Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Luminous Continent

Satellite photo of Antarctica
Inhaling pure oxygen after a long hard climb up a steep and icy slope in Antarctica, I look down at our ship as a sailboat drifts by and kayaks glide in the glacial waters below. 

Imagining myself alone on this frozen planet, I realize how American explorer Admiral Richard Byrd felt when he wrote: This is the way the world will look to the last man when it dies.” 

Picturing the scene as my last view of a world about to be lost, I am struck by the silence. In this world of ice and snow, all is deceptively still, even as the vast ice sheet that is the Antarctic Peninsula I stand on keeps on moving. 

The world I left behind disappears as I slip into this isolated and untouched environment that ancient Greeks named Antarktikos. "Antarktike," meaning "the opposite of arctic," originated from the assumption of a continent at the bottom of the globe opposite the region in the north they called "Arktikos," after the bear that was the constellation Ursa Major. 

Antarctic describes the terrestrial and marine environment surrounding the South Pole that includes the continent itself and the surrounding ocean. What makes this continent the most mysterious place on the planet is the vast permanent ice sheet that covers it, hiding its actual topography. The polar cap creates a huge expanse of moving ice, seamlessly joining the continent and the sea ice, doubling its surface area far beyond the actual coastline. 

The Antarctic ice sheet accounts for almost 98% of all ice covering the Earth and contains the largest body of the planet's fresh water (70%) in the form of solid ice. If all that ice would melt, the world's sea levels would rise by 67 meters/200-210 feet, with disastrous consequences for all coastal regions on Earth.

Antarctica is the highest, driest, emptiest and coldest place on earth, surrounded by one of the coldest, deepest and stormiest oceans in the world. It is the world's largest desert, untouched by rain for more than two million years. This continent resembles the surface of Mars, making it the ideal testing ground for NASA's Viking Mission.

It is the only place on earth not bound by ownership, laws and human population. Shared in peace for exploration purposes, 45 member nations signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, agreeing to designate the continent as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science. About a hundred scientific stations and field camps were established by more than 30 countries, with 3000 to 4000 people during summer months and 800 to 1000 in the winter. With the continuous movement of the ice, these stations require constant maintenance and replacement as the ice shelf breaks away, buries or sets their station adrift.

The Antarctic continent has no time zone. Scientists there use home time or the time supplies are due to be delivered as a way of marking time. It is the coldest place on earth with an annual average temperature of -58°F and the lowest recorded temperature of -128.5°F in 1983. Between January 18 to 24, the temperature was a balmy 1 to 2°Celsius, warmer than New Jersey.

The year is divided into one long day and one long night, with the sun setting in March and rising in October. During the summer solstice (December 21), when it receives the most light, the sun is visible above the horizon all day. During the winter solstice (June 21) there is no sun south of the Antarctic Circle.

The last pristine wilderness, the Antarctic habitat is one of the most inhospitable regions of the planet, populated by extraordinary forms of life that have adapted to survive in a highly specialized polar environment. Over millions of years, the presence of an ice sheet covering a vast expanse of land and sea led to an evolution of creatures like the ice fish, whose blood produces a chemical like antifreeze that allows it to survive temperatures below freezing.

With limited species directly dependent on each other, a threat to any link in this ecological food chain impacts the delicate balance of life in this unique ecosystem. The slightest change in water pH, temperature or salinity can be a key factor to the survival or extinction of a species.

Researchers have found that a rise of a few degrees in water temperature has allowed predator king crabs that have never been able to venture into these waters before to penetrate the invisible barrier that normally affects their body systems, shifting the odds for vulnerable species in the chain of Antarctic life. Beneath the ice, there exists a whole nether world of living organisms that inhabit this mysterious continent.

Traveling to the Antarctic usually involves crossing the notorious Drake Passage, strapped into bunks at night with furniture bolted into the floor. Mercifully, we skipped this violent sea crossing known as the Drake Shake by flying to King George Island from Punta Arenas in Chile, an uneventful two hour flight heightened only by the suspense of flying within a small window of good weather. 

Arriving at Bellingshausen Station, the jointly occupied Russian and Argentinian research base, we trekked out of our plane in full ice-bound regalia, ready for adventure. A welcome party of penguins was on the beach, looking curiously at these new arrivals as we boarded the Zodiacs to transport us to our ship.

Our daily routine was a challenging upper and lower body maneuver - layering thermals, puffy down vest, fleece hoodie, and parka; swift wick socks with foot warmers positioned between wet skin socks; ski pants zipped over rubber boots; fleece lined Gore-Tex caps with ear flaps and visor; polarized UV sunglasses with leather side flaps and safety straps; small camera, iPhone and tissues in pockets; zoom camera case over the neck; topped off with a weighted life vest. Inner gloves with cellphone-able fingertips, hand warmers tucked into fleece mitts and waterproof mitten covers clipped on to your camera case, just in case.

Backpack with passport to stamp for landings at research stations of different countries; cash for shopping in the Farthest Gift Shop in the World or buying a shot of vodka at the only bar this far south. In this beautiful wooden bar built by rebellious Ukrainian carpenters during the long dark nights, we eyed a stack of bras that were trophies from women who gave up their underwear for a shot of vodka!

Heading back to our ship, we had to wash our rubber boots off in salt water before boarding the Zodiacs, then soak and scrub them in a disinfectant bath upon boarding to protect the environment from soil and germs transported between islands.

