Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Antarctic New Year

This afternoon, when I got to New York's JFK airport, I shared a van into Manhattan with other recent arrivals. We chatted to pass the time. "Where are you coming from?" we asked each other. Indianapolis. Brussels. Miami.

I said, "Antarctica."

"How did you get there?" someone asked me.

"I flew to Miami," I explained. Then I flew to Buenos Aires, where I stayed overnight. Then I flew to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. Then I boarded the MS Fram and spent two days crossing the Drake Passage. Then, I was in Antarctica.

"And how long did you stay there?" my van mates wanted to know. Five days, I told them.

"All that travel for FIVE days?!!!"

"Yes," I said. The journey was long, strenuous, risky, costly and sometimes uncomfortable — and I wish I could do it again.

Antarctica is like no place else on Earth. Surrounded by Manhattan's skyscrapers and traffic, I could hardly believe that this city and that frozen continent are on the same planet.

Though more tourists are going there than ever before, the numbers are still limited. Around 35,000 people visited Antarctica this year; several thousand of those were on large cruise ships that couldn't land. The population of our planet is now around 6.7 billion. Few people have ever seen Antarctica, or ever will. Even fewer have ever landed there as I did.

The intricacy of the life chain on this continent largely unmarred by civilization provokes awe and wonder as does its history. Antarctica was once part of a larger continent called Gondwana that included what we now know as Australia, New Zealand, Africa, South America, Madagascar and the Indian sub-continent. Fossils have been found in Antarctica that are identical to those found in South Africa and elsewhere in Gondwana, which began to break up around 167 million years ago.

Between 251 and 200 million years ago, Antarctica was warm and covered with forests where dinosaurs lived. Later, came a variety of reptiles and amphibians. Around 34 million years ago, the continent that we think of as locked in ice and snow began to get colder.

What the visitor sees there now is one of the harshest environments on Earth, beset by winds of enormous force that suddenly surge from the glaciers. Within an hour (or less) the winds can drive ice into previously tranquil bays and lock even a large ship helplessly in place until the winds change again or the ice melts.

The creatures that manage to live in this environment include millions of penguins and other birds who may spend years of their lives at sea without ever touching land. Seals bask on the ice floes. During the austral summer, migrating whales bring their young to feast in Antarctic waters, dense with tiny krill.

Ours is the briefest of moments in the Earth's life, which is ever-changing and intricately balanced beyond our imagination or comprehension. Antarctica gives us a glimpse of this majestic process.

As one man said to me on the ship, "This trip has been too short and too long." I asked him why. He said, "I would have liked to see more but what I've seen, I'll be thinking about for many years."