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Antarctica’s Life: Adapting to Change

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By Roff Smith Photographs by Maria Stenzel

Earth’s harshest land, Antarctica beckons scientists—and 15,000 tourists a year—with crystalline air, ancient ice, and soul-shattering wildness.

Nearing the crater rim, Rick Aster paused for a warning: "Don't try to run if it erupts. Just stand still, look up, and be ready to step aside if anything comes your way. This thing can throw lava bombs the size of a sofa."

Aster, a geophysicist from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, issued this warning at the summit of Mount Erebus, a massive volcano thrusting nearly two and a half miles above the Ross Sea off the coast of East Antarctica.

Nausea Knob is the nickname volcanologists have given the top of this mountain at the bottom of the world, and it's easy to smell why. The sharp stink of hydrogen sulfide, hydrochloric acid, and sulfur dioxide, along with high altitude, makes climbing here queasy work. But when I peered over the rim of the crater into a smoky chasm 2,000 feet (610 meters) across and more than 700 feet (213 meters) deep, queasiness gave way to awe. Jets of steam and acrid vapor hissed from vents in the rock far below, staining the cliffs a greenish yellow. At the bottom of the pit, partly obscured by swirling smoke, lay a pool of lava. A thin, peppery crust covered most of its surface, concealing the glowing coals underneath. Without warning it bubbled into a lurid orange bloom. The mountain rumbled like the deepest bass on a giant pipe organ.

"That lava has been bubbling for decades, perhaps centuries," Aster explained. "You are looking at one of the few permanent lava lakes in the world—a living window into what goes on miles below the Earth's surface."

Panting in the thin air, I turned from the seething crater to gaze at the immense world of ice and snow around me. It was late in the evening and clear enough to see the frozen peak of Mount Melbourne, 200 miles (322 kilometers) away. Pale gold sunlight shimmered on a glacier. The stillness was profound.

To polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, Antarctica was not merely the world's highest, driest, and coldest continent but also a place that draws out the best in the human spirit. "In spite of this dusty workaday life I have ideals, and far away in my own White South I open my arms to the romance of it all and it abides with me now," he wrote to a friend in England in 1917. Antarctica remains such a place, capable of reaching out and touching the imagination. In a world rapidly growing small and homogeneous, discoveries here are still made on a grand scale. As recently as 1996 satellite data revealed a huge lake—the existence of which was suspected since the mid-1970s—buried beneath two miles of ice near Vostok, an old Russian outpost high on the polar plateau. Not since 1858, when Africa explorer John Speke stood on the banks of Lake Victoria, the main headwaters of the Nile, has such a vast "new" body of water been put on the map. And a stony meteorite found in the Transantarctic Mountains may hold evidence of life on Mars.

There are no places left like Antarctica: a wilderness continent that offers scientists unique views of the workings of the Earth—of active volcanoes, of fast-flowing glaciers, of unstable ice sheets that slide inexorably to the coast. Katabatic winds roll down the polar plateau at speeds up to 180 miles (290 kilometers) an hour. Some of the world's most violent squalls and mountainous seas batter the lonely archipelagoes off the Antarctic Peninsula. The interior may be a sterile void, where temperatures plunge to minus 120°F (minus 84°C), yet the frigid waters that surround the continent are among the world's richest and most biologically diverse. Antarctica influences weather patterns across the Southern Hemisphere, shapes ocean currents throughout the world, and acts as a sobering litmus for humanity's use and abuse of the planet.

For all its remoteness and alien majesty, Antarctica is accessible now as never before. More than 250 flights land at the South Pole each summer, bringing construction crews and hundreds of tons of building material for the high-tech, 153-million-dollar base the United States Antarctic Program is building there. France and Italy are spending 25 million dollars to set up Concordia, an international research facility at a place called Dome C—an even higher, colder, and more remote part of the polar plateau. Armadas of cruise ships bring more than 12,000 tourists every year, all in search of their own White South, and the numbers keep growing.

McMurdo Station, MacTown to its residents, is the local headquarters of the National Science Foundation, which operates the U.S. Antarctic Program at a cost of 200 million dollars a year. It is the largest settlement on the continent, with a summertime population of about 1,100, a busy airport, ATMs, speed-limit signs, and a shuttle bus that circulates commuters to New Zealand's Scott Base, two miles away.

MacTown sprawls over a rocky promontory on Ross Island, the classic gateway for expeditions to the interior since Robert Scott's first attempt on the South Pole in 1902. As I walked its muddy streets (the ice melts for a few weeks during high summer) I felt in turn as though I were at an Alaska mining camp, a technical college campus, and a base for the 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard, whose pilots provide much of the transportation and logistical support on the continent.

