Antarctica is a place where science has no borders

Southern Exposure

Posted: Sunday, January 21, 2001

Name an "ology" and it's here - biology, geology, paleontology... Science is everywhere in Antarctica. Sit down with any random person at lunch in the station cafeteria and they're as likely to tell you about a new species of fish just discovered in McMurdo Sound or the microbiology of penguins as how the boiler works.

Scientists carve into the ice and rock with chainsaws and drills. They measure every tremor of the earth with instruments able to sense quakes in Kodiak, 10,000 miles away. They send up balloons made of material as thin as Saran Wrap, which circle the continent at heights only topped by the space shuttle.

Scientists come here not just to study ice and penguins, but because they can do research that would be difficult anyplace else. The instruments the translucent balloons carry could gather similar data at the equator or in the Arctic, but then the researchers have to worry about the balloons drifting down into an ocean, or worse yet, into a city. The scientists would have to negotiate with every country in the balloons flight path to cross their airspace.

In Antarctica the seas are frozen, there are no cities and the entire continent has been dedicated to research since the 1959 Antarctic Treaty made it a military-free zone. It's science without borders. "Antarctica is sort of a laboratory for the rest of the world," a Russian scientist told me on his way to Lake Vostok, where the coldest temperature on Earth, -129F, was once recorded.

At the South Pole another scientist was shooting lasers across vast fields of snow to measure the water molecules in the atmosphere. She could do this in a laboratory, but she'd have to build a gigantic chamber to create the right conditions. Here she just sets up her instruments outside.

Living among so much discovery is thrilling. I've picked up one of the largest meteorites in the world. It's pocked like Swiss cheese and has a glossy sheen of rock polished by hurtling through the atmosphere. Though the meteorite is barely the size of a football, I strained to lift it a few inches off the wooden base it sits on in the Crary Lab. And I easily bench press 50??? pounds.

A few feet away are dinosaur bones and a petrified tree trunk, left from the days when Antarctica was warm and tropical. Only 50 million years ago there were forests here.

"What I like to imagine when I see this is the last tree in Antarctica giving up the ghost," the woman who showed it to me said.

I try to imagine these dusty hills covered with green trees, but it's too much. Now all but 2 percent of the continent is covered by ice, some almost three miles thick.

Yet the landscape isn't as lifeless as it appears. As patches of snow have melted I've found rare clumps of moss and lichen, only a few inches wide, clinging to the damp spots. Where water pools, a slimy algae grows. There are even bugs, I'm told, smaller than a grain of rice. These tiny springtails survived ice ages and thaws.

Smaller still, microbes somehow live in frozen lakes in the Dry Valleys, an Antarctic desert trapped between mountains and glaciers that explorer Robert Scott once called "Valley of the Dead."

"Little did he know there's life all over in the valley," said John Priscu, who has researched there for 30 years. "This is the forest of the Dry Valleys right here."

It's hard to see the forest, or even the trees. All that can really be seen by the bare eye is a landscape most often compared to Mars - cold, dry, unearthly. The ground is cracked into geometric shapes. Wind has carved gargoyles into the cliffs above. The temperature ranges from 23F to minus 20F and all the life is frozen in the ice.

"They're pushing the limits of life," Priscu said.

Clumps of dirt lodged in the frozen lakes provide a home for microbes. The dirt clods absorb the summer sun to create a pocket of melted water. Within that pocket a frantic life cycle takes place in the brief thaw, one Priscu is still struggling to understand. But the one thing he does understand is if life can exist in the Valley of the Dead, it can exist anywhere.

"These are the kind of thing you're going to see if you go to another planet, not little green men," Priscu said. "We will find microbes on Mars sometime."

But if I were a scientist researching in Antarctica, I'd be a sociologist, studying this strange pocket of human life clinging to a piece of dirt on the edge of the icy continent.

Antarctica is as much a social experiment as a scientific one. Select adventurers, scientists, skilled tradespeople and those with just a burning curiosity. Confine them to a tiny town for four months, then sit back and watch what happens. Some of it is expected the heavy drinking and frantic mating, like fruit flies who will die when their four year contract is up.

But then there are art shows and music festivals. Saturday night I went to a performance of "Much Ado About Nothing." The gymnasium was packed with people, sitting on cushions on the floor, some with picnic dinners. On stage the actors sometimes had to improvise their lines, but the audience just cheered them on. I laughed until my belly hurt and my whole body shook. Never has Shakespearean comedy seemed so alive for me. Here is an astounding discovery, one worthy of the science pages: I've discovered life in Antarctica.

Kristan Hutchison is a Juneau Empire reporter on leave for four months to work in Antarctica. Her columns appear every other Sunday. Her e-mail is A Web site with daily updates of her experiences, plus photos, movies and links to other Antarctica sites is at http://www.

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