Earth’s past, present and future come together here on the northern peninsula of Antarctica, the wildest, most desolate and mysterious of its continents.
Clues to answering humanity’s most basic questions are locked in this continental freezer the size of the United States and half of Canada: Where did we come from? Are we alone in the universe? What’s the fate of our warming planet?
The first explorers set foot in Antarctica 194 years ago hunting 19th century riches of whale and seal oil and fur, turning tides red with blood. Since then, the fist-shaped continent has proven a treasure chest for scientists trying to determine everything from the creation of the cosmos to how high seas will rise with global warming.
“It’s a window out to the universe and in time,” said Kelly Falkner, polar program chief for the U.S. National Science Foundation.
For a dozen days in January, in the middle of the chilly Antarctic summer, The Associated Press followed scientists from different fields searching for alien-like creatures, hints of pollution trapped in pristine ancient ice, leftovers from the Big Bang, biological quirks that potentially could lead to better medical treatments, and perhaps most of all, signs of unstoppable melting.
The journey on a Chilean navy ship along the South Shetland islands and vulnerable Antarctic Peninsula, which juts off the continent like a broken pinky finger, logged 833 miles and allowing the AP team a firsthand look at part of this vital continent.
Antarctica conjures up images of quiet mountains and white plateaus, but the coldest, driest and remotest continent is far from dormant. About 98 percent of it is covered by ice, and that ice is constantly moving. Temperatures can range from above zero in the South Shetlands and Antarctic Peninsula to the unbearable frozen lands near the South Pole. As an active volcano, Deception Island is a pot of extreme conditions.
There are spots where the sea boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius), while in others it can be freezing at below 32 (0 degrees Celsius). And while the sun rarely shines on the long, dark Antarctic winters, nighttime never seems to fall on summer days.
While tourists come to Antarctica for its beauty and remoteness, scientists are all business. What they find could affect the lives of people thousands of miles away; if experts are right, and the West Antarctic ice sheet has started melting irreversibly, what happens here will determine if cities such as Miami, New York, New Orleans, Guangzhou, Mumbai, London and Osaka will have to regularly battle flooding from rising seas.