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  • Antarctica is earth's coldest, most desolate, most isolated, windiest, driest, and southernmost

  • continent.

  • All but 2% of the land-mass is covered in ice thousands of feet thick.

  • Human eyes did not gaze upon the continent until 1820.

  • Human feet did not touch Antarctica until 1895.

  • It is not a place built for humans but still, thousands of people live there for up to years

  • on end, but how do they get there, how do they live there, and how does Antarctica work?

  • Antarctica has thousands of residents, significant infrastructure, and a large transport network

  • and yet it's one of the very few areas of land on earth not part of any country.

  • Seven countries have made Antarctic claimsChile, Argentina, the United Kingdom, Norway, Australia,

  • France, and New Zealandbut they are exactly that, claims.

  • The only real gauge of whether a country's territorial claim is real is if other countries

  • recognize it and, overwhelmingly, these claims are not recognized.

  • Australia's claim, for example, is only recognized by the United Kingdom, Norway,

  • France, and New Zealandcountries which clearly have a vested interest in the recognition

  • of Antarctic claims.

  • For the most part, these claims are ignored.

  • One doesn't go through customs upon arrival in the claims and certain of them overlap

  • with other claims.

  • The more universally recognized interpretation is that Antarctica is an international zone.

  • Just like outer space and the ocean, Antarctica is considered part of the common heritage

  • of mankind meaning that it should be preserved immaculately for all future generations, forever,

  • but that's easier said than done.

  • The seminal piece of legislation regulating the continent is the Antarctic Treaty.

  • Just as the cold war was heating up in the late 1950's, the United States, the Soviet

  • Union, and all other countries with an interest in Antarctica gathered together to decide

  • how the continent would be used.

  • They emerged with a future-facing treaty that solved most political disputes and issues

  • with the continent, except for one.

  • In its text, the treaty specifically says, “Nothing contained in the present treaty

  • shall be interpreted as a renunciation by any Contracting Party of previously asserted

  • rights of or claims to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica.”

  • Essentially, they didn't solve the sovereignty issue because it was too difficult to solve,

  • but they did ban military presence, mining, and nuclear explosions which has helped enormously

  • in keeping the last continent pristine.

  • So that brings us to today.

  • There are no large scale commercial operations in Antarctica thanks to that treaty.

  • The vast majority of individuals are there for research.

  • Of course, living and maintaining a base on the world's most desolate continent is hugely

  • expensive, but it's worth it for the research that can only be conducted in Antarctica.

  • Some individuals are there to study the continent itselfit's wildlife, its geology, and

  • its climatebut others use the area to study the entire world.

  • Ice cores can be used to track historic atmospheric carbon levels, underground ponds can be tapped

  • to find ancient microbial life unique to the area, and ice thickness can be monitored to

  • understand how sea levels will rise.

  • Scientists even use Antarctica to look at space.

  • As such as isolated place, Antarctica has very low background radiation and virtually

  • no light pollution which allows astronomers to use various techniques to peer into deep

  • space.

  • Scientists are performing groundbreaking research in Antarctica, but how do they even get there?

  • The difficulty in getting to Antarctica all stems from its weather.

  • The all-time record high at the south pole is 9.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • The coasts are significantly warmer where the average summer high is about 30 degrees

  • Fahrenheit but still, weather above freezing anywhere in Antarctica is an anomaly.

  • As mentioned, this means that there is virtually no bare groundnearly the entire continent

  • is covered in thick ice and snow.

  • Therefore, the only real choice when building an Antarctic airstrip is whether to make it

  • on ice or snow.

  • One thing to remember is that Antarctica is a desert.

  • The coastal regions, where most of the research bases are, do experience the most snow but

  • still then, that's a maximum of eight inches per year.

  • The south pole, meanwhile, only sees about 2-3 inches of snowfall per year.

  • It doesn't snow much, but when it does, it sticks around for centuries.

  • Therefore, a runway built on ice or snow is fairly permanent.

  • It doesn't get buried as one might in Canada or Russia.

  • McMurdo Station's Pegasus Field, for example, was used for more than 40 years before it

  • closed in 2016 to be replaced by the new Phoenix Airfield.

  • Phoenix Airfield is a compacted snow runway.

  • Machines are used to pack the snow until it's dense enough to support a fully loaded, half-million

  • pound C-17 wheeled cargo plane.

  • But compacted-snow runways have a disadvantagethey can melt.

  • During the warmest months of the summer, the snow can warm and soften enough that it is

  • no longer safe to land wheeled aircraft so that's why there's the other type of runwayblue

  • ice runways.

  • These ice runways are built on areas of glacial ice where's there's no snow accumulation.

  • Ice is much more resilient to warmer temperatures so these runways can be used year-round.

  • Runways on the sea-ice are also used typically at the beginning of the summer research season

  • in early November until December when the southern hemisphere's summer begins and

  • the ice starts to break up.

  • Once the coasts are ice-free, cargo ships can also bring supplies in to the major coastal

  • stations, and from there the internal logistics network gets to work.

  • Large planes are used to get as much cargo and as many passengers to the continent as

  • inexpensively as possible.

  • There are certain airports on other continents that serve as gateways to the Antarctic.

  • Christchurch, New Zealand Airport, for example, sends about 100 flights per year and 5,500

  • passengers to Antarctica and serves as the staging area for the New Zealand, American,

  • and Italian Antarctic logistics operations.

