I just started teaching my spring classes, and on the first day a student asked me if my work as a science journalist had taken me to any cool places. I said that in 1985 I rode a trolley into a tunnel at the Nevada Test Site in which a nuclear bomb would be detonated the next day. In 1991 I stood at the edge of an oil field whose wells, ignited by Iraqi troops during the first Gulf War, shot huge jets of fire into the sky, which was so black with smoke that I could barely see my notebook. In 2002 I sat in a teepee on a Navajo reservation eating peyote with 20 members of the Native American Church. But by far the coolest trip I've ever taken, I said, took me to the South Pole.
The Antarctic has received lots of press lately. Just over century ago, on January 17, 1912, Robert Falcon Scott arrived at the South Pole, only to discover that Roald Amundsen had arrived there more than a month earlier. Scott and his men perished on their return journey, and ironically their failure is commemorated more than Amundsen's success.
My expedition—compared to those of these rugged explorers, who relied on dogs, ponies and their own muscles for transport—was like a trip to the mall. Together with three other journalists, I flew in a cavernous C-130 military-transport plane from Christchurch, New Zealand, to McMurdo Station, a gritty American base perched on the edge of Ross Island. From the window of our plane, the Antarctic resembled an endless porcelain landscape, through which jagged black mountains protruded. I felt as though I was visiting not just another part of Earth but another planet.
Just a short tramp from McMurdo was Discovery Hut, built by Scott in 1902 during his first expedition to the Antarctic. The inside of the hut, cluttered with crates and cans of food, was eerily well-preserved, as though Scott and his men might burst through the door at any moment. During my 10-day sojourn (which took place in November, when the sun never sets), my colleagues and I were whisked around on snow cats and a helicopter.
Some other memories from the trip: Peering into the smoking maw of Mt. Erebus, an enormous active volcano. Swooping through a canyon in the Dry Valleys so narrow that I kept thinking the helicopter's blades were going to strike the rock. Standing on an ice floe as a flock of Emperor penguins leaped out of the sea and waddled toward us, eyeing us with curiosity. Climbing straight down beneath the sea ice into a metal tube, through the windows of which I could see Weddell seals gliding through the frigid twilight.
The high point, however, was when a C-130 flew us from McMurdo to the South Pole's Amundsen-Scott Station, where some 80 people lived and worked in a geodesic dome and other structures. On that day, the Pole was a balmy 44 degrees Celsius below zero (-47 Fahrenheit), almost 90 below (-130 F) with the wind chill. In the photo that accompanies this column, I'm standing next to the sign that marks the Geographic South Pole.
The Pole was also marked by a column, striped like a candy cane, with a mirrored ball mounted on top. Somewhere in my apartment is a hat, which I bought at Amundsen-Scott, bearing an embroidered likeness of that kitschy column. After our plane touched down, my journalistic colleagues and I watched in astonishment as member of the plane's crew peeled off his jump suit, stripped down to his underwear and dashed around the column; we learned later that this ritual is required for crew members arriving at the Pole for the first time.
The U.S. National Science Foundation now spends more than $300 million a year to support scientific programs in the Antarctic, about $100 million more than when I visited the continent in 1992. This money is well spent, because it is helping us come to grips with riddles about our past and future. Astrophysicists at the South Pole, which has some of the driest, clearest skies on Earth, have sent balloons aloft to measure the cosmic microwave background, the afterglow of the big bang. The IceCube Neutrino Observatory, just constructed at the Pole, could yield clues about the nature of mysterious "dark matter" thought to pervade the universe.
Biologists probing frozen Antarctic lakes have discovered new species of bacteria, which may provide clues to the origin of life on Earth more than four billion years ago. Geologists pondering ice cores and rocks have deduced that the Antarctic ice sheet, which to my eyes looked eternal, is anything but. During my visit almost 20 years ago, I learned that the sheet has fluctuated dramatically over the past few million years, and some scientists fear that global warming may shrink the ice enough to trigger a catastrophic surge in sea levels world-wide.
The period during which Scott, Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton and others trekked across the Antarctic has been called the "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration." We still live in such an age, even if scientists--and journalists--no longer risk their lives in quite the way that those intrepid explorers did.