But McMurdo's setting—the dazzling white panorama of the Royal Society Range that sweeps across the western sky—is pure Antarctica. The dazzle may not be the main draw for scientists, but it has a lot to do with bringing the summer support personnel, who outnumber scientists by about three to one.

"I would have taken any job," says Kristan Sabbatini, who left her home in Juneau, Alaska, for a summer job as a janitor at McMurdo. "When I saw the job ad on the Internet, I knew I had to go for it. It may only be cleaning toilets—but those toilets are in Antarctica."

For Kristan and her co-workers, Antarctica is a quirky existence of dormitory rooms, dining halls, bars, and insider jokes. "The first time you come down it's for the adventure," says Mark Melcon, a carpenter better known as "Commander," who has spent 21 of the past 24 summers working in Antarctica. "The second time it's for the money, and if you come after that, it's because the people here have become your family." Many full-timers joke that they are "bipolar," since they often spend the other half of the year working in Greenland or elsewhere in the Arctic.

"This is a strange, almost classless, society," observed Josh Landis, a journalist who gave up a rent-controlled apartment in trendy West Greenwich Village, New York, for a summer position as editor of the Antarctic Sun (circulation 700), the weekly newspaper for McMurdo Station and the South Pole. "Everybody dresses in the same red government-issue parkas. It is impossible to tell who is rich and who is poor, who is a world-famous scientist and who is the janitor. Down here it doesn't matter.

"The only social distinction," Landis said, "is mobility—who can get off the base and who has to stay. Mobility gives you status. A general assistant is one of the lowest paid jobs here—about $350 a week—but since assistants often get out in the field to give scientists a hand, they are seriously envied."

Nobody owns Antarctica. Earth's fifth largest continent has been set aside as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science since the signing of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. (Protection was extended to the surrounding oceans in 1982.) The treaty's 45 signatories represent about 65 percent of humanity.

"This is the Switzerland of science," says Chris Martin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "Scientists and universities that would be competitors in the real world are collaborators and colleagues here."

The collaboration not only promotes science but also preserves Antarctica's considerable resources. Geologists already know there are coal seams in the Transantarctic Mountains. They suspect oil may lie in the offshore basins of the Antarctic Peninsula. Traces of gold, platinum, and copper have been found scattered around the continent. But at an international conference in 1991, treaty nations agreed to ban attempts at mineral extraction until at least 2048. For now science will be Antarctica's major industry.

Violent storms on the surface of the sun were playing havoc with communications across Antarctica the morning Jack Hawkins flew me by helicopter to Darwin Glacier. Hawkins was forced to relay his messages to McMurdo via a cargo plane flying above us en route to the South Pole. The casual grumbling of the flight crews, buglike in their visored helmets, coupled with the frozen wastes spreading out in every direction made me feel as though I had slipped into the pages of a post-apocalyptic novel.

Antarctica may be drier than the Sahara and as cold as Mars—and nearly as lifeless—but it wasn't always like this. We were on our way to a field camp in the Transantarctic Mountains, about 180 miles south of McMurdo, where geologists were looking back 270 million years to a time when Antarctica was a wilderness of forests, tundra, and marsh—and part of a giant continent called Gondwana.

"The scenery would have resembled parts of Alaska perhaps, with a few large glaciers around," said Rosemary Askin, a paleontologist with Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center. Askin has been studying pollen in the fossil record to get an idea of Gondwana's climate and the age of Antarctica's rocks.

The next morning found us on an outcrop of Permian sandstone, about 8,500 feet (2,590 meters) up a splintery tower of rock and ice called Mount Henderson. It was a beautiful summer day—a balmy 38°F (3 Celsius) without a breath of wind—so that even though we were at 80° south latitude we worked in shirtsleeves. Chips of petrified wood as crisp as freshly hewn timber lay scattered under our boots, despite our being at least 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers) from the nearest living tree.

"This is probably Glossopteris wood," Askin explained, handing me the stump of an ancient sapling. "It was a deciduous tree that also lived in South America, Africa, India, and Australia. Finding it in Antarctica was one of the things that proved the continents must have been linked at one time."

I turned it over in my hand, intrigued by its growth rings, tangible markers of seasons a quarter of a billion years distant. "When this was growing, Antarctica was about as far south as it is today," Askin continued. "You can see from the rings that the tree stopped growing during the long months of winter darkness, then grew extremely fast when the sun reappeared in summer."

