Editor's note: Marine geophysicist Robin Bell is leading an expedition to Antarctica to explore a mysterious mountain range beneath the ice sheet. Following is the eighth of her updates on the effort as part of ScientificAmerican.com's In-Depth Report on the "Future of the Poles."
CAPE EVANS, ANTARCTICA—The first weekend we were here “on the ice,” we had an opportunity to travel up the coast about 18 miles. The annual sea ice is six feet thick, and we would be transported on top of this in a giant orange vehicle with wheels five feet tall, called a Delta.
The Delta is an effective mechanism for moving groups of people over the lumpy sea ice, but it rides like a shoe box strapped to the top of a pair of roller skates. I agreed to go because on the return trip we were to stop at the ice caves on the Erebus ice tongue. These caves form where one of the glaciers flowing off Mount Erebus flows straight out into the Ross Sea. This long skinny piece of floating ice is called. an ice tongue, because it resembles a glacier sticking its tongue out into the sea.
Ice caves develop where the ice goes afloat. The long piece of ice sticking out into the sea is moved up and down by the tides and buffeted by the currents. The point of greatest stress is where the ice goes afloat. When ice cracks, it sometimes forms caves. I had in my mind that entering these rooms of blue ice would be like strolling though the middle of an ice sheet. Much of our work is imaging deep inside the Antarctic ice sheet, but there are few opportunities to walk into them.
I was so entranced with the idea of walking into an ice sheet that I gave little thought to the first stop on the trip-- the Cape Evans hut that was the starting point of the one way British expedition to the South Pole led by Robert Falcon Scott. Having just emerged from the bumpy ride on the Delta, I was in no rush to go inside the hut, so I walked to the top of Windmill Hill to look back over the Ross Sea. Something white sticking out from the black volcanic rocks beneath an old weather station caught my eye. A seal bone, wedged between the rocks, seemed to be trying to crawl out.
Suddenly my mind was no longer wandering inside an ice sheet. When I stood up, I was staring straight into a wood framed shelter where the Scott Expedition’s meterologic measurements were recorded almost 100 years ago. The wind rattled the planks on the sides. I could have been a figure in the image I always show of scientists recording data during the first International Polar Year. So little had changed on that hillside. Some of the landscape in this region of Antarctica has been unchanged for millions of years. Geologist have uncovered fossilized leaves in lake mud that look as though they formed yesterday, even though they are 14 million years old.
Now slightly spooked, it was my turn to walk into the Cape Evans Hut. It was a gray afternoon, so I was expecting the hut to be dark and depressing. Rounding the corner my breath was taken away. The light streamed in through the windows that faced to the east. The table looked exactly as it does in the photos of the expedition's feasts. Nothing has changed since the hut was abandoned after the loss of life on the return from the Pole. Bottles of Heinz ketchup and mustard sit on the selves with only a little bit of peeling. The socks, shoes and hat on the bunk looks as if it were just left today.
Scott tried a number of innovative approaches to polar travel. Some like the mechanical sledge were ahead of their time; others were bit offbeat, such as the ponies. The pony snowshoes he invented were hanging on the walls. The hay for the ponies is still in the stables in the back. Penguin eggs and slabs of blubber line the entrance. The bicycle, brought by the geologist, hangs on the wall. This team both suffered in the environment and marveled at the beauty of Antarctica. One wonders if these remnants will someday become fossils for scientist to unearth. What will they think was the purpose of the ketchup-- or pf the pony horseshoes?
Photo courtesy of Robin Bell.