• U.S.

Environment: Trip to the Bottom of the World

9 minute read

“Great God! This is an awful place. ” So wrote the English explorer Robert Falcon Scott after he reached the South Pole in 1912. Scott, who was just beaten to the pole by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, had good reason to complain. Temperatures regularly drop to -100º F. during the polar winter. Sudden storms bring gale-force winds, and visibility frequently drops to zero during a “whiteout,” making it impossible to see perilous crevasses ahead. Yet in spite of its hostile environment, Antarctica is becoming the object of increasing worldwide interest. Its shrimplike krill and millions of seals make it a veritable storehouse of protein for the world’s growing population. Also, scientists are finding more and more evidence that there may be great mineral wealth under the ice, including oil.

Under the U.S.-inspired 1961 Antarctic Treaty, the great white continent has been declared a conservation area; all national claims have been set aside, and only scientific research with potential benefits for all mankind is encouraged. But scientists fear that as the need for protein and minerals increases, peaceful exploration may be followed by reckless exploitation. Invited by the National Science Foundation, Associate Editor Frederic Golden visited Antarctica and filed this report:

Already, in that bleached wasteland of snow and ice, American technology has made its mark. Last January, after four years of construction and some 300 cargo flights to the South Pole, the U.S. opened a new $6 million base at 90° south latitude. Officially known as the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, it replaces an older base now completely buried under ice.

Inside a 52-ft.-high aluminum geodesic dome, which acts as a buffer against the drifting snow, are three prefabricated buildings resembling large mobile homes. They contain sleeping facilities for 40 people, a communications center (including a ham radio shack for contacts with home), a dining hall and kitchen, a small gym and library, a photographic darkroom and several computer-equipped scientific laboratories. In Quonset-like buildings adjoining the dome are the base’s power plant, biology lab, dispensary and garage. One of the huts also shelters an ingenious freshwater system that uses heat from the diesel generators to melt snow.

Chilly Rite. Located atop nearly two miles of ice, at an elevation of more than 9,000 ft., the base is a unique high-altitude observatory that makes possible a variety of important geophysical measurements. These include soundings of the upper atmosphere, monitoring of auroral displays (“the southern lights”), and other observations that may answer many questions about the earth’s day-to-day weather and overall climate. In a new experiment, for instance, scientists from the University of California at Davis are seeking to learn precisely how the polar region—a so-called heat sink—sheds the excess energy it receives from the sun.

These investigations are so important that 19 men will remain behind through the bleak, totally dark austral (southern) winter; for six months, beginning in March, the sun never rises above the horizon. When the long night falls, all air travel to the pole stops—largely because the extreme cold increases friction between the snow and the planes’ skis, making takeoff more difficult. During that isolation, a resident physician will watch for changes in behavior and physiology. Fortunately, few people at the base get ill (except from occasional hangovers) in the extremely dry and virtually germ-free environment. Nor do foods spoil. I sampled edible potatoes brought to the pole during the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY). To amuse themselves, the men take hair-raising toboggan slides down the geodesic dome or induct new recruits into the pole’s “300 Club”—in a chilly initiation that requires the candidate to sit in the base’s steamy sauna (temperature 200° F.), then dash naked to the symbolic pole marker in the -100° cold.

In contrast to the barren polar plateau, Antarctica’s coast throbs with life. Penguins frolic against a background of glistening glaciers and mountains that rise 14,000 ft. Huge Weddell seals slumber lazily on the ice, and packs of killer whales swim within sight of McMurdo Station, the major U.S. staging area for the continent.

Situated in the shadow of 12,450-ft. Mount Erebus, a volcano that never seems to stop puffing, McMurdo (pop. 800 during the summer, a few dozen in wintertime) is a miniature city indelibly stamped “Made in U.S.A.” Dating back to 1956, McMurdo now consists of some 100 buildings, ranging from canvas huts to the National Science Foundation’s new flag-rimmed chalet. In addition, there is an electrical generating station (“Penguin Power & Light”), a firehouse (commanded by a pert female Navy lieutenant), a water distillation plant, an FM radio station, a chapel and gym, a hospital, well-equipped scientific labs, and a telephone system that includes dial-a-prayer. There is also a town dump, where biodegradable wastes are left on pack ice to drift out to sea (and sink when the ice melts).

