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 twelfth of her updates on the effort as part of ScientificAmerican.com's In-Depth Report on the "Future of the Poles."


McMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA--The British group had been acclimatizing at South Pole for three full days when it seemed we were ready to collect our first real line of data at the southern end of the survey area. The planned survey flight goes from the South Pole Station to the southern AGAP camp (AGAP-S), a three -hour flight north toward the camp, a refuel at the camp and a three- hour return flight.

We have been reviewing these flight lines for over eight months with detailed discussions on both side of the Atlantic and the Pacific.  The bright yellow lines on the maps extend from the South Pole over 300 miles toward the camp.  About 12 hours before the flight, I received a frantic call on the Iridium satellite phone from my Italian colleague, Fausto Ferricioli, who works for the British Antarctic Survey.  “We cannot fly through the clear air sector!” he declared. His voice was broken up by the poor transmission, but he was clearly stressed.  I  had encountered clean air sectors before in Greenland, but those were the size of a small town and not an issue for an aircraft.  I did not understand the problem until I pulled up a map: The the South Pole clean air sector is bigger than the state of New Jersey.  Our survey lines sit  right on top of the internationally agreed upon Clean Air sector. 

Since Antarctica is not a sovereign nation, the environment of Antarctica is protected by the Antarctic Treaty, the first environmental treaty.  Some areas are set aside to preserve historic sites, like the Cape Evans Hut and the Pole of Inaccessibility, where a Statue of Lenin is mounted. Other areas are preserved to protect critical environments for future science, areas of the Dry Valley where individual rocks have been in place for millions of years.  It had not crossed my mind that most of the region between South Pole and our camp would be a specially managed areas.   Around the South Pole station, there is a dark sector for astronomical experiments, a quiet sector when the seismometers reside to measure earthquakes, a downwind sector where balloons are launched and the Clean Air sector.

The only option is to fly around the edge of the wedge.  When the pilot calls (after completing the flight lines that skirted the outside of the Clean Sector), he sounds tired.  The additional mileage has turned  changed a seven-hour mission into a 10-hour one. This would be a long day anywhere, but a really long day at this altitude.  The British are working through the Home Office to seek permission to fly through.  Funny, I never thought we would have diplomats involved in our survey design.  We will see which happens first – permission or completion of the modified lines.

Dispatches from the Bottom of the Earth: An Antarctic Expedition in Search of Lost Mountains Encased in Ice

Photo courtesy of Robin Bell.