South Pole Diaries 2000/01



Tuesday 12th December 2000

From Paolo Calisse.....

Today's most noticeable event, after John Storey's flight away, was the arrival of a "bird".

Terra Nova BayYes, a bird. There are a lot of things specific to life on a Scientific Station placed on the Antarctic Plateau. Some of these are related to life away from a civilized place, some others to life in a cold place, others to being in the driest - yes, it is - desert of the planet, and so on.

I arranged a tentative and chaotic list of them, hoping to share with you, dear reader, my deep feelings.

1) You spend all your time within a region with a radius of 200 meter for months

To live on the Antarctic Plateau is something similar to life on a wedding cake. Except there is not a huge blade coming down soon or later to destroy everything and cut the landscape in slices.

You look around and your sight easily reaches the horizon, as the atmosphere is incredibly transparent. Apart from the station, the horizon is a perfect circle, about 4.7 Km away from your eyes - actually, a bit less for John - that could leave you thinking there is a cliff just over there, like the Ancients thought about the ocean. Everything, up to the horizon, is white, flat ice, with the sastrugi, continuously remodeled by the winds, shadowing the surface and the view.

Well, if you leave the station behind you, walking away from the station in any direction, you feel a bit uncomfortable, thinking that you are going to the actual "nihil arbor", or Null Harbor, as the Australians call the most desolate regions of their country.

I noticed that noone likes to feel like this way without good reason. There is just too much silence when away, a feeling of "lack" and "emptiness" that everybody dislikes. The consequence is that nobody will try to just walk out of the Station without reasons, and you will spend all your stay, that means 2-3 months, if there is not a reason to get out, like to get ice samples, within a 200 meter radius around the station.

2) There is no life except you

That's obvious, but this is something which can puzzle you. You leave a piece of cake on the table, but no ants will come to get a bit. No cockroaches to be cracked on a corner to annoy your woman, no noisy flies, no cats or dogs barking in the neighbor's yard. No yards at all. The Chef, as a joke, put a cat bed on the ground in the kitchen, to prompt novices like John and myself complain about it, as to bring animals or plants here is strictly forbidden by the Antarctic Treaty, in order to avoid potentially catastrophic consequences on the local fauna and flora (which flora, you ask? Just a bit of lichens and moulds on the coastal region, so far as I know). You see a shadow or a shine on a building's wall, but it can't be, as your brain immediately suggests, a rat or a cat.

There is nothing alive except you on the Antarctic Plateau. And also you do not always feel that you belong completely to the "life" category, sometimes.

This is why, as I wrote at the beginning, it has been a great experience to see a bird (a petrella, or a skua according to others) fly over the station, heading South. We are about 1000 Km away from the sea, there is a "dead circle" surrounding us, about this size.

What would a bird want to do here? Probably he is annotating exactly the same in his dairy, about a strange encounter with busy, red, unknown mammals during his yearly flight to visit grandma.

3) There is no money

This is the common opinion about scientific research in Australia, but I mean, in this case, that we do not use money at all in the station. Everything, at least in the Italian-French station of Dome C, is free. At the South Pole you have to pay for alcohol, but the Italian don't get drunk easily, or, perhaps, they put all their efforts towards reducing excesses on this of the three classic vices. Or, as somebody seems to think, they are just always drunk.

Think as you like, but alcohol is free here.

4) You see the same people every day

Every morning you get the lift to your office, and meet different people, incredibly interested in the screws that are holding in the lift button panels, or to some invisible detail on the overhead light, or just with the typical expression of "Well, I can't really come out of that incredibly complex and important problem I have been involved with for the last few weeks?".

Here, it can't happen. Not only because this is the only continent with no lifts (right, I haven't noticed it). The problem is that, apart from people boarding out of the Twin Otters quite rarely, you already know all the people you can meet here. Everybody is available for a chat, all the people will ask if you want to share an expresso when they are about to prepare it at the Saeco Express machine.

Simply, there are no unknown faces for two or three months or your life, and this, in my opinion, removes some uncomfortable stress provided by civilization.

5) there is a huge amount of light in summer

Yes I know that you know that during summer there is no night around the polar region. What I mean is that the common feeling is that the sun, ever low above the horizon, just can't provide enough light and you are embedded in a permanent dim light, in Antarctica.

Nothing is more false than this. Summer Antarctica is the realm of light. You could use welding glasses all the time and still naturally tighten your eyes. Outside is the triumph of the light, with an incredible UV excess that makes it impossible to withstand direct sunlight. Think that everything around is white for thousands miles, and that the atmosphere is outstandingly transparent, and you'll understand what I mean.

The problem is that a photographer may come to Antarctica and take pictures. Then they have to sell them, but nobody will pay a buck for apparently overexposed pictures. Moreover, a shadowed landscape looks hundreds times more mysterious and fascinating than a place looking like a beach at noon in August (in the Northern Hemisphere, I mean). Automatic cameras, too, "normalize" lighting on any pictures, making the rest of the game.

Not a real diary today, but I hope you will enjoy it.