Riddles & Answers in the Ice

Keith Lyons

I don’t think Seat Guru, the site with the insight on the best seats in each aircraft and airline, has any recommendations on what seat to choose on the Hercules transport plane that takes me from New Zealand to Antarctica.

Webbing seats strapped to the internal rigging of Lockheed C-130, and a bucket toilet behind a curtain, are the only concessions to comfort for us, the human cargo on this 10-hour summer flight. We head south from the verdant patchwork plains of Christchurch city to the chilly starkness of the Ross Sea area, where the four volcanoes—one named Mount Terror—silently guard airfields shared by American and New Zealand bases.

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There is something rather ridiculous about wearing three or four layers of warm, insulated Antarctica clothing and heavy boots with two pairs of socks on a sweltering mid-summer’s day. The sweat trickles from my armpits, the metallic chain dog tag engraved with my name and date-of-birth, sticky and clingy around my neck. But that is what you have to do, in preparation for arrival at the destination.

As we ready for take-off, to cope with the oppressive heat outside and in, I try to visualise my favourite drink, “Falling Water,” with cubes of ice floating among the mix of 42-Below feijoa vodka, herbal mineral water and a longwise slice of cucumber.

Long after we have left behind firm land and flown by some sub-Antarctica islands into the Southern Ocean, around halfway into the 3,900-kilometer (2,425 miles) journey, the Hercules reaches the “point of safe return” (formerly known as the “point of no return”), where the decision is made on whether the weather and visibility might allow for continuing on and landing in Antarctica.

Ominously, two compacted snow runways built on glacial ice floating on water are named after accidents and tragedies, with Phoenix being the name given to a new 3.5-kilometer (11,000 feet) airstrip built on deep snow for heavy-wheeled aircrafts. An ice runway is used at the start of the summer season, but by early December the sea ice breaks up.

Once we pass the point where we have insufficient fuel to return to New Zealand, the Hercules is committed to landing in Antarctica. The reality of the trip hits home. Now I know why I had to write my will and funeral instructions before being accepted on the mission.

The risks are soon outweighed by the rewards, when the first ice is spotted through the tiny windows of the noisy turboprop, and we take turns gazing at the scene below of ice floating on a dark, foreboding sea. Losing all sense of time, my excitement increases as the scattering of ice thickens, and I see geometric patterns from the collision of thin ice floes turn into a jumble of interlocking fingers.

My main impression from that long flight was the sense of the enormity of it all. The vastness, the spaciousness, the uninhabitability.

It has often been stated, but it is worth repeating, Antarctica is the highest, driest and coldest of the seven continents. Situated at the bottom of the world, its location means it drops off some global maps or appears smaller than it really is. Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent, twice the size of Australia, and about the same area if Mexico invaded the United States. The geopolitical region, below 60°S latitude, accounts for 10 percent of the Earth’s surface, and has been set aside for scientific research, despite its mineral wealth.

Antarctica is almost completely ice-covered, averaging over 2 kilometer (7,000 feet) in thickness, with the Antarctica ice sheet being the largest piece of ice on the planet. Around 85 percent of the world’s ice is contained within the ice cap, representing four-fifths of the world’s freshwater. If the ice sheet were to melt, it would release the equivalent of 70 meters (230 feet) of water into the oceans.

If this all seems like a bit too much science and too many facts for you, let’s make it clear. The main reason humans are in Antarctica is for science: to increase our knowledge about the past, and to figure out what might happen in the future, for what happens on the Ice impacts the fate of all of us 7.6 billion Homo sapiens.

My fellow passengers on the flight are scientists and researchers, along with support staff who maintain the bases during the busy summer season. When the temperatures warm up, ice recedes and sunlight shines for almost 24 hours a day.

It is one thing to be a spectator, viewing out the small porthole at the aerial views of the rugged yet sublime environment, but it is quite another thing to touch down on the continent, having travelled three-fourths of the way to the South Pole, and step out of the plane, take the first gasps of cool, dry air, and feel the crunch of ice under your newly fitted Mukluk boots.

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Humans are not designed to live in Antarctica, and resources required for survival mean that New Zealand’s Scott Base and the large, sprawling American McMurdo Base, home to over a thousand souls in the peak December–January window, are not exactly pretty settlements or Condé Nast Traveler readers’ choice towns. Looking more like a highway maintenance yard or a mining camp, McMurdo Base has been described as “lens-shatteringly ugly” by one visitor, with its rough chaos of diarrhea-brown dormitories, fuel tanks, antennas, earth-moving equipment, sewer pipes and scavenging skuas seeking out discarded morsels. But at least it has an interdenominational church, a two-lane bowling alley (now replaced by a curling rink) and two bars.

The much smaller New Zealand base, walking distance away if you have time (and yes, you do, with full days of sunlight) is more of an intimate place, where everyone knows everyone, and where outsiders attempting to gate-crash the Tatty Flag bar often activate the penalty of having to buy everyone drinks for wearing cold-weather clothing or boots into the premises.

If Scott Base was the place where I met people, and simultaneously took on and lost gems of wisdom from the scientists and support crew during happy hour, it was out in the field that I acquired hands-on knowledge about the uniqueness of the place, in particular, about the wonders of ice.