As we scrambled over the rock, she pieced together a sequence of ancient landscapes as neatly as though turning the pages of a book—a glacial moraine, a muddy lake, a swamp that became a bed of coal. An ancient streambed showed the way currents had flowed 270 million years ago. The ancestors of modern horsetail bushes, which flourished on the banks of this prehistoric stream, left crisp imprints in the sandstone. "That is one of the joys of working here," Askin said. "The dry polar climate preserves everything perfectly."

Glaciologists find an equally well-preserved record in Antarctica. More than 99 percent of the continent is covered by ice in massive beds up to 15,600 feet (4,755 meters) thick—the result of a slow but steady accumulation of snowfall over eons. Gas bubbles sealed in the ice act as atmospheric time capsules. By drilling ice cores and analyzing the bubbles to compare them with samples of today's atmosphere, glaciologists can follow the course of Earth's climate through the past 420,000 years, through four separate ice ages, and spot the sharp rise in greenhouse gases that are associated with mankind's burning of fossil fuels.

Antarctica is also the nest where man-made pollutants called chlorofluorocarbons come to roost. Stratospheric winds carry these compounds, long used in aerosols and coolants, south, where they mix with high-altitude clouds in the cold and dark of Antarctica's winter. As the sun returns in spring, these frozen chemical clouds react with its rays, releasing chlorine molecules that temporarily dissolve the thin layer of ozone that protects earthbound life from harmful solar radiation. First noted in 1985 by three British scientists working at Halley and Faraday Research Stations, the ozone hole reappears each spring.

For those who gaze outward to the rest of the universe, the last place on Earth has become a stepladder to the stars. When I boarded City of Albany, a ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules cargo plane bound for the South Pole, all of my fellow passengers were astrophysicists.

A three-hour flight up the Beardmore Glacier, where Shackleton and Scott both struggled for weeks, brought us to the ice runway at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, where City of Albany skidded to a halt in a roar of reversed engines and blowing snow. We scrambled out of the hatch, blinking in the polar glare and taking in the heartbreaking desolation that stretched to every horizon. It was a perfect summer day. The temperature stood at minus 28°F (minus 33°C), the windchill at minus 54°F (minus 48°C), and a double halo of ice crystals circled the sun.

"Welcome to the South Pole," said station manager Katy Jensen. She led us into the cavernous dome that forms the heart of the base. We took seats in a lounge area, where she went through the rules and peculiarities of life at the Pole: the weekly limit of two two-minute showers, cautions about frostbite, the need to acclimatize slowly to the 9,301-foot (2,835 meter) elevation. Raucous jubilation from the next room drowned out her briefing.

"Sounds like some pretty serious drinking going on," I remarked.

"Yes, I expect so," she laughed. "The fresh milk came in on your plane—we've all been looking forward to it."

Americans have been living continuously at the Pole since 1956. Drifting snow long ago buried the original base. With this in mind, work has begun on a new base, due to open in 2006, which can be jacked up periodically to keep it above the encroaching drifts.

"This is the nearest thing on Earth to building a space station," maintains construction boss Carlton Walker. "Each part of the station is designed so that it can fit inside the hold of a Hercules and then be assembled here in some of the most extreme conditions imaginable. We've had to work in windchills of minus 142°F (minus 97°C). NASA is interested in how we manage this since it has real applications for them."

"It's the next best thing to being there," says Jeffery Peterson, an astrophysicist from Carnegie Mellon University, about Antarctica's hostile, spacelike conditions. Peterson is chief scientist for the high-resolution Viper radio telescope. "Viewing conditions here are nearly as good as for the Hubble Space Telescope. We are almost 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) high and hundreds of miles from the ocean. There is virtually no water vapor in the air, the sky is transparent, and the atmosphere is extremely stable. This is a perfect window to the universe."

The discovery in 1965 of cosmic background radiation, the remnants of the big bang, generated a burst of interest in polar astronomy. "From here we can look back 13 billion years to a time when the universe existed simply as plasma—a vast cloud of incandescent gas," says Peterson. Since 1991 the National Science Foundation's Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica has built some of the world's most sophisticated infrared, microwave, and radio telescopes at the South Pole. Peterson's Viper radio telescope scans the cosmic background radiation looking for subtle temperature variations—as small as one one-hundred-thousandth of a degree—caused by the uneven distribution of matter in the first few seconds of the universe. These primeval seeds eventually curdled into vast structures such as stars, planets, galaxies, and clusters of galaxies. Another telescope, astro, probes our own galaxy, looking at how stars form. Still another, dasi, deciphers clues to the size and shape of the universe, how it formed and how it might end.

