Jim Mastro

Writing, and all things in between


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Antarctica as Seen from Earth

Mount Erebus, Ross Island

Mount Erebus, Ross Island

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.

U.S. Air Force C-17 at the Pegasus ice runway

U.S. Air Force C-17 at the Pegasus ice runway

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.

Taylor Valley, with the Suess Glacier in the background and Lake Hoare in the foreground.

Taylor Valley, with the Suess Glacier in the background and Lake Hoare in the foreground.

Lake Hoare and the Canada Glacier

Lake Hoare and the Canada Glacier

"Mushroom" ice on the frozen surface of Lake Hoare

“Mushroom” ice on the frozen surface of Lake Hoare

Rae Spain and Rene at the Lake Hoare camp

Rae Spain and Rene at the Lake Hoare camp

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 http://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.

Snowmobile excursion to the ice cave.

Snowmobile excursion to the ice cave.

That's me, standing in the ice cave of 2014. (Photo by Alasdair Turner)

That’s me, standing in the ice cave of 2014. (Photo by Alasdair Turner)

Clambering around in the ice cave.

Clambering around in the ice cave.

Still, it paled against some of the amazing caves I visited in the 80s and 90s.

Giant ice cavern.

Giant ice cavern.

Ice cave in the 90s.

Ice cave in the 90s.

Convoluted ice cave.

Convoluted ice cave.

Some of these caves were literally hundreds of yards deep, with all kinds of side passages.

Giant ice cave.

Giant ice cave.

Multi-level ice cave.

Multi-level ice cave.

The ice cave trip was the last of my adventures. The rest of the time I spent in McMurdo.

McMurdo Station from the Arrival Heights hiking trail.

McMurdo Station from the Arrival Heights hiking trail.

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.

Antarctica in early spring (NASA photo)

Antarctica in early spring (NASA photo)

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.

Interior of a C-17, the flying warehouse.

Interior of a C-17, the flying warehouse.

Looking out at the vastness of Antarctica.

Looking out at the vastness of Antarctica.

The view from a C-17 heading north.

The view from a C-17 heading north.


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Black Island

It was a long wait.

I was scheduled to visit Black Island over a week ago, but the storms just kept coming. This has, in fact, been the stormiest October I have ever seen in McMurdo. One after another, storms bearing high winds and blowing snow rolled up from the south, essentially shutting everything down for weeks. But finally, a window of opportunity opened up, and a few of us boarded a helicopter for the 20-minute ride to Black Island.

Black Island is across the McMurdo Ice Shelf from Ross Island, where McMurdo Station is located. Its name derives from the fact that it is almost entirely bare, black, volcanic rock.  This is curious, because right next to Black Island is White Island, which is almost entirely covered by snow and ice. To my knowledge, no one fully understands why two islands of nearly identical size so close to each other should be so dramatically different.

Black Island is important because it’s our communications link. Mount Erebus lies to the immediate north of McMurdo Station, so our view of equatorial communication satellites is blocked. Black Island, on the other hand, has a fairly clear view of those satellites, so we can have email, phone service, and most importantly, transfer of scientific data. I was going out to speak to the long-time camp manager, Tony Marchetti, in order to understand how the place operates.

Black Island Camp

Black Island Camp

Tony is a very colorful character. If he was a sailor, people would be calling him an old salt. After 27 years in Antarctica, most of it on Black Island, he has a fair number of stories, most of which will leave you rolling on the floor laughing. If he ever wanted to, I’m certain Tony could be a stand-up comedian. But the really important thing about Tony is that he knows Black Island, with all it foibles and requirements and sophisticated electronics, better than anyone else.

Tony Marchetti (Photo by Peter Rejcek)

Tony Marchetti (Photo by Peter Rejcek)

When we landed, the wind was blowing at about 25 knots, which was the slowest Tony had seen in over a week. Just a few days before my visit, he clocked winds at about 80 knots, which is a little over hurricane force. Shortly after my arrival, the wind started to pick up again, ratcheting up to 50 knots at one point. Helicopter pilots don’t like to land in that kind of wind, so it was beginning to look like I was going to be spending the night. I decided to go out and look around.

Walking around on rocky ground is interesting in 50-knot winds (about 57 mph). It is particularly challenging to try and shoot photos in those conditions, especially when it is gusty. I would brace myself for a shot, then the wind would let up a little and knock me off balance. By the time I rebalanced myself, the wind would pick up again and throw me in the other direction. It was like trying to take pictures while someone was holding on to my parka and shoving me randomly back and forth. There were times when the wind threatened to blow me over. Heading back to the camp, the wind caught my hood and it became a sail anchored at my neck. It felt like I was being choked.

I came across another rather stark reminder of the wind’s power. There used to be four wind-powered generators at Black Island. This last winter, in a bit of irony, one of them was destroyed by the very wind it was supposed to harness. Since no one was there at the time, there is no way of knowing how hard the wind was blowing, but it seems unlikely it was less than 100 knots. The generator tower was bent nearly in two and the generator slammed into the ground by the force of the wind.

