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The research outpost known as Base W sits on the edge of Antarctica, a manmade structure within an unforgiving environment. Nobody has been inside for decades, but that’s about to change. A crew is on their way to the facility, a place known to have once contained a post office. Aside from that, though, the team don’t know for sure what they’ll discover. But when they finally walk inside, they find that it’s all been frozen in time.

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Nowadays, the British have a new post office at Port Lockroy, which sits on the continent’s northern tip. The four-person staff, apparently, has two main responsibilities. For one, they deliver what little mail comes and goes from Antarctica. And second, they also watch over the local colony of gentoo penguins – all 2,000 of them.

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But there’s a major difference between the current Antarctic post office at Port Lockroy and the older Base W. That is, the former was renovated as recently as in 1996. Coincidentally, that was the same year that the BAS members returned to the continent’s original post office and found it was now an untouched relic of the past.

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The post has long been a service provided to Antarctica – and not just by the British. In the 1920s an American pilot and naval officer named Richard E. Byrd began a life of polar exploration after his service in World War I came to a close. His first journey had him flying over the west of Greenland.

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That one jaunt gave Byrd the inspiration for a newer, bolder journey. He decided he wanted to be the first to fly over the North Pole. So, on May 9, 1926, he served as in-flight navigator, with pilot Floyd Bennett helmed the vessel. Their 15-and-a-half-hour trip from Norway over the North Pole and back again brought them national acclaim.

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Flying over these frigid landmarks clearly appealed to Byrd. By the late 1920s he had yet another expedition planned. He declared his dream to explore then-uncharted corners of Antarctica from his plane. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Edsel Ford and other wealthy Americans opened their pockets to fund his bold journey.

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Byrd took off on that very mission in 1928 – but he didn’t depart for Antarctica by plane. Instead, he set sail for the icy continent, where an outpost called Little America awaited. The command center – which sat on the Ross Ice Shelf – had plenty of supplies and a flat enough surface for the pilot to use as his runway.

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On that trip, Byrd marked a major milestone – he helmed the first-ever flying journey above the South Pole. He charted his course from Little America to the landmark and back in around 19 hours. With so much activity going on, it’s no surprise that he and the rest of the Little America team failed to set up the Antarctic post office on this particular jaunt.

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The earliest post office in Antarctica came to be in 1933, thanks to then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt and his love of commemorative stamps. In a conversation with Byrd, the commander-in-chief mentioned how special it’d be for the continent to have a bespoke piece of postage. FDR even suggested a design that highlighted the famed pilot’s many trips around the globe.

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Soon, the Byrd Antarctic Expedition II stamp went into production, intended to bedeck mail sent from the U.S. to Antarctica. At first, the ship Byrd chartered to the continent would carry the mail from the states. And Americans who wanted to send letters that way would have to pay a 50-cent surcharge – around $13 adjusted for 2020 inflation rates – for this international transportation.

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Still, the fun of sending mail to Antarctica convinced thousands of people to pay for the pricey stamps. Eventually, nearly a quarter of a million letters went through the Little America Post Office, with the first batch traveling with Byrd’s expedition on its October 1933 journey to the base camp. After that, a New Zealand-based vessel would carry notes over to the team on the icy islands.

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And yet, the Little America Post Office didn’t last for long. Thousands of letters poured into the facility, but it only existed for two years. By May 31, 1935, the U.S. had discontinued service from its faraway outpost. Byrd would go on to helm three additional treks to Antarctica, although none of the others would come with a mail service.

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In fact, the next notable postal operation on Antarctica would happen more than 20 years after the American outlet shuttered its doors. This time, a British team had come to explore the continent, and they set up their base on Detaille Island. They called the post Base W, and it would serve U.K. explorers in a myriad of ways.

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Base W would give British researchers a place to gather for their survey and studies of Antarctic geology and meteorology. It sat on the continent’s Loubet Coast, named for one-time president of France Émile Loubet. It was under Loubet’s tenure that Jean-Baptist Charcot led an expedition to the continent in 1905.

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But the Loubet Coast makes up only the western edge of a larger area known as Graham Land. You see, a line divides the Antarctic Peninsula, and each section has its own name – Graham Land to the north, and Palmer Land to the south. The former got its name from Sir James R. G. Graham, the U.K.’s First Lord of the Admiralty during the 1832 exploration.

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Still, it would take more than 100 years for the British to set up a permanent outpost on Graham Land. It finally happened in 1956, when the British Antarctic Survey set up Base W. To this day, the BAS performs environmental research, as well as studies into both local and worldwide issues.

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Nowadays, the BAS has five research bases across Antarctica, as well as multiple ships and aircrafts. In 1956, though, they inhabited the then-new Base W. The humble facility featured a main building alongside two other structures which were similar to dog pens. Nevertheless, those stationed at Base W conducted varied, important research into the landmass.

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Specifically, the Base W team mapped out the Loubet Coast area. They also studied weather patterns in the area and collected geological information, too. And they were meant to travel around the area in an extremely polar fashion. That is, the idea was that they’d journey on dogsled back to the Antarctic mainland over the frozen seas.

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However, this dog-sledding vision never came to fruition for the team at Base W. They quickly realized that traveling over the sea from the peninsula to the mainland was much more hazardous than anticipated. And, as it turned out, this was just the start of the Loubet Coast center’s troubles.

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Within just a couple of years, the Base W team had to make a tough decision to leave their research center behind. The ruling came after the Antarctic winter freeze meant that the surrounding seas became so icy that the BSA’s supply vessel couldn’t make it to port. Two U.S. icebreaker ships attempted to slice through and help, but even they couldn’t break through.