The most bizarre is amanda—Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array—a gigantic telescope that isn't pointed at the sky at all but is aimed instead into the ice in a search for elusive subatomic particles called neutrinos. These mysterious entities—no one is sure if they even have mass—slip through the universe like ghosts. Astronomers believe these emissaries from deep space can provide information about the birth of black holes, supernova explosions, and the power sources at the heart of galaxies.

But detecting a neutrino is difficult. "They leave no trace," says Darryn Schneider, a physicist from the University of Wisconsin. "Occasionally, however, they interact with the polar ice after streaming through the Earth, and when this happens, a particle called a muon is created. Muons give off a blue glow, and this can be used to trace the path of the neutrino."

Because muons are also created by cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere, the only way for scientists to be sure the muons they observe have actually been created by neutrinos is to point their telescope into the Earth, using the planet itself as a gigantic filter. amanda is a ring of 19 holes in the ice, all more than a mile (1.6 kilometers) deep, into which optical sensors arranged in long strings resembling Christmas tree lights have been lowered. "The ice is pure and transparent," says Schneider, "allowing us to see the muon's glow."

Christmas lights at home in Australia beckoned, and I left Antarctica for a few weeks, returning in January by way of the Drake Passage, the ferocious stretch of water south of Cape Horn. Force 10 gales are common. Seas can be huge. As the Chilean seaport of Punta Arenas slipped astern, I noticed the scientists around me were walking pharmacopoeias of scopolamine patches and Marezine, joking about the Drake tax—the toll in seasickness and discomfort that goes hand in hand with travel in these petulant waters.

I was aboard the Yuzhmorgeologiya, a Russian-flagged research vessel on charter to the U.S. Antarctic Marine Living Resources (USAMLR) program. The crew was heading south for a three-month survey of the Scotia Sea and the coastal waters off the South Shetland Islands as part of an ongoing study of Antarctica's marine ecosystem.

"That ultimately means krill," said Roger Hewitt, the expedition leader, referring to the tiny shrimplike creatures, Euphausia superba, that swarm in Antarctica's seas. "They are the common currency here. Everything eats them, from hundred-ton blue whales to seals and penguins, birds and fish, right on down to the tiny zooplankton that feed on krill larvae."

Humans too. Factory ships take about 100,000 tons of krill each year, together with thousands of tons of various species of fish such as Patagonian toothfish (also known as Chilean sea bass) and Antarctic cod. In an attempt to manage the rich fisheries in Antarctica's otherwise unsupervised waters, the Antarctic Treaty nations formed the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources in 1982. This research voyage aboard the Yuzhmorgeologiya was part of the U.S. contribution to the convention's mission.

The Drake was kind. Two days of easy rollers brought us to the Antarctic Convergence, where the cold, dense, nutrient-laden waters of Antarctica meet the warmer but less fertile currents from the north. On the gently heaving deck of the Yuzhmorgeologiya scientists from the U.S., Chile, Canada, Britain, and South Africa waited as the voyage's first sample net was slowly retrieved from a depth of 500 feet (152 meters). Once on deck, eager hands opened the plastic canister at its tail. A thick pink sludge spilled out and was whisked into a laboratory set up in a shipping container on deck.

"We're looking at abundances as well as the variety of species in the samples," said Kit Clark, a marine biology student from the University of California. "With the krill we measure the length of their bodies, record their sex, and describe their reproductive state. This helps us estimate their age and understand their population demographics."

Over the next few weeks the Yuzhmorgeologiya would steam a sequence of 105-mile-long (169 kilometers) courses through some of Antarctica's best krill fishing grounds, netting samples every 15 miles (24 kilometers) and using state-of-the-art hydroacoustics to take sonar snapshots of sea life—everything from whales to krill larvae—down to depths of 1,600 feet (488 meters). "We want to get the broadest possible picture of the zooplankton community down here," said Valerie Loeb, an oceanographer at California State University, "and then start looking at it in relation to long-term temperature data and climate change."

A survey by an international team of scientists in the summer of 2000 was spurred by concerns that krill stocks may have plummeted by 80 percent since the last major audit in 1981. "We suspect that warmer winters may be having an impact on krill's ability to breed successfully," Loeb said. "Krill feed on algae that grow on the bottom of winter sea ice, but cold winters with extensive sea ice are becoming less frequent. The last successful breeding year for krill was 1995."

