“So this fingie beaker shows up, first day on the ice. She’s an Antarctic 10, but she’s strictly black tie, no bunny boots, not even diapers. There she is, complaining about the cold while I’m doing the bag drag, listening to all this, and finally I just turn to her and tell her, ‘Hey, it’s a harsh continent!'”

Such a paragraph tempts one (especially this one) to launch into a discussion of the English language, but unfortunately that’s not my topic for this week: my topic is Antarctica.

Now that you’re thoroughly puzzled, allow me to translate: “So this new scientist shows up, first day in Antarctica. She’s kind of average-looking, and she doesn’t have any Antarctic-suitable clothing: no standard-issue red clothes, no inflatable boots, not even a flotation coat. There she is, complaining about the cold while I’m dragging my duffel bag back to the base because my flight’s been grounded by the weather, listening to all this, and finally I just turn to her and tell her, ‘Oh, quit griping.'”

Antarctica is incredibly remote, incredibly harsh, and incredibly sparsely populated, even if one includes seals and penguins. Overwintering on that southernmost continent is the closest you can come on Earth to spending a few months on another planet. As you can see, it practically has its own language. It’s a wonder anyone goes there at all.

But in fact Antarctica draws a lot of people–and mainly the people it draws are scientists. That’s because Antarctica actually has a lot to recommend it: it’s been described as the last great natural laboratory on the surface of the Earth and as a natural wilderness with unique characteristics. It’s also seen as a potential source of valuable materials, from fish to minerals, worrisome in view of what tapping those materials might mean to the near-pristine environment of the region.

A recent issue of the science newsmagazine Nature took a look at some of the research programs being carried out by various nations in Antarctica. In the winter of 1990 (our summer), there were 48 active research stations, from Brazil, Poland, Argentina, Korea, Uruguay, the USSR (You remember the USSR, don’t you? Big country, just east of Germany?), Chile, China, the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, France, South Africa, Japan, Germany and India.

Fields of research include atmospheric science, astronomy, geology, psychology (the isolation of Antarctic life makes any research station there a psychology experiment!), biology, climatology and archaeology.

The focus of much of the research right now is global atmospheric change. The glacial ice-sheet covering Antarctica is where the water would come from to make the oceans rise, should projected global warming become undisputed reality. As well, polar regions are expected to be more sensitive to such warming, so it might be expected to show up in Antarctica first. Ozone depletion is also being monitored; the original “hole” in the ozone layer was discovered above Antarctica, recurs seasonally, and seems to be getting bigger and staying around longer.

There is also a great deal of research being done into krill, tiny shrimp-like animals that swarm in incredible numbers in the oceans around Antarctica and are a vital part of the food chain. (Penguins, for instance, depend on them.) Establishing the population of krill and how vulnerable it is is of interest both to those studying the ecology of Antarctica and those who are interested in harvesting krill to feed people.

As I mentioned, psychologists study, not the continent itself, but those who overwinter there. NASA has conducted such studies to learn more about behavior in space-like conditions. It takes a special kind of person to put up with–to volunteer for, in fact–nine months of darkness, sub-zero temperatures and near-isolation. Psychologists also study the people who stay over winter to learn better how to screen applicants before they get down there. (Even now, between 10 and 25 percent of U.S. applicants are rejected after psychological screening.)

Astronomers are basing three new telescopes at the South Pole to focus (pardon the expression) on questions ranging from the origins of galaxies to the formation of stars to the measurement of atmospheric ozone. Since the telescopes have to operate over winter, at temperatures down to -75 Celsius, they also expect to learn a few things about how to make telescopes. They’re also studying the way in which the solar wind interacts with the Earth’s upper atmosphere, and how the Sun’s and Earth’s magnetic fields interact. And out on the ice, a French scientist is gathering samples of micrometeorites, perfectly preserved in the pristine Antarctic glaciers, hoping to learn more about the early makeup of the solar system and the formation of Earth.

To humans, Antarctica is a frightening, forbidding and sometimes lethal place–but it is also fascinating, to the extent that last year 8,000 tourists, at a cost of up to $8,000 apiece, made the often-uncomfortable trek down there–one more concern to those who want to see Antarctica remain untramelled. It is, after all, not only a place that offers us unique opportunities for scientific research, it’s a continent still largely unexplored, 80 years after Norway’s Amundsen reached the South Pole; the last such large land mass on the planet.

The future of Antarctica, the animals that live there and the research carried on there, is in the hands of nations around the world. No one owns it; it belongs to all of humanity. How well we handle this last frontier on land may well pave the way for how we handle the future frontiers of the ocean floor and other planets.

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