Wind generator destroyed by wind

Wind generator destroyed by wind

The photo below is looking toward Ross Island. The rocky knob is the end of Hut Point Peninsula, where McMurdo Station is located. The mountain with its top in the clouds is Mount Erebus, an active volcano. Much of the ice shelf between Black Island and Ross Island is called the “Dirty Ice,” because it is exactly that. It is glacial ice that has been coated over the millennia with wind-blown dirt. The dark dirt causes the surface of the ice to melt in the summer, which then re-freezes, over and over again, year after year, century after century. The result is ice characterized by high ridges and deep trenches. It is treacherous and essentially impossible to cross.

Ross Island from Black Island

Ross Island from Black Island

It is hard to tell that the wind was howling when the photo was taken, but the clouds are an indication. Clouds with circular or lenticular shapes usually mean high winds. However, in the end the wind dropped to 35 knots, long enough for a helicopter to come out, pick me up, and bring me back to McMurdo. Hidden in my pocket were two bits of treasure: Black Island cookies, baked by Zack, the current Black Island cook. Best cookies in Antarctica. So far.


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Earth as seen from Antarctica

Some things take on a certain resonance when viewed from a windblown, polar desert. Since I arrived here at McMurdo Station a little over two weeks ago, the weather has been, shall we say, challenging. It has been an endless parade of storms, sometimes with wind in excess of 50 mph, frigid temperatures (-10F), and blowing snow. There have been times when I haven’t been able to see more than a few feet in front of me. One must be particularly vigilant for large vehicles (as in bulldozers and forklifts) and blowing debris in conditions like those.

It is here that I have just finished reading my signed copy of “Earth,” by David Brin. As I have come to expect from Mr. Brin, the novel is imaginative, thought-provoking, thrilling, and exceptionally well written. And frightening, because it invokes a future world that is all too possible. In fact, in some respects, I would say inevitable. It is perhaps because I read it in Antarctica that I have been pondering the future–both the fictional one as well as the impending real one–in rather stark terms. One cannot spend as much time as I have here in the bitter cold and desolation without coming to appreciate the generally life-friendly environment found elsewhere on our little planet. One also comes to an understanding, on a very fundamental level, that the rest of the planet could look like Antarctica–if not in frigidity, then certainly in desolation and lifelessness–if we’re not careful.

And we are not careful.

I have to wonder about us humans. Individually, we are rather smart. As a species, not so much. Oh, we are certainly clever. We invent all kinds of new technologies and modify our environment on a scale that has only happened once before in Earth’s history, when cyanobacteria changed the atmosphere from neutral to oxidative. But that took eons. We’ve made our changes in, literally, the blink of an eye. And the changes have not been good.

As a biologist, I understand the basic imperatives that motivate all living things: pass on DNA to the next generation; gather resources to facilitate this activity. The more resources, the better, in most cases. When humans take this to the extreme (which, frankly, most humans would do, given the opportunity), it’s called greed. But other animals are greedy too, when they have the option. I’ve had dogs who are never satisfied with the toys they have, they want all the toys in your hand or hidden in your pockets. Some animals, when given access to all the food they can imagine, will eat themselves sick. “More, more, and more” seems to be the default position.

I had hoped, once upon a time in my youthful optimism, that we humans would see the bigger picture and moderate that destructive influence. We certainly have the capacity to do so. We have the brain power. But we seem unable to harness that brain power to see the bigger picture and make decisions that will ensure our survival. Just the opposite, in fact.

Look at how fishermen have historically mismanaged the resources that provide their livelihoods. They will notice how a fish stock is diminishing, but instead of getting together and coming to an agreement designed to ensure the fish stock remains robust and sustainable, they try to outcompete each other to grab the last little bits, to get as much money as possible out of it before it’s gone. And then when it’s gone, they blame the seals, or the whales, or sport fishermen, or the government. The only reason some fish stocks still exist is because that government stepped in and imposed much-hated regulations. It is only because of those regulations that any fish are left at all! In some cases, the regulations came too late and certain fish stocks became economically extinct.

And now we have well-moneyed and powerful oil and coal barons who fight tooth and nail to maintain their lucrative industries, vociferously denying the negative impacts of their industries even as those negative impacts become more and more obvious. They have used their money and power to purchase politicians–purchase our republic, actually–essentially removing the only impediment to oligarchic control: a functioning, democratic government. They are not the only ones, of course. Pharmaceutical industries, agritech industries (like Monsanto), “healthcare” giants, and others have done the same, and their damage to our political and physical health should not be underestimated. But no other industry has the long-term, potentially devastating influence of the fossil fuel industry.

Sure, we are all guilty to an extent. Most of us drive cars, purchase consumer goods manufactured far away and shipped across oceans, and burn fuel to stay warm. But in many cases, we have little choice. Decisions made by industry and government limit our choices, even though we decry those limits and press for more reasonable alternatives. There are those who have sounded the alarm for decades. Thirty years ago I wrote an essay (published in the San Diego Union-Tribune) in which I offered this analogy: If you place a culture of bacteria in a petri dish and leave it to its own devices, one of two things will happen–the bacteria will multiply until all the food is used up, then they will all die, or, if they are of a particular sort, they will poison themselves with their own waste products, and they all die. Sometimes both things happen at once.