I asked Hewitt whether commercial fishing could be causing problems. "We are not as concerned about the quantity of krill being harvested," he said, "as we are about where and when it is being caught."

Krill congregate along submerged shelves and off points of land—convenient pickings for land-based krill predators such as seals and penguins, which establish breeding colonies nearby. "These same easy pickings draw the fishing fleets," Hewitt explained. "Virtually all krill fishing is done within 50 miles (80 kilometers)of these colonies, so while 100,000 tons isn't much in terms of overall krill biomass, it may represent a large portion of the wildlife's food source."

I arranged to join up with a team of researchers on Livingston Island, one of the larger members of the South Shetland archipelago, who study krill from a predator's viewpoint. The Yuzhmorgeologiya anchored off the island on a drizzly morning. A heavy sea was rolling, driven by a 40-knot gale.

"This is as good as it gets," Hewitt yelled above the wind as we began the transfer from ship to shore. I'd been clinging to a rope ladder hanging over the side of the ship, watching the Zodiac below dance on the waves. A sudden surge had boosted it to where Hewitt's head was nearly level with my ankles. I let go of the ladder and sprang, tumbling into the dinghy just as it plunged away. Icy spray slapped my face as I clutched the gunwales. When I looked back, the 5,600-ton Russian trawler seemed to have disappeared in the swell. It reemerged, then sank from sight again as we plunged into another deep trough. Two miles (3.2 kilometers) ahead and partly obscured by mist lay Livingston Island's Cape Shirreff. I felt like a smuggler.

Such landings are nothing new to Wayne Trivelpiece, the director of seabird research for the usamlr program. "I've been coming down here every summer for the past 25 years," he said. He led me along the coast, which was covered with thousands of fur seals and dotted with the nests of 7,700 breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins. They looked surreal, like computer generated extras in a film. The air reeked of guano. Millions of pink splotches on the rocks bore testament to a steady diet of krill.

"By monitoring penguin and fur seal colonies, we can get a pretty accurate idea of how healthy krill stocks are," Trivelpiece said. "During the past ten years we have seen a sharp decline in the survival rate of penguin chicks. Their parents are doing quite well and breeding successfully, but the naive chicks are just not surviving those first tenuous weeks of foraging on their own. With so few krill close by, they have to swim out farther and longer in search of food, making themselves easy snacks for leopard seals."

Equally worrying is the lack of young krill showing up in the penguins' diets, an indication that the krill themselves are not breeding successfully.

"Looking over meteorological records going back to 1903, we are seeing a gradual warming trend here since the 1940s," Trivelpiece said. "NOAA satellite images also record a pronounced change in the cycle of winter sea ice since about 1970. Instead of consistently extensive winter pack we are now getting maybe two good years followed by up to five warm, ice-free winters. No ice means no food for the young krill. What we are seeing here is the first evidence of how a shift in climate may have a surprisingly quick and dramatic impact."

I left Cape Shirreff aboard the Golden Fleece, a 65-foot (20 meter) yacht skippered by Jérôme Poncet, a Frenchman who has explored these waters for 30 years and co-authored several scientific papers on the peninsula's wildlife and grasses.

It was late in the evening two days later when we sailed into Maxwell Bay, a picture-postcard anchorage surrounded by glaciers and mountains on the southern tip of King George Island. The lights of scattered bases twinkling along the shore coupled with the blues CD throbbing softly in the wheelhouse gave the bay an appropriately cosmopolitan feel.

King George Island is Antarctica's Manhattan, a melting pot where Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Poland, Russia, South Korea, and Uruguay all maintain year-round bases. Other nations, including the U.S., Ecuador, Peru, Germany, Netherlands, and the Czech Republic, operate summer camps here as well.

There is a reason this 500-square-mile (805-square-mile) island is the trendiest real estate in Antarctica, but it has less to do with science than with location. King George Island lies only 600 miles (966 kilometers) from South America and has a 4,400-foot (1,341-meter) airstrip to provide quick access. Under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty only nations conducting scientific research in Antarctica have a voice in shaping the continent's future. Setting up a base on King George Island is the simplest way to get that voice.

"We had little experience in Antarctica until we came here in 1988," said Soon-Keun Chang, the commanding officer at South Korea's King Sejong Station. "We considered putting a station on the continent itself, but we realized that would have been much too difficult and expensive to start off with. This seemed like a good place to learn our way around."

