Like International IPA Day, Mother’s Day, or Christmas, Penguin Awareness Day – January 20 – is a made-up event that has a worthy purpose: to draw attention to one of the world’s most charismatic birds.
What distinguishes penguins isn’t adaptation to cold, but adaptation to water: they’re all superbly aquatic, having turned the skill of flying into swimming. Though they look comical on land, they’re actually surprisingly adept at moving on solid ground (or ice). The Emperor famously migrates hundreds over miles over ice to open ocean, and many smaller species climb mountainous island terrain to find nesting sites. All penguins are social and monogamous, and all are also stone-cold killers that eat lots of crustaceans and fish. Plus, they (like many birds that live on or near the ocean) can drink seawater and excrete the salt.
We could see five of the seven Antarctic penguins on our cruise of the Antarctic Peninsula: the gentoo, rockhopper, macaroni, Adélie, and chinstrap. We won’t see the pretty big but sleek King, which lives on islands we won’t visit (including some in the Indian Ocean),
or the larger, rounder Emperor, which mostly lives in colder, icier parts of the continent (though a couple colonies are in the area we’ll visit).
The Emperor is the largest penguin, as its name suggests, and probably the only bird in the world that doesn’t ever touch land, living its whole life on pack ice.
Conversely, we should see lots of the smaller Adélie, which is the most widespread Antarctic penguin,
or macaroni, all of which are in decline, whether from the retreat of ice or, more likely, the loss of their prey to warmer coastal waters.
I’ll be pretty excited to see any of the birds, honestly. The penguin colonies are usually described as “teeming” and “raucous” and “smelly,” and though we’re strictly prohibited from approaching the birds, it’s apparently not uncommon for them to approach humans either on their way between land and water or to defend their territory. Being bitten by a penguin would be a novel experience.
So too would eating one, but that’s reserved now for orcas and seals. Antarctic explorers did have to eat a lot of penguins, and almost universally detested the meat, which was usually served raw or only lightly seared. American Frederic Cook, on the ill-fated Belgica expedition of 1897-1899, described the penguin steaks as akin to
a piece of beef, odiferous cod fish and a canvas-backed duck roasted together in a pot, with blood and cod-liver oil for sauce.
But Cook, and later explorers, ate penguin meat because its vitamin C prevents scurvy. I’ll just have some oranges.
While Amundsen and Scott dueled to reach the South Pole first, another team – led by Nobu Shirase, an unknown Japanese soldier – was deep in its own expedition to Antarctica. Shirase had long aimed to go to the North and then to the South Pole, but his effort was slowed by a lack of interest in Japan – still emerging from shogun-era inwardness, and focused on building its Asian empire – and the concomitant lack of funding for the trip.
Halting attempts to reach the continent finally culminated in a push in spring 1911 that brought Shirase and his crew to the Ross Ice Shelf from which the Europeans had launched their treks south. Realizing that the he would never reach the pole first, if at all, Shirase decided on other goals. His tiny ship – the smallest exploration ship to try the Southern Ocean – ranged along the coast of the Ross Sea while Shirase and a few men made a dog-sled sprint as far south as they could, beginning on January 20, 1912 (110 years ago today). They turned around, nearly out of food, after 8 days, having ventured to 80º 5’ S – the fourth-furthest anyone had ever gone (after Amundsen, Ross, and Shackleton).
Amundsen had reached the pole exactly two weeks before; Scott was still heading south to his fate. Shirase sensibly headed back to his ship and then home to Japan, where he was briefly hailed as a hero. He spent most of the rest of his life paying off the debt incurred by the expedition. At least he’d looked like a complete badass during his expedition.
110 years ago today, the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott reached the South Pole – and found that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had reached it five weeks before. I can only imagine Scott’s reaction. He had contorted his entire life to be the first man to the South Pole, and had failed.
Camp 69. T. -22ºF at start. Night -21ºF. The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected….
