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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Antarctica Update

Air Date: Week of January 10, 1997

Steve Curwood talks with the reporter of the Antarctica series, Terry FitzPatrick, about his experiences there and what got left out of the 4 part series.


CURWOOD: Terry FitzPatrick joins us now from our Northwest Bureau in Seattle where, you know, it's usually cozy and warm but you guys have been competing with the Antarctic recently for weather.

FITZ PATRICK: Yeah, yeah, the weather, the snowfall and the flooding that we've had here is worse than some things you'll see in Antarctica.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Now, since you first produced that report there's been some news about a giant iceberg breaking free from Antarctica and drifting north. Now, is this part of the meltdown that scientists are worried about?

FITZ PATRICK: Well, the answer to that's a bit complicated because it's both yes and no. This iceberg that's on the loose is truly immense. It's about as tall as the Empire State Building and about as big as the state of Rhode Island, if you can imagine a chunk of ice that big.


FITZ PATRICK: It is so large in fact that as it drifts into warmer water it'll take a decade to fully melt. Now, as well, this is the second mammoth iceberg to break loose in just the last 3 years. Now, scientists are worried that this could be evidence that the ice cap is crumbling along its edges. However, they caution you have to keep things in perspective. About a quarter million icebergs break off the Antarctic coastline every year. That's just natural. And so, even though we're beginning to see these new mega-bergs, they're still a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of ice in Antarctica altogether.

CURWOOD: Yeah, but Terry, as these big icebergs start to melt in the ocean, will they create that dreaded effect of rising global sea level?

FITZ PATRICK: Not really. These bergs are material that's broken loose from that ring of floating ice shelves that encircles nearly all of the Antarctic coastline. And because this ice was already floating on the surface of the ocean before it broke free to form icebergs, it'll have no change on sea level when it melts. It's like ice cubes in a glass of water. When they melt, the water level stays the same inside your glass. What scientists are worried about is that huge amount of ice that's on land in Antarctica, and that it will somehow slip into the ocean. Now that would be like adding more and more ice cubes into your glass of water, which would cause the water level to rise.

CURWOOD: But now, we're still talking about the ice shelves, and they're part of this process. I mean, if they break up into giant icebergs, won't the land-based ice that's trapped behind them right now slip into the sea, and isn't that the scenario that scientists were describing to you?

FITZ PATRICK: Yes, that's the scenario, but only if the major ice shelves begin to break up. These mega-bergs we've seen in the past few years, despite their size, have actually come from minor ice shelves, and they probably won't have an impact on the big picture. The shelf that's key to that scenario of a rapid collapse of the polar ice cap is on the Ross Sea. If you start hearing stories about mega-bergs breaking off the Ross Ice Shelf, you'll know there's really something to this theory of polar meltdown.

CURWOOD: Why is that? Why is the Ross Ice Shelf so important?

FITZ PATRICK: Because many of the natural drainages in Antarctica empty into the Ross Sea. Therefore, much of the ice that's on the continent could slide through those drainages into the ocean if the frozen ice shelf that covers the Ross Sea somehow breaks up or melts.

CURWOOD: Well, Terry, isn't that likely? Won't the same forces that are melting the minor ice shelves begin to affect the Ross Ice Shelf as well?

FITZ PATRICK: Well, there's concern that the Ross Ice Shelf could deteriorate because of the increases in temperature in either the atmosphere or in the ocean. But right now there's really no consensus on whether that particular ice shelf is endangered. There is a lot of research, though, focused on this question, so there is always the possibility that someone will make a breakthrough discovery that puts the stability of the Ross Shelf in a new light. But nothing certain right now.

CURWOOD: Okay. And while we have you on the line here, I've been just dying to ask you about a different sort of breakthrough discovery. And that's about that meteorite that they found in Antarctica that may contain signs of life on Mars.

FITZ PATRICK: Yeah. Yeah, one of the guys who searches for meteorites down in Antarctica, he's like one of the true old-style explorers. You just give him a snowmobile and a tent and he heads out in the middle of nowhere looking for rocks from outer space. It's kind of like hunter-gatherer science.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) But now, why, why does he look for meteorites in Antarctica of all places?

