Plastic Bags Filled With Gunk

January 23, 2010  |   Antarctic Peninsula Project, Blog   |   admin  |   0 Comment

Bulat, the glacier man, told me that summer on King George Island is always bright and sunny, but there’s usually one week of rain and overcast skies.  We landed just in time for that gray week.  The windows of our hut yesterday morning showed so little visibility it didn’t seem as if we could get out in the field.  But it wasn’t at all forbidding once we hit the trail.  Ning, Jay and I, with Lindsay as broadcast journalist, set out once again with the LI-COR disassembled in our packs.  Our destination this time was the eastern sweep of the moraine, the area to which Bulat had guided Ning and Jay the day I had kitchen duty.

The path to the east took us to the shore of the Uruguayan station, which is conveniently situated at the foot of the glacier.  The President of Uruguay had visited the station a day or so earlier.  In her honor one of the buildings had been freshly painted blue and yellow, and the smell of the paint was in the air and in our nostrils.  It nevertheless turned out to be a lovely hike.  As we passed the Uruguayan compound and followed the eastern sprawl of the shoreline, the moraine at the knees of the glacier raised a high white wall on our left.  The thrashing waves billowed toward us on our right.  The rocky path between wall and waves was a yard at its widest and often a foot at its narrowest.

We eventually came to a secluded cove, which is a redundancy as one can hardly imagine a congested spot anywhere on this island.  Lunch on the trail is always a bag of bread, salami and cheese, which we fill in the mess hall after breakfast.  After a bite, Ning probed round and about in a Holmesian manner, detecting an area of reddish-brown crumb-like tufts—dead moss, an obvious sign of carbon.  He and Jay connected the LI-COR.  The signal was initially weak, but they decided to let it run and see what happened.  The emanations detected by the machine initially read out in a flattish graph on a palm pilot.  As the LI-COR slowly processed the information it sniffed out of the muddy ground, we took pictures and donned our hoods now and again to seek protection from an intermittent rain.  The only possible shelter was a small, loft-like opening in the white wall we had passed a half hour earlier.  The “ice cave,” reached by scrambling up the slope, was large enough for a tall man to stand up in.

Before us, the rocky shoreline disappeared here and there behind expressive rock formations the size of houses.  In back of us, the loamy moraine paralleled the curve of the shore.  Behind us, the glacier loomed to the sky but at a lower elevation than it did two miles or so further to the west, where we had prospected the other day.  Here in the relative seclusion of our cove, Bulat had shown Ning and Jay a whalebone that had become agglomerated in the moraine.  Jay, in turn, showed it to Lindsay and me.  It was about the size of a concrete block, a vertebrae perhaps.

At length, Lindsay had to start back to keep a scheduled phone meeting with her museum director.  Jay went with her, and I stayed behind as sorcerer’s apprentice.  The rain continued off and on.  According to another gadget I brought with me, a pocket weather meter, it was 45 degrees with a 6 to 7 mile an hour wind.  The graph on the palm pilot meanwhile ascended.  Ning and Jay had tested the machine to determine the “background” or “ambient” carbon level, and the current reading significantly exceeded this threshold.  That spurred Ning to action.  He drew a bunch of plastic bags from his backpack.  With the fold-out spoon of a Swiss knife, he scooped a hunk of gook out from the mud underneath the funnel section of the LI-COR and stashed in one of the bags.  Then we moved the machine to another spot several feet away and began another 30-minute observation.

The story the LI-COR told Ning late that afternoon inspired him to take more and more samples, carefully filling each plastic bag as I held them open for him and then labeling each bag.  He was particularly excited by a section of the moraine wall, which was clearly layered with soil, and happily scooped more samples out of it.  One has to watch a scientist at work to appreciate their intellectual curiosity.  They will stand in the mud and in the rain, almost oblivious to the elements, with their attention riveted on a newly unearthed clue to one of nature’s mysterious processes.  Every pocket of Ning’s windbreaker was filled with plastic bags when we loaded our backpacks and started out under the weight of them for Bellingshausen.  Plastic bags filled with gunk.  But we had gotten what we came for.

Dinner is served at the station from 7 to 8.  We headed for the mess hall as soon as we reached the compound and got there just in time to dine, feeling exhausted and triumphant after a productive day.  Then the Antarctic struck back at us.

The evening lectures were interrupted by an announcement that our scheduled flight out on the 26th had been cancelled.  But a flight that could accommodate the entire group was available the next day, Saturday the 23rd.  The next flights were on the 27th and the 28th, but could not accommodate all of us and were, in any event, iffy.  An immediate decision was necessary, and we decided to cut short the trip and grab the certain flight.  However, the storm that all signs had been pointing to struck last night with bellowing winds and a fresh snowfall.  The station was encrusted with an inch of new snow this morning, but due to the bleak weather the Saturday flight was cancelled.

*     *    *

Antarctica is hard to get to and can be impossible to leave.  In the heroic days of exploration, one was at the mercy of the Antarctic ice pack, the ring of ice that surrounds the continent.  If the ice extended too far north and was too thick, ships could not break through to retrieve expeditions.  Today, we’re at the mercy of the weather and catch-as-catch-can air charter schedules.

With nothing but uncertainty to cling to, we were given the consolation prize today of a visit to the Korean station, a spanking new facility located across the bay from our peninsula.  Two zodiacs came to ferry us across.  Zodiacs are oversized, inflatable rafts with two outboard motors affixed to the stern.  We were given heavy, one-piece orange exposure suits to wear and clambered aboard.  You sit on the inflated rim of the raft, facing inwards.  You reach behind you and grab hold of a thick line that loops around the raft.  The zodiacs bump along like bucking broncos.  The ride is exhilarating; it also scares you to death.

The Korean treated us like dignitaries and gave us a tour of a large and impressive compound.  The main building, a long rectangle with three floors, could have been lifted off a modern campus.  The conference and dining rooms inside are spacious and well-appointed.  The food is good and spicy, and the facilities are cutting-edge:  They have virtual golf and biodegradable processes for recycling waste.  The station commander’s pet project is hydophonic gardening for growing fresh vegetables.  The station commander is a young, friendly, non-officious scientist who himself showed us around.  The station doctor is even younger.  He’s also the editor of the station’s weekly newspaper whose title, in Korean, is Winter World.  Visitors are so rare that various members of the staff shook our hands, welcomed us and dined with us.  A small man who, I later learned, handles waste management, asked to have his picture taken with me.

When humans get out into space, this is what exploration will be like.  Various nations will have stations of their own with much reciprocal fraternizing.  And it will probably be as chance-y getting off Mars as it is getting out of Antarctica.

Sheldon Bart
Wilderness Research Foundation
© 2010

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