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The Heartless Immensity

ISSUE:  Spring 2009
Dark Sky and Snowfield
Tracks in the snow near Siple Dome, Antarctica.
“The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! Who can tell it?”
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
“Self is a subject that most of us are fluent on.”
Ernest Shackleton, The Heart of the Antarctic

During the coming climate crisis, you’d do well to pitch a tent somewhere in Antarctica. Not too close to the coast, of course, near the ebbing colonies of Adelie penguins, nor on an ice shelf breaking up and shuddering into the rising sea. Even the Ross Ice Shelf, a floating mass the size of Texas and up to a kilometer thick, may with a few more degrees of warming crumble and go. So you’d want to move inland, or “in-ice,” as it were (exposed land scarcely exists), to a stable ice cap. Where to look? Your choice is no choice at all: West Antarctica or East Antarctica. The West, from which most of the news about potential catastrophic disintegration emerges, is also about a kilometer thick but underpinned by bedrock and sediments that are mostly below sea level. Rising seas could turn much of the West into a diminishing archipelago of icebergs. To be safe, your new home should be in the East.

Life in East Antarctica takes some getting used to. You sit lonely on a vast, nearly sterile expanse of wind-blown snow, which below you is compacting under its own weight into ice one to three miles deep. Years are divided between brutal summer and impossible winter. (Earth’s coldest temperature, a frightening –128.6° F, was recorded here one winter.) The East’s scale and monotony outstretch the imagination. Topographic maps fail at the edges of its oceanic surface, at what is called “the limit of observation.” Its entire biology is in its visitors: microbes brought in on far-ranging winds and humans brought in by aircraft or ski. Your arrival would bring far more complexity than you would find. You have to bring everything you need; the East Antarctic ice cap provides nothing but cold air and frozen water. It helps to have a government agency supplying insulated clothing, packaged (frozen) food, artificial shelter, boundless fuel, and transport, i.e. the trappings of industrial life that staggered the planet and sent you fleeing to the ice in the first place. But leaving aside the difficulties of survival amid the polar harshness, there is a more interesting question: how would you cope with a world made merely of ice, sky, and time?

I worked in the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) from 1994 to 2004—as a Waste Management Technician, Fuels Operator, Cargo Handler, Skiway Groomer, and finally a Camp Supervisor in remote spaces—and fell in love with the icescape. Part of me is still milling about on the ice cap. I’ve spent my years since leaving trying to be Melville’s guy, the one telling about the self amid his “heartless immensity.” It’s a poetic act, to be sure, one that on occasion says more about my aesthetics than about Antarctica, but those ice-contemplating years taught me a lot about both.

Melville instructs: “Mark, how when sailors in a dead calm bathe in the open sea—mark how closely they hug their ship and only coast along her sides.” In my East Antarctic summers, when I wandered out from a cluster of tents, I had only myself to observe. There was nothing—literally no thing—else. My senses felt both overwhelmed and starved. The perfect blue press of sky that settled down to the circular horizon, ringing the great white desert, muffled sound and thought. With my tents a few miles away reduced to fine print on the horizon, I could turn in one of two directions: backward or inward. Usually I did both, retreating to a tent and my notebook. The surrounding emptiness had a story to tell, I was sure, but inevitably the ice merely reflected back my own story, and like Melville’s sailors, I was unlikely to stray far from Point A when there was no Point B.

Imagine you’ve spent a week, a month, a year out on the ocean. Now erase the boat, forget the forward motion, freeze the ocean solid, and watch wind scuff the snow. Are you living in a place or in your head? Now imagine you’re in a small community on the ice cap, say at the US base at the South Pole. What stories are there but those you bring or create with your coworkers? You can put on your parka, clomp down out of your elevated building to look around, even walk out beyond the perimeter of buildings and lines of cargo, but there is no other world in the otherworldly icescape. What Antarctica offers in place of a story is the absence of what we think life should contain.

For now, understand that when the rest of the world’s ice melts, East Antarctica will be unchanged for a reason.

Just as a reminder: Antarctica contains 6.1 million cubic miles of ice, 90 percent of the planet’s total and 70 percent of its available fresh water. The Antarctica entry in the CIA’s World Factbook provides some perspective: “arable land: 0%, permanent crops: 0%, other: 100%.” Ice covers an estimated 99.6 percent of the continental surface. If it all melted, sea level would rise over two hundred feet. Luckily, about 90 percent of the ice is locked up in East Antarctica. While some of that may tag along in the disintegration of West Antarctica and the major ice shelves, amid the global crisis you would still find plenty of flat white space to call your own.

