This is a detail from one of the regularly updated maps that researchers in Antarctica use when they want to leave McMurdo Station and travel across the continent's sea ice. It shows the well-traveled routes across McMurdo Sound, ice thickness measurements taken at various points along the road, and hazards like large cracks in the ice.
Towards the north end of the Sound, you can see an island labeled, "Inaccessible Island". I asked Henry Kaiser — a musician and filmmaker who has spent the last decade working with scientists on the frozen continent — about why that island was inaccessible. After all, I didn't see any major cracks or hazards around it. Seems like you could traverse the ice to the island just fine.
Turns out, I was misunderstanding. Inaccessible isn't a designation. Inaccessible is the island's official name. Even though it's not. Inaccessible, I mean. Named by Robert Scott, it's part of a chain of islands that all represent the remains of an ancient volcanic crater. The name apparently comes from the fact that Inaccessible Island is incredibly steep, so while you can reach it, getting onto the damn thing seems to be a lot harder.
Inaccessible Island in McMurdo Sound is not to be confused with the Inaccessible Island that is located in the south Atlantic about halfway between South America and Africa; nor with the Inaccessible Islands, an entire group of islands located between the tip of South America and tip of the Antarctic peninsula; nor with Inexpressible Island, an Antarctic island where part of Scott's crew on his second expedition was forced to spend the winter of 1912 living in a cave and eating penguins.
Photo: Cape Royds Adélie Penguin Rookery. (Google Street View)
Today, Google is launching access to a new collection of hi-res imagery from the Antarctic. In this post are some examples of those stunning vistas, shared with Boing Boing courtesy of Google. Alex Starns, Technical Program Manager for the Street View team, writes:
Back in September 2010, we launched the first Street View imagery of the Antarctic, enabling people from more habitable lands to see penguins in Antarctica for the first time. Today we’re bringing you additional panoramic imagery of historic Antarctic locations that you can view from the comfort of your homes. We’ll be posting this special collection to our World Wonders site, where you can learn more about the history of South Pole exploration.
Between 1910 and 1913, surgeon George Levick traveled with Robert Scott through Antarctica on a mission to reach the South Pole. Along the way, Scott's team recorded their observations of Antarctica and its wildlife, observations that were later published in scientific journals. At least, most of the observations were published. Some of Levick's notes ended up being left out of the official journals, only printed in pamphlet form, like some kind of academic Tijuana Bible.
The reason: Those notes were full of Levick's horrified documentation of depraved penguin sex acts—tales so unfit for polite society that Levick actually wrote most of them in Greek, rather than English.
Recently rediscovered and translated, these notes have now been published for the first time in the journal Polar Record. The excerpts printed on the LiveScience site read like something from an addendum to Heart of Darkness.
"This afternoon I saw a most extraordinary site [sic]. A Penguin was actually engaged in sodomy upon the body of a dead white throated bird of its own species. The act occurred a full minute, the position taken up by the cock differing in no respect from that of ordinary copulation, and the whole act was gone through down to the final depression of the cloaca."
In another entry, this one written in English on Dec. 6 of that year, he wrote: "I saw another act of astonishing depravity today. A hen which had been in some way badly injured in the hindquarters was crawling painfully along on her belly. I was just wondering whether I ought to kill her or not, when a cock noticed her in passing, and went up to her. After a short inspection he deliberately raped her, she being quite unable to resist him."
Levick described penguins that waddled about the colony's outskirts terrorizing any straying chicks as "little knots of hooligans" in his pamphlet. "The crimes which they commit are such as to find no place in this book, but it is interesting indeed to note that, when nature intends them to find employment, these birds, like men, degenerate in idleness."
I love this video of an iceberg collapsing in on itself in Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica. (Word of warning, the people filming this loved the experience even more than I loved watching it, so much so that you may want to turn your speakers down.)
There are two kinds of icebergs, tabular and non-tabular. The tabular ones are what they sound like, big flat sheets of ice. Non-tabular are different—irregular shapes that become even more irregular as bits and pieces of them melt. Judging by the arched shape this iceberg had taken on, it probably falls into the non-tabular category. Implosion happens when melting weakens key structural support within that shape and bits of the iceberg begin to crash in on itself, accelerating the breakup. Both tabular and non-tabular icebergs and catastrophically fail like this, though.
Another fun iceberg fact: There are six size categories we sort icebergs by. Four of them have pretty predictable names: "Small", "Medium", "Large", and "Very Large". But below "small" are two size categories with a little more whimsy.
