A Bright Spot of Life on the Icy Continent The vast, icy expanse of the South Pole has nurtured its own community. But what kind of people come for months at a time to live at the most difficult place on Earth?
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A Bright Spot of Life on the Icy Continent

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A Bright Spot of Life on the Icy Continent

A Bright Spot of Life on the Icy Continent

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Over the next several weeks, as part of our series, Climate Connections with National Geographic, NPR will be visiting the seventh continent, Antarctica. Superlatives abound there. Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, driest and emptiest place on the planet. It's also one of the best spots on Earth to study how our climate works and is changing. Smack in the middle of the place hits the South Pole.

We sent NPR's Daniel Zwerdling there to find out about the science, the politics and the people, literally, at the bottom of the world.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: I am walking to the South Pole. It's just about 10 feet from us. It's a simple metal pole stuck in the ice and snow, and this 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 about 30 feet every year. So they have to keep reconfiguring where this exact spot is. Oh my, it is spectacular in every direction. There is vast, austere, sparkling, white, flat emptiness. Of course it's not complete emptiness because right in back of me, in back of this flagpole, which you can hear waving perhaps.

This is the official U.S. South Pole Research Station ,and it looks a lot like what I think the U.S. research stations might look like on the moon some day or perhaps Mars. It looks like a modern junior high school across from the modern research lab and an office building. And we came down here because we wanted to figure out what sort of people would want to come down here and spend months and months of their lives, living and working in the most difficult place on earth. And second of all, why is the South Pole so important. Just one more thing, which is that it's actually sort of balmy today, it's only minus 49 degrees with the wind chill factor.

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

Representative RODNEY FRELINGHUYSEN (Republican, New Jersey): This is equivalent to putting up the International Space Station. It really is. It's amazing.

(Soundbite of applause)

ZWERDLING: As we stroll to this new center, it's easy to forget this is the most extreme spot on earth. Life inside seems normal. Just peek inside the gym or load your tray in the cafeteria. This dining room could be at some resorts. It's all blond wood, wall-to-wall windows, so while you eat, you gaze right at the South Pole.

The head chef used to cook in fancy restaurants around Washington, D.C. His name is James Brown(ph). He just served grilled salmon in spicy, sweet chili sauce.

Mr. JAMES BROWN (Chef): We did a wild rice pilaf with cranberries in it. We also had a nice avocado and cucumber salad.

ZWERDLING: The chef is mainly into his cooking, but 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 the 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.

Guy Guthridge was a Polar specialist of the U.S. Government. He helped the panel write its report.

Mr. GUY GUTHRIDGE (Polar Specialist): All right this is from the Executive Summary. The substantial U.S. presence in Antarctica is viewed by the panel as a critical - perhaps the most critical elements in assuring the regions continued political stability.

ZWERDLING: It's important to realize that things in Antarctica used to be unstable. Just before World War II, the Nazi regime planted flags on the continent for Hitler. After the war, Britain and Argentina almost started fighting. They both claimed the same chunk of ice. And then when the Cold War started, the Soviets said they were going to set up a base right at the South Pole. So the U.S. rushed there first. But since then, more than 40 countries have signed a remarkable treaty that's kept the peace. It promises that all the countries can share Antarctica and the treaty says nobody can mine it even though studies suggest there could be gold and uranium and oil.

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 they told Congress to build this dazzling new base and plan on staying here.

Unidentified Woman: Welcome. I'm going to do a brief orientation for you guys.

ZWERDLING: 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 so 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 help prove that the earth is getting warmer. Other scientists are exploring how the universe is changing.

Dr. STEPHAN MEYER (Scientist; Professor, University of Chicago): I'm Steve Meyer. I'm a professor at the University of Chicago.

ZWERDLING: Meyer is standing at the base of what looks like an enormous white cereal bowl with lots of rivets.

Dr. MEYER: What we're looking at here is a 10-meter dish. The idea of the dish is to collect microwave radiation. This microwave radiation has its origin in the very early universe, the Big Bang radiation.

ZWERDLING: In fact, this dish can detect radiation from galaxies that are roughly five billion light years away. Meyer hopes it will help them more and more about the mysterious force called dark energy. Scientists think dark energy is shoving the universe apart. So why should tax payers, why should our listeners, be excited that you have this telescope?

Dr. MEYER: 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, then this is all we want to know about the universe. It's a very odd thing to say at this particular point. And so our understanding of physics as a whole may change as a result of our beginning to learn about things like our galaxy.

ZWERDLING: Steve 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 of them 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 cargo planes like this one. 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.

Ms. PATRICIA DOUGLAS (Cargo Chief, South Pole): Right now it's coming in our- in (unintelligible) it's about 10 minutes up.