We started at 7:30, none of us having slept much after the shock of our discovery….; the wind is blowing hard, T. -21ºF, and there is that curious damp, cold feeling in the air which chills one to the bone in no time…. Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here, and the wind may be our friend tomorrow. We have had a fat Polar hoosh [food in liquid form, typically made of lard, oatmeal, beef protein, vegetable protein, salt, and sugar] in spite of our chagrin, and feel comfortable insideadded a small stick of chocolate and the queer taste of a cigarette brought by Wilson. Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.
He was correct to wonder. All five of them died on the return trip, defeated by hunger, frostbite, malnutrition, exhaustion – and disappointment.
It’s apparently pretty easy to title books on Antarctica. On the other hand, if a book has “end of the earth” in the title, it’s probably pretty good.
The Sancton book is a gripping account of a near-disastrous 1897-1899 expedition led by Adrien Gerlache to the Antarctic Peninsula — discovering many of the places I’ll see next month, but also getting trapped in the ice and barely surviving.
The Matthiessen book comprises two long, beautifully written essays on eco-tourism cruises that Matthiessen took in the 1990s, one to the Ross Sea south of New Zealand, the other to the Antarctic Peninsula. I hope my experiences there are more like Matthiessen’s than Gerlache’s!
Finally, the Mulvaney book is, uh, a history of the polar regions. I haven’t finished it yet, but the sections on Antarctica look to cover both exploration and subsequent use of the continent for science, whaling and sealing, etc. Should be good!
I’ll be honest and say that I don’t understand enough about science to really understand either the magnetic south pole or the geomagnetic south pole, but suffice to say that the former is the spot where the lines of the earth’s magnetic field point straight up from the surface of the earth, and the latter is… a theoretical spot where a theoretically regular magnetic field would emerge? Sort of? Maybe someone on my trip can explain it! Wikipedia says this, unhelpfully:
Anyhow, neither one is anywhere near the South Pole. The magnetic South Pole moves about three miles a year. It’s now located in the Ross Sea in the Southern Ocean off the north (ha!) coast of Antarctica, just outside the Antarctic Circle and on its way to New Zealand.
And but so, the other other south pole is quite a bit easier to explain, and both quite a bit cooler and colder: the Pole of Inaccessibility! Quite straightforwardedly, this is the spot on the Antarctica continent that’s furthest from the Southern Ocean in each direction (that is, north, north, north, and south).
It’s about 500 miles from the South Pole, about 12,000 feet high (just a shade under the altitude of the highest spot in the contiguous U.S.), and pretty much impossible to reach except by air or unless you were the Soviets in 1958, who established a base there during the International Geophysical Year. Those crazy commies abandoned it a few years later. All that’s there now is a weather station (the forecast is always for cold and wind) and apparently a bust of Lenin.
The South Pole that everyone thinks of is technically the geographical South Pole, the southern end of the earth’s axis of rotation, a fairly straightforward concept. As much as I’d like to go there someday, the trip I’m taking at the end of January doesn’t go anywhere near the South Pole. At our closest point, we’ll be about as far from the geographical South Pole as Chicago is from Los Angeles. Antarctica is big.
One reason I’d love to visit the South Pole is to see the literal South Pole:
The location of the literal south pole changes constantly as the ice at the South Pole flows, at a rate of about 6 feet a year. At least once a year, scientists at Amundsen-Scott station relocate the pole, topping it with a new marker. Here’s the 2021 marker:
Few men are more famous as explorers of Antarctica than Ernest Shackleton – perhaps only Amundsen and Scott. Shackleton died exactly 100 years ago ago today, succumbing to a heart attack on the remote Atlantic island of South Georgia at the start of what would have been his third major expedition to Antarctica. He was just 47 years old, a young man, but then many of the explorers died early – Scott at 44, Amundsen at 56.)
Reading on Shackleton, I’m struck by the fact that he is so famous despite, or maybe, indirectly, because, he never actually reached the South Pole. That failure somehow magnifies his stature as a leader of men. On his first expedition, the Discovery expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott in 1901-1904, Shackleton, Scott, and another man went as far south as 82º – a record for the time – but Scott then dismissed Shackleton for ill health.
