Exploring Antarctica

Richard Harris at Taylor Glacier
Richard Harris standing at the Taylor Glacier, which feeds into Lake Bonney in Antarctica
The Antarctic continent is practically devoid of plant and animal life. But some hardy organisms live in the ice-covered lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, and some hardy biologists trek to this remote part of the globe to learn their secrets. Biologist John Priscu from Montana State University in Bozeman has traveled to Lake Bonney for 17 years to study the tough life forms there. This past field season, he undertook an ambitious project to install hefty new scientific instruments in the lake. NPR science correspondent, Richard Harris, follows follows Prof Priscu on his Adventure in Antarctica's Dry Valleys for Weekend Edition Sunday. Adventure in Antarctica's Dry Valleys

Biologist John Prescu clears ice
Biologist John Priscu clears ice from Lake Bonney
(Photo: Richard Harris © NPR Online 2001)
Biologist John Priscu from Montana State University in Bozeman has traveled to Lake Bonney for 17 years to study the tough life forms there. This past field season, he undertook an ambitious project to install hefty new scientific instruments in the lake. NPR science correspondent, Richard Harris, follows Prof. Priscu on his adventure in Antarctica's Dry Valleys.

  • Find out more about the National Science Foundation.
  • Visit theMcMurdo Dry Valleys Web site for Long-Term Ecological Research.
  • Hear Richard's previous stories from Antarctica: December 6 | December 11 | December 14 |
    March 1

    Sharing Antarctica
    under construction
    The first wing of the new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station under construction December, 2000.
    (Photo: Peter West, NSF)
    March 1, 2001 -- Multiple claims to a country or continent are not unusual in the course of human history, but there is only one place on earth now where multiple countries share dominion: Antarctica.

    Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have overlapping claims on the frozen land; the United States reserves the right to do so, and Norway says a large part of the icy land is Norwegian. The Antarctic station serves two purposes: it supports scientists doing research at the Pole, but it also acts as a geopolitical anchor. Sharing AntarcticaFind out more in this report from NPR's Richard Harris on Morning Edition.  

    Mt. Erebus
    Mt. Erebus
    (Photo: Richard Harris © 2000 NPR Online)
    Mt. Erebus
    December 19 -- Most of Mt. Erebus is swaddled in snow and ice. But the top 500 feet of the towering peak is strewn with rocks... brownish gray clumps of lava. Nelia Dunbar has to climb up this stretch every day to get to her scientific instruments at the lip of the volcanic crater.

    When the steam and acid clouds are particularly thick, the scientists up here can't even see the bombs that are tossed out of the volcano. It's just one of the risks of research in Antarctica. People do die on this frozen continent -- but typically not becuase the work is inherently risky. A few months ago, an astrophysicist at the South Pole died of an embolism. In late 1997, three recreational skydivers died at the pole when their parachutes didn't open. They thought they could tell how far they were from the uniform white surface, and when to pull their ripcords. They were wrong. The worst tragedy on the continent was here on this mountain, back in 1979. But it wan't volcanic activity. Pilot error caused a sightseeing plane to plow into Mt. Erebus, killing all 257 aboard.

    Mt. Erebus seems peaceful enough on this day. If you sit quietly on the edge of the crater, you can hear gas escaping from the molten lava below.

    Dunbar and a graduate student complete their work at the crater's edge in about 20 minutes and then retreat down the mountain. Dunbar says there is risk in everything -- driving from her lab at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, New Mexico, to Albuquerque. But she reassures herself that few vulcanologists die on the job. She says, you can't let fear run your life.

    Mt. ErebusHear more about Mt. Erebus in this report from Richard Harris for All Things Considered.

    Penguin Interview
    Penguins shunning the limelight in Antarctica.
    The Spies Who Stayed Out in the Cold
    December 14 -- Penguins are some of the most charismatic animals on earth. It turns out they are also the subject of some high-tech espionage right now.

