Travels in Antarctica, Part Two: Celebrating Scientific Achievement and a Vibrant Partnership

Posted by David Huebner
December 12, 2010
Antarctica Near Scott Base

About the Author: David C. Huebner is the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand.

Day 2

It just keeps getting better down here. Early this morning we suited up in our extreme-cold survival gear, followed our friend Dr. Lisa Clough of the National Science Foundation down to the ice airstrip, boarded an LC-130 Hercules, and flew 3 hours inland to the South Pole. For decades the Hercules fleet has been the dependable backbone of the U.S. Antarctic Program, and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting on the flight deck of the old workhorse with the pilot and co-pilot as we soared into the Antarctic interior.

We used the ski landing gear to touch down at the amazing new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the southernmost scientific research base on Earth. Named for the two polar explorers -- Roald Amundsen of Norway and Robert Falcon Scott of Great Britain -- who raced to be the first to set foot on the South Pole in 1911, the base was first constructed by the United States in 1956 just prior to International Geophysical Year (IGY). American scientists have been continuously present at the Pole since then.

Fifty-two years later, in 2008, the brand new South Pole Station was dedicated. An engineering and environmental marvel, the new Station is elevated to mitigate the impact of the drifting snow which accumulates at the Pole at the rate of about a foot per annum and can bury buildings in a few short years. In fact, the original Station is now completely buried under the snow.

South Pole Station is built on the 9,000-foot- (2,750-meter-) thick polar ice sheet and is drifting along on the flowing ice at about 30 feet (9 meters) per year. The geographical South Pole marker must be relocated each New Year's Day to accommodate for the shifting ice.

About 150 scientists and support personnel live at the Station during the austral summer season, which runs from October until the beginning of February. The population drops to approximately 50 people in the winter. Essentially cut off from the rest of the world, the winter crews experience extreme isolation from mid-February until the resumption of flights in late September or early October. Food, fuel, and other supplies are stored up in advance to get the team through the long winter.

The Station is all about science, which is why I have been so looking forward to visiting. Antarctica provides a perfect science lab for studying a wide range of phenomena because of its isolation, weather patterns, pristine ice layers, and low interference from human-produced signals or distortions. There is particularly exciting astro-physics work being done, and I heard today that the majority of the scientists now at the Station are working on such projects.

We made it a point to spend as much time as possible today with the guys constructing and running IceCube, a square-kilometer array of strings of light detectors buried as deep as 8,000 feet (2,450 meters) beneath the clear ice to track the paths of neutrinos shooting through the Earth from the Northern Hemisphere.

We drove out to look at the bore holes and drilling operation and later talked with the guys at the Station using the detectors to monitor and record the neutrino collisions in the array. We also spent a good bit of the day visiting other observatories, labs, bore holes, and testing stations in and around South Pole Station. I thoroughly enjoyed the presentations, site inspections, and theoretical discussions.

Before wrapping up for the day we of course visited the ceremonial marker of the geographic South Pole… a silver ball surrounded by the flags of the twelve original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty -- Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Negotiated at the invitation of the United States in the late 1950s by the nations with significant scientific interests on the continent, the treaty sets Antarctica aside as a scientific preserve, establishes freedom of scientific investigation, and bans military activity. The treaty was the first, and perhaps the most successful, arms control agreement reached during the Cold War.

Without a doubt, today was a fascinating adventure of the first magnitude.

Day 4

Established in December 1955, McMurdo Station is the logistics hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program. The largest base in Antarctica, McMurdo has approximately 85 buildings (I couldn't quite get a precise count), a harbor, landing strips on sea ice and shelf ice, and a helicopter pad. The Station can accommodate up to about 1,500 staff and researchers in the summer, with a much smaller crew over the winter months.

As in the case of South Pole Station, McMurdo Station is named for a non-American … in this case, British naval officer Archibald McMurdo of HMS Terror, which first charted the area in 1841 under the command of British explorer James Clark Ross (after whom the Ross Sea was named).

