Of the multitude of experiences in nature throughout my entire life, my year living in Antarctica was the most impactful on many levels and by far the most extreme.
The highest, driest, coldest, most remote continent on the planet offered me an unparalleled experience of the raw power and pure pristine beauty of nature. There is no doubt that nature is boss there.
On any given day the cold Antarctic wind can obliterate a human life or demolish what we use to survive. A human is so small in the vast, brutal magnificent expanse of the Antarctic landscape. Nowhere have I felt the particular spacious, vibrant void resulting from being thousands of miles away from the electromagnetic chaos, pollution and energy of civilization.
After graduating college, a friend and I embarked with other support staff to the coastal McMurdo station, which is nestled between the foot of an active volcano, Mt. Erabus, and the Antarctic sea. We arrived via military plane that landed on 40-foot long skis at the beginning of the summer season. The peak summer season runs from October-February during which time the station is teeming with people.
McMurdo is the largest station on Antarctica and is used as a transfer station for getting supplies and people to many other inland stations. Also scientists carry out important studies on the atmosphere using ice core analysis and balloons, as well as studies of sea life; while support personnel were there to keep the station fed, running and maintained. In our free time when not working long, grueling hours, we explored the environment around us on foot, cross country skis, snowmobile, or boat.
We were situated a little north of the exact South Pole. Therefore the circle the sun made around us was at enough of a tilt so that we had four months of 24 hours-a-day lightness; four months with no sun whatsoever and two months on either side of transition time where there were both days and nights even if that meant the sun was up or down for only one hour. The average mean temperature for the whole year is 0 Degrees F. During the summer the temperatures can sometimes rise up to just above freezing while in winter it can drop to -60 degrees. With the wind-chill factor, sometimes it drops to -100 degrees.
Midnight on New Year 2000 found us on top of a small mountain hollering up at the sun that was as bright and high in the blue sky as if it were noon. The jagged Antarctic mountain range across the bay looked two miles away in the crystal clear, thin air when really it was one hundred miles. The great Antarctic ice shelf extended for hundreds of miles, the volcano creating a sculpted steamy cloud just behind us. What a glorious way to bring in the new millennium!
The transition time of “spring” and “autumn” brought great winds, storms and exquisite sunrises and sunsets that lingered on for hours. At some points “dawn” would last all day as the sun skimmed above the horizon lighting up the clouds and the expanses of snow with color.
A particularly big storm called a Hurby (hurricane and blizzard mixed) could come on very suddenly at times. I remember one clear still day when suddenly there boomed a startling explosive sound which turned out to be a wall of 100 mile per hour wind and snow hitting the building and essentially bringing the wind from five miles per hour to 100 miles per hour in a couple of seconds.
In late summer, the sea ice melted and cracked and each night would reform again into great lily pad-like pancakes in a complex geometric matrix. Large icebergs shimmered blue, sea lions lounged like enormous slugs, skua birds swooped for fish, killer whales splashed elegantly around the broken sea ice, little penguins waddled here and there and larger emperor penguins regally gazed around.
In February before winter set in, the last plane left to New Zealand taking many of the summer staff away. There would be no planes that would come for eight months because jet fuel freezes at -50 degrees and, with the wind chill factor, these temperatures occur frequently in winter. This meant no fresh food, no way to leave, no mail, no escape.
The “Final Sunset” occurred in April leaving us with mostly long nights filled with stars, the moon circling around above us and, for part of the season, some hours of twilight. We celebrated this momentous moment with a “Polar plunge” where we drilled the six feet thick sea ice to create a hole in which to plunge into the frigid ocean water. It was -30 degrees out, so upon exiting the water a layer of ice started forming immediately on my skin!
On midwinter solstice I was marveling that I was cross-country skiing under the full moon, at noon in June! The snow under me was glistened like liquid gold.
There were frequent occurrences of Southern Lights (aurora australis) when the sky would be aflame with flashes of bright green or white light. Particularly memorable was when a full moon eclipse occurred darkening the moon for hours. The backdrop of the sky was now allowed to brighten which had been masked by the brightness of the full moon. T
he entire sky was ablaze with Southern Lights, swirling from the zenith of the sky, long arms reaching for the horizon plucking the strings of the Antarctic mountains. Light danced and dazzled me to tears late into that night. My heart and soul were shaken by the beauty and wonder.
By Nalini Snell, Alumni of Living Wisdom School