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So, the Base W team realized that they’d have to leave their Antarctic digs behind in favor of their safety. It wouldn’t be an easy journey off of the peninsula, though. Instead, the crew gathered their most essential items, sealed up the facility and made their way over 25 miles of ice just to board a ship which awaited them.

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By 1959 the BAS decided to officially close Base W. As such, the Brits hadn’t just shut down a research center on the Loubet Coast – the peninsula’s post office was gone, too. And it would be many decades before anyone would see the facility’s one-time mail hub ever again.

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In 2011 the wheels were in motion to reopen Base W and resume at least one of its former activities – the postal service. BAS members had already returned to the site in 1996, and then again in 2011. This was when a slew of repair work restored the buildings to their former functional glory.

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That meant that BAS researcher Anna Malaos – nicknamed the polar postmistress – could go to Base W. Here, she would head up the facility’s mail service. The then-30-year-old agreed to the job in spite of the fact that the building was lacking in a telephone line, electricity, running water and internet connection.

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In 2013 – the same year that the BAS reinstated Base W – Malaos expressed her excitement for the role to the Daily Mail. She said, “It’s an honor to be Polar Postmistress… It’s a privilege to be able to re-open [Base W] after all this time and reconnect the building with the world.”

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For the BAS, though, a reopened Base W served more than one purpose. Sure, it meant that they could once again deliver and distribute mail to the Antarctic Peninsula. But it also served as an eye-opening reminder to modern researchers – these bare-bones conditions were the norm when the first teams arrived a half-century prior.

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The U.K. Antarctic Heritage Trust helmed the upkeep of many of the peninsula’s historic buildings, such as Base W. The charity’s director Rachel Morgan has spoken with Mail Online about the outpost. In her words, “The base at Detaille Island, which was once a functioning science research station with its own Post Office, has a fascinating and important story to tell.”

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And no one would know that better than the BAS team who rediscovered Base W in the late 1990s. Unlike Malaos, they arrived on the scene long before repairs to the facility took place. So, they opened the door to find the building just as it was left in a hurry in the 1950s.

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All but the 1959 team’s must-have gear was left in Base W. As such, it painted a perfect picture of what life at the facility was once like. A Hoover-brand washing machine still stood on the premises, as did the rest of the supplies deemed non-essential in the quick escape from the ice-locked landscape.

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That meant, for one thing, that Base W still had some of its food rations in place. Stacks of cans filled with oats remained on-site, although there’s a good chance the dried grain was no longer edible 40 years after the fact. And then, there were all of the office supplies.

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On one desk remained a stack of maps and papers – some stuffed into an envelope that read, “On Her Majesty’s Service.” There were tools that the 1958 team had likely used in their research, too. A protractor sat atop the maps, as did a packet full of hygrometer wicks, which would refill a device used to gauge airborne humidity.

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The pencil scratchings, time logs and other notes taken by a Base W staffer spread across another tabletop. Whoever sat and worked there may have reached for the set of binoculars resting on top of all their notes. Such a resource could be helpful for the team’s meteorological, geological and topographic studies.

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A pair of headphones still dangled from the wall – yet another one of the everyday items that didn’t make it out in the mad rush to safety in 1958. But it and the rest of Base W’s relics remained preserved. And the 1996 crew who unlocked the untouched command center intended to keep it all just as they had found it.

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So, the BAS members who returned to reopen Base W in 1996 cleaned up the space and winterized it against the icy Antarctic weather. Then, they sealed it up and went home. And it would be more than a decade before activity buzzed once again at the one-time research center.

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In 2009 Base W became a registered historic landmark that remains the BAS’s responsibility. Visitors were and continue to be allowed on-site to explore the preserved confines, although the keepers ask that guests leave it as they found it. No one should touch or otherwise disturb the one-time research center and post office.

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Guests at Base W don’t have to worry about interfering with post office business, either. After Malaos’s tenure in 2013, the mail center closed its doors at the start of the Antarctic dark season, when the continent gets zero hours of sunlight. And eventually, all of the area’s postal services moved to a new location called Port Lockroy.

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Every year, Port Lockroy’s staff processes approximately 70,000 cards, shipping them off to more than 100 countries around the world. The Antarctica-based postal service isn’t as fast as other continental mail providers, either. Instead, it typically takes between six and eight weeks for envelopes to arrive in their destinations. As you might expect, express service is not an option.

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As of March 2020 a staff of four ran the Port Lockroy station, which featured a research center and a post office, too. The quartet of brave Brits not only kept the Antarctic mail system afloat, but also ran the gift shop. Moreover, they watched over the area’s colony of approximately 2,000 gentoo penguins.

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Former staffer Laura MacNeil, for one, once worked in a library in Edinburgh, Scotland. But her fascination with Antarctica brought her to Port Lockroy, where she led a very bare-bones lifestyle. Speaking to The Sun, she explained that she and her colleagues went without electricity and running water, sometimes failing to shower for five to six days at a time.

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But those inconveniences came with great reward, according to another Port Lockroy staffer named Lauren Elliot. She wrote in a 2020 piece for iNews, “It’s great to see the island changing, the penguins establishing their nests, laying eggs, hatching and rearing their chicks. We have visiting wildlife; whales seals, other species of penguin as well other birds, skua, arctic terns and blue-eyed shags. It’s a very special place and a real privilege to be able to spend time here.”

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