Chang spends his winters writing children's books about Antarctica's wildlife and its early explorers. "Antarctica is something new to us in Korea," he explained. "It is important for our children to learn what it means to the world."

It is this softer side of science that gives King George Island its human face. While environmentalists decry the superfluous bases crowded on the island—and it is true that many are here mainly to fly the flag—others see it as a unique international community.

"Here we have a beginning, a light," says Sergio Lizasoain, 69-year-old chief of operations for Chile's Antarctic program, who first came to Antarctica in 1957 during the International Geophysical Year (IGY). "Look around you. On this little island we have people from all over the world living in harmony with each other. There are no borders, no passports, no politics—this is what we had hoped would come about all those years ago during the IGY."

Chile's Presidente Eduardo Frei Base, at the head of Maxwell Bay, is the de facto capital of King George Island. Frei is a town of about 300, complete with minimarket, hospital, post office, chapel, bank, airport, school, and a suburb of ranch-style houses painted in pastel yellows, greens, pinks, and blues. "Antarctica is a great place to bring up kids," María Inés Komlos, the wife of the base commander, told me. "Everything is very family oriented here. It is safe, clean, there are no drugs, no bad influences—just the penguins," she laughed.

We were sitting in the elegantly furnished living room of her three-bedroom home, the Three Tenors singing softly on a stereo in the background. Outside, her two children—twelve-year-old Juan Pablo and ten-year-old Javiera—played on sleds and threw snowballs. "My friends in Santiago thought I might miss the shopping malls during the two years we'll be here," she continued, "but I haven't really missed anything. I still play tennis a couple of times a week in the gymnasium, and we have card nights with friends—things people in small towns do everywhere. We watch the same TV channels that we'd watch at home, and if there is something we can't buy at the supermarket, we can always order it on the Internet."

Chile is one of seven nations that formally claim territory in Antarctica. Although no territorial claims are recognized and all are officially held in abeyance under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty, such homesteading keeps aspirations alive.

Argentina has a similar philosophy, settling families at Esperanza, its village-like base at Hope Bay, on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. "We've had eight babies born here," Juan Carlos Perez Arrieu, the base commander, told me when I stopped in to visit. He showed me the little schoolhouse, quiet now that the base's eight children were in Buenos Aires on summer holiday. "We have the same curriculum here as all the other schools in the state of Tierra del Fuego," he said. I smiled, my mind wandering back to Chile and the yellow pages I had seen in Punta Arenas, which had included numbers in Antarctica. School districts, phone books, and proprietary hospitality—no continent in history has been more urbanely staked out.

It's the Russians who've provided the nearest thing to an invading armada. The collapse of the Soviet Union forced cash-strapped Russian academies to lease their ice-strengthened research vessels to Western tour operators in exchange for hard currency. Antarctica's doors were suddenly thrown wide open. And now every evening around 7:30 the radio in the Golden Fleece's wheelhouse crackles to life as cruise directors on the tour ships working these waters call each other to coordinate their next day's movements. "Nobody wants to pay $20,000 to come to Antarctica and then spend all their time seeing other tourists," explained Poncet, himself a member of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.

It is getting harder and harder to avoid. Tourism in Antarctica is booming—growing by 500 percent in the past decade with little sign of slowing down. Last summer more than 12,000 visitors came to the Ice, mostly on cruise ships from South America. Another 3,000 or so took 14-hour scenic flights from Australia. And an increasing number of adventure travelers are booking guided expeditions—mountaineering, sea kayaking, even 65-day ski treks to the South Pole at the price of $45,000 a head.

We caught up with one cruise ship, Clipper Adventurer, off Paulet Island—a tiny volcanic nub near the Weddell Sea, popular with tourists because of its enormous colony of 60,000 pairs of Adélie penguins. Many of the 113 passengers were ashore, bright in matching red parkas. Most were elderly Americans. Typical were Karen and Bill McClure, of Columbus, Mississippi, who took to cruising after retiring in 1997. "This is our seventh continent," they told me. "We got the idea to come to Antarctica from someone we met on another cruise, and now we're hooked. We simply had no idea how spectacular it is down here."

Governments have traditionally been leery of tourists in Antarctica—mainly out of fear of the whopping rescue bills should something go wrong—but with tourism here to stay, some are getting into the act themselves. In 1996 the British Antarctic Survey, together with the U.K. Antarctic Heritage Trust, restored the derelict base at Port Lockroy and converted it to a stylish museum, complete with gift shop and post office. Almost overnight this 1940s relic became one of Antarctica's most popular tourist attractions, drawing some 7,000 visitors each summer.