On his 1908 Nimrod expedition, Ernest Shackleton and three of his men became the first to trudge deep into the East Antarctic interior. The trip nearly cost them their lives. In a remarkably stoic attempt to be the first at the South Pole, they pioneered a route from the Ross Ice Shelf up the Beardmore Glacier in the Transantarctic Mountains to the East. One of the hard facts of Shackleton’s journey was that the ice of the East was as deep as the mountains they climbed to reach it. Another was that the margin between life and death up there was far thinner than even the brilliant Shackleton had imagined. Still 200 miles shy of the Pole, Shackleton was compelled to record his constant headache: “The sensation is as though the nerves were being twisted up with a corkscrew and then pulled out . . . The Pole is hard to get.”

They manhauled their sledge in late summer temperatures as cold as –40°F, made worse by gale-force wind-chill. They stretched their meager rations to starvation levels, despite burning perhaps ten thousand calories in a day, but finally halted about ninety-seven miles from the Pole. Shackleton famously described the heart-rending decision to turn back—cribbing from Ecclesiastes—as choosing between offering his wife a dead lion or a live donkey. As it turned out, rancid pony meat was already on the menu, along with biscuit fragments and tea. On the 800-mile return journey, growing weaker, they were often down to their last morsel as they reached their next scanty depot. A single major storm could have delayed and killed them, as it did the similarly desperate Robert Falcon Scott—a fellow British explorer—a few years later.

It was in the context of his East Antarctic suffering that Shackleton scrawled in his journals, “Self is a subject that most of us are fluent on.” The excruciating minutiae of frostbite, hypothermia, altitude sickness, snowblindness, hunger, self-doubt and dysentery (from the pony meat) Shackleton was reticent to describe in his journal, but he did pause to poetically note their cumulative effect: Antarctica had turned them inward. All difficult journeys can isolate the traveler from his surroundings, but Antarctica is unique in offering so little to turn away from.

When he did look outward, Shackleton found little to say. Once through the mountains, he found a “waste of snow.” The Ross Ice Shelf he had called a “changing sea,” so the high ice of the East became a “changing sky.” In this he was referring partially to its appearance but mostly to its texture; they slogged though soft snow, or over steep sastrugi (small waves of hardened snow), or both, in all cases making for the worst manhauling of the journey. At their Furthest South, 88° 23’, which they reached by scurrying toward the Pole for five hours without their tent or “nightmare of a sledge” at their heels, they planted the Union Jack, placed beneath it a brass cylinder containing stamps and documents, and gazed southward with binoculars. They saw only a vast continuation of the “dead white snow plain” to which they had just lay claim.

Man Running Through Snow
Self-portrait at Siple Dome.

That claim, the King Edward VII Plateau, is now defunct, replaced in 1912 by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian flag (the first to stand at the South Pole) and claim to the King Haakon VII Plateau, also now defunct. The political geography that replaced both of them, during the early twentieth century transition from dogs and sledges to snowmobiles and planes, is a collection of massive, often overlapping, wedge-shaped possessions that flare out from the Pole along lines of longitude toward the Antarctic Circle, exactly like pieces of pie. These belong to Britain, France, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina. (The only unclaimed portion is the bulk of West Antarctica, from 90 degrees west to 150 degrees west; it is the only unclaimed land on Earth. In a strange coincidence, it is also the Antarctic region most dramatically threatened by climate change.) Each of these pieces was based in a nation’s proprietary exploration of a stretch of coast, where definable geography exists. The cartography of the interior, as far as anyone was concerned, was merely lines on a blank map.

