Back in the heyday of Livejournal, there was a “random” button you could select on the homepage that would take you to any blog on the site. One day when I was 16 and bored, I clicked it and it took me to a blog of a user named mananath, who was working as a janitor in Antarctica at the time. This was the first time I became aware of the fact that people could visit the continent, and it spurred my love of Antarctica that carries on to this day.
The continent was once a part of the supercontinent Gondwana, but as the continents broke apart, Antarctica drifted southward and was caught in the West Wind Drift. In its isolation from the warmer oceans, ice formed over Antarctica approximately 40 million years ago. Today, though it contains a vast majority of Earth’s fresh water, less than five centimeters of rain fall in Antarctica every year, technically making it the world’s largest desert. While Antarctica often appears to be a blank expanse of white dotted with periodic mountains in photographs, it is in fact a rich landscape of volcanoes, caves, subglacial lakes and rivers, and (of course) glaciers; and home to a great deal of surprising and strange wildlife. It is a harsh and beautiful terrain full of wondrous things.
Antarctica is also a site of international scientific cooperation, though this cooperation followed many years of international conflict and scrambling to take control. (For a more in-depth look at the political fight for sovereignty in Antarctica, Adrian Howkins wrote an article titled Political Meteorology: Weather, climate, and the contest for Antarctican sovereignty, 1939-1959 available here.) On December 1, 1959, twelve countries signed the Antarctic Treaty that stated Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only, to be a site for scientific research, that no country could claim sovereignty over it, and that countries could maintain cooperative working relations with one another for scientific purposes, among other agreements. The treaty aimed to secure Antarctica as “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.” Today, there are over 90 active stations there dedicated to research.
To mark the 63rd anniversary of the Treaty, let’s take a look at some of the photos we have in ESVA that document the history of human activity in this incredible place!
These images are of Sir Charles Seymour Wright on one of his final trips back to Antarctica in the early 1960s. Sir Charles originally traveled to Antarctica as a part of the Terra Nova Expedition from 1910 to 1913. The Terra Nova Expedition was initiated by Robert Falcon Scott to both attempt to reach the South Pole and to complete a series of studies related to magnetic and meteorological phenomena.
Sir Charles was hired for the expedition as a physicist, where he studied an array of things such as glaciers, sea ice, auroras, magnetism, and gravity on the continent. With the tragic ending of the Terra Nova Expedition, Sir Charles was also a part of the search team that sought out the remains of Scott and the polar party that had left for the South Pole.
In these images, Wright visits sites on Cape Evans, where he spent a great deal of time during the expedition. Cape Evans is a peninsula on Ross Island, beside Mount Erebus in the southern part of Antarctica. You can see panoramic images of the cape itself here.
Here we see William Nierenberg at the Eklund Biological Laboratory at McMurdo Station in 1977. Nierenberg was a theoretical physicist and oceanographer that specialized in low-energy nuclear physics and magnetism. He is well known for his work on the Manhattan Project during World War II, as well as documenting nuclear spins. In 1965, he pivoted to oceanographic work as the director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography where he remained for over 20 years.
Nierenberg is pictured here at the Eklund Biological Laboratory in 1977, where Scripps collected a variety of marine life from Antarctica (including a collection of giant sea spiders!). The Eklund Biological Laboratory, meanwhile, was first constructed at McMurdo in 1959. The facility was named after Carl Eklund, an ornithologist and the first Scientific Station Leader at the Wilkes Station. The lab was closed and replaced by the Crary Lab in 1991. You can see an old image of the outside of the Eklund Lab here.
Pictured here are Martin Pomerantz and Hugo Neuburg. Pomerantz was an astrophysicist who specialized in cosmic rays, and he is credited as being the first person to realize that Antarctica is an ideal location to study the sun, due to its weather conditions and its geographic location in relation to the sun’s rays. He documented pressure waves inside the sun that resulted in solar oscillations– pioneering the field of helioseismology.
