"Back to the Land of the Senses"

Jim Sweitzer - January 17, 1995

    I never made it out on the Sunday night flight with the Italians. They had too many people and too much luggage to allow standby flyers. I know that weight is very critical on these flights. This is why we wish we could have ice runways instead of snow skiways. That would allow us to carry another few extra tons per aircraft -- an important advantage in a land of limited resources and transportation.

I finally did leave on a plane early today. It was delayed a few hours, but that actually gave me an opportunity to take a short hike up the observatory hill on the east side of McMurdo. It was the first perfectly clear day since I've been in "town".

Everything is limited in Antarctica. Although we all have to put up with fewer showers, cramped berthing, and infrequent communications, the most noticeable lack is one of limited sensations *. This may seem strange coming from an astronomer who wants to be at the Pole so he can see deeper and farther into the universe than from anywhere else on Earth. What I mean, however, are the day-to-day sensations. And you really don't notice this lack until you leave the continent. For example, once our plane landed in Christchurch, eight hours after leaving Willy field, as we stepped out onto the runway the first words I heard was someone say were, "Wow! Look, trees ... green trees!"

There just isn't much green at all in Antarctica. I'm not talking about the green buildings brought in by humans. In fact, Scott Base, the New Zealand research station near McMurdo is much more pleasing to look at than McMurdo because all the buildings are a lime green; I call it the Miami of Antarctica. When I survey the scene from atop the hill overlooking McMurdo, the land is colorless. The sky is a deep blue, but that seems to be normal and taken for granted. In the ice and snow sometimes you can detect a tiny shard of the same blue as the sky, but the predominant scene is one that could be represented on black and white film. The ice is white and the mountains and hills appear black and white. Ansel Adams would have felt right at home here.

When I stood on the small hill looking across McMurdo sound I noticed a lack of color in the air. The mountains and islands I could see appeared black and white, even though they were very far away. Mt. Discovery, thirty five miles to the south, was detailed in white and black, Black Island wasn't totally black, but had less white. Looming to the north, twenty five miles away, the nearly two and a half mile high Mt. Erebus, was totally shrouded in white, with a faint wisp of frozen steam rising from it's volcanic cone. To an astrophysicist, this is quite remarkable, because the air we live in at normal latitudes scatters sunlight into our line of sight making distant objects appear hazy and blue. It's the same effect that makes the overhead sky blue. If Erebus were in the US. the same distance away, its flanks would tend towards sky blue. This white volcano always appears distinct and very close in Antarctica, much closer than it really is. I'm convinced that the reason is because of the thin Antarctic air, which is poor at making a blue haze.

One of the things that I notice first upon arriving in New Zealand after visiting Antarctica are the smells. I immediately smell the trees and grass, long before I am even close to them. The only smells I can recall in Antarctica are those of the galley where we eat and occasionally a person who is overdue on his shower ration. The smell of plants is absent from the continent. People who winter over know this well. At the South Pole there has been a greenhouse in the past that was very popular. And, I'm told, one of the first places people who have had a long stay head for when the arrive back in Christchurch is the town's spectacular botanical gardens.

I always imagine that when I visit Antarctica I am on another planet. I think the way we are suited up, plus the lack of normal colors and smells makes me feel that way. The daily light and abnormal seasons are totally alien to what we know at temperate latitudes. Finally, the way people work on close knit teams with carefully engineered support systems must be the way it will be when there are bases on the Moon and Mars.

Oh, I almost forgot. There's one last thing I notice immediately upon return to New Zealand. For the first time in weeks I "see" darkness and the stars.

* I've been told since writing this journal entry that visiting penguin rookeries can assault the senses in more than one way! The notes above only really apply to the regions I have visited, not the world of Antarctic wildlife that hugs the coast in less hostile locals.
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