Icebergs with a hight of less than 3.3 feet and a length less than 16 feet are called "Growlers".
If the height shorter than 16 feet and the length shorter than 49 feet, then the iceberg is called, adorably, "a Bergy Bit". Yes, that is a technical term.
The United States Antarctic station at McMurdo Sound was opened in 1956. Originally it was operated by the Navy, rather than the National Science Foundation. This photo was taken during the Navy years, in November of 1958.
The flat white snow at the bottom of the photo is the frozen McMurdo Sound. The 'road' is the landing strip for the U.S. Navy planes which supported the U.S. Antarctic Program when this photo was taken. You can see the airplanes parked near McMurdo Station, along the coastline. This U.S. Navy photo was donated by Charlotte Koch, whose husband Richard Koch was a P2V Navy pilot in Antarctica.
The history of the McMurdo site turns out to be pretty interesting. The first human presence there dates to 1902. It's where Robert Scott made landfall and, up until the Navy arrived in 1955, the only buildings at the site were Scott's hut, and a couple of other shelters built to house Scott's equipment. By 1960, there were 90 permanent structures.
But this isn't a story of runaway growth. Scientists in Antarctica recognized the need to preserve the ecology of the continent pretty early on. Today, there are about 100 buildings at McMurdo and the facility hasn't been allowed to expand much beyond the landscape impacted by humans during the first 10-15 years of the station's existence.
Numbers can be powerful things, but they don't necessarily help the average person grasp what's actually going on in science. Instead, personal stories tend to make a bigger impact. And that's understandable. Things you can see—or things that someone can show you—are going to stick in your head a bit more than a barrage of data.
This is especially a problem, I think, with climate change. Some of the largest impact of climate change, so far, have happened in places far removed from the experiences of the people who create the most anthropogenic greenhouse gases. So it's often hard to take the idea "the Earth is getting warmer" and really grok what that actually means.
That's why people like Will Steger are important. Steger is an explorer and science communicator who has won the National Geographic Society's John Oliver La Gorce Medal—an award that's also been given to Amelia Earhart, Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen and Jacques Cousteau.
Henry Kaiser—filmmaker, musician, Antarctic research diver and BoingBoing guest blogger—took a series of infrared portraits of scientists and staff at the McMurdo Research Station. I really like the way these infrared photos feel like they capture the cold environment better than a normal photo would. Another bonus: I keep having to remind myself that, no, everybody in Antarctica has not dyed their hair blue.
Anyone can climb down the ladder and watch us divers at work under the ice. The snow was bulldozed off of the sea ice around the observation tube, creating a very light environment; which seems to have attracted an enormous population of larval and juvenile ice fish that form great clouds around the tube."
Suddenly, I wish I were washing dishes in Antarctica.
Kaiser dives for different researchers every year. This year, he's working with Hoffman's team, helping them study the effects of climate change on ocean life. Specifically, Hoffman has Kaiser out collecting Antarctic sea urchins so that her team can extract the animals' sperm and eggs to test the development of sea urchin zygotes in differing conditions of PH and temperature.
There's great footage in here of human life above the ice, and animal life below. It's a bit long, but I recommend taking the time to watch the whole thing.
When I recycle, I have to separate out metal, plastic, chipboard, glass, plain paper, glossy paper, and newsprint. That sounds like a lot of separating, until you compare it to the recycling protocol at McMurdo Scientific Research Station, Antarctica.
Dayton's Wall is an underwater geologic formation named for Paul Dayton, a marine ecologist who studies the lives and interactions between seafloor-dwelling organisms. Located in Antarctica, in an area of the Ross Sea between McMurdo Station and Cape Armitage, Dayton's Wall is a great place to spot creatures that live on the rocky Antarctic seafloor.
This footage of life on Dayton's Wall was shot by Henry Kaiser, a man with a really awesome CV. Kaiser is a musician and filmmaker, and for the last decade he's also worked as a research diver, conducting dives beneath the Antarctic sea ice on behalf of scientists stationed at McMurdo.
Kaiser has turned some of his footage into music videos, set to songs performed by Nik Bärtsch's RONIN. With the artist's permission, Kaiser made two music videos. This one, and another set just beneath the surface of the ice. They're both beautiful and haunting, and make me want to find out more about Nik Bärtsch's RONIN, who I'd never heard of before.
We'll have more from Henry Kaiser soon, including an upcoming guest blog post. Watch this space for Antarctic wonders. And, in the meantime, check out his YouTube page. He posts new videos every day.