The Logistics of Living in Antarctica

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Caption: This video was made possible by brilliant. the first 97 people to sign up at brilliant. org/wendover. will get 20% off their premium subscription. antarctica is earth’s coldest, most desolate,. most isolated, windiest, driest, and southernmost. continent. all but 2% of the land-mass is covered in. ice thousands of feet thick. human eyes did not gaze upon the continent. until 1820. human feet did not touch antarctica until. 1895. it is not a place built for humans but still,. thousands of people live there for up to years. on end, but how do they get there, how do. they live there, and how does antarctica work . antarctica has thousands of residents, significant. infrastructure, and a large transport network. and yet it’s one of the very few areas of. land on earth not part of any country. seven countries have made antarctic claims—chile,. argentina, the united kingdom, norway, australia,. france, and new zealand—but they are exactly. that, claims. the only real gauge of whether a country’s. territorial claim is real is if other countries. recognize it and, overwhelmingly, these claims. are not recognized. australia’s claim, for example, is only. recognized by the united kingdom, norway,. france, and new zealand—countries which. clearly have a vested interest in the recognition. of antarctic claims. for the most part, these claims are ignored. one doesn’t go through customs upon arrival. in the claims and certain of them overlap. with other claims. the more universally recognized interpretation. is that antarctica is an international zone. just like outer space and the ocean, antarctica. is considered part of the common heritage. of mankind meaning that it should be preserved. immaculately for all future generations, forever,. but that’s easier said than done. the seminal piece of legislation regulating. the continent is the antarctic treaty. just as the cold war was heating up in the. late 1950’s, the united states, the soviet. union, and all other countries with an interest. in antarctica gathered together to decide. how the continent would be used. they emerged with a future-facing treaty that. solved most political disputes and issues. with the continent, except for one. in its text, the treaty specifically says,. “nothing contained in the present treaty. shall be interpreted as a renunciation by. any contracting party of previously asserted. rights of or claims to territorial sovereignty. in antarctica. ”. essentially, they didn’t solve the sovereignty. issue because it was too difficult to solve,. but they did ban military presence, mining,. and nuclear explosions which has helped enormously. in keeping the last continent pristine. so that brings us to today. there are no large scale commercial operations. in antarctica thanks to that treaty. the vast majority of individuals are there. for research. of course, living and maintaining a base on. the world’s most desolate continent is hugely. expensive, but it’s worth it for the research. that can only be conducted in antarctica. some individuals are there to study the continent. itself—it’s wildlife, its geology, and. its climate—but others use the area to study. the entire world. ice cores can be used to track historic atmospheric. carbon levels, underground ponds can be tapped. to find ancient microbial life unique to the. area, and ice thickness can be monitored to. understand how sea levels will rise. scientists even use antarctica to look at. space. as such as isolated place, antarctica has. very low background radiation and virtually. no light pollution which allows astronomers. to use various techniques to peer into deep. space. scientists are performing groundbreaking research. in antarctica, but how do they even get there . the difficulty in getting to antarctica all. stems from its weather. the all-time record high at the south pole. is 9. 9 degrees fahrenheit. the coasts are significantly warmer where. the average summer high is about 30 degrees. fahrenheit but still, weather above freezing. anywhere in antarctica is an anomaly. as mentioned, this means that there is virtually. no bare ground—nearly the entire continent. is covered in thick ice and snow. therefore, the only real choice when building. an antarctic airstrip is whether to make it. on ice or snow. one thing to remember is that antarctica is. a desert. the coastal regions, where most of the research. bases are, do experience the most snow but. still then, that’s a maximum of eight inches. per year. the south pole, meanwhile, only sees about. 2-3 inches of snowfall per year. it doesn’t snow much, but when it does,. it sticks around for centuries. therefore, a runway built on ice or snow is. fairly permanent. it doesn’t get buried as one might in canada. or russia. mcmurdo station’s pegasus field, for example,. was used for more than 40 years before it. closed in 2016 to be replaced by the new phoenix. airfield. phoenix airfield is a compacted snow runway. machines are used to pack the snow until it’s. dense enough to support a fully loaded, half-million. pound c-17 wheeled cargo plane. but compacted-snow runways have a disadvantage—they. can melt. during the warmest months of the summer, the. snow can warm and soften enough that it is. no longer safe to land wheeled aircraft so. that’s why there’s the other type of runway—blue. ice runways. these ice runways are built on areas of glacial. ice where’s there’s no snow accumulation. ice is much more resilient to warmer temperatures. so these runways can be used year-round. runways on the sea-ice are also used typically. at the beginning of the summer research season. in early november until december when the. southern hemisphere’s summer begins and. the ice starts to break up. once the coasts are ice-free, cargo ships. can also bring supplies in to the major coastal. stations, and from there the internal logistics. network gets to work. large planes are used to get as much cargo. and as many passengers to the continent as. inexpensively as possible. there are certain airports on other continents. that serve as gateways to the