Antarctica, The World’s Largest “Refrigerator”
IMAGINE opening the door of a refrigerator that had been closed for thousands of years and, upon opening the door, discovering something new on each shelf, something that had never before been seen by human eyes! Such a sight became a reality to man about 160 years ago when Antarctica, the world’s largest “refrigerator,” was actually sighted and then opened up to the view of modern civilization.
Astronauts viewing the earth from space tell us that one of the most distinctive features of our planet is the ice sheet of Antarctica. It covers 5,500,000 square miles (14,244,934 square kilometers), an area greater than the United States and Central America combined. Scientists have found that it averages about 6,500 feet (1,981 meters) in thickness and contains more than 90 percent of the world’s ice. Only about 5 percent of the land area of Antarctica is visible. If our newly explored “refrigerator” were to be defrosted, it would raise the level of the oceans by 150 to 200 feet (46 to 61 meters), flooding every seaport and low coastline in the world. With the ice covering gone, areas of Antarctica would be found to be under water, making the continent smaller.
Discovery and Exploration
In the mid-eighteenth century, man started to turn his exploratory interests southward. Only a few years previously much of the southern hemisphere was a vast unknown area. Because of the tremendous distances involved, no one could answer such fundamental questions as whether it consisted principally of land or water.
In 1772 the British explorer Captain James Cook set out on a three-year voyage to latitudes far to the south. Ice blocked him from a close approach and, although he circled the continent, he never saw the land of Antarctica itself. Between 1800 and 1821, seal hunters and explorers sighted islands and parts of the peninsula, and perhaps part of the main body of the continent. Later, the American Navy officer Charles Wilkes and the British explorer James Ross contributed much to the interest and knowledge of Antarctica, thus paving the way for land exploration. Robert F. Scott, a British explorer, pushed to within 575 miles (925 kilometers) of the South Pole in 1903. It was actually reached by Norwegian Roald Amundsen on December 14, 1911. About a month later Scott and his party of four others arrived at the Pole, but perished on the Ross Ice Shelf on the return trip. The difficulties encountered in reaching the Pole are borne out by the fact that no other ground party did so until 1957-1958. Then, at last, the giant door of the world’s largest “refrigerator” began to open. What did it contain?
The opening of Antarctica delighted the eyes of scientists, as it was excitingly different. Whereas the Arctic zone is mostly ocean, Antarctica is land. This partly accounts for its colder climate. The coldest temperature ever recorded on earth was a frigid −126.9 degrees Fahrenheit (-88.3 degrees Celsius) at the Russian Base Vostok in August 1960. Even to this day it is the only continent where man cannot live permanently independent of outside resources.
The Antarctic weather helps to control the climate of all the globe. Scientists find that the giant “refrigerator” produces more cold air than any other place in the world. The ice-crisp air rolls down the polar slopes toward the coast, building up to gusts of 140 to 145 miles (225 to 233 kilometers) per hour along the coastline. In fact, wind chill has proved to be the most debilitating factor in Antarctic exploration. Eventually, this wind sweeps across Chile and Argentina and parts of Australia and New Zealand, thus contributing greatly to the “air conditioning” of our home, the Earth.
The Antarctic Ocean actually is part of the earth’s one great ocean. It converges with the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. But it has characteristics peculiar to itself. It is colder and less salty than are the oceans to the north. Cold ocean waters move northward, then sink below the warmer waters at the “convergence” where the Antarctic Ocean meets the northern oceans and spreads far north beyond the equator. When the waters flowing southward in the western parts of the other oceans meet the cold Antarctic waters, they turn eastward to form the Circumpolar Current, which travels in an irregular path completely around the earth in the vicinity of 47° to 61° south latitude. Oceanographers measure the currents, test their mineral content, take temperature readings at various levels and bounce sound waves off the seabed to ascertain depths. This information, coupled with wind streams and glacier activity, is proving valuable in meteorology and other sciences.
Plant and Animal Life
In the refrigerator-like cold, little plant life survives. Because of the long Antarctic night, the 800 varieties of plants—lichens, mosses, freshwater algae, bacteria, molds, yeasts and fungi living on the land area are dormant for long periods. But they become almost instantly photosynthetic during short summer bursts of only a few days, weeks or a month or two.
On the other hand, though plant life is sparse, animals abound; but both the number and the size of the land species are few. Nearly all the animals are seen near the edge of the ice sheet or in the water, either living in the ocean or getting their sustenance from it. The animals relying on the land for food and shelter are some microscopic species along with tiny insects and spiders. The largest of these is a fly, a relative of the common housefly, about one tenth of an inch (c. 3 millimeters) long. Besides the nonflying penguins, there are the South Polar skua and the Antarctic petrel. In the Antarctic and in the sub-Antarctic island regions there are terns, albatrosses, cormorants, gulls and other birds. Some birds at times penetrate toward the continent’s interior.
The Arctic tern is the world’s greatest navigator. It spends six months of the year in the Antarctic and six months in the Arctic, flying 11,000 miles (17,700 kilometers) from the north to enjoy the Antarctic summer. Thus it manages to live in almost perpetual daylight.
Five of the world’s seventeen varieties of penguin are to be found here. The Adélie penguin and the Emperor penguin are the only two that breed on the continent. The Adélie penguin, averaging about fifteen inches (38 centimeters) in height and weighing ten to fifteen pounds (4.5 to 6.8 kilograms), appears to get its direction from a sun-related orientation and a biological clock mechanism.