While these governments initially responded to the emptiness in predictably covetous fashion, all claims to the Antarctic are now in abeyance. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in a spirit of scientific and political camaraderie based partly in the success of the 1957 International Geophysical Year (IGY)—a massive Soviet/European/North American joint inquiry into polar and solar geosciences—and primarily because of the ice’s uselessness, set Antarctica aside strictly for scientific purposes. Other than for logistics, military activity was banned. The Antarctic Treaty, written in 1959 and signed now by forty-six nations, was the first arms control agreement to emerge from the Cold War, and is still a model of international cooperation. That said, any government with a serious interest in future Antarctic resources first became a signatory to the Treaty and then got busy making a permanent place for itself down south.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, an American base, has squatted at the geographic nexus since 1956 without making any formal declaration of ownership. The US neither makes nor recognizes any Antarctic claims, but has reserved the right to do so. In the revealing 1997 Report of the US Antarctic Program External Panel, a Congressional review of our presence in Antarctica, things were laid out plainly: “The geopolitical importance heretofore assigned to a permanent US presence in Antarctica, particularly at the South Pole, appears fully warranted. This consideration, in itself, justifies a year-round presence at several locations, including a moderate-sized facility at the Pole, along with necessary supporting infrastructure” (italics original). So much for the primacy of science. The External Panel went on to describe our occupation of the Pole as “support for responsible governance of a non-sovereign territory,” though it may be described more succinctly as the omnipresence of empire.

The traditional claimants have paid lip service to the Treaty while going to great lengths to support their Antarctic and sub-Antarctic territories. New Zealand, for example, regularly creates new postal stamps celebrating its Ross Dependency; Britain went to war in 1982 to prevent Argentina from confiscating the Falkland Islands, which once anchored their claim; and in 1978, Argentina flew a pregnant woman down to a scientific station to give birth to the first Antarctic “citizen,” one Emilio Marcos de Palma.

The growing interest in Antarctica by governments around the Earth continues to disrupt the silence. There are thirty nations operating roughly sixty-four year-round and seasonal research facilities in the region. India and China are stepping up their presence in accordance with their rise to global power. Alternative visions of apportioning the continent have been proposed; Brazil, for example, suggested that a longitudinal “view” from the South Pole could identify those nations whose coastlines were “visible” from the Antarctic and then give them a proportional piece of the ice. (You can guess which South American nation wins out on that one.) More importantly, there have been persistent complaints raised by poorer nations—in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere—who cannot set up camp down south, that control of international territory should not reside only in the hands of a few countries. In the 1980s, that argument of illegitimate governance of Antarctica as the supposed “common heritage of mankind” reached the floor of the U.N. General Assembly. When the dust settled, the Antarctic Treaty community had widened its membership slightly, but doubts remain.

Man Running Through Snow
The Nimrod held up in the ice (Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia).

In an energy-hungry future, it is unclear whether the administration of Antarctica would survive a fierce international dispute. The few administrative bodies, the ATCM (Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting), the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, COMNAP (Committee of National Antarctic Programs) and SCAR (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research), have no executive or judicial power over the Treaty’s signatory nations. That power, as far as it exists in such a lightly-structured political scene, rests perhaps with the U.N. and more likely in the usual diplomatic offices of the more powerful nations. From the beginning, the underlying claims have been politely ignored. Cold War politicians could act nobly toward the distant, difficult ice; tomorrow’s petroleum-dependent nations may not.

Would the Antarctic Treaty be strong enough to discourage a determined unilateral exploration for offshore oil? Could an oil-thirsty signatory nation back out of the Treaty? The Treaty asks merely that nations in a dispute “shall consult among themselves with a view to having the dispute resolved by negotiation, inquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement or other peaceful means of their own choice.” Failing to come to civil terms by those means, the disputing parties could take their case to the International Court of Justice, if they so choose.

In 1991, the Antarctic Treaty community adopted the Protocol on Environmental Protection; chief among its accomplishments was a moratorium on mining (including drilling for oil). Again, however, the legal ramifications extend only to a plan for arbitration. When I asked Jim Barnes of the respected environmental network ASOC (the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition) what defenses were in place beyond the Treaty to deal with an oil-prospecting signatory nation, he said, “Simply put, there are none beyond peer pressure . . . Moreover, if the states in question were not [Treaty] members or Protocol adherents, the picture is even murkier.” In this dark scenario, we are left only with resistance from environmental groups and calls for restraint from those usual diplomatic offices.

