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Essay: Antarctica: A Hotbed of Cold-Weather Research

And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. — Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Antarctic explorer

The South Pole is in the interior of Antarctica, a vast frozen continent twice the size of Australia and about one and a half times the size of the U.S. Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest, windiest, and emptiest place on earth. Penguins and sea life abound along the coast, but little lives in the interior—except the intrepid scientists and staff who now populate research stations there year-round.

The earliest explorers to journey to the South Pole were drawn by the search for glory, wealth, and the spirit of discovery. Today, hundreds of scientists make the long trek to the southernmost tip of the globe each year in a quest for scientific discovery. Though the hardships involved are not nearly as severe as they were a hundred years ago, these modern explorers still face a daunting expedition to one of the most challenging environments on earth.

Discovering a continent

Centuries after people took to the seas to explore the globe, Antarctica remained undiscovered. In 1820, Russian, British, and U.S. explorers, operating separately, were the first to catch sight of Antarctica. In 1889, a Norwegian-born Australian, Carsten Borchgrevink, led the first scientific expedition to winter on the continent. Briton Robert F. Scott, whose ship Discovery was frozen in the Antarctic pack ice over the winters of 1902 and 1903, made the first attempt to reach the South Pole. He came within 450 miles (about 725 km) of it before being turned back by snow blindness and scurvy.

Ten years later, Scott returned with the Terra Nova expedition, bringing ponies, dogs, tractors, and a huge quantity of supplies. The tractors broke, the ponies gave out, and the men were forced to pull the heavy sledges towards the South Pole themselves. Scott's party of four reached their goal on January 17, 1912—only to discover that a Norwegian party headed by Roald Amundsen had gotten there a month earlier. Scott's diary reads "Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority." An experienced polar explorer, Amundsen had chosen a shorter route to the South Pole, knew how to use dogs and skis, and had lighter equipment and better food. On Scott's return from the Pole, he and his small party got caught in a blizzard. They died of hunger and cold just 11 miles (about 17 km) from a food and fuel depot.

In an era of Gore-Tex and snowmobiles, the hardship faced by these early explorers is almost unimaginable. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one the youngest members of the Terra Nova expedition, wrote in his journal: "The difficulty was to know whether our feet were frozen or not, for the only thing we knew for certain was that we had lost all feeling in them."

The Antarctic Treaty

A new phase of exploration began in 1955, when scientists from 12 countries began constructing more than 60 new bases around Antarctica for the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year. A U.S. base, later named McMurdo Station, was established on the Antarctic coast from which, in 1957, the United States built the South Pole's first permanent building, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. To this day Amundsen-Scott remains the only research station at the Pole itself.

This spirit of collaboration gave rise to the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. Now signed by 45 nations, the treaty states that Antarctica "shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes" and dedicates the continent to scientific research and the free exchange of information. No country owns Antarctica and no one lives there permanently. Almost everyone on the continent is involved in science in some way, either conducting research or making it possible.

All U.S. scientific research in Antarctica is coordinated by the National Science Foundation's U.S. Antarctic Program. The NSF operates three year-round stations on Antarctica, along with many more camps that are open only during the summer. More than 3,000 people go to Antarctica to participate in the program each year. Several hundred of them travel all the way to Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole.

The Trip to the Pole

Though reaching the South Pole no longer demands weeks of scrambling over ice and snow in frozen woolen clothing, it is still quite a journey. The first leg involves a commercial flight to Christchurch, New Zealand, the National Science Foundation's main gateway to Antarctica. In Christchurch, visitors are issued extreme cold weather gear: two sets of insulated underwear, fleece overalls and jacket, windbreaker, down parka, thermal boots, wool socks, and an assortment of hats, gloves, and mittens. These are a far cry from Cherry-Garrard's heavy woolen gear, of which he wrote, "If we had been dressed in lead we should have been able to move our arms and necks and heads more easily than we could now."

Next comes a five- to nine-hour flight in a cargo plane to McMurdo Sound. From there, scientists disperse to research sites around the continent. Those going to the South Pole itself must take a three-and-a-half-hour flight in a ski-equipped plane over the Transantarctic Mountains. "You step off of the airplane and that's when you first realize what a strange place this is. How cold it is, how desolate and how dry," says John Carlstrom of the University of Chicago, who directs NSF's Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica. Particularly eerie for visitors to the South Pole is the complete lack of visible plant or animal life.

Life at the Pole

Seasons in Antarctica can be disorienting. Summer is essentially one long day and winter one long night. In between are a few days of sunrise and sunset. "Antarctica is a truly strange place—the sun circles around the horizon so the amount of light never changes; your body never knows what time it is," says Erik Leitch, a research scientist from the University of Chicago.

At the South Pole itself, summer temperatures range from -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 degrees Celsius) to a balmy zero degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius)-much colder than at the research stations on the coast. During the winter, when the average temperature is 76 degrees below zero (-60 degrees Celsius) and your breath freezes the moment you exhale, the population at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station drops from a summer high of 220 people to about 50. For almost nine months, from mid-February to late October, the intense cold makes it too dangerous for planes to fly, physically isolating the station from the rest of the world. Spectacular displays of the aurora australis—the Southern Lights—are a breathtaking bonus for those wintering at the Pole.

For people stationed at the South Pole, life can feel both exotic and mundane. Rooms are small, around six by eight feet (about two by two and a half meters), and showers are limited to two minutes twice a week. (All water at the Pole is melted ice; it is some of the purest and oldest water in the world.) Hangout space is limited, as is outdoor recreation, but a gym, movies, classes, and a substantial library of books, videos, and computer games all help free time pass quickly.

A Hotbed of Cold-Weather Research

Living and working under the harsh Antarctic conditions is a small price to pay for the lucky few who get the chance. Those same extreme conditions allow scientists to conduct research in Antarctica that would be impossible or prohibitively expensive elsewhere. Antarctica is an excellent place to study global warming, atmosphere and weather, earth sciences, meteorites (they're easy to find against the snow), glaciers, and ocean circulation. Hundreds of studies are going on there at any one time, many of which are collaborations between different treaty nations.

Interior Antarctica's extreme conditions are ideal for astronomical observation. Although the Antarctic ice sheet contains 90 percent of the world's ice (70 percent of the world's fresh water), precipitation is less than the Sahara, so there is little water vapor to interfere with astronomical observations. Infrared radiation also creates interference, but the profound cold means that little is emitted from the ground. The South Pole has the added advantage of rising above much of the Earth's atmosphere, because it sits on a plateau of ice nearly two miles (about three km) thick. Given that the effects of the extreme cold make it seem even higher, the South Pole offers astronomers the best view of the cosmos without actually leaving the planet.

How fitting that Antarctica, the last continent to be discovered by terrestrial explorers, the last terra incognita, is now a staging ground for exploring the deepest secrets of the cosmos.

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