A few years later, in January 1909, Shackleton’s own Nimrod expedition brought him and three others to 88º S, less than 100 miles from the pole and a new Furthest South. Though Shackleton longed to win the “race to the pole,” instead Amundsen did, in 1911, and Shackleton instead aimed at what would have been an even more impressive feat than merely attaining the pole: crossing Antarctica from the Weddell Sea on the South American side of the continent (the north, ha!) to the Ross Sea on the New Zealand side (the north again!) – and, naturally, crossing the pole on the way.
This was the famous, or infamous, Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917 which ended prematurely when Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance (surely one of the most ironic names ever), was trapped in pack ice in January 1915. They had not even gotten close to Antarctica proper, and in fact had been caught in the same region where a German expedition had been trapped in 1912.
Shackleton and his crew lived, barely, for the entire summer, fall, and winter of 1915 on the ship itself, hoping that warmer temperatures in the spring would allow them to free the ship and sail either home (which was in the throes of the Great War), or amazingly, deeper into the sea, toward the continent, to try the crossing after all. A separate group had already laid supplies on the other side of the continent, fueling Shackleton’s hope to lead the third party to the pole – and only the second to return successfully from it.
These plans disintegrated in October 1915 when the spring breakup crushed the Endurance, driving the men onto the ice. They tried to march north, but found the going too slow, so they camped on the ice until Shackleton decided to make another march, which also failed, just a few miles further along. They returned to the shipwreck to salvage supplies and lifeboats in the hope that they could find open water and sail to one of a few relatively nearby outposts of civilization, then camped for months.
All the while, the ice floes were drifting and splitting, drifting and splitting, and the men were starving, losing their wits, fighting and mutinying. They shot all their sled dogs and ate some of them, a complement to endless seal meat. Finally, in April 1916, with another winter approaching, conditions deteriorated enough that Shackleton ordered a desperate effort to sail the open lifeboats – now renamed, almost ludicrously, for the expedition’s main financial backers – to any of several islands they knew were nearby. A brutal five-day voyage brought them, without the loss of anyone, to Elephant Island, just off the tip of the Antarctica Peninsula.
Resting on the barren island, Shackleton determined that he and five other men would sail one of the boats through the rough seas of the Drake Passage to South Georgia, from which they’d departed about sixteen months earlier. This was an unimaginably harrowing trip that depended entirely on the ability of Shackleton’s captain, Frank Worsley, to navigate without proper instruments, maps and charts, or even, you know, a stable deck.
Worsley did it. After two weeks at sea, the tiny boat made it to South Georgia on May 10 – but on the uninhabited side of the island. After a couple days of recuperation, Shackleton, Worsley, and another crewman made a two-day trek through the wilderness to the whaling station at Stromness, the port from which the Endurance had left in December 1914.
I nearly weep to think of the relief they must have felt to see ships, houses, and other people after so long a time, and so much an ordeal – but also to think of the need they felt to rescue the rest of the Endurance’s crew.
After retrieving the three other lifeboaters who’d stayed on the far side of South Georgia, Shackleton made four successive efforts to sail back to Elephant to rescue everyone else – not even knowing if they were still alive, three months after he had left in the lifeboat. The damn sea ice defeated the first three attempts over three months until finally Shackleton reached Elephant Island in August to find the entire party still alive, though they had suffered horribly through another austral winter – starvation, depression, scurvy, frostbite, gangrene, amputation. Again, I can hardly imagine the mixture of feelings they must have felt, sailing back to Chile and then home to Great Britain: elation and relief, certainly, but probably also sadness and frustration. All that effort, all that suffering, all for naught.
