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Ice Town: Monument to the Human Spirit

MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– The tiny stairs of the military transport airplane were difficult to descend in my giant plastic boots. The jet engines groaned and my goggles fogged with the first blast of Antarctic air. I feared my first experience of this icy continent might be a painful and embarrassing tumble down the steep metal stairs. I imagined myself as one big red bouncing blur coming to an abrupt stop as fellow passengers gawked. So the crunch of the ice below my feet was a welcome relief. I ripped off my goggles and adjusted the stinging shoulder strap of my overstuffed bag.

Buckled ice: Sea ice meets ice shelf off McMurdo Station.

The vastness of this place is shocking. It continues like a sparkling white desert. Yet, it is different from the deserts of the world in one profound way; the horizon is lifeless. Unlike a desert, there is no lone dry bush or defiant cactus. There are no crickets, no beetles, and no fluttering butterflies.

As a scientist it gives me pause. Our web of life has existed for billions of generations, yielding billions of mutations. At least hundreds of millions of chances for one mutation to get it right and one defiant plant or insect to stake claim to the ice of this vast continent. But, nothing thrives here in this ecosystem seemingly without competition or predators. Life as we know it cringes from this cold. Scientists know the waters below the ice are rich with bio-diversity because temperatures are less extreme. Still, I am struck by the profound lack of life atop the ice. Is the window for existence so minute? Is our biosphere confined even within the pristine conditions of our miraculous planet?

Ice road leaving McMurdo.

Then it strikes me, as I struggle for a photo of a mammoth yellow tractor cutting an ice road, “I am here. I live atop the ice.” We are here, humans. We are the result of millions of mutations comprising a complex balance allowing for our survival in such a place. We construct buildings, cut roads, and engineer machinery fit for this environment. As I approach the small scientific town of McMurdo perched on the permafrost below a cross-bearing hill, I realize the magnitude of this accomplishment. Like the Pyramids of Egypt, Sistine Chapel, Golden Gate Bridge, and the Empire State Building, McMurdo Station exists as a monument to the human spirit. It illustrates that in all efforts to explore and learn, the human race is at its best.

View of McMurdo Station from Observation Hill.
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One Response »

  1. Andrea,

    You have a wonderful way with words. I first read REFUSING TO CALL IT FEAR a month or so ago. You made it; and your perspective in this later piece is profound. The fact that you are there now is testament to your resilience, your sense of adventure, your persistence. I wish you well, and I will continue to check in on your stay.

    Be well.

    JoAnn (Connecticut)