Pomerantz’s companion in this photo, Hugo Neuburg, was a physicist and glaciologist who also worked in Antarctica on the study of cosmic rays. He was one of the first physicists to winter over in Antarctica, as well as one of the first to cut a core of ice to be studied. Neuburg served as the chief glaciologist for several years at Ellsworth Station (once located at Gould Bay in the northwest, now closed).
Here the pair of them are at the cosmic ray station at McMurdo. This building would be deconstructed soon after to be relocated away from the neighboring nuclear power plant (now defunct).
John A. Brown and Emmett J. Pybus are shown here conducting upper atmospheric water vapor studies in Antarctica. Brown and Pybus were two meteorologists working for the Ballistic Research Laboratories at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in the 1960s. Their studies involved flying balloons with dew point hydrometers attached to measure the water vapor profiles at different layers of the atmosphere. As this was before satellites were available to collect data, the hydrometers provided a majority of our data about the upper atmosphere. The balloon pictured would ultimately travel more than 20 miles above ground.
Whereas meteorological studies are conducted all over the world, Antarctica is a unique environment for such studies because the upper atmosphere in the poles differs from that in the middle latitudes due to the magnetic-field differences and the different receiving angle of solar radiation. While these environments largely mirror one another at the poles, Antarctica has the advantage of being a solid continent covered in an ice shelf, while the Arctic is an ocean covered in seasonal sea ice. This makes Antarctica a much more stable place for such studies to be conducted.
Finally, no post about Antarctica would be complete without penguins! In the above photo you can see dozens of Adélie penguins nesting beside Hallett Station, a now-closed station that was once shared by the United States and New Zealand. These types of penguins make their homes all over the coasts of Antarctica but there is a consistent colony of them that still lives at this location on the Hallett Peninsula. The study of these penguins not only improves our knowledge of their species but also provides snapshots of how the Antarctican climate changes based on how the penguins’ diets have changed.
Penguins, of course, are also just plain cute. Please watch this tik tok of an Adélie penguin coming to help someone clearing snow.
Though Antarctica can help human beings understand our world and the cosmos, I think there is something beautiful about the fact that humans are not designed to survive there. Learning about Antarctica always reminds me of how the world is not made to cater to humans, but rather we are a fraction of a rich and complex ecosystem. While this is just a small snapshot of the history of Antarctic research, I hope it encourages everyone to view it with curiosity and fascination.
And if anyone working in Antarctica needs an archivist, please contact me.
References and Further Reading
The Antarctican Society, November 2002 (opens as a pdf): https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57acb8dd37c58128dd1ec67a/t/57f5421a6a4963421f1b4ad2/1475691035294/02-03+November+No.+2.pdf
“Captain Robert Falcon Scott: The Journey to the Pole”: https://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/History/Robert-Falcon-Scott2.php
“CosRay experiment adapts with the times”: https://antarcticsun.usap.gov/science/2439
“Dedication of the Crary Lab”: https://www.southpolestation.com/trivia/90s/crary.html
“The History of Astrophysics in Antarctica”: http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/jacara/Papers/pdf/anthistory.pdf
Hugo Neuburg obituary: https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/roanoke/name/hugo-neuburg-obituary?id=27205299
“In Hostile Valley, Lichens Pose Antarctic Puzzle”: https://www.nytimes.com/1981/12/22/science/in-hostile-valley-lichens-pose-antarctic-puzzle.html
Martin Pomerantz obituary: https://www.sfgate.com/science/article/Martin-Pomerantz-astrophysicist-dies-3186868.php
“The McMurdo Cosray Laboratory - 1960”: https://www.southpolestation.com/trivia/igy1/cosray.html
Papers of Sir Charles Seymour Wright: https://archive.ph/20121223044140/http://www.archiveshub.ac.uk/news/02100801.html
“Powerful reminder: Plaque dedicated to former McMurdo nuclear plant marks significant moment in Antarctic history”: https://antarcticsun.usap.gov/features/2175
The Underwater Library at Scripps: https://scripps.ucsd.edu/news/underwater-library-scripps-institution-oceanography
William Nierenberg biography: https://www.atomicheritage.org/profile/william-nierenberg