Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Life at the South Pole batters body and mind

(As published in The Kansas City Star:)
PALMER STATION, Antarctica | Jon Brack loved the South Pole.
The rest of the world might consider life there a banishment, might think the place is some frozen gulag to be endured.
But Brack relished his sunless winter at the bottom of the world. He tended a greenhouse, learned to play guitar, picked up conversational Italian. Venturing out of the Amundsen-Scott station meant dressing like an astronaut, but it promised the mind-blowing colors of the aurora australis.
“I didn’t want the sun to come back,” he said, “because I didn’t want the auroras to go away.”
Brack is part of a breed that has been drawn to Antarctica for better than a century — men and women intrigued more by the exotic than the easy, who think life is too short to be squandered in someplace ordinary.
Working all three U.S. research stations on the continent, Brack never went hungry or lacked a warm bed and an Internet connection.
At 22, he set aside a business degree and went to work as an Antarctic chef. Raytheon — the giant defense contractor that also runs the American polar research stations — started him at a field camp about eight miles from McMurdo Station on the Ross Ice Shelf on the continent’s New Zealand side.
MacTown, as regulars call it, is a summertime home for about 1,000 people — in winter, a fifth of that. Typically, about half the people are researchers. The rest are people such as Brack, who keep the scientists warm, fed, healthy and free to pursue research.

Antarctica: A frozen hotbed of climate research for hardy scientists (belated post of story)

(As published in The Kansas City Star:)

ANVERS ISLAND, Antarctica | Roald Amundsen attacked this frozen nowhere-land as a racing explorer, determined to be fastest, to be first, to be remembered.
His determination and savvy got him to the South Pole before any other, and made him a hero in an age when Antarctica existed in the human imagination as a final conquest.
Mostly for show, he brought along a scientist.
Just shy of a century later, the conquerors have given way to the curious.
Now scientists such as geologist David Barbeau and ornithologist Kristen Gorman, rugged individuals of another age, shuttle in rubber Zodiac boats from remote research stations and ice-breaking research ships. They bump aside small floes, bend against brutal polar winds and scramble up cliffs in search of their own discoveries.
They search not for fame, but for answers about the same climate that once tortured and killed their polar adventuring forebears. Around this continent, the weather has mellowed alarmingly. Giant glaciers and tiny creatures are threatened as this tip of our global iceberg warms faster than anywhere else on earth.
These modern-day researchers come not to conquer, but to understand.