A Bright Spot of Life on the Icy Continent

Paddy Douglas

Paddy Douglas routinely comes to Antarctica during its summer, running the cargo crew at the airport. Peter Breslow, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Breslow, NPR

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Quonset hut i i

Many people working at the Pole live in Quonset huts, which are divided into tiny rooms and have no indoor bathroom. Peter Breslow, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Breslow, NPR
Quonset hut

Many people working at the Pole live in Quonset huts, which are divided into tiny rooms and have no indoor bathroom.

Peter Breslow, NPR

The South Pole lies ahead — a simple metal pole stuck in the snow. It marks the exact location of the bottom of the world, 90 degrees latitude. (Actually this pole has to move about 30 feet every year because the entire Antarctic continent floats.) And what a spectacular sight at the world's tip — in every direction, vast, austere, white emptiness.

Of course, it's not complete emptiness. Right near the pole is the official U.S. South Pole Research Station. It looks like a cross between a modern junior high school and an office building. We came down here to talk to the people who work in this building. What kind of people come for months at a time to live in the most difficult place on Earth? And why is the South Pole so important, anyway?

You enter the research station through a huge metal door, like one of those giant airlocks on a restaurant freezer. This complex is brand new — it was dedicated two months ago. Officials from the State Department and the Pentagon flew all the way to the ceremony. A congressman came, too — Rodney Frelinghuysen from the Appropriations Committee.

As we stroll through this new center, it's easy to forget that this is the most extreme spot on Earth. Life inside seems normal. Just peek inside the gym, where a full-court basketball game is under way. Or load your tray in the cafeteria. This dining room could be at some resort — it's all blond wood and wall-to-wall windows. So while you eat, you gaze right at the South Pole.

The head chef, James Brown, used to cook in fancy restaurants around Washington, D.C. He just served grilled salmon in spicy-sweet chili sauce.

Though the chef is mainly into his cooking, he and everybody else at the Pole are actually part of a giant geopolitical chess game. A tiny group of Americans has lived down here since the 1950s, but they worked in funky buildings that were getting buried by snow. And in the mid-1990s, Congress asked a blue ribbon panel: Do Americans really need to live at the South Pole at all? Is it worth spending all that money?

The panel members answered yes.

"The substantial U.S. presence in Antarctica is viewed by the panel as a critical, perhaps the most critical, element in assuring the region's continued political stability," the executive summary of that report reads.

A Giant Frozen Laboratory

Things in Antarctica haven't always been stable. Just before World War II, the Nazi regime planted flags on the continent for Hitler. After the war, Britain and Argentina almost started a war over claims on a chunk of the continent. And when the Cold War started, the Soviets said they were going to set up a base at the South Pole, so the U.S. rushed there first.

But since then, more than 40 countries have signed a remarkable treaty that has kept the peace. It promises that all the countries can share Antarctica and that nobody can mine it, even though studies suggest there could be gold, uranium and oil beneath the ice. The blue ribbon panel worried that if the U.S. left the Pole, there'd be a power vacuum and the treaty might fall apart. So the panel told Congress to build this dazzling new base and to plan on staying here.

And, the panel said, there's another reason America needs this center: The South Pole is one of the best places on Earth to do scientific studies. The environment here is so cold and pristine, it's like a giant sterile laboratory. That's why the government's research agency, the National Science Foundation, runs the whole place.

This is where researchers helped prove that the Earth is getting warmer. Other scientists are exploring how the universe is changing, such as Steve Meyer, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago. Meyer is standing at the base of what looks like an enormous white cereal bowl with lots of rivets.

"What we're looking at here is a 10-meter dish," Meyer explains. "The idea of the dish is to collect microwave radiation... [which] has its origin in the very early universe, the Big Bang radiation."

In fact, this dish can detect radiation from galaxies that are roughly 5 billion light years away. Meyer hopes it will help scientists learn more about the mysterious force called dark energy. Scientists think dark energy is shoving the universe apart.

"I view this as a continuation of astronomy that's been going on for thousands of years. And if we were to say at some point, 'Oh, Galileo, he found the planets were going around the sun, and this is all we want to know about the universe,' that's a very odd thing to say," says Meyer. "Our understanding of physics as a whole may change as a result of our beginning to learn about things like dark energy."

Meet the 'Polies'

Meyer belongs to an exclusive club: He gets to work at the South Pole. Only about 300 people come here in any given year. Only a few dozen are scientists; everybody else keeps the place going so the scientists can do their work. They drive snowmobiles and trucks. They unload fuel oil and food from military planes. And they load most of the garbage from the base back on the same planes — candy wrappers, batteries, human waste. The international treaty says no dumping — so they ship it to California. The huge defense contractor Raytheon manages all these workers for the U.S. government.