FITZ PATRICK: This is one of the few sciences where a desolate landscape is really a big plus. Thousands of meteorites fall to Earth every year, but it turns out the ones that land in Antarctica are really the easiest ones to find. Now, that's because meteorites just can't be recovered if they fall into the ocean, and it's almost impossible to spot the ones that land in a forest or in a farm field someplace. But out in Antarctica there are these vast regions of perfectly flat windswept ice. Someone described it to me as a giant white billiard table, and you can spot things on it from miles away. So if you find a rock out on the surface of this ice, and you're hundreds of miles from the nearest mountain or river, you can be certain that it fell there from space.

CURWOOD: And so there are just meteorites from Mars just sitting out there in the open for anybody to find, huh?

FITZ PATRICK: Yeah. Yeah, something like 8,000 meteorites in Antarctica in the past 20 years. I think only about a dozen of those are rocks that were actually somehow blasted free from the surface of Mars and traveled through space to land in Antarctica. But I should note that there is a debate raging now about whether the fossil-like material that was found in that meteorite truly is evidence of life on Mars. Some researchers think that geologic forces on Mars or even forces here on Earth could have produced the chemicals or the markings that were found on that meteorite.

CURWOOD: Terry, one thing we haven't heard you talk about in your series of reports is your visit to the South Pole.

FITZ PATRICK: Yeah, I did get to spend a couple days there, and it turned out to be really one of the high points of the trip. And I didn't realize before I arrived at the Pole just how emotional a moment it could be to stand literally at the bottom of the Earth, on a spot that explorers have lost their lives trying to reach and that only a handful -- just a relative handful of people have ever been to in all of human history.

CURWOOD: Is it really that different from the other parts of Antarctica?

FITZ PATRICK: Yeah, yeah. Physically, for one, it's much more challenging. The ice there is really thick, and so even though it's this big plateau, it's physiologically like being on top of a 12,000-foot mountain at 20 degrees below zero.


FITZ PATRICK: The entrance to the geodesic dome there that houses the research station is just a gentle slope in the snow, but it's nicknamed Heart Attack Hill because even walking a few steps can leave you breathless. You're lugging around so much survival gear. Each person carries about 35 pounds of cold weather gear that you get before you go down to Antarctica, just to stay alive. Beyond the physical challenge there, the South Pole is also the closest thing that I can think of to what it must be like to live in a space station. Humans just can't exist at the Pole without a cocoon of technology. Nothing is alive there naturally. There's no bacteria, no mosses, no insects, no plants of any sort. Nothing is alive. There's no smells. There's just a muffled silence with the snow that's actually eerie. And also, everything's just a little bit off from everyday life everyplace else. One example, which was pointed out to me fairly quickly, was the refrigerator for food. It's actually heated.

CURWOOD: A heater?

FITZ PATRICK: You think about this -- yeah, a heated refrigerator. If you think about this, if you want to keep something frozen you just have to put it outside on the ice, there's no animals or anything to eat it. But if you want to keep leftovers from freezing solid, you have to put them inside the refrigerator, which is heated to keep food from freezing. So you do that with vegetables and leftovers.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Now, why is there a station at the South Pole if nothing can live there?

FITZ PATRICK: Well, the place was originally built by the US to keep the Soviets from claiming squatter's rights. Much of the history of Antarctic exploration goes like this. It involves staking claims of sovereignty, and right now science is serving as a sort of way of keeping the peace. Since 1961, all claims of sovereignty in Antarctica have been put in abeyance by an international treaty that declares the entire continent as international territory to be used for peaceful, scientific pursuits. So the stations serve a bit of a geopolitical function. But scientifically there is also a lot to be learned at the Pole. It's a great place to do astronomy in particular. During the winter there are 6 months of total darkness, which is great if you're looking out into the heavens, of course. And the Pole is also the best place to study the stratospheric ozone hole, and that's why I was there, to check on ozone research.

CURWOOD: What's the latest news on that?

FITZ PATRICK: The results continue to be discouraging. Despite the worldwide ban on ozone-depleting chemicals and the predictions we're hearing that the atmosphere may be able to heal itself somehow, in a matter of decades, maybe 50 years -- despite that, the ozone hole this year is the worst it's ever been.

CURWOOD: Hmm. Now, next week is the final report in your series. You're going to be covering what?

FITZ PATRICK: More on what it's like to live and work in such an isolated and hostile climate. Scientists have a bit of a nerdy image, at least that's the image I had before I went. But you'd be surprised at how they let loose down on the ice.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay, I can't wait. Thanks for joining us. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick.

FITZ PATRICK: My pleasure.



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