By Alexander Colhoun
Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2001, Vol. 16, No. 2
I arrived in October on a Starlifter, a huge Navy cargo plane with skis for landing gear. I tumbled out the hatch with fellow passengers after an eight-hour flight in seats made from cargo straps. (They were built, it seems, for discomfort.) I was bundled in heavy layers of polar-weight clothing. The cold was so deep it took my breath away. The light was powerfully bright. It bounced off the white snow from all directions. Even wearing dark sunglasses, I had to squint. This place was unlike anything I'd ever known. I admit I was a little scared.
But there was no turning back. For the next five months of summer in the Southern Hemisphere (October to mid-February), I was committed to live here. I was 2,000 miles from Australia, 650 miles from South America, and 2,800 miles from Africa on a continent bigger than the continental United States and Mexico combined. That's a lot to explore - 5.4 million square miles of desolation dotted with a few outposts. One such outpost (population 1,200) is McMurdo Station on Ross Island. It's America's largest base on the continent. I was to be the first editor of The Antarctic Sun, a twice-monthly newspaper for the scientists, military personnel, and support staff who live there. My job was to report news from the planet's coldest, windiest, driest, most extreme environment.
In the Antarctic summer, temperatures regularly fall to 10, 20, even 30 degrees below zero F. Even with my thick polar parka, the cold seeped in. But work in McMurdo continues no matter how cold it gets. McMurdo Station, founded in the 1950s, is part mining camp, part Navy base, part small college, part scientific facility. After five months of winter darkness (only about 120 people live there then), the station roars to life. With 24 hours of summer sunlight, work goes on in shifts, around the clock, six days a week.
Just as Noah had two of everything, McMurdo has at least two workers of every trade: electricians, cooks, hairdressers, pipefitters, computer technicians - everyone you need to run a self-sufficient community.
My days in McMurdo began at 7 a.m. (The station, incidentally, runs on New Zealand time.) Emerging from my compact, college-style dormitory, I headed for the galley. Breakfast was pancakes, eggs, muffins, and sausages - calorie-rich, high-energy foods for people who work outside in the cold. Though we often complained about the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables (some salad greens are grown under artificial light), the cooks kept us well-fed and happy.
By 8 a.m., the station was buzzing. Trash must be collected, buildings built, heating fuel delivered (everything runs on aviation fuel, for convenience). Researchers prepared for field trips, pilots prepared for supply flights to New Zealand. McMurdo often felt more like a beehive than a field station.
People worked hard, but they played hard, too. The elaborate costume parties are legendary. So are such events as "the polar plunge."
The polar plunge? I couldn't resist. I joined 30 hearty colleagues on the edge of the ice. When my turn came, I slipped a wet safety rope around my bare waist and, with a shout, plunged into the subfreezing salt water. Seconds later, I was climbing up a wooden ladder and sprinting for a warming hut.
On rare days off, I often took time to explore. After signing out at a safety station and picking up a hand-held radio, I'd follow carefully flagged trails that guided me through fields of crevasses. The flags, spaced every 20 yards or so, would also guide me home in the event of a "whiteout" storm. On longer trips from the station, we had to bring survival kits.
After a day-long hike to Castle Rock, a rocky spur that offers a superb view of the landscape, I'd return happy and exhausted to my dorm room. As the day ended I drew heavy canvas curtains over my windows, closing out powerful rays of midnight sun, before falling asleep to dreams of snow and ice that defined my Antarctic home.
Editor's note: NOLS alumnus Alexander "Sandy" Colhoun took aWind River mountaineering coursein 1986.
Why Scientists Love Antartica
Remote, isolated, and frozen all year, Antarctica is arguably the most untouched region on the planet. That makes it one of the world's most important places to do scientific research.
Humans didn't even catch a glimpse of Antarctica until 180 years ago. And only in the last 45 years have people begun to explore this vast polar desert in earnest.
Today, scientists come to the South Pole from around the world to study climate, astrophysics, marine biology, geology, ecology, and more.
Covered in ice that's three miles deep in places, Antarctica is the earth's longest-running history book. Locked in the ancient glaciers are clues about earth's past. Not much snow falls there - six inches in the interior, 50 inches on the coast each year. But when it does snow, it accumulates in layers. Over the years, the layers are compacted into solid ice. By drilling through the ice and examining the layers, scientists can find clues to what earth's climate was like centuries ago. The deeper scientists drill, the further back in time they can look. The core samples, about four inches in diameter, are carefully packed and shipped back to the United States.
Antarctica is an astronomer's dream come true. Why? For one thing, during the winter, the South Pole is tilted away from the sun 24 hours a day - it's always dark. For another, the weather conditions are nearly perfect for looking at the stars. Even the cold helps, for cold air tends to be clear and free of moisture, which can distort light. The Amudsen-Scott South Pole Station is arguably one of the best places on earth to study the stars. And while the two telescopes there are relatively small (24-inch reflectors, about), many important discoveries have been made there.
Many factors make Antarctic ecosystems ideal for research. Their simplicity, for instance. Conditions are so harsh that few life forms survive above the ice. (Under the ice, though, ocean life is rich, complex, and abundant.) A simple, land-based ecosystem is easier to study. There are fewer variables to consider, so conclusions are easier to draw.
You may be surprised to learn that not all of Antarctica is covered with ice and snow. The dry valley region, just a few miles from McMurdo, has an extremely basic ecosystem. All aspects of these valleys are studied, from the seasonal flow of glacial streams to microscopic worms called nematodes, that live in the gravelly, dry soil.
There, researchers can focus on specific aspects of an ecosystem - microscopic animals or geologic processes - in relative isolation. As scientists begin to understand how these basic ecosystems work, they can apply this knowledge to systems that are more complex.
Its vast ice sheet gives Antarctica the greatest average elevation of any continent, at 7,090 feet. The average elevation of North America is 2,362 feet. The continent's highest peak is the Vinson Massif at 16,859 feet.
Antarctica's interior has the world's highest desert, with precipitation averaging fewer than five centimeters of water per year. The annual snowfall varies from six inches in the interior to 50 inches along the coast.
Some coasts of Antarctica are the windiest places in the world. During the Mawson expedition in 1912-13 on the Adelie Coast at Cape Denison, the average windspeed for the year was 50 mph. In the United States, the average wind speed is about 10 mph. Wind speeds of 93 mph with gusts exceeding 120 mph are quite common.
The lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth was at the Russian base Vostok Station, with a temperature of -129.3 degrees Fahrenheit in July of 1983. The mean temperature in the inland region during the coldest months ranges from -40 degrees to -94 degrees Fahrenheit, and in the warmest months from 5 degrees to -31 degrees Fahrenheit.
The continent of Antarctica covers 5.4 million square miles, most of which is ice. If the ice were to melt, the remaining land mass would cover just 2.7 million square miles. The oceans surrounding Antarctica freeze and thaw with the seasons. In winter, the frozen ocean surrounding the continent covers an additional 7.3 million square miles. Close to 90 percent of the world's fresh water is locked in Antarctic ice. If all this ice were to melt, the world's oceans would rise between 160 and 200 feet. The thickest ice in the world is in Antarctica, reaching more than three miles below the surface.