  • From there, it's only a five hour flight to McMurdo Stationthe largest Antarctic

  • research base.

  • While Christchurch is the major Antarctic gateway, flight do also leave from Cape Town,

  • South Africa and Punta Arenas, Chile.

  • These larger intercontinental planes typically land at the major blue-ice and compacted snow

  • runways near the coast, but then many of these passengers and much of this cargo needs to

  • get inland.

  • The inland research bases tend to be smaller and there are fewer of them, but they are

  • still significant.

  • The American AmundsenScott South Pole Station, for example, has a population of 150 people

  • in the summer and there are also smaller Italian, French, Russian, Japanese, and German stations

  • away from the coasts.

  • For the American Antarctic operations, McMurdo station operates as the logistics hub.

  • Nearly all cargo and passengers arrive there on larger cargo planes or cargo ships.

  • From there, passengers and some cargo are transferred most often onto Lockheed LC-130

  • planes.

  • These prop planes are specifically designed for Arctic and Antarctic operations.

  • They have retractable skis that allow them to land on soft, non-compacted snow and there

  • are only ten in existence.

  • Polar operations often mean taking off at high altitudes where the air in thin.

  • The AmundsenScott South Pole Station, where the plane often flies to, for example, is

  • surprisingly at 9,300 feet above sea-level.

  • That's even higher than the highest elevation commercial airport in the US.

  • When the air is thin wings generate less lift so the speed needed to takeoff is higher and

  • so, in order to be able to takeoff at higher elevations, this LC-130 plane has rockets

  • to help speed it up at take-off.

  • Thanks to its skis, this plane can operate to those places like the South Pole station

  • that don't have compacted snow or blue ice runways.

  • While passengers and some cargo like fresh food take the quick two hour flight from McMurdo

  • Station to the South Pole, there is another way.

  • Flights are hugely expensive and the United States Antarctic Program works on a limited

  • budget so there's an effort being made to reduce shipping costs.

  • Therefore, they built a road.

  • Just like the runways this road is made from compacted snow and stretches 995 miles from

  • McMurdo Station to the South Pole.

  • Using this South Pole Traverse, the United States Antarctic Program runs convoys of tractors

  • pulling sleds of cargo across the ice and snow.

  • This trip takes about 40 days one-way, but it still is significantly cheaper than flights

  • and can handle cargo too large to fit in an LC-130 cargo plane.

  • Of course, Antarctica is still Antarcticaone of the harshest climates in the world.

  • Whenever a plane leaves from New Zealand or South Africa or Chile to Antarctica, it's

  • required to take enough fuel to fly all the way to its destination, attempt landing, then

  • fly back to its origin if landing is not possible.

  • Planes fail, equipment breaks, and weather changes, so Antarctica just isn't a place

  • conducive to reliability.

  • For this reason, planes are prohibited from landing or taking off in the dark and of course,

  • in the winter in Antarctica, it's dark for 24 hours a day.

  • Therefore, for seven months out of the year, there are no planes, no boats, no link at

  • all between Antarctica and the rest of the world.

  • The lack of transport links during the winter have as much to do with the cold as the dark.

  • At McMurdo station where most ships dock on the coast, the winter temperature rarely rises

  • above zero degrees Fahrenheit meaning the coast is blocked with sea-ice and meanwhile

  • at the South Pole station, the average July high temperature is -67 degrees Fahrenheit

  • meaning that if any plane landed there, its fuel would freeze within minutes.

  • Of course, the large bases, like McMurdo Station which balloons to well over 1,000 residents

  • in the summer, need maintenance over the winter and some science experiments need to be conducted

  • year round so people have to stay in Antarctica, alone, in the dark, for the entire winter

  • with no link to the outside world.

  • In recent years there have been a small number of exceptions to this lack of flights in winter,

  • mostly due to medical evacuation flights, but for the most part, once the last plane

  • leaves in February, everyone still in Antarctica is stuck there until the following November.

  • All food, fuel, and supplies are stocked there well before and a small number of people—45

  • in the case of the south pole stationstick around to keep the bases running.

  • In a sense, these people who stay the winter in Antarctica are even more isolated than

  • the astronauts on the International Space Station.

  • There are few places humans can go where they are seven months away from medical care, from

  • food, from civilization.

  • Those living and working on the last continent endure some of the harshest conditions on

  • this earth, but for the pursuit of science, all this hardship, all this work, and all

  • this cost is worth it.

  • If you want to live and work in Antarctica, your best shot to get there is if you're

  • a scientist.

  • In particular, a lot of those working there are astronomers and the best place to get

  • a basic understanding of astronomy is brilliant.org.

  • Brilliant's interactive quizzes teach you by developing your intuition, not by rote

  • memorization.

  • With their straightforward explanations and simple graphics, you really learn a lot quickly.

  • I usually have a blast while taking a Brilliant coursesthey're designed to be interestingand

  • in this astronomy course you can learn things like how to measure the size of the universe,

  • if life on other planets is possible, and how everything on earth is actually made of

  • old stars.

  • By going to Brilliant.org/Wendover, you can get started for free and then, by being one

  • of the first 97 people to upgrade to the Premium Subscription, you will get 20% off.

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The Logistics of Living in Antarctica

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    joey joey posted on 2021/06/10
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