It's January, and bitterly cold in Minneapolis. This time of year, there aren't many places you can call up and gloat about Minnesota weather, but Antarctica really ought to be one of them.

"Oh, it's 32 and sunny here," says Claire Porter, a University of Minnesota graduate student working on the ostensibly frozen continent. "We spent the whole day outside hiking and playing around."

Antarctica, as it turns out, defies all sorts of expectations. Far from a blank, white canvas, the bottom of the world is a beautiful place, full of breathtaking peaks and stark, rock-strewn valleys studded with cerulean lakes. But the things that make Antarctica so fascinating—and such an important center for scientific research—also make it a difficult place to work. Porter is part of a team of scientists whose job is to make other scientists' jobs easier.

From tracking penguins and mapping unique geological features, to making sure satellite Internet connections aren't blocked by an inconvenient mountain, the Antarctic Geospatial Information Center has a finger in just about every research pot. Amazingly, it does all this on a budget of less than $500,000 a year, and a staff of only 10, most of them graduate students.

Paul Morin, the center's director, came from the world of data visualization—he's written textbooks, worked with science museums and helped the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics better understand changes in river system ecology. He started the AGIC two years ago.

"Our grant is to provide geospatial support for the U.S. Antarctic research program. The majority of people down there need help with geographic information systems, cartography, remote sensing or some kind of analysis," he says. "A lot of this is mapping, and mapping is just a form of visualization."

While the big picture was familiar territory for Morin, the details of working—and even, for short stretches, living—in Antarctica have been a very different experience. In mid-December, he was about to set off on his third trip to Antarctica. He stays about a month each time. Going to the continent with the National Science Foundation is a lot like going to space with NASA, he says: You basically show up with your computer and some clean underpants, and the rest is taken care of.

The NSF sends Morin and his team plane tickets to New Zealand, issues cold-weather clothes, shuttles them to Antarctica in a military C-17 transport, and outfits them on arrival. "Everybody needs gear down there and not everybody is from Minnesota," he says. "They have a facility in Antarctica called the Berg Field Center, and it's basically REI. You go in and you say, 'I need this tent, I need this food,' and they know everything about it."

Thanks to that system, Morin and his team are left without much to worry about besides their work. That's good, because supporting almost all the research in Antarctica is a time-consuming task, which can even take the AGIC team outside the heated, catered confines of McMurdo Station and into the Antarctic frontier.

This year, Morin and his crew were preparing to camp in Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys—a place that serves as an analog for Mars on Earth. As the name implies, there's little snow in the dry valleys. There's also very little life, just cyanobacteria and the occasional seal that wandered in and died.

"The highest form of life in these places is nematodes," says Morin.

AGIC is going there for several reasons. First, they'll set GPS points and match them to their maps and huge database of satellite images, so researchers will have a more accurate understanding of just where it is they're looking at. Along the way, they'll also map the rare wet patches in these valleys--such as Don Juan Pond, the saltiest lake in the world. That information will help scientist who study extreme forms of life know where to look for them.

But not all their work is in the field. Recently, AGIC was given access to images of Antarctica, taken by the same satellites that do intelligence imaging for the U.S. government.

"Because the orbits of these satellites come together at the poles, I can shoot every point in Antarctica up to three times per day, per satellite," Morin says. "There's no competition because nobody using them wants to see Antarctica but me. And each pixel is between 50 centimeters and 1 meter. I'm getting between 200 and 500 gigabytes of data every day."

The images are in exquisite detail. The hard part is figuring out how to organize, store and actually put the information to productive use. It's an overwhelming task, but Morin and his team are starting to get the hang of it. One of the ways they've used the images is to help penguin researchers find colonies of the birds and track their movements.

How do you find penguins on a satellite image? "Even with this level of detail, it's hard to spot the birds," says Morin. "So what we do is look for reddish-brown smears on the snow--trails of penguin poop—and follow those back to the colonies, which you can see because it's just a huge spot of poop."

A version of this feature originally ran in Momentum, the magazine of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.

Background photo: Brent Pellinen. Other photos: Paul Morin and Michelle

22 Comments Add a comment

#1 10:34 AM, Apr 21 Reply
Rob Beschizza

Awesome story, Maggie.

#2 1:10 PM, Apr 21 Reply

The two photos with water look like California in August, at 14,000 feet. i'm ready, let's go!

The links to pictures and explore don't work on my computer- and i want to see both.

#3 2:05 PM, Apr 21 Reply

I haven't read the article yet (but I'm about to!), but I had to comment on the beautiful layout here.

I love BoingBoing doing these special features, and it feels like a treat every time we get one.

#4 2:44 PM, Apr 21 Reply

Wow, this looks a amazing - looking forward to getting through the whole thing!