Shackleton was recognized as a hero, however, and after service in the British military and a period of lecturing, he organized another Antarctic expedition – partly to pay off debts from the failure of the Endurance trip. (That these insane treks required so much financing and were even seen as possible ways to make money by discovering minerals or other resources or simply by publishing newspaper and books, seems ludicrous.)
This expedition was to have conducted a wide range of scientific research during a circumnavigation of Antarctica. Shackleton fell ill on the journey south but insisted on continuing. Finally, on the morning of January 5, 1922, with the ship docked in, yes, South Georgia, a crewman discovered Shackleton in terrific pain. He cautioned “the Boss” about his hard living. Shackleton replied, “You’re always wanting me to give up things, what is it I ought to give up?” Moments later, Shackleton had a coronary and died. The expedition carried on, as he would have wished, but did little of the work he’d planned. Shackleton was buried in South Georgia.
As I read on Antarctic exploration, I keep reading about explorers’ efforts to go further south than anyone else. And so on New Year’s Eve at the bottom of the year, we can look at the history of “Farthest South” – efforts to go closer to the pole than anyone else.
As one might expect, Wikipedia includes a pretty good entry on “Farthest South,” and honestly, the striving – like that of Antarctica exploration generally – is fascinating to read about, inspiring to contemplate, and hollow to actually achieve. Quite literally none of the “farthest souths” went anywhere other than an empty spot on the map – and until 1900, only empty spots in the Southern Ocean. Not even land (or ice shelf). There’s more to say at another time about the fascinating, inspiring, hollow spot that is the farthest south, the pole itself.
But look at the fits-and-spurts non-pattern of this list of known farthest south records, which doesn’t include the legendary 7th-century feats of the Polynesian sailor Ui-te-Rangiora, who ventured far enough from to see icebergs, but does include the Yaghan natives of what’s now Tierra del Fuego, who probably sailed as far south as Cape Horn at the end of South America. Once the Europeans began trying transoceanic voyages, they set three successive furthest-souths in the 16th century but then only one in the 17th. Sailing so far south was simply too difficult and too unrewarding – not many places to colonize!
154 more years passed before James Cook set two farthest-south records, both on his second circumnavigation of the planet – and both measured with the famous marine chronometer that allowed sailors (Cook almost first among them) to precisely determine their position on north-south lines of longitude. Cook’s Second Voyage, in fact, was an effort to prove or disprove the existence of a Terra Australis, a huge unknown land at the bottom of the planet. Cook never saw that land, but he did sail far enough to encounter icebergs and other suggestions of a landmass even further south.
Cook died in Hawaii on his Third Voyage, and almost fifty years passed before another British sailor set a new record, then another twenty years before James Clark Ross went almost to 80º south in 1841 and 1842, reaching what’s now the Ross Sea, directly below New Zealand. As Britain and other European powers strived to colonize virtually all the rest of the planet, explorers had less interest in the southern continent itself, which was deemed to have value only as an object of scientific research – not as an object of colonization or even just economic extraction. (The whales and seals in the seas were valuable enough.) Answering calls late in the 19th century to finally investigate Antarctica proper, Carsten Borchgrevink set a new farthest south at 78º 50’ S on the ice shelf in the Ross Sea in 1900. Two years after that, Robert Falcon Scott went further down the shelf, finally passing beyond 80º S – a very forbidding few more degrees from the pole.
Seven years of increasingly intense international competition all around Antarctica (and, at the opposite end of the planet, around the North Pole) culminated in 1909 with Ernest Shackleton getting to within two degrees of the South Pole – a huge leap forward. And then Roald Amundsen finally made it to the pole at 90º S in January 1911, beating Scott by a few weeks. Amundsen brought his men back from the pole safely, but Scott and all his men died as they headed back north.
Roald Amundsen won the race to the pole on December 14, 1911, reaching that blank, featureless spot with four other men.
Five weeks later, on January 17, 1912, Robert Falcon Scott and four others also reached the pole, discovering Amundsen’s tent and flags as well as a letter to him. They had lost the race, and they lost their lives on the way back.
