A Travellerspoint blog

4. Antarctica; On Ice

How much do you know about the seventh continent?

rain 50 °F
View Five Million Penguins and Me on paulej4's travel map.

All but 2% of Antarctica is covered by a 1.2 to 3-mile-thick sheet of ice. It is the coldest, driest and windiest place on this earth. The last source I read reported that the lowest temperature ever measured here was -135.8 degrees. Ninety percent of the planet’s freshwater ice (and seventy percent of the total amount of fresh water) is here. If the ice sheet melted, scientists say it would raise global sea level about 16 feet. That would swamp our condo in Florida.

The ice shelf, that amount of ice that extends beyond the landmass beneath, is about the size of France. In March of 2000 a chunk of it broke off. That chunk was roughly the mass of the state of Connecticut—170 miles long and 25 miles wide. Satellite measurements over the past 23 years show that the thickness of this shelf—which like a safety band holds the land-based ice in place, is rapidly decreasing. Many scientists say that may mean that Antarctica itself may soon begin to shrink at a dangerous pace.

There are two active volcanos here; one is far beneath the ice. I will, I understand, be near both of them and, given the events on White Island, New Zealand, this week, that will, I hope, cause us to give them a wide berth. I certainly won’t be taking a Zodiac to hike the caldera, of that you can be certain.

The Gamburtsev Mountain range here is 750 miles long with the highest peaks reaching to around 9,000 feet. Beneath the ice is the freshwater Lake Vostok…about the size of Lake Ontario. There are about 200 such bodies of unfrozen water below the ice. I have a hard time understanding exactly how an under-ice liquid lake can exist until I ponder the ice that freezes over the Great Lakes. Perhaps the principle is the same.

Until 1820, nobody knew Antarctica was even here. Russian explorers Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev aboard their ships, Vostok and Mirny, are said to be the first humans to lay eyes on it. They didn’t make landfall (or even icefall); that honor went to a team of Norwegians 75 years later in 1895. In January of 1979, Emile Marco Palma became the first baby born on the continent; only ten more babies have been born here since. Emile turns 41 next month.

Antarctica is a continent; not a country; no country legitimately lays claim to any part of it. Legally, it is a de facto “condominium”* governed by parties to the Antarctic Treaty System (50 nations); no military or mining activity can be conducted here, nor can any nuclear waste be stored here. Even so, various historical claims currently exist on Antarctica by France, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Germany, Argentina and Chile. Nothing is ever simple.

*A condominium is defined as (1) the place where I live and (2) as a political territory over which multiple powers formally agree to share equal dominium and to exercise their rights jointly without dividing it into national zones. Besides Antarctica, the other geographic condominiums are Moselle (between Luxembourg and Germany), Pheasant Island (between France and Spain), Brčko (between Bosnia and Herzegovina) and The International Space Station. I’ve been to none of those.

No other place on earth borders four of the earth’s five oceans: Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans (the Arctic Ocean is the fifth).

And, of course, it is, along with the Arctic, the land of the midnight sun. While I am here, the sun only briefly sets--at around midnight--to quickly rise again around 2:20 am. While the sun is technically “set” for those two hours or so, it remains twilight. Solar noon—the time the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, about 49 degrees—occurs around 1:15pm. Since 90 degrees would place the sun directly overhead, imagine that 49 degrees is just over halfway “up” the sky at mid-day. On the same date in Kansas City, at noon, the sun is at 28 degrees, just over a quarter of the way “up” the sky. Thought of another way, I’m in summer here while Kansas Citians are in mid-winter there. To confuse things even more, the average December temperature here ranges from a low of 31 degrees to an average high of 38 degrees. Back home, the December averages are 26 low and 44 high; both a bit colder and a bit warmer with an average day length that is much shorter: approximately 7:30am-5:00pm vs 2:20am-Midnight; very different.

It is difficult to acclimate to such long hours of daylight. The North American body is accustomed to the sun setting and night falling. In the Arctic in our summer and in the Antarctic in our winter, that just doesn’t happen. So, when it is time for bed, the cue that we all follow—darkness—is missing. That makes bedtime seem arbitrary and uncertain. Since there is no TV to watch, the evening news or the late-night talk shows—other cues—are also absent. It is disorienting more than disconcerting.


There is no worry about sunlight as I arise on this Friday the Thirteenth actual first day of my journey. I pull back the Dreams Hotel (First Hotel Pic) curtains to see rain. We have the day here in Punta Arenas at our disposal with only a couple of obligations. We show up at the Cabo de Hornos Hotel (Second Hotel Pic) around 1:00 to be outfitted with our boots; I take size elevens. These insulated rubber calf-high boots are a necessity for embarking and disembarking Zodiacs and hiking. Then, there is a mandatory safety briefing at 5:00, also at the Cabo de Hornos. And, last, there is a Group Welcome Dinner tonight at the Jose Nogueira Hotel (Third Hotel Pic).

I feel a bit like a travel agent being sure to sample all the hotels here. Why the boots, the briefing and the dinner are at hotels other than the one in which we are housed is a mystery.

As the weather cleared, I decide to walk the city to get my steps in and get my bearings. I see both preparations for civil unrest and the result of it. There is political graffiti everywhere. The view from the hill, directional signs and the monument to the Goleta Ancud cry out to have their picture taken. The Goleta Ancud memorial is dedicated to the 1843 voyage for the purpose of claiming sovereignty over the Strait of Magellan for Chile. They brought a lot of supplies which accounts, I believe, for the remembrance of goats and chickens. Punta Arenas is a place to be prepared to evacuate from tsunamis, learn to poledance, ponder history, protest politics, drink coffee, eat, walk and enjoy. I did some of those and opted to sit out others.


After a wonderful safety briefing and an even better welcome dinner, accompanied by new friends Lauren and Dianne, seated with a mom and dad from London and their two sons, one ten and one fifteen, where lively and enlightening conversation prevailed, we walked back to the hotel passing by what can only be described as riot preparations. Water cannon trucks and other similar vehicles sat on a blocked-off side street. As we rounded a corner, a street protest began to develop where even the dogs were stopping traffic. We determined that we ought to be at someplace else but ran into an eloquent young man who spoke excellent english. He used a word that we, or at least I, had not as yet heard: revolution.
More tomorrow.

No matter how bad it may be where you are, know that it is potentially worse elsewhere.

Posted by paulej4 17:44 Archived in Chile

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents

Be the first to comment on this entry.

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.