Recent Mishaps. To reach the South Pole station and other outposts in the interior of a continent half again as large as the U.S., the Navy operates five ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules turboprop planes out of McMurdo. Unfortunately, in a string of fluke accidents, three of the planes have cracked up on a high, icy plateau, dubbed Dome Charlie, some 735 miles from McMurdo, where French scientists had been drilling into the icecap as part of a U.S.-supported international project. No one was injured, and the base has since been successfully evacuated. But the loss of the three Hercs has had a devastating effect. NSF has had to cancel the visits of dozens of scientists to Antarctica this season; a small interior base, Siple Station, may be shut down. Meanwhile, the two remaining planes are desperately trying to supply the polar station for the coming winter. If another plane is grounded, all flying would have to be halted; a back-up aircraft must always be available for search and rescue.

Unwilling to give up on the planes, the Navy hopes to repair at least one of the LC-130s this season and fly it out. It would be a remarkable feat—and an Antarctic first. Dome Charlie not only is bitter cold (40° F.) but is 11,000 ft. above sea level. At that altitude, the efficiency of both men and machine is low.

While these aircraft problems have drastically reduced long-haul flights, the skies remain busy around McMurdo. Five Huey helicopters regularly shuttle researchers to nearby penguin rookeries, seal colonies and geological sites, including the spectacular dry valleys, curiously snow-free rocky canyons. There, scientists are looking for clues to the extent of past glacial periods in an effort to determine when the earth’s present interglacial (warm) period will peak. Their interest is more than academic. If temperatures rise high enough to cause a general melting of Antarctica’s icecaps, the level of the world’s oceans could rise by as much as 200 ft., up to the Statue of Liberty’s armpits.

Scientists are also concerned about the Antarctic’s animal life. The Russians and Japanese are already gathering up krill, which abound in Antarctica’s chilly (28° F.) coastal waters; the tiny crustaceans make a protein-rich mash used as a food supplement for livestock and humans. But U.S. scientists urge caution. They want to learn more about krill’s rate of reproduction lest man inadvertently fish them into extinction. The Americans are even more worried about Antarctica’s seals, fearing a repeat of the 19th century slaughter that nearly wiped out the fur seals.

Under the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, animals cannot be harvested or harassed without the consent of an international scientific advisory committee. New Zealand, for example, must even get approval to butcher a few seals each year to feed its dog teams at nearby Scott Base. To University of Minnesota Biologist Douglas DeMaster, who is studying the Weddell colonies near McMurdo, the question is not whether seals should eventually be killed for food. “After all, we slaughter cattle by the millions for hamburger,” he says. “It is how to do it sensibly so they won’t become extinct.”

The U.S. recently won approval to ship 100 penguins to San Diego for a breeding colony at Sea World and studies of their remarkable heat regulatory system, which somehow allows a creature with a body temperature of about 100° F. to survive easily in subfreezing temperatures. To keep the penguins alive during the 20-hour transpacific flight, their C-141 military jet was kept freezing cold (20° to 25°) while the shivering human passengers, including this correspondent, had to console themselves with their sacrifice for science.

The overriding concern, in any case, is not for penguins or seals. Recently, a scientific drilling party working on the ice of McMurdo Sound hit methane (natural gas) after probing only 200 feet into the sedimentary bottom. The drilling was immediately halted; a blowout of gases could have wrecked the drilling camp. The scientists had another reason to worry. The methane could have been a hint of oil below; had the drill struck oil, the pristine waters of the sound could have been fouled.

Fragile Document. If, as many geologists suspect, there is oil and other mineral wealth in Antarctica, who owns it? In the first half of the century, seven nations claimed pie-like slices of Antarctica. Now, since the signing of the treaty, Antarctica is in effect international ground—like the moon—where military activity or nuclear testing are prohibited. But as Geologist Robert H. Rutford, head of NSF’s office of polar programs, explains: “While the treaty has so far held up, it is at best a fragile document. The major test is sure to come on the resources issue.”

The Chileans and Argentines are already eying the mineral potential of the Antarctic Peninsula, a natural extension of the tin-and copper-rich Andean cordillera. New Zealand continues to call the region that includes McMurdo its Ross Dependency.

At present, mining or drilling in Antarctica’s harsh environment is prohibitively costly. But many scientists feel that cheaper technologies may soon become available. Then the treaty could fall apart as old claims are revived and there is a rush to divide Antarctica’s spoils. “If that happens,” says one pessimistic U.S. official, “it could make the fishing wars off Iceland look as innocent as a schoolyard scuffle.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com