The foot of the glacier looks like the bottom of an ordinary snow-covered hill. But when you brush some of the snow away with the toe of your boot, you see ice underneath. Two additional facts: The glacier should more properly be called an icecap, and it has a mezzanine. If you’re standing at the foot and you look up, you see a brown strata. That’s a moraine—a pile of sedimentary trash the glacier has picked up in its retreat. Further up the slope the landmarks slip away. The result is one of the most remarkable sights I’ve ever seen: sheer whiteness. Endless whiteness joined seamlessly to an overcast sky. A whiteness without direction. A whiteness that could swallow up New York.
Eleven of us, wearing variously colored Gore-Tex shells with layers of insulation underneath, penetrated the whiteness following a glaciologist named Bulat on his rounds. Bulat is a tall, pleasant man who looks like Steve Allen, but with shorter hair and wire-rim glasses instead of horn rims. He wore an orange shell, the better to seen against a white background. He has established 30 observation points at 100-meter intervals in the whiteness. Each is marked by a long stick protruding from the snow. He came out today to examine 15 of them. We watched as he drew a shovel from his backpack and quickly excavated a rectangular hole in the snow about a yard deep. He pointed to the layers of snow that had been clearly exposed, then filled a cylinder with snow and weighed it with a scale-like device. Every few minutes, he paused to record a reading in a black-bound notebook he keeps in a pouch in the front of his shell. He answered questions from the professors and graduate students who had gathered around him.
Of interest to me, Bulat said there were no crevasses on this icecap; but no one knows why. He comes out once or twice a week to take observations and stays here at Bellingshausen until May, which he says is enough of a polar experience for him. Before leaving the observation point he had guided us to, and proceeding to the next one on his rounds, he filled the hole he had made back up with snow.
According to an old Central Asian proverb, “He who tastes knows.” Staring into the whiteness that engulfed us, trekking through snow up to the shins, I thought of the old explorers who sledged or manhauled through the heart of the Antarctic. This was a taste. A half teaspoonful. Zipping down the zipper on my shell and the Patagonia jacket I wore underneath, I exposed the thermometer clipped to my vest, and checked it after a few moments. The temperature was about 40. No colder than New York. I didn’t feel so heroic, realizing that I had not yet tasted encompassing whiteness at Amundsen and Scott temperatures.
* * *
Our lecture series began yesterday with a lead-off presentation by tall, bearded Igor Mokhov, Director of Russia’s Obukhov Institute for Atmospheric Physics. In the audience was Alexandr Gliko, Russia’s Minister for Earth Sciences, a merry, gray-haired man who is attending our workshop. Mokhov spoke on climate change in the Antarctic and reported that while the Antarctic Peninsula is warming, the rest of the continent is not. He was followed by Vladmir Alexeev, the leader of the summer school, whose specialty is permafrost. The series continued today with me in the number three spot in the line-up. My topic: “The History of Scientific Exploration in Antarctica.” Batting clean-up was Olga.
I haven’t mentioned Olga. Olga is quintessentially the James Bond version of Russian women. She’s a young filmmaker, svelte, brown-haired and red-cheeked, who is making a number of documentary films about Bellingshausen station. She showed a short film she made about the cook, which was light and well-done. I seem to keep bumping into her every time I open a door. “Thank you for your lecture,” she said to me, when I was entering and she was leaving the rest room of the admin building.
“Were you able to follow it?” I asked. Her English is limited.
“Not all. You go too fast.”
“You should have slowed me down.”
“But the parts I heard were very eenteresting.”
Wilderness Research Foundation
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