Although a logistics hub, McMurdo's primary focus is scientific research, just like South Pole Station. So it was natural that I would start the day with several hours touring the Crary Lab. Crary is 4,320 square meters (46,500 square feet) of biology, earth sciences, atmospheric, and aquarium labs clustered in five pods. We went lab by lab and chatted with many of the hundreds of scientists at work there about their particular projects.

The diversity of the research projects was striking. In one lab we talked about volcanism and watched a live feed of the bubbling lava lake inside Mt. Erebus' crater.

In another lab, we discussed atmospheric studies involving balloons sent up to the farthest edge of Earth's atmosphere. In another we discussed sending custom-built robots far in the other direction to study deep-sea life.

In yet another lab we discussed climate change and the potential impacts of increased acidity of the seas, being studied by varying water chemistry and observing the differential development of sea urchins.

It takes an army of staff to support all these scientists and projects. Without such dedicated support professionals the Station simply could not function. Lab supplies, lab equipment, transport, food, potable water, camping gear, rescue services, fire services, mail, telecom, computer services, laundry, waste disposal, sewage treatment, cleaning, carpentry, medical treatment, dental treatment, recreation, shops … the list goes on and on. Just consider the challenge of building, maintaining, and fully servicing a wholly self-contained town of 1,500 people thousands of miles from other cities or towns.

We toured the Science Support center and talked about various logistics, including the challenges of training waves of new scientists each season to survive in the unforgiving environment of research encampments scattered across the ice and snow, often great distances from McMurdo Station. We talked with one scientist who just finished her survival course by sleeping overnight in a trench that she had to dig herself to deflect wind and insulate from the cold.

Perhaps the most enthusiastic person I have met in Antarctica was the guy responsible for processing the sewage generated at the Station. Although not required by the Antarctic Treaty, the National Science Foundation decided years ago that McMurdo Station should meet all EPA requirements. The waste products that emanate from the population of the Station are processed just as they would be in a city or town in the United States. There is only one other sewage treatment facility in Antarctica, next door at Scott Base.

Today's activities are scheduled to end with a reception at the National Science Foundation's offices at 7:00 this evening, where I will get to meet additional scientists and other key personages in the Station's operations. I am looking forward to spending a couple of hours of purely social time with scientists, pilots, and logisticians … friends new and old. I am also looking forward to taking a closer look at the bust of Admiral Byrd that sits in a place of honor on the deck of the National Science Foundation chalet.

The Admiral was a seminal figure in human interaction with Antarctica. An accomplished explorer who led five Antarctic expeditions, including the first overflight of the Pole, he commanded the U.S. Navy Operation Deep Freeze of 1955-56 which established permanent Antarctic stations at McMurdo Sound and the South Pole. He advocated forcefully and successfully to launch the effort that produced the Antarctic Treaty that has protected and preserved the continent for the past fifty years. Throughout his adult life he articulated a vision now inscribed on the memorial here at McMurdo Station:

I'm hopeful that Antarctica in its symbolic robe of white will shine forth as a continent of peace as nations working together there in the cause of science set an example of international cooperation. I know that the Admiral would be pleased with the current state of affairs. I think that he would be particularly delighted with the depth, warmth, vibrancy, and critical importance of the collaboration -- not just cooperation -- between the U.S. and New Zealand Antarctic Programs. In her recent visit to Christchurch, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, during a presentation at the Antarctic Center, stated:

"It is in the Antarctic program where New Zealand and the United States celebrate one of their most important and enduring connections. Half a century ago, as a result of the friendship between Admiral George Dufek and Ed Hillary, our countries decided to build our two bases in Antarctica virtually together on the shores of Ross Island. And wisely, the United States chose Christchurch as the place to establish Operation Deep Freeze [which remains our staging headquarters to this day]."

Perhaps Sir Ed himself summed things up best when he described the New Zealand / U.S. collaboration in Antarctica as truly unique among the nations active on the continent, and as “a partnership well worth celebrating.”

Amen to that.

Editor's Note: This entry was excerpted from two different posts on Ambassador Huebner's blog, which you can visit here to read a fuller account of the trip and see many more pictures from the journey.



Brad B.
December 13, 2010

Brad B. in Canada writes:

The ambassador is privileged to have these experiences and I thank him for writing about them.

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