Given my longstanding affection for all-things Antarctica — especially its exploration and a desire to educate as many people as possible about the remote seventh continent – a couple end-of-the-year stories have given me pause.
Motorized vehicles are not brand new to the bottom of the globe. Robert Falcon Scott took turn-of-the-century pickup trucks on his 1911 attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole, which killed him; the trucks froze-up within days. But this summer season two teams have for a first time driven cross-continent.
(I’m admittedly biased towards more old-school efforts. In the past couple decades I’ve witnessed some of the great crossings of Antarctica, going back to the 1989-1990 dogsled adventure, the Transantarctica Expedition, which took a team of six men and 36 dogs 3,741 miles from the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula to the South Pole and then to the Russian base at Mirnyy. I was also there when Reinhold Messner and Arvid Fuchs (1989-90) and Borges Ousland (1996-97) pulled off crossings on foot.)
This year, between November 10 and December 5, a team from the Indian National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research drove four Toyota pick-ups on a 2,800-mile roundtrip from the coast to the South Pole and back.
A press release said that along the way they stopped long enough to “study snow chemistry, the glacial landscapes and the bedrock hidden beneath the ice.”
During the same time the fastest crossing of the continent was also recorded, by the Moon Regan Transantarctic Expedition, which took just 303 hours to cross Antarctica at one of its narrowest points, 1,200 miles (for comparison, Messner, Fuchs and Ousland each skied closer to 1,500 miles in their crossings).
A bio-fueled contraption on skis led this adventure , which was trailed by a pair of six-wheeled trucks carrying replacement drivers and gear.
Its press release said that by proving that a bio-fueled car could function in temperatures that dropped to -65 degrees it would “encourage other Antarctic explorers to reduce their environmental impact.”
Hmmmm. Driving a trio of fossil-fuel burning cars across the most pristine place on the planet as example of reducing environmental impact?
One way to experience Antarctica without leaving behind any footsteps – or fumes – has also been made possible by Australia’s Sea World, which this week opened its own “Penguin Encounter” exhibit, stocked with a half-dozen king penguins and six gentoos imported from New Zealand.
The display requires three tons of snow be made everyday in order to replicate Antarctic conditions and has a lighting system designed to imitate the southern continent’s 20 hours of light during the summer and six hours during the long winter.
“Sea World is very much about conservation and these penguins are ambassadors
for climate change and conservation of that Antarctic and sub-Antarctic environment,” said the park’s director of marine services, acknowledging the reality that as the ice along the Antarctic Peninsula continues to disappear – in large part due to fossil fuel burning in the rest of the world, from things like driving cars, making fake snow and burning electric lights – penguins continue to serve as global warming’s canaries in the coal mine.