Ms. DOUGLAS: What we have coming in today is a little bit of science cargo.

ZWERDLING: Patty Douglas runs the cargo crew at the airport. Well, it's not an airport. It's just a strip of ice marked by flags. Everything and everybody at the South Pole gets in and out on these planes. And the planes look weird. They land on skies. Most of the vehicles look like creatures from another planet. Douglas names them like pets.

Ms. DOUGLAS: Some of our loaders are named Cassie Rhodes(ph) and Barb Allen(ph) and Emma, Sweet Emma, one of the 277s.

ZWERDLING: Douglas had been living in Colorado about seven years ago. She looks fit and outdoorsy. And then one day she came across an ad like this one.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man: Explore new worlds and discover a lot about yourself.

Unidentified Woman #2: Meet the Raytheon recruiting team, Tuesday, March 4th and Thursday…

ZWERDLING: Douglas has been coming to the Pole ever since during Antarctic summers.

Ms. DOUGLAS: 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.

ZWERDLING: One of the things I love about hearing you say all these things is that you, you keep saying we. We're doing this. We're doing that. You're a specialist in logistics. You move the cargo in and out like you are a science junkie.

Ms. DOUGLAS: Oh, how can you not be a science junkie and be here. I love the science guys. To know that I'm a part of that in some small way to help support these wonderful things that these guys are doing, how cool is that?

ZWERDLING: It sounds almost corny and every employee we meet here talks exactly the same way. They probably call themselves "Polies". But I'm starting to shiver now, so we head to Douglas' office. It's one of the ugly orange trailers near the main building. You don't feel cold at first when you land at the South Pole. The sky is impossibly blue. The sun's blazing. In fact, it blazes non-stop during Antarctica's summer. You can get sunburn at 3:00 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.

Ms. DOUGLAS: It is such a unique and amazing place. We get halos here that are spectacular. We get rainbows. There are round rainbows around the sun and then the beauty of the place is phenomenal and the sense of freedom I feel, when I look out at the horizon, I just take a deep breath and huh.

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

Ms. WENDY BEVER(ph) (South Pole employee): Come on over here and I'll take you into my little place.

ZWERDLING: Wendy Bever helps load cargo. She and most employees live in long Quonset huts. Actually they are more like Quonset tents. The army invented them to help soldiers in the Korean War.

Ms. BEVER: The home here is very dark, and it's lit with red lights. We do have people working 24 hours a day here. So if we'll just talk quietly.

ZWERDLING: Bever pulled 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 six feet long by five feet wide. There's barely space for a twin bed and a pile of books, plus her Mardi Gras necklaces on hooks. 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. So you come here and you live in this teeny, like a sub, for six months.

Ms. BEVER: It's small, but I once had a great big house, not great big but standard, say a 4,000-square-foot house.

ZWERDLING: That's big.

Ms. BEVER: Yeah and what I found was, you don't need 15 pairs of tennis shoes. You really don't need all that stuff.

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

Ms. MONIQUE DULAK(ph) (Horticulturalist, South Pole): We have three trays of red salad bowl lettuce and then we have some different kinds of basil, some cilantro.

ZWERDLING: Monique Dulak studies horticulture at the University of New Hampshire. She's come to the South Pole to grow plants.

Ms. DULAK: We have some purple onions and…

ZWERDLING: Those are beautiful.

Ms. DULAK: Yes, aren't they pretty? They are almost ready to be harvested.

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

Ms. DULAK: You know, this greenhouse is incredibly relaxing and I come in here and I get the light and I get the air and I get the moisture and it just, it feels good.

ZWERDLING: But even with the greenhouse, some people get desperate.

Ms. DULAK: You know, somebody came in here and totally robbed all of my zucchinis and I don't think I'll ever let that go.

ZWERDLING: The weekly visit at the South Pole, Antarctica summer is almost over. The last flights of the season will take off in a few weeks and most of the people will leave with them, including the cargo chief Patty Douglas. Douglas says she is planning to come back late this year for her eight Antarctica summer. She says she is more alive at the Pole than back in the states.

Ms. DOUGLAS: The third season I was here, I was feeling really lonely for my kids, super lonely for my kids. And a friend of mine brought me an orange.

ZWERDLING: It's okay.

Ms. DOUGLAS: And it was so good. I'm sorry. It was just a really nice act of kindness. And so you appreciate that kind of stuff more. So I've been very changed by the place.

ZWERDLING: 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 new outpost here at the bottom of the world.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

SIMON: Our story was produced and recorded by the peerless Peter Breslow. To see a photo essay of Peter and Daniel's trip to Antarctica, you can go to npr.org/climateconnections.

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