Travels in Antarctica, Part One: From Christchurch to McMurdo

Posted by David Huebner
December 2, 2010
Ambassador David Huebner Arrives in Antarctica

About the Author: David C. Huebner is the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand.Editor's Note: Watch a live video presentation from Antarctica! Two scientists from the U.S. Antarctic Program will give a presentation today at 4 p.m. EST. You can tune in here.

I just had one of the biggest rushes of my life. I spent the last hour of the five-hour flight from Christchurch sitting on the flight deck with the pilot and co-pilot of the C-17 Globemaster III carrying my colleague Ola and me to Antarctica for a week.

This report is about today. About catching my first glimpse of the wondrous continent of Antarctica on the horizon through crystal-blue skies. About seeing ice floes and ice bergs beneath us as we soared low over the Ross Sea. About seeing majestic, volcanic Mt. Erebus up close to our left as we approached McMurdo Sound. About the dazzling green-blue of the vast stretch of ice where our plane would be landing. And about the absolute thrill of stepping out of the airplane onto the edge of what remains the most pristine, mysterious, and glorious piece of our over-populated, over-exploited planet.

Coming here has always been one of my dreams. I quite distinctly remember discovering the continent at the Mahanoy City Public Library when I was seven years old. Its existence, of course, was suspected much farther back than that, in the time of the ancient Greeks. Aristotle himself theoretically posited the existence of terra australis incognita, an unknown southern land, to complete the symmetry of the lands known at the time. The likely existence of such a continent was more specifically assumed beginning in the 1400s, when European explorers first crossed the equator, thus proving that the “known” and “unknown” worlds were not divided by a ring of fire.

The actual search for Antarctica took centuries. British explorer Captain James Cook was the first person to cross the Antarctic Circle, but he apparently never saw Antarctica itself. It is generally believed that the first person to see the continent, in January 1820, was Fabian Gottlieb von Bellinghausen, a Russian naval officer of Baltic German origin. An American sealer named John Davis, from coastal Connecticut, is generally believed to have been the first person to actually set foot on Antarctica, in January 1821.

What ensued were expeditions to explore the vast continent and to reach the South Pole, a quest that cost many lives and broke many hearts. In a dramatic race, Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the Pole, in December 1911, just ahead of Englishman Robert Falcon Scott. Scott and his party sadly perished on their way back to the coast.

A few additional facts might be in order. Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent and is larger than the United States, measuring in at more than 5.4 million square miles. The vast majority (approximately 98 percent) of the land is covered in ice … thick ice averaging about a mile deep. If all the ice on Antarctica melted, sea level the world over would rise more than 200 feet.

Stop and think about that. In fact, click over to Google and check how far above sea level your current house now sits. And then recalibrate sea level up 200 feet. Could you still use your screen doors in the summer? If not, give some thought to how we prevent all that ice from actually melting.

The coldest temperature ever measured on Earth's surface was -89 degrees Celsius, or -128 degrees Fahrenheit, recorded at Vostok Station on Antarctica. The average temperature data that I have found conflict, but all of the sources seem to agree that the average temperature even during summer is well below freezing. Such temperatures are incomprehensible to an Angeleno like me. After just a short time off the airplane, I am already very grateful for the 4 layers of extreme-cold-weather clothing that my friends at the National Science Foundation loaned to me.

In addition to being the coldest place on Earth, Antarctica is also the driest and windiest continent. Considered a desert despite all the accumulated ice, it has annual average precipitation of only about 200 mm (eight inches) along the coast and far less inland. I was most surprised to learn that Antarctica has the highest average elevation of all Earth's continents. As of today I have stepped onto all seven continents, and I probably would have ranked Antarctica sixth rather than first in elevation.

I am very much enjoying lingering here on the ice of McMurdo Sound … breathing deeply, enjoying the bracing fresh air, soaking in the glorious view of Mt. Erebus, and beginning to formulate plausible denials for when Ola tells people that I actually jumped up and down when I stepped off the airplane. But the jeep is waiting to take us up onto Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island, to McMurdo Station. We need some food and a little sleep because there are even more jaw-dropping adventures ahead.

Tomorrow we head to the South Pole. I'll tell you about that tomorrow night.

DipNote will feature the second and third parts of Ambassador Huebner's travel narrative on Friday and Saturday. This entry was excerpted from Ambassador Huebner's blog, which you can read here.

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