So who reached the pole next? It depends. But what’s striking about subsequent efforts to reach 90º S was how much later they occurred. Amundsen and Scott did not open a highway to the pole. Rather, they emptied the journey of any meaning.
Only in 1929 did more humans reach the pole: the American Admiral Richard Byrd and a copilot flew over the pole on November 29, 1929. Byrd did did not land at 90º S, so it’s hard to say that – compared to Amundsen or Scott – he even “reached” the pole. The flyover was almost ludicrously American: dependent on on technology, mostly devoid of value except as spectacle, and unreal – they “reached” the pole in the same sense than someone with a layover in a city’s airport can be said to have been to that city. The overflight was also a sequel to Byrd’s apparent flight over the North Pole in 1926, an achievement which has been doubted ever since.
So cross Byrd off the list of those who reached the pole. Next? In October 1956, American rear admiral George Dufek one-upped his former and then-current commander Byrd by actually landing an airplane at the South Pole. Dufek and his six crew members thus became the first Americans to stand at the pole, and humans 11 through 16 to get there.
Dufek’s flight was part of “Operation Deep Freeze,” an huge effort – a campaign, really – to use scientific inquiry as the front for establishing an American military presence in Antarctica. While the possibility of a militarized Antarctica was prevented by the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 (see my post “A continent with no countries”), Deep Freeze and its successor operations did make the United States the key agent of exploration and science in Antarctica after mid-century – a position that has endured till today. Interestingly, that quintessential American Walt Disney was an honorary participant in Deep Freeze, having designed the operation’s official patch and sent employees to Antarctica to film the expedition.
So: Amundsen’s and Scott make “manhauling” expeditions on foot in 1911-1912. 18 years pass, then Peary makes his overflight in 1929. 27 more years pass before Dufek flies to and lands at the pole in 1956. Finally, in January 1958, during the International Geophysical Year that led directly to the Antarctic Treaty, another expedition – the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition – reaches the pole by an honest overland route.
And who led this third, or fourth, or fifth effort to get to the pole? None other then Sir Edmund Hillary, who had with Tenzing Norgay had been the first to the top of Everest/Chomolungma in 1953. Among other innovative aspects to his effort, Hillary drove specially modified tractors to the pole, and used airplanes to both resupply his team and reconnoiter for it.
And – in an amazing echo of the race between Amundsen and Scott almost a half century earlier – Hillary defied, or at least ignored, orders from his expedition’s commander, the Briton Vivian Fuchs, to stop before actually reaching the pole, presumably so Fuchs and his team, coming from the other direction across the continent, could be third/fourth/fifth to the pole. Regardless, Hillary got to the South Pole on January 3, 1958, just over two weeks before Fuchs arrived. The pole then was not the barren spot in the ice that it had been in 1911: in November 1956, as part of Operation Deep Freeze, the U.S. had flown in men and supplies to establish the Amundsen-Scott Station at 90º S.
Fittingly, Hillary did not drive his tractors back to the coast along Fuch’s track. No, he hopped on an American plane and flew out.
So if Amundsen and his three men were the first men to the South Pole, who was the first woman? It took 58 years after the Norwegians, but… it was a six-way tie.
The excellent Wikipedia article on women in Antarctica points out that the continent was, in a very real sense, an extraordinarily male space until fairly recently:
Antarctica was seen by many men as a place where men could imagine themselves heroic conquerors. In Western culture, frontier territories are often associated with masculinity. Antarctica itself was envisioned by many male explorers as a “virginal woman” or “monstrous feminine body” to be conquered by men. Women were often “invoked in terms of place naming and territorial conquest and later even encouraged to have babies in Antarctica.”
The first woman known to have visited the continent was Norwegian Ingrid Christensen, who set foot on the mainland in 1937. Tell me she doesn’t look like the sort of person who would have gone right to the pole if she’d had enough biscuits and tinned beef.
