Ben Pope first remembers hearing about the BSA Antarctic Scientific Program when he was a sophomore in high school. “I remember thinking it seemed pretty cool, but also pretty unreal and out of my league,” Ben says.
Over the next few months, he began to warm up to the idea that he was as qualified as anybody to spend four months assisting scientists in a region closer to the South Pole than most of us will ever get. “Part of me thought I might have a shot,” he says. A couple of essays, a handful of letters of certification and a slew of merit badges later and Ben, now an Eagle Scout, had more than just a shot: He was the next Antarctic Scout.
He was selected from more than 100 applicants to help the researchers in daily activities during the Antarctic summer — October 2005 through January 2006.
His duties changed daily, from organizing lab samples to loading up helicopters to retrieving samples from the field. The scientists relied heavily on him and his Scout skills for chores such as cooking or hanging shelves with lashings, to general outdoor survival skills.
“Not only did I get to be a part of cutting-edge science, I got to be a part of many, many different science projects,” Ben says. In the process, he learned how to live on the world’s coldest continent.
A CITY ON ICE
During much of his time on Antarctica, Ben was stationed at McMurdo Station, built on the southernmost solid ground that you can still get to by ship. McMurdo is basically a small town with a harbor and landing strip and more than 80 buildings that include dorms, a fire station, a power plant and a water distillation plant.
There are also stores and clubs, and there’s full access to the rest of the world via telephone and the Internet. More than 1,000 people live there during the Antarctic summer.
And, of course, there are scientists — hundreds of them, working on projects ranging from the diving habits of Emperor penguins to analyzing the content of the continent’s ice-covered lakes.
But living at the South Pole can be a challenge. Every person who arrives at McMurdo goes through extensive training.
“Sea ice” training teaches residents how to spot potential hazards in the ice such as cracks, rollers (unstable sections that look like frozen waves) and pressure ridges (stressed sections caused by the movement of glaciers). Snowcraft training (Ben calls it “Happy Camper School”) covers outdoor survival skills such as setting up tents, building a snow wall and constructing snow shelters. Early in his stay, Ben used his Scout skills to build a quinzee, which he slept in comfortably despite a wind chill of 67 degrees below zero. (And remember, this was during the Antarctic summer.)
NEW DAY, NEW TASK
For the Antarctic Scout, there is no such thing as a typical day. Ben’s main job was to work as a research assistant, helping scientists both in the lab and out in the field.
He attended lectures, worked with penguins and seals and took trips to field camps where researchers study animals in their natural habitat.
“The best part of my time was when I was learning new things, which happened pretty much all the time,” Ben says. “I don’t think I had any negative experiences while I was there.” The scientists in Antarctica are working on a huge variety of projects.
Project T-396, for example, is part of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CNTBT). In a spot called Windless Bight, there’s an infrasound sensor that features an array of microphones that can detect sounds much lower than any human can hear. The device is one of several hundred similar devices dispersed across the globe that are constantly listening for any nuclear explosion. More than 170 countries have signed the CNTBT, which prohibits them from testing nuclear weapons anywhere in the world for civil or military purposes.
Project B-197 has a simpler goal — in it, researchers study the diving habits of Emperor penguins. Much of this research is done at Penguin Ranch, about eight miles away from McMurdo in an isolated area where scientists watch the same penguins dive under the ice and return up to the same hole each time.
Project B-009 is one of the oldest continuous projects at McMurdo. It involves taking population censuses of a specific kind of seal to ensure the species’ long-term health.
While working on these and other projects, Ben’s Scout sensibilities always came in handy. “I knew that Scout training would be really beneficial during my first training session,” he says. “I already knew all about proper trip planning and preparation, operating a Whisperlite [stove], setting up mountain tents and making quinzees, just to name a few.”
ANTARCTICA IS THE ONLY continent on the earth without any native human populations. So why do we need to be there at all?
Two reasons: research and protection.
Antarctica contains an incredibly unique ecosystem. Most of the plants and organisms that live on Antarctica are pushed to the limits of survival each and every day. Yet they live on.
Unfortunately, concerns persist that it might not always be all peace and quiet. Worries about what some people might try to use Antarctica for forced the creation of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959.
The document established the continent as a scientific preserve and banned any military activity. So far, there have been no violations of the treaty. The U.S. government feels the need to maintain its presence in Antarctica…just in case.
Antarctic Fast Facts:
• At about 5.4 million square miles, about one-and-a-half times bigger than the United States, Antarctica is the third-smallest continent. Ninety-eight percent of it is covered in ice.
• On average, Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest continent. It also has the highest average elevation.
• What is commonly known as the “windchill factor” was first quantified by Paul Siple, the first Antarctic Scout.
• Although Antarctica was first spotted in the early 1800’s, it was mostly ignored for nearly a century because the technology did not yet exist to explore such a harsh environment in such a remote location.
• Roald Amundsen led the first successful expedition to the South Pole in 1911.
• There is an active volcano in Antarctica on Ross Island called Mount Erebus. It started erupting in 1972 and has been continuously active ever since.
• There are more than 70 lakes trapped underneath the surface of Antarctica’s ice sheet. Most have been sealed off from the surrounding area for millions of years, yet some are believed to contain microscopic life.
• On Jan. 7, 1978, Emilio Marcos de Palma became the first person born on Antarctica.
Animals of Antarctica:
PENGUINS: Antarctica is home to Emperor, Rockhopper,
King, Chinstrap, Macaroni, Gentoo and Adélie penguins.
SEALS: The Antarctic Fur, Weddell, Crabeater, Leopard,
Ross and Southern Elephant seals all spend at least some of
their life on Antarctica.
WHALES: Nine different kinds of whales spend time in the
waters around Antarctica — Blue, Bottlenose, Fin, Humpback,
Killer, Minke, Sei, Sperm and Southern.
FISH: The Antarctic Cod and Ice Fish have material in their
blood that lowers its freezing point to a level below that of
the Antarctic waters. The Patagonia Toothfish has teeth that
look like a dog’s.
KRILL: These invertebrates live in the water under the ice
and look like shrimp. They sometimes appear to glow, thanks
to some body parts that reflect light and other parts that
serve as a lens and capture it.
MOSS AND ALGAE: Plants would grow great in
Antarctica if it weren’t for the freezing temperatures, lack of
sunlight and moisture, and poor soil. But moss and algae do
just fine with what they’ve got.
MIDGE: This tiny insect (the biggest midge is half an inch
long) is Antarctica’s largest native land-only animal.