notes: life on the ice, by roff smith
life on the ice: no one goes to antarctica alone, by roff smith, national geographic society, 2005
“it was another dazzling morning, the sun bright in a flawless sky and the air moist and cool. it felt good to be walking again, and on bare rock too, instead of ice and snow, hearing the reassuring crunch of gravel and the clink of stone underfoot. the landscape was magical, tolkienesque, with flocks of beautiful white snow petrels nesting in the crags, the bare hilltops strewn with garnets the size of knucklebones, and the level places dotted with jewel-like freshwater lakes – a remarkable rarity in antarctica – whose water was so limpid and clear it was virtually invisible, like air. the huge hush and the unblinking sunshine and the far-ends-of-the-earth feeling you get from being in such an otherworldly place, with those pure white snow petrels wheeling about, created an impression of great peacefulness. but then you come upon the remains of one of those very petrels, killed by a skua and picked over so that only the breastplate and the pair of still-feathered white wings remain, and you’re reminded at [sic] how violent a place this is; they look like the remains of murdered angels. and then when you look around you the big silence seems more conspiratorial than placid. ” p19-20
“i received, by e-mail, a nice batch of photos from the event [cocktail party at pole]. they were taken outside the radio shed, in the unheated confines of the dome, everyone cheery, huddled together in their bulky parkas, holding their breath in the -90. cold. breathing creates so much steam at those temperatures that if they hadn’t been holding their breaths the picture would have been totally obscured by the mist.” p110
“…the antarctic peninsula, the wild, storm-lashed maritime face of antarctica that lay 600 miles south of cape horn. the old hands back at mcmurdo and the south pole jokingly called this part of the continent the banana belt, because of its damp, moist, and relatively warm summer climate, and the seemingly un-antarctic lushness of grass, moss, and lichen that clung to life on the rocks and crevices of its island arcs.
“the nickname, with its implication of tropical indolence and ease, is a little misleading. winter temperatures on the peninsula still drop to -40.f, or worse, and the wild storms and fearsome seas that battered the barely charted coasts have claimed far more lives than the bitter polar plateau.
“some of that loss of life is because this part of antarctica is so much easier to reach and the human history in these stormy waters reaches back so much further. buccaneering adventurers, privateers, and explorers have prowled the tip of south america for centuries, ever since the ruffed-collar days of magellan and sir francis drake.” p136
“the drake [passage] was kind. two more days of easy rollers brought us to the antarctic convergence, one of nature’s loneliest frontiers, where the cold, dense, nutrient-rich waters meet the warmer but less fertile currents from the north. it is a surprisingly sharp boundary, generally around 60. south. within a few miles, the air becomes damp and chilly and the water a deep, translucent blue. flocks of seabirds – albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters – swoop over the waves, feasting noisily on the rich pickings that well up.” p145
“king george island has always been the busiest picket of antarctica. a century ago, this was the crossroads for the world’s whaling fleet; today it is antarctica’s manhattan. argentina, brazil, chile, china, poland, russia, south korea, and uruguay all maintain year-round bases here, practically cheek by jowl in maxwell and admiralty bays, while the u.s., ecuador, peru, germany, the netherlands, and the czech republic operate summer camps as well. it is the only part of antarctica ever to host a rock concert or a convention, or to have been visited by a head of state.
“there is a reason this 520-square mile island is the trendiest and most cosmopolitan piece of real estate in antarctica, but it has little to do with lovely views, let alone science, which in theory at least is why all the bases are here. its appeal comes straight from the realtors’ big three: location, location, and location. king george island is simply, and by far, the handiest part of antarctica to get to – only a quick hop by air from south america – making it the easiest and cheapest place for an aspiring nation to set up a base and thereby earn the status of full voting member of the antarctic treaty.” p158
“…seymour island, antarctica’s own jurrassic park, a remote and oddly ice-free island covered with the fossils of gigantic penguins that stood as tall as michael jordan, prehistoric tortoises that reached the size of volkswagens, and an ancient spicies of marsupial – the first discovery of land mammals in antarctica – that roamed these parts during the eocene period, between 40 million and 120 million ears ago.
this is the only place in all of antarctica where rocks from this era are exposed, giving paleontologists a unique view of what life here was like just before the continent made its final break away from the rest of the world.” p172
“beneath all the pretty snowscapes and elfin mountains, this is a ruthless place. the hush in the air isn’t blessed tranquility; it’s conspiratorial silence.” p191