We sailed into the picturesque harbor on a sparkling January morning. The weather-beaten hut was nestledon a low, rocky point and might have been a New England lobster shack—except for the gentoo penguins waddling on the porch. Inside the shop I found Jim Fox, a former base commander at Britain's Halley Research Station, sitting behind an old desk franking the mountain of postcards left by tourists from a cruise ship that had visited the previous day. "I'm trying to catch up while it's quiet," he laughed. "Normally we can expect a ship in here every day."

More than 40,000 pieces of tourist mail pass through Port Lockroy's classic red English postbox each summer, while its shop does a brisk trade in T-shirts, postcards, posters, caps, pins, and patches. There are even ties and scarves woven by a firm in Scotland in an "authentic" Antarctic tartan. "We've already sold out of those," Fox said. "They proved very popular with Americans."

Aside from raising money for the museum and other preservation projects, Port Lockroy's tourist appeal also serves a scientific function. By monitoring the health and breeding success of the area's 900 pairs of gentoo penguins, scientists hope to gauge the impact tourism might have on wildlife. So far the news appears to be good. "There's no difference between these penguins that see tourists all the time and those that see none at all," says Fox. Similar studies have come to the same conclusion.

"The way things work now, tourism isn't a problem," Fox said cautiously. "Most come by ship and make a few brief landings. By and large the tour operators do a good job of regulating themselves. But sooner or later someone is going to try to build a hotel down here, and once that happens, answers are going to have to be found for some thorny legal and political questions we've all been putting off."

At Britain's Rothera Research Station the talk is of UV radiation and rapidly warming temperatures rather than tourism. "The Antarctic Peninsula is the world's finest natural laboratory for studying the biological consequences of climate change," says senior scientist Pete Convey. "Nowhere else on Earth can you travel through such a wide gradient of latitudes—from 54° south down to 69° south, perhaps even farther—and directly observe how changes in temperature, ultraviolet radiation, and water affect the same basic community of species."

Convey is conducting a survey to map the outer limits of life on Earth. When we met, he had just returned from an expedition to sample lichens and soil microbes from Ellsworth Land, more than 500 miles (805 kilometers) farther south.

Jérôme Poncet, during our journey along the Antarctic Peninsula, planned to stop at another remote spot—a little-known archipelago named the Terra Firma Islands, lying at 68° 42´ south. It was here, in 1984, that Poncet discovered the southernmost location of the world's southernmost flower, a cushion plant called Colobanthus quitensis, and its southernmost grass, Deschampsia antarctica. With typical Antarctic neighborliness he'd agreed to bring back some samples for Convey. We set off at dawn, navigating seldom visited waters with an Admiralty chart that warned of misplaced capes, uncharted reefs, and "numerous unidentified dangers thought likely to exist."

We arrived in the fragile brightness of a midnight sun. Skuas wheeled in front of thousand-foot (305 meter) cliffs. We went ashore and clambered up the steep rock. I had expected something wind whipped and barely clinging to life, but what I saw was delicate, soft, and lush.

"Beautiful, aren't they?" Poncet knelt beside the plants, studying the pale green buds with the tenderness of a gardener, cultivating his own White South. We gathered our samples. As we made our way down to the ship, Poncet motioned to the islands, sculpted icebergs, and mountains in the distance. "I claim these," he laughed. "I am a citizen of the world, and these belong to the world."

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Interactive Image
Journey to Antarctica and enjoy the sights and sounds of penguins, seals, and other wildlife. Then download wallpaper and meet the fearless explorers of this frozen frontier.

Sights and Sounds
Photographer Maria Stenzel discusses the glaciers, volcanoes, climate changes, weather patterns, pollution, and rich sea life that make this frozen frontier a living laboratory.

How would an infrastructure for increased tourism, such as hotels, affect Antarctica? Share your thoughts.

Enjoy these desktop images this holiday season.

Keep a friend afloat with this postcard of a Weddell seal.

360 degrees at Frozen Under
Take a moment and spin around the South Pole. Photographer Maria Stenzel shot these 360° views at the land at the bottom of the world.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

In the past, countries conducting research in Antarctica paid little heed to maintaining Antarctica’s pristine environment, but over the past decade or so there has been a remarkable shift in thinking with an emphasis on “what goes in must come out.”

