There’s an expression Antarcticans use to describe everywhere on Earth that isn’t Antarctica; it’s called “the real world.” (Hence the title of this post.) There were times, however, when I felt as though Antarctica was “the real world” and everywhere else was illusory. There was a purity of purpose to being in Antarctica. There was a job to do — supporting (or conducting) important scientific research in a harsh and unforgiving environment — far from the demands of day-to-day life, with its bills-to-be-paid, political squabbles, traffic, crime, war and all the other things that constantly distract us. In Antarctica, all that was forgotten — or at least it was diminished to the point of being faint, background noise. On the “Ice,” we were focused. Isolated as we were from the rest of the world, with limited communication, we had a sense of community, a feeling that we were all in it together, trying to make it work in a place that often seemed to be doing its best to thwart our efforts.
I have to admit, I never really thought about this much. You went to Antarctica, and that’s how it was.
But things have changed.
Before I explain, let me give you some background. Between 1982 and 1996, I went to Antarctica nearly every year, sometimes for more than a year, but usually for six months at time. After a nine-year hiatus, I returned in 2005 for a short deployment. Another nine years passed before I headed south again on this latest trip. It’s been three weeks since I returned home, and I’m still processing what I learned. My job this time was very different. Every other time I’ve been to Antarctica (except for that one time I lectured on a cruise ship), my job has been either to assist in scientific research or support other scientists in conducting their research. This time I was sent down to collect operational information.
It will probably come as no surprise to learn that it takes a certain amount of specialized knowledge to work efficiently and safely in Antarctica. The only way to get that knowledge is through experience. The Antarctic program is, in the words of my friend John Wright, sui generis, which means “of its own kind.” There is nothing else quite like it in the world. (John, by the way, is the author of Blazing Ice: Pioneering the Twenty First Century’s Road to the South Pole, an excellent read.) Insofar as the program functions smoothly and work gets done is largely due to the knowledge and experience of people who have been working there for years. When these people leave, they take that knowledge with them.
My job was, ostensibly, to capture some of this specialized knowledge before it could disappear. However, it soon became apparent that doing so was nearly impossible. The reasons why are too involved to go into here; if occasion demands it, I’ll talk about them in a separate post on Knowledge Management. Suffice to say, my focus very quickly changed to figuring out ways to keep the knowledge (and the people who have it) in the program. This task meant I had to talk to a lot of people. Some were folks I’ve known for years. Others were new to me, though they had been in the Program for years.
I talked in a previous post about my trip to Black Island. I was also fortunate enough to spend two days at Lake Hoare in Taylor Valley with my friend Rae Spain and her assistant Rene (with an accent on the final “e”). Rae first came to Antarctica in 1979, along with three other friends of mine (Rob Robbins, Jules Uberuaga, and Rick Campbell), all of whom I interviewed for The Antarctic Sun. (You can read the article here.) Only about two percent of Antarctica is ice-free, and a fair portion of that is represented by the McMurdo Dry Valleys. They are spectacularly beautiful, which is a strange thing to say about an area that is barren and desolate. Yet there is something absolutely majestic about this area, and Lake Hoare is one of the prime spots.
On the return from Lake Hoare, I stopped for a few hours at Marble Point, a helicopter refueling camp near the mouth of Taylor Valley. I spoke with Randy “Crunch” Noring, another long-time Antarctican, who also spent many years at South Pole Station. That’s him in the video, doing the dangerous job of attaching a sling load to a helicopter.
I also managed to get out to the Erebus Glacier Tongue and its ice caves, courtesy of Alasdair Turner, one of the Antarctic Field Safety instructors. (Alasdair is a phenomenal photographer, and his photos of Antarctica are stunning. Check out his website www.alasdairturner.com.) At any rate, on this trip it was “ice cave” in the singular, because there was just one. Apparently, the caves have been less than spectacular for the last few years, but this year there was a fairly decent one.
Still, it paled against some of the amazing caves I visited in the 80s and 90s.
Some of these caves were literally hundreds of yards deep, with all kinds of side passages.
The ice cave trip was the last of my adventures. The rest of the time I spent in McMurdo.
One of the first things I noticed when I arrived was that something seemed to be missing. I felt out of place. McMurdo seemed to me to be somehow disjointed. The cohesive community I had always know seemed to have dissipated. I chalked this up to the fact that, after 18 years of nearly complete absence, I knew very few people. (It was very weird, though, to feel like a stranger in a place that was so completely familiar. I’d spent six years of my life in McMurdo. I know it better than almost anywhere else. It was like walking into your home and finding it full of people you didn’t know.)
But the more people I spoke to, the more I realized it wasn’t just me. Everyone who had started with the program in the 80s and 90s (and who had been working there ever since, many without a break) told me the same thing. The tight feeling of community is gone. Sure, there are still lots of social events, but it’s diffuse. Instead of one big community, there are a lot of separate cliques.
I couldn’t figure out what had caused the change in culture. There had been other years, like this one, with lots of new people. That had never mattered; there were always enough old hands around to hold things together. But this time it wasn’t working.
It took Rick Campbell to explain why. It was the internet. Before the age of constant communication, the people in Antarctica had to let go of the outside world. If there was a problem on the Ice, they had to solve it there with, as Rick says, “boots on the ground.” You couldn’t appeal to the big bosses back at headquarters, because they couldn’t be easily reached. The internet has changed all that. Antarctica is now merely an extension of the outside world, where you can get the news instantly, email and talk with friends and family, even watch YouTube (if there is enough bandwidth), and where the managers at headquarters are constantly involved in decisions and in day-to-day operations. The isolation is gone, and with it the tight sense of community.
I find this to be very sad. Sure, there are lots of advantages to the internet and to instant phone communication (believe it or not, you can call home from Antarctica as easily as from anyplace in the U.S.). But in my mind those advantages are outweighed by what has been lost. I feel very privileged to have experienced Antarctica when it still seemed like a real frontier, when we were isolated from the world and had to depend on ourselves, when we felt we were all part of a single community engaged in a noble human endeavor at the ends of the Earth.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a noble human endeavor to do research and support research in Antarctica. It’s still an amazing, beautiful, challenging, and exciting place. People still forge friendships there that last a lifetime. And for the scientists out in the deep field, it’s as much an adventure as it ever was. But if you’re stuck in McMurdo, I’m afraid, it’s just another extension of the world wide web.
So it was with a sense of sadness and relief that I boarded that plane to go north to New Zealand, the first stop on my way home. Sadness because I have so many memories there and I miss the old McMurdo, and relief because it no longer feels like home. It’s not as comfortable as it once was.
Fortunately, the weather was perfect for the flight. If you spent a few moments at one of the three available windows in the flying warehouse that is a C-17, you could get a glimpse of the wild Antarctica that still exists, thousands upon thousands of miles of ice-choked, unexplored, spectacular wilderness.