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Alcohol restrictions tightened on scientific bases in Antarctica

New rules came into effect in October on the sale of alcoholic beverages at USA’s McMurdo Station, the largest scientific station in Antarctica, which can house more than a thousand scientists, technicians, and visitors during the summer. The National Science Foundation (NSF), the country’s leading research funding agency for basic science, which oversees research at the station, has ordered that bars at McMurdo sell nonalcoholic drinks only. The new measures do not constitute a complete ban—employees can still purchase a weekly quota of alcohol from the station’s stores of up to 18 bottles of beer, three bottles of wine, or a 750 mL bottle of spirits. In two of the bars—named Southern Exposure and Gallagher’s—patrons are allowed to consume alcohol purchased elsewhere, and in the third—the Coffee House—which is now open in the day and at night, alcohol is not permitted under any circumstances.

The change to the social rules for the station’s inhabitants, 70% of whom are men, is seen as a new strategy for curbing sexual harassment in the isolated environment of Antarctica. Last year, the NSF published the results of a survey of scientists and support staff who worked at the country’s research bases on the icy continent from 2018 to 2020. The data showed that 72% of women said that sexual harassment is a problem in their community and 47% stated that sexual assault is an issue (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 321). Most of the complaints related to the McMurdo Station, which has been operating since 1955 and is the main logistics hub for the US Antarctic Program, with a port, airstrips, and more than 80 buildings.

Last year, the NSF created an office specifically to deal with the problem, which has a 24-hour complaints line. The agency says the new alcohol rules are designed to safeguard the well-being of the station’s inhabitants and denies that the measure is specifically intended to curb harassment. It also announced other measures to prevent sexual assault and harassment during next summer’s activities, such as increased staff training, visits to the station from experts in harassment, and a new internal survey to monitor the problem. “We will not rest until we are confident that every member of the Antarctic community feels safe and supported,” the NSF’s chief operating officer Karen Marrongelle said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.