No one knows what deposits—I imagine them as the residue of dinosaurs and ferns from the Permian, before the Antarctic continent slid out of the tropics into the polar region—may exist below the ice or the ocean floor. The DOE’s Energy Information Agency website describes a fifty billion barrel estimate for the Ross and Weddell Sea areas, part of what may be the world’s “last supergiant oil field.” (Again, this is only an estimate, as no exploration has been done.) In a speech to a SCAR committee in 2006, the noted Iranian oil expert Dr. Ali Samsam Bakhtiari said, “At $US150 or $US200 [per barrel] it would make economic sense to exploit even Antarctic energy.” This was at a time when those prices seemed pie-in-the-sky. “[Antarctica] is the big—and the last—question on the globe for the oil industry,” Bakhtiari said, and “the day they decide, they will go in.”

Despite Dr. Bakhtiari’s stark assessment, it’s unclear if the changing climate will allow access to Antarctic oil. We can assume that for the foreseeable future Antarctica’s weather and waters will remain the most difficult on Earth. Katabatic winds fall off the ice caps like freight trains. Icebergs are innumerable. The massive gyre of sea ice in the Weddell Sea that caught and destroyed Shackleton’s ship Endurance in 1915 is still a dangerous place for modern icebreakers (as the 2007 sinking of the ice-strengthened MS Explorer in the much gentler Bransfield Strait reminded us). The expansion of sea ice every winter around Antarctica—effectively doubling the continent’s size and sealing off its ocean approaches—is the single greatest seasonal event on the planet.

Meanwhile, thousands of scientists and graduate students are busy studying Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. What role these gleaners of data will play in fending off the nationalists and the energy extractors is yet to be seen. One potential irony is that as researchers learn more about the role of Antarctica in global climate change, the role of Antarctica in global energy politics may change so much that the voices of science will lose their relevance. This isolated scientific commons may succumb to the geopolitical commons.

Already in the Antarctic there’s a hint of the assertiveness we’ve seen up in the warming Arctic. No one is boldly planting flags in the seafloor of the Southern Ocean (as Russia did in the Arctic), but things are heating up. Despite the success of the 2007/2009 International Polar Year (IPY), the fifty-year follow-up to the IGY, scientific cooperation cannot guarantee future political cooperation. At the same time that scientists from over sixty nations were jointly studying physical, biological, and social topics in the polar regions, some of their governments were altering the political paperwork. Signatories to the Antarctic Treaty cannot expand their old claims, but the Treaty ran afoul of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which mandated that coastal nations define (or forfeit) their ownership of continental shelves by May 2009. Nations were caught between an ethical prohibition and a necessary acquisition. In the end, Australia quietly mapped its Antarctic waters, while New Zealand formally reserved the right to do so; both, it should be said, have also restated their allegiance to the Treaty.

More notably, the U.K. is laying a bold claim to one million square kilometers (386,000 square miles) of seafloor off its piece of the pie, in defiance of Chile and Argentina (who have each declared rights to Exclusive Economic Zones in the area) and nearly a dozen other nations who have bases along that coastline. They’ve made claims around the Falklands and South Georgia as well. In preparation for the coming crises in energy, water, and food, the Foreign Office seems to be looking south and throwing down the gauntlet.

No other nation, traditional claimant or otherwise, has filed a request for recognition of their piece of the Antarctic continental shelf, though they may be diplomatically waiting until the last minute. Perhaps history will record the half-century of peaceful co-existence between the IGY and the IPY as an anomaly of the modern era, a transitional period while we with one hand preserved the polar landscape and with the other prepared to make it useful.

So if you’re planning to hide in East Antarctica’s white space during the coming destabilization, keep in mind that you will be trespassing. That said, I wouldn’t worry about hassles from a border patrol. As Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a survivor of Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition and the best writer from Antarctica’s age of exploration, pointed out in The Worst Journey in the World: “No Foreign Office can trace the frontier between King Edward’s Plateau and King Haakon’s.” Whatever happens in the name of national self-interest, for whoever hunkers down between the lines of longitude, most of interior East Antarctica should remain cold, isolated, and simple, little more on the map than what one writer has called a “known white spot.”

West Antarctica, in contrast, grows more complex. A key fact is that it is a marine ice sheet, the last left on Earth since the peak of the ice age. The foundation of the West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS) is as much as two kilometers below sea level. The slight global rise in air temperature incurred so far cannot seriously affect the immense, cold mass of the ice sheet, but warming/rising waters should. (If you live near a pond that freezes, you may have noted that the ice thins from below each spring.) Scientists have long been concerned that this marine underpinning makes the West liable to collapse once sea levels begin to rise.

