:

“Without listening there is no communication, no exchange, and no understanding. It is a prerequisite for participation, intervention, and interactivity that one’s input responds appropriately to the aesthetic-communicative intention of the media-defined setting, fulfills it, and completes it. Even in the age of networked media architectures, the practice and discipline of listening remains the origin of creative and intellectual sovereignty.” (LaBelle, 69)

Fig 4: Participants in the sound walkabout workshop (Polli 2008)

Fig 4: Participants in the sound walkabout workshop (Polli 2008)

Participants in the sound walkabout workshop were representative of the highly interdisciplinary community at McMurdo and were given a chance to communicate with each other in an alternative way, through experiencing and sharing the sound environment of Antarctica. In informal interviews after the experience, participants spoke about being inspired not only by observing and interacting with the Antarctic soundscape, but by the rare opportunity to interact with people outside of their field. This interdisciplinary interaction is highly valued by many of the climate scientists I interviewed. For example, Dr. Andrew Fountain, the head of the Antarctic Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project spoke of the importance of interdisciplinary interaction in advancing climate science:

“To really understand the system you can’t rely on just atmospheric science because there’s interactions with the ocean, the land the ice sheets—the biology in the oceans and on the lands. …this whole interdisciplinary world is critical for us to understand how the system is working. Until you really find that integration, you don’t really understand the system. You understand a part of one component.” (Fountain, 2008)

The Soundwalkabout workshop sought to expand the interdisciplinary experience beyond interdisciplinary science collaboration to create focused data-gathering interaction between people from many different disciplines and background. After the workshop, the group decided to share their listening experiences with the larger community of McMurdo by hosting a soundscape listening party at the local coffee shop. I also shared the listening experience with audiences outside of Antarctica by regularly posting soundscape recordings on the blog and later by publishing the audio CD Sonic Antarctica including my own soundscape recordings.

Soundscape recording is a kind of environmental data gathering, and the view that data becomes more valuable the longer it is collected applies. A longer-term establishment of in-depth workshops at McMurdo Station on creative radio production might also serve to begin to change the culture of primarily tightly controlled uses of radio in Antarctica as a whole to a more open paradigm that encourages collaboration using radio as a medium. A cultural shift towards collaboration using sound could have a positive effect on the scientific work being done at the Poles. In the context of the LTER, Dr. Fountain spoke of the need for interdisciplinary collaboration to occur over long time periods:

“It actually takes a while, to learn what the other disciplines are, and to get used to each other’s working style, such that we’re comfortable working together. Really it was only after our first six-year (LTER project) that I think we really started to do interdisciplinary work.” (Fountain 2008)

The soundscape is a part of the whole system of an environment and the interdisciplinary practice of soundwalking provides an alternative pathway for understanding that system.


While in Antarctica, I also collected a large amount of numerical data from climate and weather scientists and later created a series of sonifications of this data. The data consisted of: ice movement data from various sites, weather balloon data from the South Pole and McMurdo, and data from climate monitoring weather stations in the Dry Valleys. I combined these sonifications with excerpts from audio interviews conducted with scientists and soundscape recordings on the aforementioned audio CD, Sonic Antarctica. The structure of the CD loosely follows that of a radio documentary. Sonic Antarctica merely scratches the surface of the vast amount of scientific research being done at the Poles, but it shows that scientists and field workers in Antarctica have an interest in recording and listening to the soundscape and to audifications and sonifications of scientific data and that the combination of field recordings, sonification and interviews with scientists can help members of the general public understand and empathize with the work of these Polar dwellers.

Projects like Sonic Antarctica attempt to help scientists forge interdisciplinary collaborations and communicate their research to the wider world. These interdisciplinary projects need to be extended in time. A multi-year soundscape recording and radio production series of workshops and concerts that include sonification could serve to enhance interdisciplinary collaboration and advance science in Antarctica. Finally, because of the complexity of the information and the misinformation in mainstream media, there is a need for more direct public communication of weather and climate science.  Sound offers a way for scientists to bring their messages directly to the public, by speaking to the public through recordings and radio transmissions and by collaborating on audification and sonification of scientific data. Listeners often respond to sound with emotion and empathy for the scientists’ messages.