antarctic. christchurch, new zealand airport, for example,. sends about 100 flights per year and 5, . passengers to antarctica and serves as the. staging area for the new zealand, american,. and italian antarctic logistics operations. from there, it’s only a five hour flight. to mcmurdo station—the largest antarctic. research base. while christchurch is the major antarctic. gateway, flight do also leave from cape town,. south africa and punta arenas, chile. these larger intercontinental planes typically. land at the major blue-ice and compacted snow. runways near the coast, but then many of these. passengers and much of this cargo needs to. get inland. the inland research bases tend to be smaller. and there are fewer of them, but they are. still significant. the american amundsen–scott south pole station,. for example, has a population of 150 people. in the summer and there are also smaller italian,. french, russian, japanese, and german stations. away from the coasts. for the american antarctic operations, mcmurdo. station operates as the logistics hub. nearly all cargo and passengers arrive there. on larger cargo planes or cargo ships. from there, passengers and some cargo are. transferred most often onto lockheed lc- . planes. these prop planes are specifically designed. for arctic and antarctic operations. they have retractable skis that allow them. to land on soft, non-compacted snow and there. are only ten in existence. polar operations often mean taking off at. high altitudes where the air in thin. the amundsen–scott south pole station, where. the plane often flies to, for example, is. surprisingly at 9,300 feet above sea-level. that’s even higher than the highest elevation. commercial airport in the us. when the air is thin wings generate less lift. so the speed needed to takeoff is higher and. so, in order to be able to takeoff at higher. elevations, this lc-130 plane has rockets. to help speed it up at take-off. thanks to its skis, this plane can operate. to those places like the south pole station. that don’t have compacted snow or blue ice. runways. while passengers and some cargo like fresh. food take the quick two hour flight from mcmurdo. station to the south pole, there is another. way. flights are hugely expensive and the united. states antarctic program works on a limited. budget so there’s an effort being made to. reduce shipping costs. therefore, they built a road. just like the runways this road is made from. compacted snow and stretches 995 miles from. mcmurdo station to the south pole. using this south pole traverse, the united. states antarctic program runs convoys of tractors. pulling sleds of cargo across the ice and. snow. this trip takes about 40 days one-way, but. it still is significantly cheaper than flights. and can handle cargo too large to fit in an. lc-130 cargo plane. of course, antarctica is still antarctica—one. of the harshest climates in the world. whenever a plane leaves from new zealand or. south africa or chile to antarctica, it’s. required to take enough fuel to fly all the. way to its destination, attempt landing, then. fly back to its origin if landing is not possible. planes fail, equipment breaks, and weather. changes, so antarctica just isn’t a place. conducive to reliability. for this reason, planes are prohibited from. landing or taking off in the dark and of course,. in the winter in antarctica, it’s dark for. 24 hours a day. therefore, for seven months out of the year,. there are no planes, no boats, no link at. all between antarctica and the rest of the. world. the lack of transport links during the winter. have as much to do with the cold as the dark. at mcmurdo station where most ships dock on. the coast, the winter temperature rarely rises. above zero degrees fahrenheit meaning the. coast is blocked with sea-ice and meanwhile. at the south pole station, the average july. high temperature is -67 degrees fahrenheit. meaning that if any plane landed there, its. fuel would freeze within minutes. of course, the large bases, like mcmurdo station. which balloons to well over 1,000 residents. in the summer, need maintenance over the winter. and some science experiments need to be conducted. year round so people have to stay in antarctica,. alone, in the dark, for the entire winter. with no link to the outside world. in recent years there have been a small number. of exceptions to this lack of flights in winter,. mostly due to medical evacuation flights,. but for the most part, once the last plane. leaves in february, everyone still in antarctica. is stuck there until the following november. all food, fuel, and supplies are stocked there. well before and a small number of people— . in the case of the south pole station—stick. around to keep the bases running. in a sense, these people who stay the winter. in antarctica are even more isolated than. the astronauts on the international space. station. there are few places humans can go where they. are seven months away from medical care, from. food, from civilization. those living and working on the last continent. endure some of the harshest conditions on. this earth, but for the pursuit of science,. all this hardship, all this work, and all. this cost is worth it. if you want to live and work in antarctica,. your best shot to get there is if you’re. a scientist. in particular, a lot of those working there. are astronomers and the best place to get. a basic understanding of astronomy is brilliant. org. brilliant’s interactive quizzes teach you. by developing your intuition, not by rote. memorization. with their straightforward explanations and. simple graphics, you really learn a lot quickly. i usually have a blast while taking a brilliant. courses—they’re designed to be interesting—and. in this astronomy course you can learn things. like how to measure the size of the universe,. if life on other planets is possible, and. how everything on earth is actually made of. old stars. by going to brilliant. org/wendover, you can. get started for free and then, by being one. of the first 97 people to upgrade to the premium. subscription, you will get 20% off. .
 

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