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GIF: Australian Antarctic Division

It’s the solstice, and what better way to celebrate than going to a party. Perhaps there’ll be a little wine, some cheese, a lovely platter of crudites. Maybe it’ll be on a roof or in a backyard. Delightful!

I can assure that however you spend the solstice, though, it will be lame in comparison to Australian researchers living in Antarctica in the middle of the austral winter. They tossed on swim trunks (and in one case a pizza costume, which OK?) in minus-22 degree Celsius (minus-7.6 degrees Fahrenheit) weather and then jumped into a pool of sub-freezing water.

Adventure athletes have been doing similar feats for science as have New Zealand and Finnish scientists, but this polar plunge wasn’t a research project. It’s part of a midwinter madness celebration (emphasis on madness) that’s de rigueur at the Casey research station in East Antarctica. The station is run by the Australian Antarctic Division in one of the harshest parts of the continent. On the day of the swim, winds were blowing around 90 kmph (56 mph) on top of the sub-zero temperatures. But it seems that’s part of the fun.

“Swimming in Antarctica’s below freezing waters is something of a mad tradition, but our hardy expeditioners look forward to it, with 21 of the 26 people on station brave enough to take an icy dip this year,” Rebecca Jeffcoat, the station leader, said in a statement commemorating this year’s plunge.

While us northern hemispherians are celebrating the longest day of the year, our southern hemisphere brethren are celebrating their shortest. And on the edge of Antarctica, it’s a really short day. The research station sits on a peninsula overlooking the frozen Newcomb Bay just outside the Antarctic Circle. That means that it gets a little light even in the current dead of winter, but it’s more of a “continual sunrise” than full-on daylight.

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But it’s a cause for celebration because it means daylight stretch longer from here on out, with the sun being a welcome sight in such a harsh environment.

Researchers and support staff are there all year to work on a variety of experiments that look at the geological, biological, and icy wonders of Antarctica. In addition to ongoing research, station upkeep and renovations are also a huge part of the winter experience to ready the base for when its population swells up to 160 people in austral summer. 

Taking a frigid dip seems like a pretty memorable way to mark the halfway point of the winter season. Researchers carved out a square swimming pool to access the water below the ice. That process looks like it was even more harrowing that plunge itself as the scientists worked in blizzard conditions to expose the frigid waters.

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Water temperatures are a muscle-seizing minus-2 degrees Celsius (28.4 degrees Fahrenheit). They manage to stay below freezing because of the ocean’s salt content. Those temperatures make your traditional polar bear plunges look like a tropical vacation. It makes sense why researchers are attached to a safety line and quickly given towels and ushered indoors or to a nearby hot tub before frostbite can get at them. It’s also why they have to sign waivers and get a medical briefing to participate in what Jeffcoat referred to as a “very questionable tradition” in her weekly update last week.

“Can’t talk,” were the only words one of the swimmers could utter as he ran from the pool to the base.

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I can only imagine, bud.