This is another wonderful post about Ambassador Huebner’s recent trip to Antarctica. To see his first post, click here. To see the original post of the Ambassador’s blog below, click here.
As I wrote in a previous post, my first trip to the South Pole 14 months ago was an extraordinary adventure. I have been eagerly looking forward to returning, and I wasn’t disappointed. Although conditions were quite different, the second trip was just as awe-inspiring as the first. And, just like last time, I am struggling to find words to describe the experience.
We flew over Beardmore Glacier, which Robert Falcon Scott ascended 100 years ago en route to the Pole. Beardmore is the largest glacier in the world.
Surrealistic. Blindingly white on a clear day. Sometimes with no horizon line, as though you are standing inside a cloud or vast monotone sphere. Covered in ice, but extraordinarily dry. So crushingly silent on windless days that you can actually hear your heart beat. So thunderingly loud on windy days that you can’t hear yourself shout.
Harsh and unforgiving. Annual average temperature of -58°F (-50°C). All-time record high temperature of only 9.9°F (−12.3°C). Fierce winds that pile up more than a foot (0.3 meters) of snow and ice per year. Snow and ice that never melt. No plants. No animals. Literally in the middle of nowhere.
To reach the Pole we flew through the vast Transantarctic Mts, which run 2,100 miles (3,500 km) across the continent and are 120-130 miles (200-300 km) wide.
Romantic. An ultimate quest. Symbolic beyond its tangible reality. Like the Moon, Mt Everest, and the North Pole. Drawing adventurers, explorers, and dreamers like a magnet. Testing human ingenuity, endurance, and spirit. A true end point.
Pristine. As clean and pure as one finds on Earth. Unspoiled precisely because of its inhospitality. Unchanging in many respects because it never thaws. Where the ice contains a record of our atmosphere’s history and evolution and helps us study the origins of the universe itself. A canary in the bird cage to many, giving us a hint of things to come.
At times during the flight it felt as though I could reach out and touch the slopes.
On a planet populated and explored by humans for many millenia, the South Pole long remained beyond reach. It was only 100 years ago that expeditions succeeded in reaching the spot. The centennials of those expeditions were commemorated this past December and January.
It was on December 14, 1911 that a team led by Roald Amundsen first reached the Pole. A team led by Robert Falcon Scott arrived 33 days later, on January 17, 1912. The United States’ permanent scientific operation at the Pole is officially named the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in their honor.
Roald Amundsen at the South Pole, December 14, 1911.
I already knew quite a bit about the two explorers from my association with the Antarctic Heritage Trust, but I did supplemental research last month on their preparations and paths to the Pole. Amundsen’s various accounts and Scott’s diary make for powerful, poignant, uplifting reading.
They also convey strong, ironic personalities. My favorite quote from Amundsen is, “Never has a man achieved a goal so diametrically opposed to his wishes … [H]ere I was at the South Pole. Could anything be more crazy?” Scott wrote in his diary, “Great God! This is an awful place.”
Scott pushed toward the Pole from Cape Evans, near McMurdo Station. Amundsen started from the Bay of Whales, on the other side of the Ross Ice Shelf. The Pole is more than 850 nautical miles (1,370 km) from McMurdo. The red dots show the locations of the three permanent American research stations.
Jumping forward to the present, my second visit to the Pole was very much like my first. Mike and I toured the extraordinary Station facilities, discussed current projects with scientists and staff, had lunch in the cafeteria (it was taco day, with real jalapeños), and left the Station in a Cat to visit the telescopes and several field project sites.
On our way back we stopped at the ceremonial orb and arc of flags where the recent centennials of the Amundsen and Scott expeditions were celebrated. We then walked the remaining distance to the current geographic Pole. (Because of the movement of the ice on the plateau, the precise location continually shifts.) Although a short walk, it was an exhilarating experience to approach the Pole on foot through the driving wind and whipping snow.
Mike and I at the ceremonial orb with the Station behind us, during a brief break in the weather.
Many of the major scientific projects are long-term efforts and thus the same as I saw in 2010. In fact, in certain disciplines, readings from the South Pole are among the longest continuous observational data sets available, including decades of measurements of carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gases in the air. I am told that such records are of general, rather than simply Pole-specific, significance because the air at the Pole is the best available representation of global average gas content.
On a purely social note, I was pleasantly surprised to see several familiar faces in the hallways and the cafeteria. It’s great to see so many scientists, managers, and support staff returning year after year. I could reminisce for another few paragraphs, but rather than tax your patience I’ll just refer you back to my November 30, 2010 account for the images, experiences, and information that have largely remained unchanged.
I was squired into the field in the same Cat as last time.
So, what was different? The weather was the big change. My prior trip was at the beginning of the season, at the start of the austral summer. Now, winter is fast approaching. Clouds and blowing snow obscured our view of the Station until just before the Herc’s skis hit the snow runway. When I stepped out of the plane, the wind was fiercer and the temperature much colder than I recalled. While Mike and I were out in the field, wind chill drove the temperature down to -76°F (-60°C).
Also, the Station’s population was much smaller than last time. The summer contingent of approximately 250 people is now well along the process of drawing down to the 51 intrepid souls who will remain when the Station is cut off from the rest of the planet for the long, harsh winter. By Wednesday of next week the Station will complete its seasonal transition and be battened down for the dark days ahead.
With one of the Ice Cube sensors displayed in the Station.
With respect to the science, a few of my favorite projects cleared major milestones while I was away, and I enjoyed seeing and hearing about the progress.
For example, the extensive Ice Cube square-kilometer array, the world’s largest neutrino detector, is now completed.
After years of work and many challenges, dozens of strings with hundreds of beachball-size bundles of light-detection instruments are now buried in bore holes as deep as 8,000 feet (2,450 meters) beneath the clear ice, recording.
With that prep and deployment work now done, the scientists are able to study the paths of neutrinos that reach the array from the North Pole. The mass of the planet screens out the other particle noise, revealing the elusive neutrinos.
Among other notable signs of progress, one of the large telescopes, inoperable when I last visited, was back in service and pointed up (or down, depending on your point of view) again. It was successfully repaired last year by jacking the entire structure several meters up so that ball bearings at its base could be replaced. That was no mean feat, given weather conditions and limited resources at the Pole.
There were a couple of more distant sites that I had hoped to see, including the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Atmospheric Research Observatory. Unfortunately, the weather continued to worsen, and it began to appear as though we could be stranded for additional days.
Some distance from the Station, this solitary polar outhouse stood ready on the barren landscape in case nature called. The camera picked up a horizon line. At the time, all I could see was a black box floating in a gray-white cloud.
I would have relished the extra time and experiencing a polar white-out. I know, though, that the presence of an Ambassador or other official distorts the environment and creates extra work and anxiety for folks with more important tasks to perform, particularly at season’s end. So Mike and I accelerated our schedule and caught an earlier flight back to McMurdo.
Although visibility was poor at the Pole, the clouds cleared near the edge of the plateau, revealing more stunning views of the terrain that Amundsen and Scott traversed a hundred years ago.
View of Antarctica once clouds cleared.
A different view of the terrain.
I spent the flight very much as I did the last time. Exhilarated. Ebullient. Thinking about past explorers who trekked to the Pole through the harshest of weather, surviving for many weeks on only what they could carry across the ice. And thinking about present-day explorers who airlift supercomputers and build neutrino detectors, seeking clues to the origins of the universe in that same ice.