Some changes in WAIS stability may be slow responses to climatic changes that happened millennia ago, or they may all be our responsibility. A collapse is expected to take centuries, but it may take decades; either way, it may have already begun. The ice streams of West Antarctica, for example—fast-moving channels of ice within the ice sheet—are changing, but in ways not yet understood. Some ice streams are thickening while others are thinning, and some are speeding up while others are slowing down. Where certain glaciers meet the sea, however, icebergs have been breaking off in ever-increasing quantity. The net result, according to a study released in 2008, is that the WAIS is losing ice 75 percent faster than it did ten years ago.

Tent Surrounded by Blocks of Snow
A Scott tent and snowblock windbreak in West Antarctica.

At the 2007 WALSE (West Antarctic Links to Sea-Level Estimation) Workshop, twenty-five prominent US and U.K. scientists signed on to a hypothesis suggesting that new wind patterns over the Southern Ocean (“caused by human influence and/or natural variability”) may be altering ocean currents, causing an upwelling of warmer water under the ice shelves. New 2008 satellite data seem to confirm that this upwelling may be destabilizing the WAIS. Researchers are paying a lot of attention to the Thwaites Glacier, which has been emptying out briskly into the Amundsen Sea. The Thwaites and two other nearby glaciers are already adding at least a millimeter to sea level every four years. For two months in the austral summer of 2004/2005, a joint British and American program used ice-penetrating radar mounted on small Twin Otter aircraft to map sub-ice West Antarctic topography, and found a “broad basin fed by a set of large valleys” underlying the Thwaites. Should the leading edge of the Thwaites retreat beyond its current grounding line into that broad basin, the WAIS may reach a tipping point. Calving from the Thwaites and those large valleys may accelerate beyond all expectation. No other ice sheet on the planet is as tenuous.

The well-documented 2002 collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula may serve as a model; scientists have noted up to an eightfold increase in the speed of some glaciers once hemmed in by the ice shelf. As one researcher described it, the ice shelves serve as “flying buttresses” to the inland cathedrals of ice. As the ice shelves respond with surprising sensitivity to even slight warming, the ice behind is released. That said, researchers are not yet describing a fast-moving catastrophe in West Antarctica; after all, this is an ice sheet that took ages to form, and even a doubling of flow rates would add only millimeters per year to sea level. For the WAIS to collapse within a century, its speed would need to increase fifty-fold.

The November 2007 report of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made a cautious prediction that sea levels would rise seventeen inches by 2050. This will be tragic enough, but given the potential of the entire WAIS—all 2.2 million cubic kilometers of it—to raise sea levels about seventeen feet, the IPCC report could have sounded a stronger warning. The Panel balked, however, at forecasting the behavior of the WAIS—the largest likely contributor to higher sea levels—because too little research has been published on its recent dramatic changes. The IPCC therefore decided not to predict an upper limit to sea level rise.

As each Antarctic summer ends, and scientists retreat from their fieldwork to write their papers, we can expect a steady stream of new findings and forecast revisions. Each will try to clarify and verify the likely behavior of the WAIS, but already the excitable media and conservative scientists have found common ground talking about potential tipping points.

For someone wishing to acclimate to the lunar icescape of East Antarctica, West Antarctica is a fine intermediate step. And so it was for me, when in November 1998, my fourth Antarctic summer, I was sent out to be the Fuels Operator at a large West Antarctic field camp. I was given twenty-four hours notice for a seven-week stint: “We need you to go to Siple Dome tomorrow. You’ll be there through Christmas. You can have the rest of the day off to pack.” It was my first big journey into the Antarctic hinterlands, and there I found a version of what awaited me later in the East: same endless expanse of bland snowfields, same potential for whiteouts and blizzards, but with milder temperatures at low elevation.

One day in mid-November, I found myself miles from camp snowmobiling through dense fog and blowing snow. Usually I worked around Siple, fueling aircraft, trundling fuel to heaters or helping other staff, but Mike Willis, a Scottish graduate student at Ohio State, had invited me out for the day to help gather raw data about the WAIS. The thick weather reduced our visibility to about ten feet, but Mike was nonchalant. Bad weather and delayed flights were so common that the camp was nicknamed Siple Doom. We sped along with no visual reference points other than the fluctuating textures of snow directly around our machines. A vague sun lit the scene. I felt like a bubble moving sideways through a glass of milk.

