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The Courage to Question

OFFSHORE NEW HARBOR CAMP, ANTARCTICA– There’s something weird about staking bamboo flags into Antarctic sea ice. Plunging the remnants of a regal plant into an environment so different from its own rings untrue. The natural wonder of bamboo’s fortitude against majestic Antarctic landscapes gives me pause. It’s only then that the reality of my situation strikes me.

My task for the day is to set stakes at every 100 meters in a straight line in a distinct orientation atop the sea ice over McMurdo Sound. Each flag represents a location for data collection about the sediments below the sea floor. Our goal of 8 kilometers a day is doable for our three-person team but not always pleasant in the Antarctic cold. My job of sighting each flag through a scope is tedious and requires stillness. In Antarctica stillness is not your friend. It is only in movement that you can find warmth at temperatures of -15 degrees Fahrenheit.

Me, completely bundled up. (This is my usual fashion out on the ice).

I bundle all the way up. Face mask, goggles, hat, glove liners, and gloves are all required on days full of stillness. The waiting and stillness required for this job make it my least favorite. So, I lose myself in the landscapes. As my two team mates chat between flags leaving me in limbo, I consider the millions of years it took for glaciers to carve out Ferrar Valley. I wonder what is causing Mt. Erebus to throw out plumes of smoke today as compared to only sputtering yesterday. I imagine all of the various sea critters nestled in grooves in the ice below my feet. I am struck by the daily realization that I stand and live atop the frozen ocean surface.

In the distance you can see icebergs that have been frozen within the sea ice.

The ice I live on moves like the crust of our planet. Our amazing planet spins as it zooms around the sun. All of this movement, yet I am still cold? These are the things you consider while trying to pass the time in Antarctica.

Mt. Erebus and our straight line of flags.

This is why I love science. Because it is about the value of perpetual questioning. Because at its core it is about considering and then reconsidering the facts. It is a constant and unyielding effort to find and reveal something that is more true. Even in science there are few truths but many partial ones. So, we hunt and we dig. We travel to the bottom of the world to gain more facts that we can consider and then reconsider. The power of science resides not in its answers but in the questions it provokes. Legendary scientists are remembered less for the answers they’ve given us and more for the questions they had the courage to ask. As I gaze out over the sharp shapes of white and blue and hear the buzzing of my radio calling me back to duty, I make note of these realizations. Walking back to my scope, I make a small promise to myself. “I promise to never lose sight of the power and potential of questions.”

Flags and my team mates as they travel to the next flag location.
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2 Responses »

  1. I love this piece, Andrea. Thanks for letting us know what you’re thinking standing out on that lonely and majestic landscape. I’m with you: It’s all about the questions and finding something that is “more true”–in science and in art. BTW, what ARE you wearing on your face? It looks like a Maori or a cat mask.

    Looking forward to your next piece.

    Stay warm.

    Ellyn @ the Explo

  2. Hey Andrea,

    Love your blog posts. I hope you get to some rocks soon, I know how you love rocks :-P

    Your pictures are amazing! Stay warm and keep questioning!!

    Good luck with your research – hope to hear from you again soon!!

    -brad from Academy