Posted by: johnbarell | April 17, 2011

Vista from Vostok

How does standing atop two miles of polar ice affect your life thereafter?  How does reaching your long-cherished dream of exploring Antarctica condition how you see the world?

This is a question I’ve been wondering about for the past few years and am now endeavoring to find some answers.
The polar plateau lay in East Antarctica, that portion of the southern continent that seems to be maintaining its frigid temperatures annually and not warming as is West Antarctica, where the Palmer Peninsula lies.
My vantage point was Vostok (meaning “East” in Russian), then a Soviet base at a height of some tw

o miles above terra firma, about 3600 meters above the surface below.
My mission was to seek the high ground after spending seemingly endless hours hammering out a ship channel in McMurdo Sound toward our base near Hut Point, Scott’s base in 1901-1904.  My home base at the time was USS Glacier (AGB-4), “the free world’s most powerful icebreaker.”  (The Soviets had Lenin, larger and atomic-powered if I recall correctly).  I served on Glacier as Operations Officer with many splendid shipmates, all of whom worked to create this channel to re-supply McMurdo Station.

At Vostok I had the pleasure of speaking in Russian (mine very broken but serviceable) to a glaciologist who told me about their drilling through the ice to retrieve ice cores.
”Why do this?”  I asked.
Because they wanted to get an idea of atmospheric conditions many, many years ago. Tiny, tiny bubbles would reveal the air quality and today, in 2011, they date earth’s atmosphere back some 800,000 years.
Imagine how different was the air back then without all of the CO2 and other heat trapping, green house gases.  These cores as well as those from Greenland can pinpoint eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD and the dramatic increase in CO2 since our industrial revolution.

You can imagine the thrill of learning about these endeavors and of standing so high atop the earth below gazing out at the polar plateau edged deeply as it was with very hard, crusted ridges called, again in Russian, “sastrugi,” sharp-edged waves created by wind.
Ever since that date many years ago, I have realized that this was a high point of my life, literally and figuratively.
It was the culmination of my boyhood dream of sailing to Antarctica. After meeting my hero, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, in his home in Boston at age fourteen, I had wanted to visit the continent where he led four expeditions and pioneered its exploration from the air starting in 1928.  Glacier, his last flag ship before he died in 1957, was the lead icebreaker in Operation Deepfreeze, our Navy’s mission to Antarctica.
And  now  I realize that being at the center of this seemingly limitless plateau was also a commencement. The vista from Vostak was one of unlimited possibilities.
And it is these possibilities that I wish to explore in this new journey. In the coming weeks and months I will share many themes that grew out of this amazing adventure: setting life-destinations, not merely objectives; the primacy of imagination to wonder, inquire and speculate; making plans and working them out as my father always urged; being careful to avoid the crevasses in life, becoming a skeptical citizen and being aware of our aesthetic and spiritual goals.

There have been many, amazing discoveries along the way. For example:It wasn’t until years later, in the mid-1990s, that Russian and British scientists discovered a lake the size of Ontario two miles beneath where I stood at Vostok, a lake never before seen nor touched by human beings, perhaps full of life, extremophiles like the creatures we find at the mid-Atlantic ridge  (the site of most of earth’s volcanism) down so deep in the Atlantic ocean where the sun does not shine.  (Life does not require sun light.)

In Antarctica and in life we are forever in awe

of these mysteries and constantly search for answers and more questions.

So, here we go, onto another plateau of limitless possibilities.


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