Navigating solely by GPS, Mike had wrapped the handheld unit in foam, and duct-taped it to the handlebars. He kept the wired battery pack warm inside a parka pocket. Knowing that our way through the whiteout was smooth and featureless, devoid of crevasses or sastrugi, Mike could stare at the GPS screen and steer without bothering to look forward. I followed, marveling at our blind confidence.

At each data site, we used long-duration GPS recordings—from a larger, scientific unit, the size of a toaster—to determine, with an error range of mere millimeters, the annual change in position of three cheap aluminum poles. The poles had been there for years, flowing slightly outward with the ice stream and growing shorter as snow accumulated around them. In a previous visit, the rate of accumulation would have been verified by taking a shallow core sample and measuring the depth at which he could detect beta-radiation from the atmospheric bomb tests of the 1950s and 1960s. Now, Mike set up the GPS unit and let it fine-tune its position with the satellites for an hour while we played hacky-sack to keep warm or chatted through the silence.

When I first arrived at Siple Dome, I’d been struck by the precise layout of the camp. Our tents seemed huddled against the Antarctic emptiness. As in a movie set or a military camp, everything we bring or do in the construction of an Antarctic community is marked by its intent, laid bare. We arrange things in the midst of nothing. Arriving by plane, I first saw the distant camp as a tiny dark raft in the white ocean, then as a pragmatic village set down beside its ten-thousand-foot skiway (a runway for planes on skis). Like the skiway, our nine communal tents—called Jamesways—were set up with their long axis parallel to the prevailing wind, to reduce the accumulation of blowing snow. Between the Jamesways and the parallel storage line five hundred feet away was a section of groomed snow that somehow felt like a front yard. In it were piles of in-bound and out-bound cargo, a small makeshift sauna built of scrap lumber, and three outhouses in a neat row. It’s strange how, after several days of moving through it, a blank space like this pretends to be familiar ground. In reality, the Siple camp and skiway could be moved ten miles East and no one would notice.

The Jamesways, built of heavy green canvas over wooden arches and a wooden floor, date back to the Korean War. Though set beside each other in military precision, they looked like Algonquin longhouses and reeked of home, in a way that nylon tents cannot. The dark interior of a Jamesway was a relief from the glare of the snow under twenty-four-hour sunlight. Within the shade of the kitchen/dining tent, the sleeping tents, and the recreation tent, we also enjoyed fresh bread, our warm cots and our TV/VCR. Only a few of the fifty-odd people camped out at Siple Dome spent much free time skiing or walking the icescape; mostly, we retreated into the regulated, familiar space to read, listen to music, watch movies or talk. Mike and I played Scrabble, placing hardwood tiles onto their little squares and quibbling over Scottish nouns.

The ice streams flowing into the Ross Ice Shelf had been the main object of West Antarctic study for several years, as various research projects—like Mike’s—tried to puzzle out their mass balance and flow rates. (Among their findings, surprisingly, was that some ice streams are sensitive even to the rise and fall of the tide.) Most of the crowd camped out at Siple Dome, however, were ice core drillers. Well-educated roughnecks, the drillers were split into two teams working difficult twelve-hour shifts. Their hundred-foot drill tower was near the heart of the Siple ice dome, which sloped imperceptibly away from the camp. The layers within the kilometer of ice below the rig were undistorted by ice flow, providing a stable seasonal record of snowfall going back ninety thousand years. Each length of four-inch diameter core the drillers extracted was lovingly, gingerly wiped down, wrapped, boxed and stored in an excavated chamber beside the rig. Incongruously, each core came out dripping with n-butyl acetate, a toxic, flammable solvent poured down the drill hole to stabilize it at depth. That liquid would not be recovered.

I descended into the ice core storage chamber, passing through a curtain of plastic strips as if entering a giant supermarket freezer. I found perfect stacks of boxed cores stored to decompress for a year, and surprisingly, a well-lit (but unheated) laboratory. The equipment on a crude two-by-four bench built against the snow wall included a scanner and a computer monitor; on the monitor was an image of a thin ice core slice scanned with polarized light. Each crystal, in its unique orientation, glowed a different bright color. Each crystal was huge, enlarged by vast pressure from above. And like us, each had its little story: Here is my age and Here is my chemistry.