#5 2:44 PM, Apr 21 Reply
mort the insane in reply to Anonymous

They aren't links - just scroll over to the right. And I agree with all above posters - beautiful layout, amazing pictures, and great article. The last one there doesn't really need saying, as every article that Maggie writes rocks. I haven't been more consistently impressed by articles from any other person on BB, from back in her guest blogging days up till now. Keep it up!

#6 3:46 PM, Apr 21 Reply

This is the most irritating thing I've read all day because it's so far away and so hard to get to but such a beautiful place. I think I'd clean toilets all day, every day, in the Antarctic winter, just to be there. Too bad it'll never happen. :/

#7 4:16 PM, Apr 21 Reply
Maggie Koerth-Baker in reply to murrayhenson

Apparently, there is a job for you. So, from what I've been told, McMurdo Station has a lot of service staff--people who sleep in crowded dorms and do grunt work for the joy of being in Antarctica (and, of course, the pay).

I have no idea who you should contact about scrubbing toilets in Antarctica. But, by god, the job does exist!

#8 4:32 PM, Apr 21 Reply
Antinous / Moderator in reply to Maggie Koerth-Baker

I know two people who've lived there. It can't be that hard to get a job.

#9 4:40 PM, Apr 21 Reply

This is beautiful. Thank you Maggie! :)

#10 5:34 PM, Apr 21 Reply

Wow! Great article and page layout! I'll admit that I did try furiously clicking on "Explore >" a few times, though - until I figured it out. Hehe...

#11 9:01 PM, Apr 21 Reply

I recently read an excellent book about doing geochemistry in the McMurdo Dry Valleys: Water, Ice & Stone: Science and Memory on the Antarctic Lakes by Bill Green. Although the author's descriptions are pretty vivid, he didn't include pictures, so this article is a great complement to that book.

#12 9:23 PM, Apr 21 Reply

I have idle dreams of working in Antarctica at Scott Base as a psychologist to prevent people from going crazy. I imagine my pay accumulating in my back account and me being unable to spend it until I get home.

#13 10:09 PM, Apr 21 Reply

I've climbed ice from Canada on south to Patagonia.
No. I thought that was ice.....

#14 11:03 PM, Apr 21 Reply

@murrayhenson--you say you'd scrub toilets to stay there the winter. Be careful what you ask for. could be your portal to Antarctica, but once you go to, it's kind of like choosing to take the blue pill or the red pill.

I chose to wash dishes to remain in Antarctica for the winter. Here's how my story is progressing:

If you're a janitor, you don't see Antarctica, all you'll see are dirty toilets. If you're a dishwasher, you don't see the Dry Valley's all you see is dry oatmeal caked to industrial sized cookware.

#15 11:57 PM, Apr 21 Reply
Dan Mac

You can listen to the only doctor in Antarctica (for one cycle) in this audio interview from CBC's "The Current" from yesterday. (Part 3 Extreme Work):

#16 7:37 AM, Apr 22 Reply
Diamond Jim in reply to murrayhenson

mawsoni @14's got it covered, and a little poking around will reveal lots of other blogs that should disabuse most of us of the fantasy (they did me). If memory serves, BoingBoing has covered, which is probably the best known. And we've all seen Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, haven't we?

Awesome feature, btw.

#17 7:41 AM, Apr 22 Reply

This is truly great Maggie! I've always been fascinated with Antarctica and it's always great to learn more and see pictures.

Thanks! :D

#18 6:14 PM, May 25 Reply

I was in the Dry Valleys for the first time in 2009, and it was even more beautiful that pictures can show. I recorded some of my experiences in the blog I'm heading back in October, and I can hardly wait!

#19 9:10 AM, Aug 14 Reply

anyone interested in antarctica, please get a copy of kim stanley robinson's novel, "Antarctica." really special, remarkable book. lots of wonderfully told history. birdie bowers! shackelton!

and the whole plot revolves around the philosophy of science, environmental protection, and more. i recommend this book very highly, no kidding.

my father was there, a seabee, during the international geophysical year when the theory of continental drift was proven. we have some of his survey maps in the garage. he named a peak after my mother. and, get this, i wound up speaking with shackelton's granddaughter one time. awesome.

one more note on antarctica: look up lake vostok and the magnetic anomaly there. cool stuff.

#20 11:23 AM, Sep 4 Reply
jamiethehutt in reply to TJ S

Yeah I'm really liking the special features, interesting articles and cool HTML. It's a geeks dream. :-D

#21 1:19 PM, Sep 4 Reply

Dang! Did you guys find any alien remains, crashed spaceships, or anything else "At The Mountains of Madness?"

#22 5:05 AM, Mar 29 Reply

you can visit on google earth ..... Would love to go there for real.

Send a comment

Read the comment policy before posting.