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Fragments of South Pole history crumble

As temperatures warm, the huts of Antarctic explorers are threatened by mold and fungi.

July 22, 2007|William Mullen | Chicago Tribune

CAPE EVANS, ANTARCTICA — The dark, silent interiors of the three wooden huts are still pungent from the smoke of seal-blubber fires that once warmed men now long dead. Their dishes, pots, pans and scientific paraphernalia are scattered across tables and counters, and tins and boxes of their food still sit on shelves.

Strung out along 23 miles of Ross Island's bleak coastline, the abandoned huts stood for decades as untouched relics of Antarctica's heroic age of exploration. Next to the largest, the one at Cape Evans, lie the skeletal remains of a dog left behind when famous polar explorer Ernest Shackleton shut and locked the hut's doors in 1917.

"They had only half an hour to pack and leave," Al Fastier explained as the stocky New Zealander opened the hut to visitors one day last December. "They were in a hurry and shot him."

For 90 years the dog's carcass remained where it fell, a collar and chain still around its neck. For most of that time, much of the flesh and fur remained intact, preserved by Antarctica's extreme cold. And though gale-force winds have beaten ice, snow and sea salt into the sides of the hut, the foodstuffs inside remained intact.

Now it appears a changing climate is threatening the history housed in these huts at the far end of the world, simple structures that many place among the greatest monuments to courage and the human longing for discovery.

With the weather warming on Ross Island, mold and fungi are blooming in all three of the explorers' huts. They are rotting the timber of the huts and thousands of artifacts inside. The dog is now mostly reduced to a skeleton.

In addition, for the last six years Cape Evans has gotten tons of snow, far more than in the past. Last November, in the Antarctic spring, conservators discovered the roof of that hut was sagging under 84 tons of snow and ice, a third more than they'd ever seen accumulate before. Some support beams had cracked under the weight.

At risk are relics from four of the most famous expeditions in the annals of human exploration, two led by Englishman Robert Falcon Scott and two by his ex-lieutenant and rival, Shackleton. All four expeditions ended in failure, but their incredible stories of life-and-death struggles in the world's harshest place still mesmerize millions, fueling a steady stream of new books and films.

When Scott famously froze to death 95 years ago while trying to wait out a blizzard in a tent pitched on the ice, he was desperately trying to return to the snug comfort of his personal cubbyhole in the Cape Evans hut, where his bedding, blankets, clothes, shoes and boots sit undisturbed after all these years.

"I defy you not to be interested when you open the door and step into one of those huts," said Nigel Watson, executive director of the Antarctic Heritage Trust in Christchurch, New Zealand, a nonprofit group that is trying to protect the huts and the thousands of objects inside.

"It can be a very emotional experience," Watson said. "I've seen people break down inside the buildings."

The trust (, where Fastier works as a project manager, raised $5 million to conserve a hut Shackleton built at Cape Royds in 1908. Now, it's now trying to raise $6 million for the Cape Evans hut.

There has been some talk of dismantling and moving the huts to London or New York, where they and the artifacts could be protected from the elements and exhibited for millions to see. As it is, they are visited only by a few hundred people a year, mostly scientists working in nearby research stations and hardy, wealthy tourists.

For now, however, the inclination is to restore and conserve them in place, but to increase access by installing remotely controlled live video cameras so they can be viewed at any time on the Web. Meanwhile, the effort to stabilize and stop the deterioration of the huts has caused scientists to stumble on valuable new research avenues, including the discovery of microorganisms that thrive in extreme cold.

The researchers making those findings are the scientific descendants of teams led by the early Antarctic pioneers, men of tremendous ambition and bravery.

In the early 1900s, Antarctica was an unknown entity. The world knew it was there, but nobody knew if it was a continent or a few islands and a lot of ice. They didn't know whether the South Pole was like the North Pole, an ice-covered area of open ocean, or if it was on land.

Early Antarctic explorers were cut off for years.

"When they embarked on these expeditions, Christchurch was their Cape Canaveral," Watson said. "Once they left here, there was no safety net or mission control to back them up. It was just a matter of, 'Right, we're off, and we'll see you in three or four years.' "

The expeditions were packed with young biologists, meteorologists, geologists and physicists recruited by Scott and Shackleton to do research while the leaders pursued the real prize: being the first men to reach the South Pole.

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