We drank at Siple, though during my term mostly in moderation. This had not always been the case. When not working heroically to support world-class science, the drillers sometimes hooted and ran snowmobiles through the kitchen. They had a work-hard, play-hard ethic. My Fuels predecessor joined in, but was asked to leave after allegedly sprawling half-naked in the snow; there was a rule against this. Her sudden departure meant my hasty arrival.

Things at Siple had settled down by the December solstice, when four women celebrated by drinking wine as they played golf across the hard snow of the front yard. The rest of us relaxed outside with beers, sitting in folding chairs oriented toward the hesitating, circling sun.

One of those four golfers joined me, unwillingly, on my flight out of Siple. I was to be the only passenger, but Bella had been fired, unfairly, for drinking hard after work with others the night before. Worse, the plane was freezing; it was a “cold deck” flight, unheated because we were transporting old ice cores on the first leg of their journey back to the US. Deafened by the roar of the LC-130 Hercules turbojets, Bella hunched deep inside her parka, while I mused, shivered, and stared out through a small porthole at the Ross Ice Shelf. Dozens of white insulated ice core boxes were strapped down along the center of the fuselage, each one holding particles that once drifted down from an ancient sky exactly as cold as the tube in which we flew.

A Man Swings from a Huge Arch
Any unused equipment, like this section of arch structures, is apt to be repurposed.

As it turned out, Bella and I would work closely together two years later at my first East Antarctic camp. She was instrumental in my adjustment to the extremes of the East. While I clambered up, gasping, into the insulated box on stilts that held the camp’s electronics and bunks, Bella set up a tent for herself in the –30°F sunshine. I was content to cook up some mac and cheese, but she excavated angel hair pasta, pesto, and scallops from a cargo line buried under drifted snow. Bella taught me how to plan and pack the ten thousand things necessary for these hard journeys; I learned from her also, as the days ticked by, that with those things East Antarctic life wasn’t so hard. As long as we built a camp from a wealth of warehoused equipment, and fed ourselves from the government larder, the hard work in East Antarctica consisted of a willingness to put on parka and boots and trudge outside into all weathers. The warm building, idling machine, and easy conversation were never far away, the struggles of Shackleton a conversation piece, nothing more. Though neither of us thought of it this way at the time, what Bella taught me was to ignore the thin veil between the dangers of Antarctica and our comfortable occupation of it.

In all my Antarctic seasons, that veil was torn only rarely, and usually as the result of a lousy decision. A Herc dropped a ski into a crevasse it had not carefully scouted for; a field team had a badly anchored tent ripped away by a five-day katabatic gale; a scientist duct-taped the throttle on his snowmobile to make it easier to pull-start, but then watched it—with his survival kit aboard—roar out of sight across the ice cap. As for me, I slid face first at high speed down a long ice slope, realizing only as a ledge loomed that I was 120 miles away from the nearest nurse. In all these cases, however, no one was hurt.

Defensive architecture, heavy drinkers, and bad decisions aren’t the only thing laid bare. Emotional fragility, too, stands out like a tent against the white horizon. The cheerful diligence shown by Mike and Bella is the essence of success in a difficult place. There is little margin for instability. Depressives and complainers are not rehired. A graduate student just days away from deploying with Bella and me into the field was suspected of schizophrenia; he had made public statements about aliens on the ice cap, communication between dreamers, and we weren’t sure how he’d respond to intense isolation. So we left him behind.

Back at Siple, one scene that still haunts me happened in the front yard. A coworker rattled up in a steel-tracked Caterpillar forklift and stopped, apropos of nothing, to lean out and tell me in a few sentences framed by staccato laughter that he was anxious about the direction of his life. He was lonely. Sex was confusing. He didn’t like his odds of avoiding cancer. I nodded, as confused as I was concerned, while he quickly clattered off to use his phallic machine on barrels of diesel fuel and n-butyl acetate. All this within Siple Doom’s familiar fog and light snow, white action obscuring dark fear.

When we find ourselves in Melville’s heartless immensity—those cold, oceanic places and moments in which we feel threatened by the void—mortality haunts us. East Antarctica and the open seas are prime examples, but fragments of the immensity are everywhere. We grow defensive sometimes in a dark room, under the vast night sky, or in anything resembling silence. We forget that absences are neutral, not negative.

