WHAT DO PEOPLE DO IN ANTARCTICA?

A CHILLY FLIGHT | March 4th 2008

South Pole

zutalegh/flickr

Michelangelo D'Agostino describes his journey from New Zealand to Antartica, the coldest, most inhospitable place on earth. The flight has a surprisingly convivial air, and the brilliant white of the ice-shelf is breathtaking ...

From ECONOMIST.COM*

Somewhere above the icy Southern Ocean, I start to fidget in my seat. Pulling out my earplugs and shouting to be heard above the roar of the jet engines, I ask a burly New York Air Guardsman if we've reached the fabled point-of-no-return, the point past which our cargo plane no longer has enough fuel to turn around and "boomerang" back to New Zealand.

These boomerangs occur when the notoriously fickle Antarctic weather gets too dicey to land at McMurdo Station, the American coastal base there. He hasn't heard anything about the weather yet, he shouts back, and doesn't know how far into the journey we've gone. I'm reminded anew just how much I hate flying.

My journey to the South Pole began several hours earlier at the headquarters of the US Antarctic Program, a series of sprawling warehouses and buildings located next to the airport in Christchurch, which has long been the travellers' gateway to Antarctica. On his first southern journey in 1901, Robert Falcon Scott was blessed by the local bishop and regaled at a farewell banquet at the Warners Hotel.

Today, fresh from the plane, many a burned-out Antarctic traveller heads directly to Bailie's Bar at the same Warners Hotel for a pint or ten. Indeed, the Kiwis are so familiar with Antarctic travellers that a customs officer in Auckland took one look at my declaration form and gave me a broad smile: "So you're heading to the Ice."

Bleary-eyed, we reported to the airport at 0600 to don our cold-weather gear and to pack all our personal items into two bright orange duffel bags. Squinting on the tarmac in the hot summer sun, sweating and squirming in heavy boots, long underwear, fleeces, and overalls, it was hard to imagine that a mere five-hour journey would bring me to the coldest, most inhospitable place on earth.

With winds that can exceed 300 kilometres per hour and average winter temperatures of -40 °C, Antarctica is the windiest, coldest, driest, and highest continent on Earth. At 14m square kilometres, its landmass is bigger than the United States, though 98% of it is covered by a thick blanket of ice. This ice sheet comprises roughly 90% of the world's ice, locking up 70% of the planet's fresh water, and in some places is half a kilometre thick. Antarctica is also the emptiest continent. Just 4,000 people work there in the summer, and only 1,000 stay through the long, dark winter.

Still, the journey has a convivial air. For many long-time Antarctic workers, this is a trip home, a familiar journey with familiar faces. To scientists who are studying Earth's climatic history, or to those who have come to take advantage of one of the myriad unique features of the Ice to do their research, this is a chance to collect valuable data.

I meet a geologist heading to the Dry Valleys, a protected area a short helicopter ride from McMurdo, where long-term ecological research has been carried out for decades. I chat with a graduate student on his first trip down to the South Pole to make radio measurements of the southern auroras. My seatmate is a marine biologist studying how plankton, the base of the marine food chain, will survive in oceans becoming increasingly acidified due to the build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Through a light sleep, I hear the husky voice of the Guardsman again. We've begun our descent to McMurdo. A few minutes and a slight bump later, the C-17 has touched down. Considering the runway we've landed on is made of hard snow packed down on top of sea-ice, our landing is surprisingly smooth.

Light floods the plane when the cargo bay opens. The excitement is palpable now as we begin to move towards the door. A colleague once called the moment he stepped off the plane in Antarctica for the first time the best moment of his life. I didn't quite believe him then. Now, though, stepping gingerly down the stairs and onto the ice, a blast of cold air hits my face, but it's the brilliant white of the ice-shelf extending in all directions, ending in snow-covered mountains, that takes my breath away.

(*Michelangelo D'Agostino is a graduate student in physics at the University of California, Berkeley. This column is part of his week-long diary about the South Pole, published on Economist.com)