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Last Journey To The Last Place On Earth

At the South Pole, Nothing Can Grow Except the Spirit

July 08, 2001|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | Times science writer Robert Lee Hotz's last article for the magazine, about his search for clues to his uncle's death during World War II, received the 2000 magazine writing award from the Society of Professional Journalists

I am standing at the South Pole. Starved for oxygen, giddy with altitude, I walked up from my quarters through a dark tunnel of snow into the light, into this boundless white.

Moving slowly toward me, two Danish skiers approach the end of a 745-mile trek from Antarctica's coast. Unaided, they crossed bleak ice for 55 days to embrace this moment.

With a flourish, Kristan Joos and Gregers Gjersoe together lay hands on the silver ball atop the ceremonial South Pole. They fall against each other for a long moment, too dehydrated to weep, too exultant and exhausted to stand alone.

*

Taking in the activity around them, the two Danes blink painfully, their eyes swollen to slits from weeks of glare.

Rising three stories into the sky is a roar of construction. A growing skeleton of girders and crossbeams for a new research station towers over them. Four cranes swing new steel into place. Men in hard hats and parkas cling to towers of scaffolding. Welders tack down joints in flurries of sparks. Backhoes busy themselves in alabaster drifts. Steam swirls from subterranean conduits, amid thickets of red and black safety flags.

"So," Gjersoe says in a voice hoarse from disuse, "you are building a new house?"

For 45 years, researchers have camped here. Now people are turning this homestead on the ice into a permanent colony, a community struggling at the limit of what the human body can endure and civilization can sustain.

As I watch the skiers, the century circles. This is how people first found this luminous spot at the world's end. They walked the ice like the maze on a cathedral floor, seeking the one true journey concealed in every labyrinth. It brought them here, where nothing can grow or survive except the spirit. In this crystalline light, humankind still finds its measure.

*

ATOP AN ICE SHEET TWO MILES THICK, CONSTRUCTION WORKERS at the world's most remote human outpost are rebuilding the U.S. South Pole Station, the unofficial scientific capital of Antarctica.

In the most ambitious engineering project undertaken here, the National Science Foundation, which oversees all U.S. operations in Antarctica, is dismantling its old polar complex and, in its place, erecting a larger, more energy-efficient, streamlined station.

For a generation, the blue geodesic dome of the Amundsen-Scott Station was the elegant symbol of America's commanding presence on the world's last open continent. Even as the South Pole grew in scientific importance, however, the aging outpost became an overcrowded, ramshackle warren. At the height of this past research season, 240 people were living at the South Pole in a station designed to support one-tenth that number.

Rising on steel columns above the ice, the new $150-million complex is the product of 40 engineering studies and a thousand computer simulations.

"We were quite concerned about what we would put there," says station architect Joseph Ferraro of the design firm Ferraro Choi and Associates in Honolulu. "The site is so unique. It is so pristine. It is almost a religious experience to go there. It is like designing something for the moon or Mars. It is the South Pole."

It is a building lot like no other, a desert of ice where the constant wind is cold enough to freeze-dry flesh. Each worker wears 35 pounds of cold-weather survival gear. Construction began three years ago and has four years to go.

The annual work plan is a spreadsheet formula matching six ski-equipped aircraft, eight air crews and thousands of construction items against the unpredictable variable of the polar weather. Temperatures can drop to minus 117 degrees, so far below the freezing point of hydraulic fluid that supply planes can only operate safely in the summer months between November and February. The airlift is operated by the 109th Wing of the New York Air National Guard, based in Scotia, N.Y.

In a circumpolar current, provisions and construction materials flow in a great circle from Port Hueneme, north of Los Angeles, to the South Pole and back again. Provisions and construction materials surge in September by sea and air from California. A flush of trash, table scraps, waste and construction debris returns in March by the ton, to be recycled, auctioned off or buried in local landfills.

In Antarctica, nothing stands still.

The snow imperceptibly shifts with each breath of wind. The ice sheet inches toward the sea. As the ice moves, surveyors must reposition the marker for the South Pole every year. The new station slides with the ice sheet closer to the Pole. In time they will merge, then leave each other behind.

It all happens at a glacial pace that mocks the rhythms of life, death and overtime.

Here people are building a home where no one truly belongs. They work three shifts a day, six days a week, in a labor of grace and renewal at the last place on Earth.

*

I AM IN A CHANGING ROOM. IT IS JANUARY IN NEW ZEALAND.

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