If you visit the web site of the New York Times these days, youâ€™ll come across Alexander Kumar, a Times science bloggerÂ on a curious mission. On behalf of the European Space Agency, the British physician is spending one year at Â the French and Italian Concordia Station, a research post hidden deep in Antarcticaâ€™s harshest recesses, to keep a close eye on the health of his twelve station-mates -- and record those observations for use on future manned journeys to Mars.
Antarctica, rising from the southern end of the Earthâ€™s axis, is home to ninety percent of our planetâ€™s ice, making it an especially likely place for things like Martian meteorites to be preserved. In 1984, in the continentâ€™s Allen Hills, a team of meteorite hunters discovered a large four billion year-old rock thought to have arrived from the red planet about 13,000 years ago. The ALH84001 meteorite (known affectionately as the Allen Hills meteorite) has been giving us clues to life on Mars ever since, and so has its earthly home. Like Mars, the Antarctic landscape is high in permafrost, its terrain molded by geological shifts into a Mars-similar series of polygonal patterns with slightly raised centers -- all things that make the South Pole an ideal place for scientists to practice for human visits to Mars. Peered at through scientific goggles, Antarctica is Mars on Earth.
In honor of CuriosityÂ landing on Mars last week in a tricky maneuver that brought us one step closer to strolling that rocky red surface, here are the stories of four scientists whose livesÂ probing Antarcticaâ€™s mysteries have led us deeper into the heart of the planet we live on Â -- and the one that weâ€™ll get to someday.
"The Ninth Circle: A Memoir of Life and Death in Antarctica"Â by John C. Behrendt
Geophysicist John Behrendt has been studying the Antarctic firsthand since 1957. In 1960, he took part in the United States Antarctic Research Programâ€™s Operation Deep Freeze, guiding the Cold-War-era U.S. Airforce to successful sub-zero flying by pioneering ways to survey the Transntarctic Mountains and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet from above. In 2005, he wrote a memoir about those days, and stocked it with the finer points of geographical research, plus inadvertent tips on how to get a group of mountains named after you (his are at the base of the Antarctic Peninsula). For those wanting a prologue to it all, "Innocents on the Ice" -- Behrendtâ€™s now out-of-print memoir based on his earliest mission and still a standard reference for South Pole scientists -- remains worth a hunt for its detailed field notes, complete with the day-to-day demands of rigorous science work in an extreme and alien environment.
"Silas: The Antarctic Diaries and Memoir of Charles S. Wright"Â edited by Colin Bull and Pat F. Wright
Charles Wright was the resident physicist and glaciologist on Robert Falcon Scottâ€™s 1910 Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole -- and fortunately for us, was sent back ahead of Scottâ€™s ill-fated return party. This collection of the hardy (and by some accounts rambunctious, too) scientistâ€™s journals, diaries, and letters from that journey is enhanced by the incorporation of a memoir he penned later in life. Part exacting science, part personal narrative (with enough intimate detail to occasionally distract from its technical points),Â â€śSilasâ€ť is supplemented by plentyÂ of artwork from Wrightâ€™s prolific illustrator daughter.
"Scottâ€™s Forgotten Surgeon: Dr Reginald Koettlitz, Polar Explorer"Â by Â Aubrey A. Jones
In 1901, Dr. Reginald Koettlitz set off to serve as Chief of Scientific Staff on Scottâ€™s National Antarctic Expedition -- the great explorerâ€™s first Antarctic mission and the one that did not end in disaster. Koettlitzâ€™s Antarctica-based medical contributions and discoveries are highly acknowledged in certain circles, including the Royal Geographical Society, which awarded him a medal for his work as senior surgeon, botanist, and bacteriologist on Scottâ€™s expedition. Jones, a distant relative of the doctor, has filled the book with Koettlitzâ€™s medical research, including ways to prevent the scurvy so prevalent on long journeys in those days. (Koettlitzâ€™s secret was, of course, plenty of fresh polar bear meat.)
"Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land" by James McClintock
Each year, Antarctica is blanketed in three months of steady darkness, in which fantastical creatures like leopard seals, giant squid, sea spiders, and huge predatory worms thrive. Marine biologist McClintock has spent most of the past quarter-century in the continentâ€™s wildest regions, emerging regularly to tell us what he sees and becoming one of the worldâ€™s most called upon South Pole experts in the process. His memoir, due out this September, explores the fragility of this harsh, ancient, and seemingly indestructible ecosystem under the new threat of global warming -- and includes proposed solutions that might still avert the loss of this precious and forbidding world.