I felt as if I had been plumed upon another planet or into another geologic horizon of which man had no knowledge or memory,” wrote the American polar researcher Richard Byrd 60 years ago in describing his perception of an isolated winter spent in the Antarctic…
Since then, icebreaker expedition cruise ships have made it possible for less heroic oriented travelers to risk a glimpse into this fascinating but frigid kingdom.
“Ice is the beginning of Antarctica and ice is its end. As one moves from perimeter to interior, the proportion of ice relentlessly increases. Ice creates more ice, and ice defines ice,” is the impression that American historian Stephen Pyne brought back with him from just such a cruise.
Indeed there is no other medium that determines the living space of the southernmost continent as much as ice. A huge glacier up to 4,000 meters thick covers the continent of Antarctica; only about two percent of its surface is ice-free.
Nowhere on earth is the ice so old. In 1987, with the help of ice drills, scientists at the Russian Antarctic station Vostok penetrated 2,000 meters deep into the ice and reached layers that were formed about 160,000 years ago.
From the enormous weight of the ice mass covering it, most of this rocky land has been pushed below sea level. Scientists estimate the amount of ice in the Antarctic at about 30 million cubic kilometers. If it were to melt, the level of the world’s oceans would rise by 60 to 65 meters. Almost three-fourths of the world’s supply of fresh water is stored as ice in the Antarctic.
“Antarctic icebergs contain more drinking water than the human race could ever use,” said a resourceful engineer once.
But the combination of great amounts of money and great thirst that would be the prerequisite to this resource’s economic use has yet to materialize.
For the time being, icebergs remain the untouched harbingers of the Antarctic. As you travel south, they at first appear as solitary wanderers, but the closer you get, these white plateaus soon cover the entire horizon, as far as the eye can see.
They serve as signs pointing the way into another world as they drift by your ship with their glistening flanks. Majestic, shrouded in mystery, and most of all always in the process of changing, they are flat, precipitous, like ruins with towers and battlements, in whose bizarre profiles the rays of the sun play furtively.
While the Antarctic plateau is completely lifeless, some ice-free areas can be found in the coastal area of the Antarctic Peninsula and in Victoria Land on the Ross Sea, at least during the short summertime.
A yellow-orange layer shimmers softly on gray rock faces. On the cold stone, crust lichen has found a meager habitat. Besides mosses and fungi, only two blooming plants exist here: a type of grass and a carnation species. Those seeking trees do so in vain.
The native heraldic animals of the Antarctic are the penguins. During the summer months, thousands of them live together in colonies where they laboriously build their nests out of small stones and raise their young.
The emperor penguin has adapted itself best to the inclemency of the cold. In order to make sure that its single offspring is born during the short summer, it incubates the egg during the Antarctic winter on its feet.
To do this the penguin stands almost completely still for 65 days, in spite of wind velocities that on this stormiest of all continents can reach up to 300 kilometers per hour, and withstands extreme below-zero temperatures. After all, the Antarctic is the world’s coldest continent.
On July 21, 1983, in the aforementioned Vostok station, the lowest temperature ever measured on earth was registered: -89.2 degrees Celsius. The air temperature in the Antarctic is, on the average, 30 degrees colder than in the Arctic.
Humans were never native to Antarctica, and it has remained stateless territory to this day. About 1,000 kilometers separate this icy world from the civilization of South America. The southernmost reaches of the other nearest continents also keep their distance: Australia about 4,000 kilometers and South Africa about 3,700 kilometers.
About 4,000 people currently live in Antarctica, which makes it the most sparsely populated continent on our planet. There is one person for every 18,130 square kilometers. Most of these are scientists who return to their homelands after a summer or a year and are replaced by new groups of researchers.
Only a few soldiers, who are not allowed to wear weapons, but rather take care of the technical operations of some of the stations, live here with their families.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that humans set foot on Antarctica, making it the last of all the continents to be discovered. Unlike the other parts of the world, however, it wasn’t discovered by accident. It had existed in people’s imaginations for more than 2,000 years. Their love of symmetry caused the ancient Greek philosophers to postulate a large southern landmass as the counterpart to the populated and known lands of the north, an Antiarcturus that lay opposite the Arcturus, the constellation of the Ursa Major.
Antarctica is the last nearly untouched continent of the world, and is at the same time the most peaceful: The countries who have signed the Antarctic Treaty represent more than 75 percent of the world’s population.
Surely no one who has had the privilege of seeing this icy continent can escape the fascination of its beauty. Steep, craggy mountains and huge valleys with glaciers of indescribable size, wild animals who are not at all afraid of humans, colors that no artist can mix – that is Antarctica. But beware: “Once you have seen the ice, you want to see it again,” warns Swedish author Lars Gustafsson.
THE MOST DIFFICULT LAND TO CONQUER
It has taken many expeditions to finally break Antarctica’s cold, unyielding maidenhead. Here are some “firsts.”
1772-75 First (“unaware”) crossing of the Antarctic Circle by Captain James Cook’s 2nd British expedition.
1821 First man to set foot on Antarctica is Captain John Davis, an American sealer.
1901-04 Captain Robert Falcon Scott leads first scientific expedition on his ship Discovery and in a hydrogen-filled balloon.
1911-12 Roald Amundsen beats Scott and becomes the first man to reach the South Pole and return safely. Scott is second; the entire team perishes on the way back home.
1929 Richard Evelyn Byrd is the first man to fly over the South Pole.
1935 Klarius Mikkelsen is the first woman in the Antarctic.
1935 The American Lincoln Ellsworth makes the first transantarctic flight, which takes 22 days instead of the anticipated 14 hours.
1956-57 Sir Vivian Fuchs, of the Commonwealth Tran Antarctic Expedition crosses the Antarctic via the South Pole 1972-74 David Lewis’ makes voyage to Antarctica by yacht.
1992-93 Erling Kagge is the first person to man-haul a sledge solo to the South Pole.
1992-93 Ann Bancroft leads the first all-woman trek to the South Pole, pulling sledges and receiving air support.
1992-93 First unsupported and man-hauled crossing of the Antarctic is achieved by Sir Ralph Fiennes and Dr. Mike Stroud. They cover the distance of 2,380 km in 95 days.