So how are humans different?

Clearly, we are not. That is glaringly obvious. Any living creature will multiply to the greatest extent possible, and it is only external factors (such as predators) that keep the population under control. We no longer have any predators, other than ourselves. But populations freed of predation will succumb to the bacteria scenario, or their populations will be brought under control by the two last-ditch methods the ecosystem has: mass starvation and density-dependent disease. It is the height of hubris to not understand, despite all our technology, that we are subject to the same controls. The current Ebola crisis is just the latest that mother nature has sent our way. It won’t be the last. (Unless, of course, the Ebola virus evolves the ability to transmit itself in the air while retaining its virulence.) And starvation, well, that’s where this conversation is now headed.

About 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian, there took place the worst of several mass extinction events in Earth’s history. About 90% of all life, on land and in the ocean, perished. The event, which took a thousand years or so, was apparently caused by massive volcanic activity in the area now called Siberia. Volcanoes spewed huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, which warmed the globe by a process that any five-year-old can understand, but that which deliberately escapes the comprehension of certain rich and powerful (some would say stupid) people. Warming reached a point at the end of the Permian where pent-up methane was released from permafrost and from the deep ocean and polar seas. At that point, the feedback loop went into overdrive. The globe warmed as much as 10-12 degrees Celsius, drought ravaged the land, acidification ravaged the seas, and pretty much everything died.

That same process, which took place because of natural events over the course of thousands of years, is happening again. Only this time it is happening with a rapidity that ought to boggle anyone’s mind. It is a rapidity that is absolutely unprecedented in Earth’s history. It takes a broader perspective to see this, and humans seem generally limited in their ability to see beyond the next day, or the next quarterly report. But if you understand biology and ecology, if you understand geological processes, if you understand the grand reach of time that characterizes our planet’s history and development, it become very clear indeed. In the geological equivalent of a nanosecond, we are irrevocably altering our environment in a way that is making it incapable of supporting human life.

Brin’s book paints this kind of picture, but in that fictional account there is still hope. I am not so sanguine. I know what happens when a massive system is pushed out of balance. It seeks a new balance, and it reaches it sooner or later, but in most cases that new balance is dramatically different than the starting point.

Earth’s climate is just such a massive system, and massive systems have a lot of inertia. Like a huge freight train, it take a lot to get it moving, but once it’s in motion, it is not stopping anytime soon. We have put Earth’s climate into motion. The train has left the station. We might have been able to moderate the effects and stave off the worst of it a few decades ago, when wise and prescient people first sounded the alarm. That opportunity is lost. Researchers have already measured methane seeping out of permafrost, and people have seen methane bubbling up from the Artic ocean. Even knowing this, we continue to make the situation worse. Carbon emissions are predicted to increase by 2.3% worldwide next year and beyond.

At some point, they will begin to decrease, not because we have suddenly wised up, but because the effects of our foolishness and profligacy will finally start to be felt, in diminished economic activity, diminished food production, and diminished population. That point is coming sooner than anyone wants to believe.

People may decry what I am saying as “doomsday hysteria.” It is nothing of the sort. As a scientist and philosopher, I can look at what is scathingly obvious with a certain amount of professional objectivity. Earth has gone through this before, and she always recovers. After the devastating Permian extinction, it only took her a few million years to repopulate the globe with a whole new diversity of plant and animal life. She will do that again after we are gone.

And we will be gone far sooner than anyone wants to believe. It doesn’t take much to destroy a civilization, even an advanced technological one like ours. It has happened many times just in the brief span of human history. Take away food, and everything falls apart. I think human beings will be extinct in less than 300 years. Maybe a lot less. The victim of our own greedy, selfish stupidity, and mainly the greedy selfish stupidity of a relatively few people. All their money and power will do them no good at all when there is simply no food to buy. It is a shame that they cannot see that.

Still, it is sad, and I am profoundly disappointed. We humans held such promise. I think of the sublime miracle of consciousness, the very fact that we can be self-aware and can also look out upon the universe and be amazed and humbled and filled with wonder. I think of the miracle of love, which I have to believe goes far beyond the simple facts of procreation and hormonal influence. There is a spiritual component to love that far surpasses those biological imperatives.

I think of the sublime beauty of this planet, with its stunning diversity of life. There is certainly nothing like it in our solar system. And even though there are almost certainly other planets with life, there may be nothing quite like the Earth in the entire galaxy. What a shame to despoil such a place.

I also think of all the beauty we have created, and the noble and courageous things we have done. Art, music, individual acts of love and heroism. What other creature demonstrates these things? What other creature looks out upon a beautiful sunset with wonder and then feels compelled to paint it, or write about it, or compose a song to it?

I think of all the amazing things we could have done. We could have traveled to the stars! There is a whole universe to explore! Think of what we might have discovered! Think of what grand artistic and scientific and technological things we might have accomplished, if only we could have seen a little clearer.

Of course, people do and have done some terrible things, too, to each other and to the planet. There is no excuse for any of it. But the most terrible thing of all has been to kill our mother.