Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Terra Australis

Long before anyone ever went to Antarctica, scholars and yahoos already believed it existed. The thinking was, there’s all this land up in the Northern Hemisphere, but not a lot going on down South—there must be a giant hidden continent down there to balance everything out. In fact, even after Antarctica was located, map makers kept drawing it far larger that it truly is to get the right balance. These people were pretty into balance, I guess.

As we in the States were busy dumping tea into idyllic East Coast harbors and refusing to pay taxes to stuffy old monarchies, Captain James Cook was busy becoming the first explorer to cross the Antarctic Circle. His ships, the HMS Resolution and Adventure, came within 75 miles of the coast before being turned back by field ice. In 1820, Antarctica was spotted for the first time by an Estonian-born Russian Naval captain named Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshousen. It would be a year before someone set foot there--American sealer John Davis briefly landed on mainland Antarctica on February 7th, 1821.

In 1839, the United States Exploring Expedition (affectionately called the “Ex Ex”, which I love), sailed from Sydney Australia to do a bit of exploring on the new continent. A few years later, James Clark Ross sailed along a huge wall of ice that was later named the Ross Ice Shelf—Mount Erebus and Mount Terror are named after two ships from his expedition. Another explorer with a great name, Mercator Cooper, landed in and explored East Antarctica in 1853.

These were all minor expeditions compared to the Nimrod Expedition, led by the great Ernest Shackleton in 1907. Shackleton’s crew became the first to climb Mount Erebus and to reach the South Magnetic Pole. They were also the first humans to traverse the Ross Ice Shelf, the first to traverse the Transantarctic Mountain Range, and the first to set foot on the South Polar Plateau. For more on Shackleton (and on why it was called the Nimrod Expedition), talk to my husband.

A few words about the continent itself. It is the fifth-largest continent on the planet (larger than Europe and twice as large as Australia). About 98% of the continent is covered by ice that averages one mile in thickness. West Antarctica resembles the Andes mountain range in South America. East Antarctica is geologically varied. Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth. The coldest temperature ever recorded on this planet was -128.6*F at the Vostok Station in July 1983. The entire continent is a desert, although some of the coastal areas are known to get snowfalls of up to 48 inches in 48 hours. Heavy winds (storm-force) are also common.

Antarctica has no permanent residents, but maintains a temporary population of around 1000 in winter and 5000 in summer at a variety of research stations. As of 2009, eleven children had been born in Antarctica. Several bases are now home to families with children attending school on the base.

With no permanent residents, Antarctica also has no government although several countries claim sovereignty over certain regions. New claims on the continent have been suspended since the Antarctic Treating of 1959 which classified the continent as politically neutral. It also set aside Antarctic as a scientific preserve, established freedom of scientific investigation and environmental protection, and banned military activity (including weapons testing) on the continent. The Madrid Protocol of 1998 bans all mining an Antarctica and designates the continent as a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science.”

If you want to go, ships sail from Ushuaia Argentina (mostly to the Antarctic Peninsula, not the mainland). There are also a few commercial flights from Sydney and Melbourne that serve the major research stations. On these flights, passengers in most seating classes rotate their position in the row halfway into the flight to give everyone a window or one-over-from-window seat for half the time. Major landing fields include Williams Field, Pegasus Blue-Ice Runway (really), and Annual Sea-Ice Runway. November-March is the best time to go. If you go, take me with you!

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