Shelby: One hundred years ago this month, two teams of explorers were racing to be the first expedition to one of the most remote and hostile destinations on earth. And the winner was a Norwegian team. They were the first humans to reach the south pole. This week, people gathered in that remote spot to celebrate the big accomplishment.
Standing where Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen placed his flag way back on December 14th, 1911, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg honored the famous explorer by unveiling an ice sculpture.
“We are here today to honor these five brave men. We are here today to celebrate one of the most outstanding achievements of mankind. And we are here to highlight the importance of this cold continent for the warming of the globe.”
Shelby: Amundsen led his team across the Antarctic ice while their British rivals, under the command of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, trailed behind. On December 14th, 1911 Amundsen and his men claimed the victory. The British team arrived at the pole just over a month later only to discover Amundsen’s tent and Norwegian flag.
These days, getting to the south pole is quite a bit easier and safer. Today, scientists from around the world come to study at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Scientific Research Station.
Right about now, it is the Antarctic summer, which means the sun is shining 24-hours a day. But temperatures are cold, 15-degrees below zero cold. So to make up for the frigid weather, scientists inside the research center get some pretty cool comforts — ones you might not expect at the end of the earth, like pilates classes to help keep in-shape and gourmet meals to keep energy up. And if the food from the station’s outdoor freezer gets boring, there is a little greenery on the vine.
“We have cantaloupe, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce and arugula, basil, thyme, chives…”
Shelby: If the polar station resembles a space station, it is no coincidence. This is the closest you can get to being out-of-this-world without leaving the planet.
Although the landscape appears flat, the pole actually stands atop an ice pack almost two miles high. Its climate is drier than the Sahara desert, and this is the purest air on earth. The high altitude, the clear air, and the fact that the months during the winter get 24-hour darkness all make the South Pole an astronomer’s paradise.
“The South Pole’s just this great place to get this beautiful window to look, you know, out from the earth, out through our galaxy, and look far away and, believe it or not, see toward the origin of the universe.”
Shelby: Astrophysicist John Carlstrom is using this giant dish telescope to try to spot cosmic radiation created when the universe was formed 14 billion years ago.
“We’re essentially developing the baby picture, a snapshot of the universe when it was an infant.”
Shelby: While some look towards outer space, others at the pole have turned inward. For Project Ice Cube, researchers are planting sensors more than a mile into the ice, searching for evidence of neutrinos, some of the smallest particles known to science.
Detecting neutrinos has proven to be next to impossible, but they may be the key to proving, or disproving, Einstein’s theory of relativity, which explains why Dennis Duling and his team have come so far to attempt something so unique.
“We’re the best of the best because we’re the only ones. You know, it’s easy to be the best in your field when you’re the only ones doing it.”
Shelby: Eight hundred fifty miles from the pole, scientists are also surveying the McMurdo Dry Valleys. This landscape of rock and sand defies the image of a continent completely buried in ice and snow. These valleys are also thought to be clues as to what it may be like on other planets.
“It’s frozen all year round, and a cold day in Antarctica is actually like an average day on the surface of Mars.”
Shelby: Ecologist Joseph Levy says lessons learned here could help in the search for alien life.
“It’s the southernmost terrestrial functioning ecosystem, the coldest, highest, driest place where predators prey on primary producers, on little herbivores, on algae.”
Shelby: But if you are looking for some more familiar life forms, Marine Ecologist David Ainley has spent the past twenty-five years keeping tabs on the progress of these adelie penguins, the southernmost colony of penguins in the world. Even Ainley is amazed by what it takes to survive in this place.
“The thing about the Antarctic, it’s just so immense. And the forces here are incredible. There’s just no, like, nice comfortable warm evenings.”
Shelby: No, this is not a place you would come to for comfort. Antarctica is a place you come to experience and study nature at its most extreme and its most amazing.