    If you look at the National Science Foundationís official guide to research in Antarctica this season, you wonít see anything about spying on penguins. But, there at the bottom of a list of scientists studying how penguins manage to hold their breaths for so long, is the name Walt Campbell. This project is just a cover for Walt Campbell, his ticket to the ice. Campbell is actually here to spy on penguins.

    Now, you might wonder why itís necessary to spy on penguins. They donít seem to have secrets. And if youíre near them on the sea ice, theyíll come right up to you to chat.

    But these penguins donít reveal everything during these friendly encounters. And one of their biggest secrets is, where they hang out to breed. So Campbell figured heíd use his military connections. He says heís arranged for two spy satellites to take pictures of penguins from space, one that can even make images throgh clouds. Heíll be on the ground taking pictures for comparison. penguin surveillance Find out more about penguin surveillance in this report from Richard Harris for All Things Considered.

    Flags at the geographic south pole
    The copper pipe marks the exact spot of 90 degrees South latitude. Flags of the original 12 signatory nations to the Antarctic Treaty wave nearby.
    (Credit: Lynn Teo Simarski, NSF)
    The Bottom of the World
    December 11, 2000 -- The cold pinches your face at the South Pole and forces your hands into pockets or warm gloves. But the cold also does something strange and wondrous to the snow. You can hear it when you walk. It sounds hollow.

    You can walk between the telescopes and the main south pole station, which is a dome slowly being buried in the snow. Visitors are drawn out into the cold in search of the very bottom of the world. Itís not the red-and-white barber pole, with the mirrored ball sitting on top. Thatís ceremonial. The actual south pole, the point around which the world turns, is a short walk away. The marker there drifts off the pole because this frozen ocean flows slowly northward Ė how else? Scientists come out January first of each year to move that marker back to the bottom of the world.

    The Bottom of the World Listen to more from NPR Science Correspondent Richard Harris.

    The town at McMurdo Station

    McMurdo is the logistics hub of most of the U.S. Antarctic Program. Most cargo and all fuel come to McMurdo by one cargo ship and one tanker per year.
    (Credit: Lynn Teo Simarski, NSF)

    McMurdo Station
    December 6, 2000 -- The folks who come to Antarctica come here for adventure. This is the frontier Ė the limits of civilization. Iíve talked to more than one person who was inspired to make the trip after reading the story of Ernest Shackletonís heroic adventure in 1915 with the sailing ship the Endurance. (He rescued his crew, which was stranded in Antarctica, by crossing 800 miles of ocean in an open boat.) But the main port of entry, McMurdo Station, is a rude shock for many. They arrive to find a town of about 85 buildings and large lots of construction containers and material. Many large oil tanks dot the hills behind the base.

    The Internet has made a huge difference in the degree of isolation people experience around here. Thereís a high-speed connection, so people can read their hometown newspapers online and keep up on everything. (Of course, many people around here are grateful to be away from the never ending story of the presidential election.) E-mail also keeps people in touch with their friends back home, and thereís always the telephone.

    News on the base is controlled by the folks who run
    Aerial of Taylor Valley
    Aerial view of Taylor Valley, one of Antarctica's Dry Valleys
    (Photo courtesy: Peter West, NSF)
    the town. That means rumors are a favorite way of spreading information around here. Just before I got into town, the rumor spread that a UFO was going to land on Antarctica. I found a funny poster circulating locally that shows a huge UFO hovering over McMurdo. The official word is one young man here got a bit disoriented down here and had come up with the notion of an impending UFO encounter. He was put on a plane back to New Zealand.

    There are regular reminders that this isnít simply a college campus. We awoke the other day to an extended blackout in the main building, which houses the cafeteria and many dorm rooms. Electricians had to shut off power to the building the following evening. The flyer warning of the power shutdown in some ways typifies the spirit of McMurdo. It says, "The Sparkies presentÖ The Little Blackout." People are down here to have a good time. And they do.

    McMurdo StationHear more from Richard's report on All Things Considered.

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