As part of field training at the start of my stint, to equip us with skills to survive if caught out during a storm, we learnt to make igloos and trench quarters, by packing and shovelling the snow. We were also instructed about the strict protocols for environmental protection, which meant separating solid and liquid bodily wastes for transport back to base and safe disposal. Much of the trash produced by human activity is shipped back to the U.S. for treatment and disposal, and a new recycling and re-using programme has reduced the amount of rubbish produced.

During my weeks in Antarctica, I got to spend time with researchers in the field, visiting penguin colonies, historic huts, the Dry Valleys, and after being caught in whiteout conditions in a helicopter, even an Italian base with its own chef and a bottle of red wine for each resident at lunchtime.

At Bratina Island, where the ice shelf is covered with a layer of sediment, a tidal lagoon of sand flats, channels and meltwater ponds provides a fascinating place to discover that there is more than just dense ice in Antarctica. Tide cracks in the 50-meter (492 feet) thick ice move and grind, revealing glacial moraine, while each pond differs in salinity, colour and chemistry.

I venture across a small frozen lake, feeling my weight on the ice, as my thick-soled boots glide on the slippery patina. Rather than traipse around the dusty circuit of another ice-covered pond, I tempt fate by striding directly across, my cautious optimism replaced quickly by fear as the ice beneath my feet shatters and cracks. I scramble on, and the smooth ice sheet floats and then tips into the chilly waters. Undignified, I make it to the other side, one leg now saturated up to the knee.

Researchers from around the world have studied the plants, soil and microbes around Bratina, one of the few places where Antarctica yields its secrets.

Another place I explored is the Dry Valleys, something of an anomaly in this continent of blindingly white ice, where glaciers and the wind have carved out long, broad valleys, sculpturing and sand-blasting stones and boulders. Above the valleys, high mountains at the end of the ice sheet are the origin of glaciers, but the glacial ice turns from solid into vapour in the arid atmosphere, bypassing the liquid stage. Any snow that falls is blown away by the strong katabatic winds, which evaporate all water, ice and snow.

The featureless desert valleys are considered the closest equal to Mars, with researchers interested in the microbes living in the sediment, and scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory testing the Viking probes and Phoenix Mars Lander. If we find life on another planet, it’s probably going to be similar to the life we find in Antarctica.

Amid the rocky, windswept terrain, I stayed some nights beside the long, deep ice-covered Lake Vanda, fed by the seasonal Onyx River, Antarctica’s longest river. As I tried to sleep in a prefab hut, I could hear the ice on the lake cracking and popping.

The lake is 10 times more salty than seawater—in fact, saltier than the Dead Sea. The lake is unusual in that its three distinct layers don’t mix, preserving a stable water column, with the lowest brine level considerably warmer than the lake surface. Initially thought to be the result of geothermal activity, studies indicate warming from the sun. Microscopic blue-green algae and moss have been discovered in the lake, streams and under rocks, with researchers interested in life found in such extreme, harsh conditions.

The lake is covered by a transparent sheet of ice reckoned to be 4 meters (13 feet) thick, though mid-summer melting forms a moat. What caught my attention the most were the cracks and melt lines that criss-cross the ice, the clarity of the ice and the presence of small bubbles trapped in the thick ice.

Elsewhere, where there is plenty of ice, scientists from 20 nations have been drilling holes into the ice to find out more about the environment, past climate and possible climate change. The continent’s remoteness and pristine condition make it ideal for monitoring changes in the global climate, with ice-cores recording atmospheric temperatures going back thousands of years.

Antarctica plays a vital role in our planet: the ice deflects some of the sun’s rays, keeping temperatures livable. While global temperatures have been rising and sea ice in the Arctic declining, the coverage of sea ice in Antarctica is increasing. But more importantly, the melting of Antarctica’s ice sheet due to increased carbon dioxide emissions will have implications for the rest of the planet, with a warming of 2° C (3.6° F) predicted to trigger the unstoppable collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet, even if warming is slowed down or stabilised in the near future.

There are two lessons we can draw from this international collaboration and recent scientific research on the Ice. The first is that Antarctica is an alluring yet inhospitable, hostile wilderness, not suited to human habitation, but vital for the survival of humans and pretty much all other life forms on Earth.

The second lesson is the truth that Antarctica belongs to no one, and to everyone. It is not just an empty place, but the start of food chains, ocean currents and weather. Air temperatures, wind patterns, humidity and atmospheric pressure are all influenced by Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. The frozen continent holds for us, both riddles–and answers.

 
 

Keith Lyons is an award-winning writer and photographer from New Zealand, whose work has appeared in newspapers, magazines and journals around the globe. His portfolio includes poetry, short stories, creative non-fiction and several travel guides and books. He has won a number of national writing awards in New Zealand, and he was shortlisted for the prestigious Pushcart Prize. He served one summer on the Ice with Antarctica New Zealand, and is a member of the Royal Lake Vanda Swim Club. Follow him here and here.

*Photos Courtesy of NSF. credits: (top) Julian Race, NSF; (bottom) Mike Lucibella, NSF.