Not till 1969 did women actually visit the South Pole. An international group of scientists, led by Lois Jones, a geologist from Ohio State, interrupted their research elsewhere on the continent to fly to the South Pole for what was basically a tourist jaunt:
Still, first! Honestly, I’m a bit surprised both that the first visit by women took until 1969, and that the Soviets didn’t do it as a sort of Valentina Tereshkova effort to prove the supremacy of socialism. I guess they were too busy measuring temps at Vostok.
The Chileans and Argentines had a different approach to female firsts on the continent:
Using women as territorial conquest is probably at its most literal in the way that Argentina and Chile have flown pregnant women to Antarctica to give birth and stake a national claim to the area. Silvia Morella de Palma was the first woman to give birth in Antarctica, delivering Emilio Palma at the Argentine Esperanza base 7 January 1978.
Madre y bebe Palma are probably still kicking around Argentina. I should look them up!
110 years ago today, Roald Amundsen and four compatriots became the first people to reach the South Pole, winning the race against Briton Robert Falcon Scott. Amundsen and his team had started their trek south in the middle of October, using dogsleds and their legs to cross about 700 miles of snow and ice. A experienced explorer, Amundsen treated the effort like a military campaign that included numerous supply depots, reinforcements spread over his route, some cutting-edge technology (wireless) and some ancient technology (wolfskin clothing), massive fundraising, and a truly insane amount of planning.
In reaching the pole first, Amundsen beat Scott’s team by more than a month. He also safely led all his men back to their base on the Bay of Whales on the northern shore* of the continent. Amundsen’s dogs didn’t fare as well as his crew: they were killed and fed to each other or to the men. Scott and his men infamously all died after reaching the pole to find a letter from Roald basically saying, like the kids on Instagram, #first.
The “conquest of the poles” is a strange endeavor to think about. I need as many hands as an octopus has tentacles to decide how I feel about it. First and maybe foremost, the American efforts to reach the North Pole (though amazingly we don’t know who really made it there first!) and then Amundsen and Scott’s efforts to reach the South Pole are incredible feats of human persistence. Second, they are interesting for the way they hover on the edge of science and athletics. Pretty much everything men like Amundsen found was new, from the path to the pole to the effects on a human of prolonged exposure to the harshest temperatures on earth. Third, the races to the poles were also capstones to the rush to colonize all of the planet – but at least in the south, a sort of inversion of the “civilizing” impulse of explorers and colonizers pretty much everywhere else. Exploring the Antarctic differed from “exploration” of the Arctic in that there were no people in Antarctica. The many, many campaigns by Europeans and Americans in the far north were all, in some way, conquests – albeit failures in many cases. (Not for nothing is Alaska the state with the most natives of any U.S. state.)
Fourth and last and I think closely related to the third, attempts to explore Antarctica seem pure in contrast to, honestly, pretty much everything else about Euro-American “exploration” of the world. Even feats that were more purely athletic, like Norgay and Hillary being the first to reach (and return from the) summit of Chomolungma/Sagarmatha/Everest, were inherently tied up in colonialism of the ugliest sort. But getting to the bottom of the world? Ain’t nothing there except the point at which all the lines of longitude converge. So a tip of the fur-lined hat to Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting for reaching the South Pole before any other men, women, or beasts.
* Joke: all of Antarctica’s shoreline is northern!
I have always loved maps. I have several laminated maps that I keep around as motivation to train for my winter bike races, and I like to buy one or two (let’s say) both to plan for trips and to remember the trips. I spend way too much time studying the maps generated by fitness-tracker apps of bike rides I just took, and even more time poring over Google Earth maps of places I’ll never visit.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time, then, finding good maps of Antarctica and now studying the couple that I’ve bought (so far):
The “Antarctic Explorer” map covers all of the continent on one side and the Antarctic Peninsula on the other, and offers a lot of interesting historical information on Antarctic explorers too. The other map, made by the British Antarctic Survey and “dispatched by post” from Stanfords London (“the world’s biggest map shop,” which, yes please!) focuses entirely on the peninsula and on its northernmost tip, a.k.a. Graham Land,
which was named for the Lord of the Admiralty who dispatched an early British expeditions to Antarctica in the 1830s. Sailors on that venture were probably the first humans to actually see the continent, rather than just infer its existence from wind, ice, and currents or to spot some of the many, many islands offshore. Ice ho!
