There he stood, wearing a red parka, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, on blindingly white snow against a clear blue sky, 9,000 feet above sea level, with the temperature hovering at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
“We are here today to celebrate one of the most outstanding achievements of mankind,” he bellowed out, as the sounds of flags flapping in the wind and snow crushing under a walker’s boots threatened to muffle his voice. His brief remarks over, with a couple of hundred workers, guests, and tourists watching, Stoltenberg unveiled a bust carved in ice, placed atop a waist-high column: “That’s the man!”
The ice sculpture bore the likeness of Stoltenberg’s legendary countryman Roald Amundsen. The low-key ceremony at the bottom of the world marked the centenary of Amundsen and four mates arriving at the South Pole on December 14, 1911, delivering historic glory to the young nation of Norway, which had become independent from Sweden a mere six years earlier.
Fueled by relentless determination and aided by dog-sleds, Amundsen’s team famously beat the ill-fated expedition led by the British naval officer Robert Falcon Scott by nearly five weeks, scoring what was undoubtedly a remarkable feat of terrestrial exploration.
Today the frozen wasteland where the fierce competition between Amundsen and Scott played out, with the pride of nations and the lives of heroes at stake, is a hotbed of activity for a different breed of explorers with more ethereal goals. Intrepid bands of scientists racing to unravel mysteries of life, our planet, and the universe are the ones laying claim to Antarctica now. In fact, the continent crawls with well over a thousand scientists and support personnel during the summer months.
Geologists dig up ice cores and track the movements of glaciers for clues about climate change. Atmospheric scientists fly helium-filled balloons to measure stratospheric ozone, to complement the observations of satellites staring down from space. Paleontologists forage for fossils of creatures that were wiped out by the deadliest of known extinctions 250 million years ago. Biologists scour the dry valleys of Antarctica in search of organisms that thrive in extreme habitats.
In early 2012, after many years of drilling, Russian researchers pierced through two miles of ice to reach Lake Vostok, a pristine subglacial reservoir shielded from sunlight and the wind for some 20 million years; they had hopes of encountering hitherto unknown life-forms.