A Season in Antarctica

John Pollack
May 01, 2002

82° SOUTH, 122° EAST, Antarctica—

On this desolate, frozen plateau, the surrounding horizon is as flat and white as bone china. There are no mountains or hills here, no rocks or lichens. Nothing except the ceaseless, blowing snow that races across an icecap older than humanity.

men in red jackets set up equipment in snowy landscape
Don Voigt

Servicing a wind generator at Siple Dome.

It is here that our team has made its base camp—a cluster of small tents, a few fabric Quonset huts, and a snow runway staked out with hundreds of bamboo poles. Despite a distinct lack of surrounding topography, we call it TAMCAMP, the Trans-Antarctic Mountains Camp. It marks the mid-point of an ambitious, 500-mile array of seismometers we are installing to better understand the geophysical origins of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains.

Put another way, "it's the middle of nowhere," says TAMCAMP Director of Operations Matthew Kippenhan. So middle of nowhere, in fact, that even the HF radio antenna just south of camp must strain to pick up scratchy communications from McMurdo Station, the main American research base on the continent, across the distant mountains on the Ross Sea.

The isolation—and the shared hardship of tent living at —;30 centigrade—fosters a warm and ready camaraderie among the people here. There are 14 of us in camp. Led by Penn State seismologist Andy Nyblade, the group includes researchers from Washington University in St. Louis, the scientific instrument consortium PASSCAL, support staff, and the flight crew of the Twin Otter ski-plane that carries us even deeper into the field.

At the heart of our camp is the galley, a small, fabric Quonset hut nestled between drifts that get higher by the day. The galley serves as kitchen, radio shack, and—thanks to the big kerosene heater called a Preway—camp's most popular gathering place. Fueled from a 55-gallon drum, this heater fights the good fight against the south wind, which slaps at the galley in determined gusts and somehow manages to deposit snowdrifts not just outside, but inside, too.

"No matter where you go on the plateau, you're going to end up shoveling snow," says camp cook Rosemary Garofalo, philosophically. "It's all part of it."

Several times a day, Garofalo scoops fresh snow into a giant pot on top of the galley's heater. The pot, which has a spigot near the bottom, transforms the snow into piping hot water. Above the pot is a clothesline of sorts, a wire strung with an ever-changing assortment of leaden socks, gloves and facemasks, all thawing like frozen steaks.

It is in front of the Preway that the people who wear this gear go to thaw themselves out, too. Late in the evening, when the day's work is done and the dishes have been washed, the galley gets quite cozy. Gathered around the warmest (and only) hearth for hundreds of miles, campmates start swapping stories from around the world—of man-eating bears in Alaska, of pendulous strippers in Australia, of charging hippos in Tanzania, felled by a desperate rifle shot at the last possible moment.

These stories reflect the eclectic and well-traveled group that finds itself thrown together here on the highest, driest continent on earth; scientists and wilderness guides, paramedics and pilots, writers and carpenters. Despite our differences, we all share a love of the wild, a tolerance for discomfort, and a healthy sense of humor.

Laughter is essential for emotional survival. If you can't laugh about having to shovel your way into your tent at night, or joke about relieving yourself over an ice-pit toilet that emits a strange, black light (and worse), two weeks at TAMCAMP might seem something like a Siberian work camp.

Humor aside, the day-to-day work at TAMCAMP is hard. Keeping snowdrifts shoveled, generators running, the Twin Otter fueled and flying—this keeps everyone in camp busy. Installing the seismometers at remote sites can be particularly taxing. Typically, the Twin Otter pilots will fly a team of three people to a predetermined site, identical in appearance to all the other locations, save for the GPS coordinates.

Once on the ground, we unload about 900 pounds of equipment, often amidst temperatures so far below zero that the wind burns painfully, as if we were being sprayed with tiny shards of glass mixed into Tabasco sauce. The prospect of such pain, and the risk of severe frostbite induce us all to layer up like mummies, peering out through masks and hoods and frosted goggles like astronauts on a foreign planet.

In many ways, the Antarctic plateau is a foreign planet. Chances are, not a single person has ever set foot where we land, and for good reason. The surroundings can most charitably be described as "majestically bleak"—all the more so when the plane roars off into the blue sky, leaving us alone in this vastness to install our equipment before the elements get the better of us.

Many hours later, the plane returns to pick us up. By this time, our feet often feel like blocks of stone, our balaclavas are encrusted with ice, and our minds are numb with cold. Amidst all our discomfort and nagging nightmares about being stranded out there, the approaching roar of the Twin Otter's props is like music to the soul.

Once gratefully aboard and winging our way home towards camp, thoughts usually turn to a warm dinner in the galley, and perhaps then to a glass of Glenlivet. We may have to sip our scotch from plastic mugs, but then again, we know we're never going to run short of ice.

Co-principal investigators for the Transantarctic Mountains Seismic Experiment are Andy Nyblade, Sridhar Anandakrishnan, and Doug Wiens. Nyblade, Ph.D., is assistant professor of geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, 447 Deike Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-8341; andy@geosc.psu.edu. Anandakrishnan, Ph.D., was at the time of the expedition on the faculty of the University of Alabama. He is now an associate professor of geophysics in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State. Wiens, Ph.D., is professor of Earth and planetary science at Washington University in St. Louis.

Other members of the TAMSEIS team included Don Voigt, Bruce Long, Maggie Benoit, Juliette Florentin, and Ted Voigt, all from Penn State; Patrick Shore, Jesse Fisher, and Rigobert Tibi, all from Washington University; Yongtau Luo from the University of Alabama; Tim Parker from the PASSCAL Instrument Center; Jennifer Curtis, a participant in the National Science Foundation's "Teachers Experiencing Antarctica" program; and John Pollack, a freelance writer and communications consultant in Washington, D.C.

The Transantarctic Mountains Seismic Experiment is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Last Updated May 01, 2002