january 31, 2005 -> the seventh continent: antarctica
I kept asking people what Antarctica was like. We were going in a few weeks, and were eager to hear about their experiences. Was the US$5000 we were spending going to be worth it? No one could give me a good answer.
“It's just indescribable!” they would gush. They effused about the animal life, the long days, the light, the mountains - but fell short of actually describing the place. Their enthusiasm was encouraging, but I kept wondering what it was about Antarctica that made vocabularies fail.
Antarctica was hypothesized long before it was discovered. Aristotle imagined two frigid poles – the Antipodes (Opposite Feet,) a word still used to describe the southern hemisphere (antipodean.) Later, Ptolemy predicted a great southern landmass - Terra Australis Incognito (Unknown Southern Land) – balancing the known bulk of the northern hemisphere, bags of gravel or shot stowed in the very hull of the world. When it was first discovered, the continent did not appear to be much more useful than ballast. Following his brief exploration of South Georgia Island, Captain Cook commented that “I did not think it worth my while to go and examine these places, for it did not seem probable that any one would ever be benefited by the discovery.”
Even today, Antarctica is remote enough, difficult enough to reach, strange enough, and inhospitable enough to be unreal - a fantasy, dream, or nightmare. No wonder that so many science fiction novels place alien hideouts or Cold War missile silos there. The Drake Passage is like a firmament between two worlds; returning to Ushuaia after an Antarctic cruise is the closest we will come to returning from the Moon or Mars. Antarctica can be beautiful, but it is horribly inhospitable to humans. Tourists can only visit the northernmost tip of the Antarctic Peninsula during the short summer months.
The continent has been discovered and even inhabited but it remains largely incognito. To see Antarctica properly on a globe, one has to kneel and peer up at the Earth's underbelly, or like Atlas, lift the globe above one's head. We all know that the South Pole is down there, somewhere, but few hear of the Ross Ice Shelf, Queen Maud's Land, or the highest point in Antarctica, the Vinson Massif (16,607 ft.) It is impossible to render the three-dimensional Earth on a two-dimensional map without distortions. In the popular Mercator projection, the sizes and shapes of landmasses close to the poles are skewed upward. Greenland appears monstrous, and Antarctica stretches across the bottom of the map, extending an icy, beckoning finger to South America. The USA may be green or yellow, but Antarctica is always (not without reason) uniformly white.
There is much about Antarctica that is unique, a fact repeatedly stressed by the crew. It is, surprisingly, the highest continent on Earth, a dome-shaped mass with an average height of 8000 feet. (Asia is the closest competitor, at 3000 feet.) While the South Pole is ice surrounded by continents, Antarctica is a continent surrounded by ice. Since most of the continent is covered in ice, its fauna is almost completely marine – a food chain built on krill, a tiny shrimp species. Whales migrate here to feed on clouds of krill. Penguins eat the krill and are in turn eaten by orcas (killer whales), leopard seals, and carnivorous birds. It is also one of the most pristine places on earth. Much of the research on climate change and the ozone layer is conducted here, where skies are free of pollution and ice cores record our planet's past.
One of the most unique things about Antarctica is that no country owns it. In a world where countries routinely scrap over tiny islands and ‘disputed' territories, Antarctica is a continent (largely) free of border disputes. The Antarctic Treaty (1959) depoliticized Antarctica, making it a huge laboratory for science and global cooperation. Military installations and operations and mineral exploitation are prohibited. That said, seven countries have prior claims on huge sections of Antarctica (France, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Chile, and Argentina.) It is tempting to hold Antarctica up as a grand example of global bonhomie, but the Antarctica Treaty was itself political. Essentially, nobody (including the USA and USSR) wanted the Cold War to spread to Antarctica, so everybody moved to keep it off limits.
Antarctica is not indescribable. It is easily describable. Explorers, scientists, and writers have been doing it for several hundred years. The palette is simple: the blinding white of snow and ice; the dark blue of the sea; the glowing, ghostly sapphire of glacial fissures and icebergs' submerged bellies; and the blacks and browns of that tiny half a percent of the continent that is free of ice. The landscape is magnificent but monotonous: craggy mountains up to their necks in icy cladding; the whole periphery of the continent a glacier inching northwards, snapping and cracking and tumbling into the sea. There is nothing so inexplicable about the light either: it is the crepuscular light of a sun that struggles for hours to pull itself above the mountains in the early morning, and that fights just as doggedly to remain there in the late evening.
What are more difficult to describe are the feelings this bleak landscape evokes within us. Captain James Cook – the English discoverer of Antarctica – chillingly wrote of “Lands doomed by Nature to perpetual frigidness; never to feel the warmth of the sun's rays; whose horrible and savage aspect I have not words to describe.” One morning, I woke very early and walked to the deck. The sky was alive with color, and rays of sunlight sliced through the jagged peaks. Electric-blue icebergs floated in a dark sea. Then I saw a plume of mist above the water's surface, and another. A pod of humpback whales surfacing to breathe! I ran to wake Nori, who dressed quickly and joined me on the deck. The whales came closer and closer, slapping their tail fins and breaching. For ten minutes we watched these massive, gentle creatures playing at the surface. The whales, the morning light, the peaks, the glazed mountains, the wandering icebergs. Individually, they were the simplest things, but together, they were…indescribable. Scott
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