The U.S. Antarctic Program has established a thorough waste-management program to ensure that its impact on the Antarctic environment is minimal. The program begins before anything is shipped to Antarctica. Individual participants in the program—the scientists and all support personnel—are instructed on how to minimize the amount of waste they bring in. Scientists are required to carefully plan the amount and type of materials their research will require so that steps can be taken to avoid waste and minimize the environmental impact of each project. Everyone coming to Antarctica with the U.S. Antarctic Program is instructed to eliminate as much waste as possible before they even make it to the Ice. For example, film is to be removed from the little boxes and plastic canisters before being brought down.

Once in Antarctica, all waste is sorted into categories. There are 21 different categories, which range from the obvious, such as construction debris, food waste, and paper recycling, to less obvious categories like “light metal” (nails and bolts right down to used staples and old paper clips) and “dorm products” (finished toothpaste tubes and contact lens solution bottles). Once the products have been properly sorted, they are packed and stored in a waste yard, waiting to be shipped out on the cargo vessel that supplies the stations once a year. Field camps—small seasonal research stations—are also required to remove all waste generated at the sites. Each field camp must follow the same sorting procedures as permanent stations, but in addition they also have to ship out all waste water (such as from washing dishes) and human waste. All the waste brought out of the field camps is again sorted at a permanent station and incorporated with the station’s waste waiting to be shipped out.

Where does all the waste go? To the States, where it is either recycled or treated and disposed of properly. In all, about four million pounds (1.8 million kilograms) of waste is brought out of all U.S. stations and field camps each year. About 65 percent of this waste is either recycled or reused.


The National Science Foundation
This is the National Science Foundation’s home page with links to the Office of Polar Programs, which runs the U.S. Antarctic Program.

Raytheon Polar Services
As the primary contractor to the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program, Raytheon Polar Services provides information about working in Antarctica as well as general information about the continent.

Antarctic Treaty Nations
Find general information about and links to all the different national Antarctic programs.

Mount Erebus
Learn more about this incredible volcano from the scientists studying it most closely.

This website offers extensive information about penguins.

Learn all there is to know about seals from this comprehensive website.

General Antarctic Information
A couple who lived and worked in Antarctica offer this website covering the history, science, and culture of Antarctica as well as information on how to get there, Antarctic-themed products, and a photo gallery.

Antarctica 2000
Features soundscapes, sonic images, and scientific research from Antarctica.


Doods, Klaus. Geopolitics in Antarctica: Views From the Southern Oceanic Rim. John Wiley, 1997.

Kennett, James P., and others, eds. Antarctic Paleoenvironment: A Perspective on Global Change. American Geophysical Union, 1992.

Preston, Diana. A First Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole. Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Shackleton, Ernest. Heart of the Antarctic: Being the Story of the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-1909. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1999.

Solomon, Susan. The Coldest March: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition. Yale University Press, 2001.

Soper, Tony. Antarctica: A Guide to the Wildlife. Globe Pequot Press, 2000.

Wheeler, Sara. Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica. Random House, 1998.

Worsley, Frank. Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure. WW Norton, 1999.


Kostyal, K.M. Trial by Ice: A Photobiography of Sir Ernest Shacklet. National Geographic Books, 1999.

Heacox, Kim. Shackleton: The Antarctic Challenge. National Geographic Books, 1999.

Wu, Norbert. “Under Antarctic Ice,” National Geographic (February 1999), 88-99.

Heacox, Kim. Antarctica: The Last Continent. National Geographic Books, 1998.

Krakauer, Jon. “On the Edge of Antarctica: Queen Maud Land,” National Geographic (February 1998), 46-69.

Parfit, Michael. “Timeless Valleys of the Antarctic Desert,” National Geographic (October 1998), 120-135.

Stevens, Jane Ellen. “Exploring Antarctic Ice,” National Geographic (May 1996), 36-53.

Parfit, Michael. “Reclaiming a Lost Antarctic Base,” National Geographic (March 1993), 110-126.

Hodgson, Bryan. “Antarctica: A Land of Isolation No More,” National Geographic (April 1990), 2-51.

Kostyal, K.M. “Antarctica: Voyage to the Bottom of the Earth,” National Geographic Traveler (May/June 1990), 44-61.

Steger, Will. “Six Across Antarctica: Into the Teeth of the Ice,” National Geographic (November 1990), 66-95.

Gillette, Ned. “Rowing Antarctica’s ‘Most Mad Seas,’” National Geographic (January 1989), 128-138.

Scott, Sir Peter. “The Antarctic Challenge,” National Geographic (April 1987), 538-543.

Matthews, Samuel W. “Ice on the World,” National Geographic (January 1987), 78-103.


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