As you can see in this video, Graham Land is as much water and island as continent. Our expedition’s ship (which, by the way, is not exactly a tramp steamer!) is going to thread its way through all these islands on the west side of the peninsula to about 65º south latitude.
The name “Graham Land” strikes me as old fashioned in a charming, goofy way, but mostly harmless since it doesn’t, you know, erase the name(s) that an indigenous people used for the place. (I want to say more about Antarctica’s humanlessness in a future post.)
Argentina and Chile – the countries nearest Graham Land – beg to differ with the name, por favor. The Argentines call whole peninsula Tierra de San Martín, after the general who established Argentina, Chile, and Peru as independent from Spain (at exactly the same time Lord Graham was lording in London). The Argentines call Graham Land the Península Trinidad or Tierra de la Trinidad (Peninsula or Land of the Trinity).
Despite Argentine’s appeal to the heavens, Chile totally wins the toponym debate by applying the name Tierra de O’Higgins to the entire peninsula. The wonderfully named Bernardo O’Higgins was the Chilean leader who worked with General San Martín to free Chile and who then served as its first ruler, the “supreme director. Honestly, forget Antarctica – someone should name whiskeys after this guy. I would totally drink a glass of O’Higgins or Supreme Director.
I should probably pencil those alternative names onto my maps, no?
Without much soil, Antarctica naturally lacks much plant life. The British Antarctic Survey – which is pretty much the most reliable source of natural-history info on the continent – claims that only two flowering plants can be found on Antarctica, and then only on the peninsula, the area where the Carleton trip will go:
Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and
Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis).
Neither is the sort of plant you’d like to have in a pot in your house. Or could, since they thrive in cold, dry, windy places, not your damn living room.
BAS reports that besides those “flowering plants,” Antarctica is home to
around 100 species of mosses, 25 species of liverworts, 300 to 400 species of lichens and 20-odd species of macro-fungi.
Incredibly, some moss and lichens live in rocks in the coldest, dryest parts of the continent. So much for being “lower plant groups,” right? Show me some dumb oak or pine that can do that.
As Antarctica warms, plants are the among the most dangerous invaders – but as you’d expect given humankind’s colossal stupidity, we also brought some invasive species to the continent. For example, Poa pratensis was introduced as part of a study in 1954-1955. It’s since been eradicated.
To prevent this kind of disaster, travelers to Antarctica – even or especially tourists a-larking – have to carefully disinfect themselves before going ashore. Glad to do it!
Antarctica is extremely extreme. Everybody knows it’s cold, but not only is it really cold, it’s also very dry, very high, very empty, very far from everything else…
Dry: obviously, very little rain falls in Antarctica, though the peninsula – the most temperate part of the continent – does see significant liquid precipitation: about 20 inches (500 millimeters) a year. Other coastal regions get about 8 inches (200mm) a year. Everywhere else on the continent, all the water falls as snow, and then only in tiny quantities that total about 2 inches (50mm) a year. The amazingly named “McMurdo Dry Valleys,” though, have a whole ‘nother thing going on:
In fact, scientists believe that in some parts of the Dry Valleys it hasn’t snowed or rained for 14 million years!
High: The average elevation across the continent is 1.5 miles (2,500 meters). The South Pole is a bit higher, at 1.8 miles (2,830m), and the highest spot on the continent, the Vinson Massif, is almost exactly three miles high (4,892m) – about half the height of Qomolungma/Sagarmatha/Everest, and the fifth highest of the Seven Summits.
Empty: Yeah, there’s not much there except snow and ice. No permanent human inhabitants, for starters. No terrestrial animals – no mammals, no reptiles, no amphibians. Just a few plants, all low to the ground, slow growing, and native to the few spots of open land near the coasts.