Traveling through glaciers, the perception of passing scenery is of deceptive stillness. Yet, glaciers, because of their unique ability to move, are constantly advancing and retreating. The floating vista shifts, even as you look at it. We are conscious of entering a silent world as we sail past ice citadels, ice caves, ice shelves, ice cliffs, ice mountains and ice formations. 

The most distinctive feature of the Antarctic is blue ice formations caused by compression of glacial ice. As it compacts, getting denser over time, this ice absorbs all other colors in the spectrum and reflects a bluish light, creating the phenomenon of blue ice.

The quiet is disturbed only by the growling of glaciers calving as massive ice shelves crumble and slip into the water to form icebergs. Out of the water, icebergs rise. Below the surface of large icebergs, eerie shadows of the larger mass beneath the surface remind you that what you see above is only "the tip of the iceberg."

It is hard to imagine early explorers setting foot here, the senseless slaughter of whales and seals for skins and oil. Francis Drake must have been desperate indeed, to kill over three thousand penguins in a day to stock his larder because penguins are known to be almost inedible, with meat described as fishy and tough as jerky. 

The cutest denizens of the region, penguins are known as flippered flyers because they can move effortlessly through water (even if they can't actually fly). They can swim over 20 kph using their flippers for propulsion with their feet as a rudder, leap vertically upward from the water to the ice, stay underwater for 15-20 minutes and dive up to 275 feet using air sacs that protect their lungs.

Their cold weather protection consists of a silky white, oily water repellent feathery coat. Underneath is another layer of soft down feathers with a thick layer of fat below which keeps them so warm they actually fluff their feathers to release trapped heat when they need to cool down. In these parts, smaller penguins abound - Adelies, gentoos, brush tails, chinstraps and macaronis but no Emperors (they live further into the Pole). 

Gentoo penguins build nests with pebbles and courting males win their mates with gifts of stones. They are not above trying to steal each other's pebbles and often squabble over these precious stones. They cut a path through the ice by continuously treading along a common trail to ease their burden walking to and from the sea or up and down a mountain. You could spend all day watching them waddle up and down these penguin "highways," fall on their faces in the snow, stretch out their necks to emit long throaty cries, swim like flying fish, leap upwards from the sea to the top of tall rocks in a standing position, feed their chicks, and flop on their bellies when they are too lazy to walk.

Cute as they are, these little folks are stinky as the fish they feed on. From our ship, you could catch a whiff of their fragrance before you even caught sight of them. After walking through penguin guano, our wading boots absorb this fishy odor despite scrubbing in a disinfectant bath. I learned to leave my boots outside the door to avoid polluting my cabin.

Watching penguins, seals and whales in their natural habitat makes you feel religious about nature. The most visible living creatures above the mysterious ice world are whales - humpbacks, orcas and minkes. To experience these giants of the deep spouting fountains as they surface to breathe, hear their guttural snorts, watch their large bodies glide smoothly underwater, then lift their bodies out of the water and flip their large tails as they dive, revealing whitish patterns underneath that identify each whale like individual fingerprints - magnifies your appreciation for the miracles of nature. 

Antarctica is not for tourists or couch potatoes. There is no airport waiting lounge. You walk single file on the Tarmac exposed to the elements. Waiting for the flight back, we stood for almost an hour in cold and windy sleet. There are no park benches to sit or rest on when you are tired, no place to have a snack as no one can bring food or drink on land. There are no natives eager to sell you something, no tourism effort as there is no one to benefit. 

There are no maps to warn you that hiking up a volcanic crater means a daunting descent walking sideways on a vertical slope. I hesitated at the edge, debating whether I should turn back to find another route down but the Indian file was moving and I was not about to turn tail. I figured out how to gain a firmer foothold by burying my boots deep into the sand.

Once I realized that nothing awful would happen if I fell on soft sand, I could relax and focus on my sliding technique. I finally got the hang of leaning sideways, almost lying on my side, and letting gravity take me down. Gravity was also helpful after reaching the top of an ice mountain and needing a more efficient way to get back to ground level. The ship's engineers plowed a snow tunnel for us to slide down the steep incline in a fully horizontal position. Once we gained momentum, we careened down this long and winding snow slide, cheering and whooping all the way.

Leaving footprints on white crystals glowing with bluish light, sinking to our knees in deep layers of snow, sliding down the ice with fear and glee, we were specks of humanity disrupting a world of white. 

Reaching Paradise Island, a few daring adventurers stripped down to our swimsuits and plunged into polar waters (a mere 1.6°C). We were rewarded with shots of vodka after emerging, numb and speechless but triumphant.

Satellite photo of Antarctica 
I left Antarctica with images I knew I was unlikely to ever see again. Images that will fill my memory bank with an awareness of how precious this place could be, how every footstep, a single discarded tissue, or careless tourists erasing the penguins’ footpath, could despoil this untouched terrain forever. As we stood in falling snow waiting for our plane to land, I watched with alarm as a plastic water bottle flew by and wished that no one else would come after me to ruin the desolate beauty of Antarctica.

This must be what the world looked like in the beginning, what it will look like in the end. Here, in the intersection of the timeless moment, time stands still. The voyage of self-discovery takes us back to the beginning, to see the story of the Earth with new eyes, to regain our innocence with a new understanding of its past and a glimpse of its future. With it comes an acute awareness of the beauty of its present.

We shall cease from exploration
and at the end of all our exploration
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.

~ T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets