Ah, Antarctica: the mighty Southern Continent, a giant wedge of ice, frozen mountains, and iceberg-littered waters composing the greatest terrestrial wilderness remaining on Planet Earth.
The outside world didn’t even know about Antarctica until the early 19th century; since then, the international community has made a concerted effort to learn as much as possible about this iced-over kingdom without marring its pristine splendor.
Who actually lives down here on the coldest, driest continent, where temperatures in the unyielding dark of winter can plunge nearly to 130 degrees Fahrenheit below zero?
Antarctica’s Hardy Researchers
Well, scientists, namely—all of whom are, technically, temporary residents. Scientific research is the chief aim of the international human presence in Antarctica. Collaboration between researchers from all around the globe is spelled out as a leading goal in the Antarctic Treaty, to which some 50 nations are signatories.
And the only year-round communities you’ll find on the giant, ice-swaddled continent are scientific stations. McMurdo on Ross Island’s Hut Point Peninsula is the largest and best-known—Werner Herzog filmed much of the well-received 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World there—but others are scattered across Antarctica, from Casey on Vincennes Bay to Amundsen-Scott at the South Pole. Temporary camps, meanwhile, serve as hubs for scientists out on field research in the vast white wilderness.
Perhaps 1,000 people spend the long, dark, bone-chilling winter in Antarctica; several thousand more arrive for summer projects.
Types of Scientists Working in Antarctica
The degree to which Antarctica has been untouched by humankind—not completely, of course, given our impacts on the climate and oceans—makes it a peerless natural laboratory for scientists of all stripes. For example:
- Glaciologists and climate scientists are interested in the most epic remaining ice sheet on the planet—and the complicated effects global warming is already wielding upon it. (Given the Antarctic ice sheet binds up some 60 percent of the world’s freshwater, scientists are gravely concerned about the impact on sea-level rise that substantial melting here could potentially have.)
- Geologists have an immensely rugged and still-obscure chunk of ancient Gondwanaland, many of its secrets still well concealed beneath the ice sheets. While mighty peaks rear above the glacial mass, others—such as the Gamburtsev Mountains of eastern Antarctica—compose ranges completely submerged in ice.
- Volcanologists have a slew of active, dormant, and extinct fire mountains to scrutinize, including 12,500-foot Mount Erebus, home to a volcano observatory. Among the fascinating phenomena are subglacial eruptions, where volcanic activity produces flows of molten rock or emissions of steam beneath a swaddle of icecap.
- Biologists get to study organisms—from bacteria and worms to penguins and orcas—which persist in one of the most intense and demanding environments on the planet. The ice-free McMurdo Dry Valleys, for instance, appear absolutely inhospitable to life—yet a slew of “extremophiles,” from mosses to nematodes, make one heck of a hardy living here. Dark, frigid, cold-water reefs off the Antarctic coast, meanwhile, harbor some of the longest-lived creatures known: huge glass sponges that, some evidence suggests, may survive 10,000 years or more!
- Astronomers relish the calm, stable atmosphere and pristine black skies over Antarctica for peering deep into space. Their work goes well beyond mere stargazing: One research effort is tracking cosmic microwave background radiation, primordial glimmering that derives from the early days of the universe.
Tourism in Antarctica
More and more tourists, meanwhile, are experiencing the primal majesty of Antarctica in-person thanks to cruise expeditions like the one’s aboard Seabourn. On an average year, the summer season may see tens of thousands of visitors sightseeing by cruise ship and airplane—a relative handful even making it all the way to the South Pole!
Just laying eyes on the Southern Continent’s austere coast—the barren rookeries of the Antarctic Peninsula, the unreal white scarp of the Ross Ice Shelf—is stirring to the soul. And when you’re back home on the other side of the calendar, it’s equally stirring to know there are some admirably tough biologists, climatologists, and other inquisitive souls staying cozy and active during that fearsome polar winter!
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