Paddy Douglas runs the cargo crew at the airport, which is really just a strip of ice marked by flags. Everything and everybody at the South Pole gets in and out on these planes, which land on skis. Most of the vehicles look like creatures from another planet. Douglas names them like pets — Cassie Rose, Barb Allen, Emma.

Douglas is fit, tanned and outdoorsy. She had been living in Colorado until about seven years ago, when she came across a Raytheon ad promising exploration and adventure in Antarctica. She has been coming to the Pole during Antarctic summers ever since.

"It's one of the last frontiers. These things that we're doing — we're exploring. And it helps define who we are, and that's exciting," she says.

Though her job is in moving cargo, she's as thrilled about science as any of the researchers. "How can you not be a science junky and be here?" she exclaims. "To know that I'm a part of that in some small way, to help support these wonderful things these guys are doing, how cool is that?"

It sounds almost corny, and every employee we meet here talks exactly the same way. They even have a name for themselves: "Polies."

A Spare and Spectacular Life

You don't feel cold at first when you land at the South Pole. The sky is impossibly blue and the sun is blazing. In fact, it blazes nonstop during Antarctica's summer — you can get sunburned at 3 a.m. Still, it's almost 50 below with the wind chill, and after a few minutes my fingers are throbbing under two layers of gloves. Polies like Douglas say they hardly notice the cold.

"It is such a unique and amazing place," Douglas says. "We get halos here that are spectacular. We get rainbows, round rainbows around the sun. The beauty of the place is phenomenal... and the sense of freedom I feel when I look out at the horizon."

Polies say you either love this bizarre world, or you hate it. Consider how most of them have to live.

Most employees live in long Quonset huts — actually, they're more like Quonset tents. The Army invented them to house soldiers in the Korean War. They're dotted across the landscape, big half-cylinders of plywood with black canvas stretched over the top.

Wendy Bever, who helps load cargo, offers to give us the inside tour. Even though it's the middle of the afternoon, the hallway inside the tent is dark and lit with red lights. Bever warns us to enter quietly — since people here work 24 hours a day, some are sleeping.

Bever pulls back a curtain — she doesn't have a door — and there's her, what do you call it, her room? Her cubicle? It's only 6 feet long by 5 feet wide. There's barely space for a twin bed and a pile of books, plus her collection of Mardi Gras necklaces. There are 10 cubicles like this in every tent. And they don't have a bathroom, just an outhouse. So in the middle of the night, people urinate in cans they keep under their beds.

Though it's tiny, Bever says her living space is big enough. "I once had a great big house," she says, "and what I found was, you don't need 15 pairs of tennis shoes. You really just don't need all that stuff."

Changed by the Place

But Polies say, even if you love this Spartan life, sometimes you still have to come in from the cold. So they go to the greenhouse.

Monique Dulak studied horticulture at the University of New Hampshire. She has come to the South Pole to grow plants. She walks through the greenhouse and points them out proudly — lettuce, basil, cilantro, purple onions.

Polies say it's great to see anything fresh in the cafeteria, but here's the main reason they love the greenhouse: It's therapy. Think about it — there are no birds at the South Pole, no trees, no bushes. Not even any grass. People can start feeling off balance. Managers started worrying there was too much drinking, and there were a couple of ugly fights. So, they've squeezed a sofa under the leaves in Dulak's greenhouse. And Polies hang out here during their breaks.

Dulak still feels calmed by the greenhouse, even though she works here every day. "You know, this greenhouse is incredibly relaxing," she says. "I come in here, I get the light, I get the air, I get the moisture and it feels good."

The week we visited the South Pole, Antarctica's summer was almost over. The last flights of the season would take off in a few weeks, and most of the people would leave with them, including Douglas, the cargo chief. Douglas says she's planning to come back late this year for her eighth Antarctic summer. She says she's more alive at the Pole than back in the States.

"The third season I was here, I was feeling really lonely for my kids... and a friend of mine brought me an orange," Douglas says, her voice cracking. "And it was so good... You appreciate that kind of stuff more... I've been very changed by the place."

Only 60 Polies will stay behind for the winter. They won't see the sun for four months. Temperatures will drop to 100 below. But they'll keep watch over America's brand new outpost, here at the bottom of the world.

Produced by Peter Breslow.

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