Just as Melville pointed out that his sailors were sufficiently freaked out by open water to hug their ships when swimming, I often felt that USAP residents whistled their way past the cold, encircling graveyard of Antarctica’s antibiotic space. Where better to stare shivering at the abstract root of nature? And yet we don’t. We’re not frightened, but only because we’re safe and comfortable in our puffy parkas, tracked vehicles, heated tents, and hyperinsulated elevated buildings, and content with our noble sense of purpose. Even those of us who walk alone out of sight to flirt with crevasses are just dancing on our leash. In the end, we all celebrate the ship, not the ocean, because the ship sustains us. Stripped down in the immensity, we recognize our insignificance.

Our species is generally terrified of nature. We have modified the Earth for our purposes, assuaging fear by pushing the emptiness back. All of our artificial actions presuppose a separation from the flow of life. We are dislocated from an unfamiliar wildness we instead politicize or romanticize. We continue to claim territory in order to alter it. We alter it to make it useful. Most of us are unwilling to walk outside into unaltered terrain (if we can find it); when we do, a few insects force us back. And even those who talk lovingly of nature think of it as an “it,” outside of human affairs, as I do here.

We have chosen, apparently, to fill the void. On all of Earth’s landmasses but Antarctica, the human presence resembles a growing swarm of locusts. Our population reached one billion in 1804, only sixteen years before humans first laid eyes on Antarctica, then hit two billion in 1925, a few years after Ernest Shackleton died on South Georgia. As the twentieth century closed, while I was snowmobiling through fog at Siple Dome, there were suddenly six billion of us. Twelve years later, in 2011, we’re projected to reach seven billion. Whether the oceans rise seventeen inches or seventeen feet by 2050, we’ll already have passed the nine billion mark.

We don’t hear much about overpopulation in public discourse, but the effects of our metastasizing growth on all other life and landforms are being enumerated daily. Climate change is merely a symptom. The balance of life that fostered our species is already lost. We exhaust the soil with petrochemical fertilizers, rather than limit our population to something for which ordinary nature can provide. The petroleum economy, whose quest may yet reach Antarctic waters, is a drunken frenzy; from 1990 to 2005 alone, world energy consumption increased 33 percent. (Ironically, even in Antarctic communities, we make ice cubes by burning oil.) We are the toolmakers who believe that the transformed Earth is a tool in itself; from its platform, we casually send shuttles into orbit and planes to the South Pole.

Snow Swells Towards a Cloudy Sky
During austral summers, the sun circles the sky.

Only in the Antarctic can you find terrestrial quietude on such a vast scale. A continent the size of India and China combined has a summer population between four and five thousand; in winter, it drops to about one thousand. The inhuman qualities of the Antarctic—space, silence, unaltered wildness—challenged me constantly, seduced me entirely. I was smitten on arrival. I had no idea before then how much I craved contact with the emptiness we have now condemned elsewhere on the planet.

We are now growing terrified—assuming we’re paying attention—of the consequences of our actions. As we wake slowly, too slowly, to the crisis, lumbering forward nonetheless, we wake also to our narcissism: Self is the only subject that most of us are fluent on. Like Shackleton, we limp along on our journey, cataloguing our injuries, fearing the new terrain, sensing our self-destruction.

My conceit here—about hiding in East Antarctica—is meant to point out both the unsustainability of the status quo and the impossibility of retreat. Both are too difficult, too costly, too empty. You’ll have to stay where you are. On the ice, you would not be a resident, much less an anchorite meditating on the ineffable landscape; you would be, as I have been, an elite emissary from the polluted world living at the bitter end of civilization, dependent on a long and fragile supply line. A well-funded, transient life is possible on the ice cap, but not a permanent residency. Particularly when all hell has broken loose back home.

So where should you go as things get worse? Go inward, but with a new purpose. We are fluent on what the self wants, but we are willfully ignorant about how to change its priorities. We can neither abandon our course nor lessen the damage without reflection upon who we are and what we do.

In 1948, still suffering in body and mind from his 1912 Antarctic journeys, and a witness to the catastrophic World Wars, Apsley Cherry-Garrard put it this way:

Human nature does not change: it becomes more dangerous. Those who guide the world now may think they are doing quite well: so perhaps did the dodo.

Men, having destroyed the whales, may end by destroying himself . . . All may follow the mammoths and dinosaurs into fossilized oblivion, like the ferns which grew at the South Pole two hundred million years ago.

Picture yourself in a world hostile to life. You won’t have to go to East Antarctica for that.


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