Testing the “refrigerator’s” temperature to the limit is the Emperor penguin, the Adélie’s big brother. These dignified looking birds weigh from about 55 to 100 pounds (25 to 45 kilograms) and stand to nearly four feet (1.2 meters) in height. The mother penguin lays her single egg in the dead of winter. When ready to do so she heads south into the frigid blackness of the long winter night. Almost as soon as the single egg is laid, the mother places it carefully on the father’s webbed feet and leaves him with the responsibility of incubating the egg, which he does by carrying it for two months on top of his broad feet beneath a warm fold of abdominal skin. While the patient father-to-be fasts as he takes care of this duty, the mother goes north to the sea, collecting food. When she returns, she is ready to feed the young one, which she does by regurgitating food that she has eaten. The Emperor penguin is the only bird that does not follow the winter’s expanding ice pack as it stretches northward, but stays behind through the severe, driving blizzards of the nearly six-month night, under which conditions it would be impossible to maintain nests, as do other birds.
In the icy water around Antarctica we find millions of seals of several varieties. These animals are perfectly happy in their environment, being insulated by a layer of fat that also provides a food reserve and contributes to the seal’s buoyancy in the water. They have rich “pastures” in the waters teeming with fish. There are several types of whale that also find plenty of food in the vast, dense schools of crustacean, shrimplike krill. The fish living toward the ocean bottom are peculiar to the Antarctic, 90 percent of these being found nowhere else on earth.
Divers wearing wet suits lined with a half inch (13 millimeters) of insulation, working in water at 28 degrees Fahrenheit (-2 degrees Celsius) for one hour at a time, have gathered specimens of 130 known varieties of Antarctic fish and other marine life. Many, like the octopus, have no red blood and some are semitransparent. Other fish have red blood that does not freeze at extremely low temperatures. Recently a diver discovered eel larvae four to five feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters) long—twenty times the size of any other newborn eel known to man.
From October to February the weather moderates, but, except on the Antarctic Peninsula, which stretches up to within 600 miles (966 kilometers) of South America, the temperature never goes above freezing. During this period several species of tiny insects are warmed into life for just a few days and then chilled into dormancy again. There are snow fleas and eight-legged mites. Scientists have discovered that their bodies produce a substance called glycerol. This is a chemical sometimes used as an antifreeze. In these small insects it preserves their lives through the Antarctic winter.
Fleas and insects raise the question of disease. The old story that there are no germs in Antarctica is a fallacy. The continent may be as white as the inside of an operating room, but there are plenty of bacteria to be found. Ninety feet (27 meters) beneath the surface of the South Pole, microbiologists uncovered some germs that appear to have been trapped there for a hundred years. Using face masks and sterilized instruments, they were careful to avoid mixing modern bacteria with those nineteenth-century ones. They found staphylococcus, a kind of bacteria that can cause serious infection. Unless faulty technique or equipment had leaked some of the scientists’ own germs through, these bacteria had existed in Antarctica in 1860. Furthermore, the microbes in the ice were not dead, but revived in the laboratory when warmed.
The extreme cold and the dryness of the Antarctic atmosphere, however, has a very preservative effect. The Encyclopædia Britannica reports: “A number of mummified seal carcasses, chiefly crabeaters [a species of seal], have been found at distances up to nearly 30 miles [48 kilometers] from the sea and elevations up to about 3,000 feet [914 meters] in the McMurdo dry valleys. Finding no food in such inland wanderings, the crabeaters eventually died, and their leathery carcasses were preserved by the coldness and aridity of the climate.”
A Scientific Laboratory
Antarctica today could be described as a laboratory for scientists. Geologists are working to discover what lies beneath the enormously thick crust of ice. Seismic recordings and radiometer photographs have recently revealed that the rock base of the greater part of Antarctica is continental in structure rather than oceanic. Antarctica is also found to be, at least at present, the quietest and most aseismic of all continents. Nearly all of Antarctica has been seen and most of the mountain regions have been aerially photographed and mapped. Geologists, biophysicists, glaciologists and geophysicists continue to visit and study these areas with the hope of finding out more about the structure and environmental system of the entire earth.
Antarctic stations have been established by several nations. Ten of the twelve nations that signed the Antarctic treaty maintain stations throughout the winter. Russia has Billinghausen Station on the Peninsula. The United States’ main base of operations is McMurdo Station, on the Pacific side of the continent. It is nuclear powered, having an average population of 900 in the summer and 200 in the winter. It also maintains small year-round stations at the South Pole and in the Peninsula. And, forbidding as the continent may seem to some, it actually is being viewed as a future tourist resort. Even now, tourists visit its scientific stations and penguin rookeries and, of course, it could be a skiers’ paradise.
Who knows what further ‘treasure stores’ will come out of this continental “refrigerator”? There is much exploration and experimentation to be done. Techniques may be developed to exploit its rich stores of minerals. And a study of its atmospheric conditions and its surrounding ocean may help scientists to understand more about weather in all parts of the earth. Of one thing we can be certain—that as we appreciate a refrigerator in a home, our Antarctic “refrigerator,” now open to our use, will be more and more appreciated as time goes by.