On the other wing, the continent has lots of birds, at least along the coastline, and of course lots and lots of ocean life, from fish and krill to marine mammals, including the elephant seal, which is the largest carnivoran! (This, I don’t quite understand yet: orcas are larger, but they’re not “carnivorans.”)
Cold: Even the Antarctica Peninsula, the warmest part of the continent, doesn’t get very warm. During “austral summer,” temperatures on the peninsula can rise to around 40º F (4º C), but are often below freezing, and can drop to 10º F (-12º C). The South Pole is way colder all the time:
The average annual temperature is -49 °C (-56 °F), ranging from about -28 °C (-18 °F) in January to about -59.5 °C (-74.5 °F) in July. The lowest recorded temperature is -83 °C (-117 °F), while the highest is -12 °C (10 °F).
And yes, -117º F is pretty damn cold, but not the coldest! The continental and world record for cold was recorded in 1983 at the Soviet Union’s Vostok station, about 800 miles from the South Pole. In July 1983, the poor bastards there recorded a low temperature of -128.6 °F (-89.2 °C). The highest temperature ever recorded at Vostok 7º F (-14 °C). Be glad you’re not the guy who has to check that thermometer.
A fun part of my prep for the Antarctica trip is watching documentaries on Antarctica. They’re naturally focused on penguins *() and the South Pole, but the German auteur-weirdo Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (2007) was refreshingly different – though if you have watched any Herzog docs, you knowhe’s going to focus on the fellow-weirdos he meets. Spoiler alert: there are a lot of weirdos in Antarctica!
Over the film’s 99 minutes, Herzog performs an artful bait-and-switch that’s worth the price of the rental. The movie starts by dwelling at length on the ugliness of the American base on McMurdo Sound (he compares it to a mining camp) and the nuttiness of the people who work there – folks who could be working at a small-town gas station. There’s the survival trainer who puts his students’ heads in white utility buckets, leashes them together, and then has them try to find their way around an open snowfield. They can’t. They’d all die in a whiteout blizzard. Less terrifyingly, Herzog talks with a heavy-equipment driver who says with undergraduate profundity, “The universe dreams through our dreams. And I think that there are many different ways for reality to bring itself forward, and dreaming is definitely one of those ways.”
After his stay at McMurdo, Herzog gradually goes further and further into the wilderness of Antarctica – true wilderness, devoid of any humans but scientists. He journeys to the lip of perpetually-erupting Mt. Erebus – named for one of the ships sailed to Antarctica in 1839-1843 by the eminent 19th century explorer James Clark Ross – to talk with the volcanologists there. One helpfully offers tips for surviving a rain of lava from the lake below, where the earth’s crust is torn open. (Don’t turn your away from the lava lake: back away it, don’t run from it, so you can see the lava bombs sailing toward you and duck, or maybe contemplate your obliteration.)
Later – or maybe earlier; it’s hard to tell since the film has no real narrative direction – Herzog visits a team of biologists camped on an ice shelf to study the seals that swim, invisible but audible, under them. Some of the researchers gently ambush female seals by covering their heads with a bag and then milk them to analyze their milk – thick like latex paint, amazingly devoid of lactose – and understand how they can possibly perpetuate their species in a place like this. One of the seal-ologists says, almost sheepishly, that the place is so quiet she can hear her heartbeat. Then Herzog films them splaying themselves out on the ice to listen not to their own heartbeats, but to the seals’ otherworldly submarine songs.
That is the sort of arresting image that Herzog loves, and that fills this beautiful film – not empty whitescapes, but nearly empty ones where a trio of researchers crouch on the ice, geologists perch on the rim of a volcano, or a tiny vehicle zooms over the white vacuum , or a diver, taking his last plunge, swims along the sea bed, taking video of the bizarre animals that – unlike the humans – are perfectly at home in this harsh, beautiful place.