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The Most Remote Place on Earth

Column by Congressman Nick Smith - January 19, 2003

I have just returned from three days of touring U.S. research facilities in Antarctica with National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell and several colleagues on the House Science Committee. There is nowhere on the planet that is colder, windier, or more geographically isolated than the continent of Antarctica. The extreme remoteness of Antarctica cannot be overstated, which offers such unique opportunities for research.

After more than 21 hours of flying from Andrews Air Force Base, our delegation arrived in New Zealand. From there it was still nine more hours in an Air Force cargo plane to McMurdo Station, the principal U.S. research station on the Antarctic Coast. The scenery was breathtaking and inspiring. In two directions, white, snow-covered ice stretched for as far as the eye could see. Great mountains on the scale of the Rockies dominated the view in the other two directions.

Yet, it was still almost four hours and 800 more miles to the geographic South Pole where it was 34 degrees below zero (the record is -117 degrees Fahrenheit). Of the 24 countries doing research down here, only the U.S. has a facility at the geographic South Pole. Spread over about 80 acres, it consists of about 15 rectangular small box-like buildings and one longer box with a dome. It actually sits on a 9,000-foot thick ice sheet that moves 33 feet a year. Due to the inclination of the earth, the South Pole has just one sunrise and one sunset each year offering unique research possibilities. Scientists and maintenance personnel pretty much only work during the summer months (November to mid-February). The rest of the year it is nearly deserted.

Visiting different research stations, we took a couple of interesting side trips to see huts left by Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton in their Antarctic explorations. On Scott's 1911 expedition, he and his men raced Roald Amundsen to become the first to reach the South Pole. He got there one month after Amundsen and then died on the return trek. It is so amazing, the hardship that Antarctic explorers such as Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton endured. Because the Antarctic is very dry and very cold, there is little or no rotting or spoilage. The huts are about the same now as a hundred years ago - clothing, utensils, and food sitting around now as it was then.

Antarctica offers abundant and unique research opportunities for scientists. This vast, untouched area of land, air, and sea supports some of best and most interesting research in the world. For example, studies of ice cores that are millions of years old have provided us with a wealth of information about past temperature ocean productivity, and atmospheric composition. Constant light or dark combined with ultraclean air allows astronomers to continuously observe celestial objects, and medical and biological research explores the effects of cold and isolation on people and animals. Since the U.S. began maintaining a continuous presence in Antarctica, about 50 years ago, thousands of research projects have been completed.

It's important for us to maintain an active, permanent presence in Antarctica. The Antarctic Treaty and Madrid Protocol have forbidden any nation from making military use of Antarctica or attempting to mine or drill for oil. During a short talk with scientists in Antarctica, I said that we should support these treaties and the cutting-edge scientific research conducted there. This will continue to contribute to our economic security, our health, and human knowledge.

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