Dazzling summer in Antarctica Research: It's the working season, and scientists have just five months of daylight into which they pack a year's worth of work.

Sun Journal

December 21, 1997|By Alexander Colhoun | Alexander Colhoun,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

McMURDO STATION, Antarctica -- It is 3 a.m. and the Trans-ant-arctic Mountains glisten in a hollow blue splendor. From her outpost on a small mountain of volcanic rock outside town, Kelly Montgomery soaks in the view.

"It's the most beautiful place in the world," she whispers. "I used to think Alaska was the most beautiful place, until I came to Antarctica."

Bundled against the cold, Montgomery watches as the sun skips across saw-toothed 10,000-foot peaks, and winds sweep in from across the frozen Ross Sea, leaving waves of ice in their wake as they carve their way south.

Summer in Antarctica is dazzling to behold.

As the Northern Hemisphere falls into a deep winter sleep, life in Antarctica picks up. This is the working season, with just five months of daylight into which to pack a year's worth of work. Close to 1,200 Americans have descended on this inhospitable land, crossing the world's coldest ocean and landing on an 8-foot-thick runway of floating sea ice.

Antarctic research, funded by the National Science Foundation at $194 million last year, has been conducted by the United States since 1957, when Adm. Richard E. Byrd came here under the auspices of a worldwide research initiative known as the International Geophysical Year.

Forty years later scientific exploration continues to define human experience in this world of icy splendor. This season alone, 175 science projects will be carried out, ranging from studying the foraging habits of Weddell seals to observing distant galaxies from telescopes at the South Pole.

Antarctica is larger than the United States and Mexico combined. Its ice sheet 3 miles thick holds 70 percent of the world's fresh water. This is the driest, windiest place on Earth.

And the coldest. In winter, when the southern continent is cloaked in darkness 24 hours a day, the average daily temperature is minus-86.6 degrees Fahrenheit. On a nice summer day like this one, temperatures warm to a "balmy" 20 below zero.

These extreme conditions and Antarctica's profound isolation draw researchers to explore a little-known world that more closely resembles an alien planet.

Before coming here, Antarctic workers are issued 30 pounds of extreme-cold-weather (or ECW) gear. Besides being warm, the clothing renders its wearer indistinguishable from everyone else. is safest to wave at everyone, as that bulky figure in the red jacket may just be a close friend.

On a typical morning, a McMurdo Station worker will slip into long johns, heavy synchilla pants, canvas Carhart coveralls, a synchilla sweater, a heavy thinsulate-lined polar jacket, a hat, scarf, ski goggles and white bunny boots that look more like inner tubes than shoes.

Bundled against the elements, these hardy workers carry out all the tasks necessary to keep a small city running. There are scientists (known as "beakers" in the local slang), pipe-fitters and carpenters, telecom workers and "fuelies," cooks and hairdressers. As on Noah's ark, there seem to be two of everything. Women are well represented in all jobs -- you are just as likely to see a woman as a man driving a massive Caterpillar D-8 bulldozer or linking a heavy fuel line to an Air Force plane.

The focus of daily life is science and science support, but the real reason many people come to work "on the ice" is a simple lust for adventure. These people would have traveled with Marco Polo or Columbus. For many, their first taste of the real Antarctica is Happy Camper School.

Above all else, happy campers in Antarctica must learn to survive. Vince Langmann, the instructor and a mountaineering veteran, emphasizes the need for vigilance. He shares horror stories of unhappy campers who failed to heed his advice: One scientist left his survival bag behind as he raced by snowmobile between experiment stations. A sudden storm caught him off guard, and within minutes he became lost in a whiteout. The scientist survived, barely, by wrapping himself in a tarp.

Complacency is easy when the sky is blue and winds are mild. But in minutes, "the whole scene can change and you can be in a world of trouble if you're not prepared," says Langmann.

Preparation begins with a bright orange survival bag, filled with enough gear -- tent, ice screws, meal rations, sleeping bags and so on -- to safeguard two people for three days. Every helicopter, tracked vehicle and snowmobile that departs McMurdo's limits must carry such a bag.

Langmann's campers head out to Snow Mound City, a field camp on the sea ice that is more snow mound than city. The massive orange Nodwell vehicle that carries them was built in 1972 and stands 20 feet off the ground. Designed for exploratory work in Arctic oil fields, the Nodwell is well adapted for Antarctica's titanic mounds of ice and snow.

The eye sees nothing but snow in all directions. In an emergency, finding shelter would be all but impossible without a tent or tools to build a snow cave or igloo. Thus, one of the first assignments is tent building.

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