UT prof Dan Simberloff has braved
An aerial view of McMurdo in the Antarctic.
Simberloff and his fellow NSF members pose in front of the barber pole planted at the South Pole.
Ends of the Earth
by Mike Gibson
Dan Simberloff knows what 40 degrees below zero feels like. It gives a whole new meaning to “bitter cold,” especially when your accommodations are located on a veritable island of ice and compacted snow, two miles higher than most of the surrounding terrain, at an elevation where the wind swirls and lashes in ways that Chicago’s never seen.
Warmth is in short supply, even underneath layer upon layer of clothing: briefs under long-johns under ski pants; synthetic pullover top under light jacket under heavy jacket under parka; undersocks beneath woolen socks beneath furry white “bunny boots.”
And God help you if you have to take anything off—like removing your mittens and undergloves to pick up a delicate scientific instrument, or, worst of all, dropping trou and letting it all hang out in a drafty three-sided igloo with a pit in the middle of its hard icy floor—the Arctic version of the classic outhouse.
“When the wind is blowing, it feels like needles are being stuck into every area of exposed skin, especially around your eyes,” says Simberloff, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Tennessee. “The outhouses were up near the North Pole, and they were god-awful, a terrible place to have to take a leak. You’ve got to keep in mind,” he adds with a chuckle, “that they were set up by the Russians.”
A member of the National Science Board (the governing board of the National Science Foundation), Simberloff experienced such extremes of temperature on a pair of fact-finding missions to the two chilliest locales on earth—the North and South poles.
His bi-polar status lends him a rare distinction among fellow members of the scientific community, and it has taught him plenty about the diversity of research taking place at the ends of the earth, and of the considerable human and financial resources required to keep those efforts in place.
Simberloff’s Antarctic excursion took place two years ago, when the NSB sent a handful of members to take stock of NSF-funded research projects there. “Most of the board members aren’t young, so many of them aren’t physically capable of going,” explains Simberloff, a graying, bespectacled fellow with a stocky build and a stout constitution. “We had to pass a very strenuous physical to make the trip.”
Flying south in summer in the Southern hemisphere—polar flights are all but impossible during the unremittingly harsh winter months—Simberloff traveled from the United States to Christchurch, New Zealand, to the U.S. research compound at McMurdo in Antarctica.
A bustling, town-sized outpost a few hundred miles yet from the pole itself, the McMurdo station houses as many as 3,000 scientists and support personnel in peak months, and comprises among other things its own police force, infirmary, fire station, pharmacy, and retail stores, better-stocked than those in many small American towns. “There’s even some tourist-trap stuff, shirts with penguins on them, or with ‘McMurdo’ stencilled across the front,” Simerbloff says.
“McMurdo is like a small city, really,” he continues. “It has to be self-contained. Because even in summer, there are times that planes can’t get in due to the weather.”
After a few days in McMurdo, Simberloff flew to the South Pole itself, staying at the U.S. research base there, a smaller station with accommodations for about 300. The facilities at both locations—permanent cement-based structures at the South Pole, and mostly prefabricated buildings at McMurdo—are warm and well-insulated; Simberloff says the food services are excellent, the cafeterias open continuously to accommodate the nutritional requirements of researchers working long hours in sub-zero weather.
“You burn a lot of calories if you work outside,” he says. “There were some marine biologists at McMurdo studying seals 10 hours a day, and they ate prodigious amounts. At dinner, they’d eat the equivalent of three suppers at once.”
The last stop on his 10-day trip was a Russian air base only about 30 miles from the pole, where many of the researchers slept in large tents heated by gas-operated air compressors. “And their food was awful,” Simberloff says. “A typical meal was a very fatty soup, plus some bread.”
Other than the facilities, Simberloff says the single biggest difference between the two poles is the topography. Antarctica is a land of topographical extremes—mountain ranges, dramatic alternations of hill and valley. The Arctic region, on the other hand, consists mostly of a haphazardly interconnected series of islands and ice floes, languishing at the farthest reaches of continents.
“It was astounding to see from a plane, though,” says Simberloff, “because you had big rivers of open water. They’re called ‘leads,’ tremendous openings in the ice. People who worked up there 40 or 50 years ago say they weren’t nearly as common then up near the pole. So most people attribute them to global warming.
As a member of the NSB—he was one of 24 members appointed by former President Bill Clinton in 2000—Simberloff’s function on his trips to the poles was to make a comprehensive accounting of NSF-related projects. The NSF is directly involved with operating stations in Antarctica and provides funding for some of the U.S. researchers in the Arctic.
“I was there to look at operations, morale, efficiency, transportation,” he says. “We were especially interested in contrasting the operations at the two poles.”
“At McMurdo, there are a huge number of research projects, on invertebrates, seals and fish, or in the dry valleys, where the whole eco-system consists of algae,” Simberloff says. “There was lots of astronomy going on, and meteorologists studying upper atmosphere currents.
“I spent a fair amount of time going out with people to field sites,” he says, showing pictures of the boxy, large-tread tracking vehicles that were the chief mode of local transportation. “They actually had some two-lane roadways marked out around McMurdo. Sometimes we’d race each other in the tracking vehicles. They’d go about as fast as the average tractor.”
What Simberloff hadn’t expected to see was civilian transport, mostly in the form of the cruise ships that occasionally strayed from their courses along the South American coastline, showing up in McMurdo with the expectation that the scientists there would give them guided tours.
“Every so often, skiers would show up, too, sometimes in dire need,” he says. “We don’t encourage visitors. Tourists can destroy pristine natural sites or wander into dangerous areas. There are lots of unseen crevasses around McMurdo, lots of safety issues. Tourism could overwhelm the raison d’etre of these facilities.”
Unless, Simberloff adds, politics do so first. He notes that the current presidential administration has significantly reduced the NSF budget, at a time when researchers at both poles are wanting for vital pieces of equipment.
“They have a broken icebreaker at the South Pole and a dearth of research boats at the North Pole,” he explains. “We have $43 million dollars in the budget for the Antarctic operations, but it costs twice that much just to maintain one icebreaker.
“I’m still chair of the NSF committee that oversees the Office of Polar Programs, so I still deal with these issues on a regular basis. I get emails and calls weekly about problems and things going on at the Poles.”