WORDS | Amelia Van der Rijt
Antarctica. A freezing desert almost twice the size of Australia, and larger than the European continent. It is covered in ice sheets and mountains, and it lays claim to the lowest recorded temperature on Earth. There are also no indigenous human inhabitants. Yet, despite the chilling temperatures, today there is a near-permanent human population. In winter, the population dwindles to fewer than one thousand people, but in summer, more than fifty thousand people choose to explore the continent. Tourists and scientists alike are fascinated by Antarctica, and it isn’t hard to see why.
As Andrew Denton evocatively wrote, “If Antarctica was music it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it.”
With an ice sheet that covers all but two per cent of the continent, and a landscape that has remained largely unchanged by humans, Antarctica offers scientists exciting opportunities to discover more about our earth. Antarctic ice contains a percentage of ancient air, and by drilling into the ice we can discover much about Earth’s history. In some areas, drilling extends over three kilometres deep, and at that depth the snow dates back more than fifteen thousand and eight hundred years. “The ice of Antarctica is a calendar of climate change,” explains Lee Hotz in a TED Talk entitled ‘Inside an Antarctic Time Machine’.
In this way, Antarctica can tell us a great deal about the Earth’s history, and the changes in climate that have occurred since before the last Ice Age. There are also research opportunities in other areas, from marine biology to geology, earth sciences, and geophysics. As one of the best places on Earth to view stars, Antarctica offers many opportunities to those studying astronomy and astrophysics. It is also one of the best places in the world to find meteorites. If you are interested in getting involved, the Australian Antarctic Division (run by the Australian government) has a variety of up-to-date information about working in Antarctica. They are not just after scientists; other personnel, like medical specialists, cooks, carpenters, electricians, and mechanics are essential support staff needed at research stations.
If science isn’t really your forte, or you’re not too keen about living on the windiest continent on earth, you should still consider visiting as a tourist. The wildlife alone is a huge attraction, and photo opportunities will abound. Eight species of penguins call the continent home, along with a variety of whales, seals, sea lions, and flying birds, such as
albatrosses and petrels. The opportunity to see these magnificent creatures in the natural world is not one you should pass up.
Tess is a 27-year-old lawyer who visited Antarctica in 2008 and said that the wildlife was one of the main reasons she chose to go. From the ship, she saw an orca teaching its calf to hunt a whale calf, while the whale’s mother looked on, unable to help. “We also saw a seal eat a penguin and it had to actually turn the penguin inside out to get the meat, and whack it against an iceberg.”
The land itself is constantly changing as glaciers move from the interior to form ice shelves on the coastline. As they move, deep crevasses are created, scarring the landscape. There’s also a mountain range that is thought to be a continuation of the Andes in South America. Antarctica even has volcanic activity. The continent is thought to lie on the ‘Ring of Fire’, which is located where earth’s tectonic plates collide, creating areas of intense seismic activity. At least two volcanoes are thought to be active on Antarctica.
Antarctica is one of the best places on earth to see the stars, and one of the only places on earth where you can experience the ‘midnight sun’. Due to the tilt of Earth’s axis in summer, the sun is visible for 24 hours a day. In the Southern Hemisphere, the phenomenon only occurs within the Antarctic circle. The Aurora Australis are another fantastic opportunity. They only occur above the earth’s magnetic poles, so again, Antarctica is one of the only places you’ll have the opportunity to see these magnificent natural light displays.
Summer is definitely the best time to go. The midnight sun is visible, you can witness the courting rituals of penguins and other sea birds, and the winter ice is breaking up, allowing further exploration of the land. The summer weather probably isn’t as cold as you would imagine. Tess said that her entire group had stripped down to t-shirts after climbing up a hill. “The temperature is about equal to skiing in Australia,” she explained. Tess said one of the best things about her trip to Antarctica was the freedom. tourists have to stay on ships, and every day you need to catch a Zodiac – an inflatable boat – to the land. “We were taken to the place we were exploring that day and told, ‘The last Zodiac goes back in three hours, don’t go to this area, and respect the wildlife.’ After that we got to explore on our own.”
Tess had a few tips for anyone thinking of visiting Antarctica. First, “Try to remember the size of the boat (you will be staying on). Try for a smaller ship. It means less people on land at once; less people to disturb the animals, and more time spent on the land.” She emphasises the importance of packing smartly as she packed too much. “Thermals are a must! Definitely make sure you’re prepared for seasickness – especially across the Drake passage, which is slow going. The more you know, the more you’ll appreciate.”
Why visit Antarctica? It is nature at its best, untouched by humans. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And, as Jon Krakauer, an American mountain climber and writer once said in an interview, “Antarctica has this mythic weight. … it makes this huge impact, just like outer space. It’s like going to the moon.” So why visit Antarctica? Why not visit Antarctica.