(Bottom of the) Earth Day


Sally Walker’s fall 2010 book, Frozen Secrets, is about Antarctica, and  I’ve spent most of my Earth Day wrapped up with the last stages of the book’s layouts. This seems to me quite an appropriate activity for a day that should be devoted to understanding and protecting the state of our planet. Working on this book really hammered home for me how important Antarctica is to understanding and reversing our increasingly desperate environmental state. What’s even more striking is the sacrifice and hardship men and women will endure to do the important scientific work that can only be done on Antarctica. People just feel in their bones that Antarctica matters. Perhaps the most stunning and certainly the most extreme example of this devotion comes from the legendary 1911-1912 Terra Nova expedition of Robert Falcon Scott. Scott and his four team members died on their way back from the South Pole. They marched for two months, pulling sleds with their rapidly dwindling supplies over brutal terrain, only to come up 11 miles short of the supply depot that would have saved them. Despite all this, they never abandoned the scientific side of their expedition—not even at the very end. Along with their bodies, the search team found 35 pounds of geological specimens Scott had collected along the way.

Antarctica holds a unique and deserved place in the hearts and minds of scientists. As Sally writes:

It is important for everyone to remember that despite its  location at the bottom of the world, Antarctica is not isolated from our lives. Its ocean currents, like fingers reaching outward, flow to all areas of Earth. For centuries, men and women have known of the dynamic forces at play on Antarctica and we strive to understand its mysteries. Water that flows beneath layers of ice. Tiny bubbles of unimaginably ancient air. Flowing ice streams that mimic earthquakes. Fossils that speak of ancient climates. And the tantalizing hope of undiscovered life-forms that may hold the keys to understanding how life survives in extreme ecosystems. Might any of these offer answers to crucial questions about our planet’s future? Antarctica is a land of frozen secrets, with scarcely a handful completely divulged. The rest of those secrets, still locked inside the continent’s icy cloak, offer us the promise of fascinating future discoveries.

Photograph by: Patrick Cullis
National Science Foundation