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A few days in Antarctica

February 12, 2014 - Hadley Twp.- Regardless of the frigid temperatures this winter, it's rather balmy compared to where William Schiffel spent a few days in December 1968.

The National Science Foundation gathered six reporters, which included Schiffel, then a staff writer for The Grand Rapids Press, for a briefing on the U.S. installations in Antarctica. Now, more than 45 years later, Shiffel, 73, shared some of his journey and experiences on the bottom of the world.

"There really is a South Pole," laughs Schiffel. "And yes, I ran around the world—it only takes a few minutes, too."

"In 1968, the 10,000 mile trip from Washington to San Francisco; Honolulu to Christchurch New Zealand was on an airplane with propellers," he said "It was 71 degrees in New Zealand the morning we arrived. We received our cold-weather clothing in Christchurch— rubber thermal boots, fur-lined hoods and three pair of gloves and mittens each. Then a 10-hour flight on a Navy plane—we were fed C-Rations, with cans marked U.S. Navy,1944. We landed in McMurdo Station Antarctica and after a short ride across the ice we entered a quonset hut overlooking a mountain range and the McMurdo City Dump."

According to NASA, 99.5 percent of the Antarctica land mass is covered in ice. During the winter months of March to September—the ice sheet covering the continent gets even bigger. Antarctica is our fifth largest continent, at 5.4 million square miles, coming in between South America and Europe. Its shape is roughly circular, with one arm reaching out toward South America.

"Many of the buildings for the 950 residents, volunteer Navy men, scientists and researchers, are underground or just under the surface of the ice. Some buildings are 60 feet under the surface. The meals in the mess hall were outstanding there. They keep about a two year supply of food—refrigeration is not a problem. McMurdo also has an officers club—beer was 20 cents and mixed drinks were 25 cents. There's a problem of leaving the club and walking home in bright sunlight—at 3 a.m. There's sunshine 24 hours per day in the Antarctic summer."

Amateur radio operators on the ice chat with hams in the United States, recalls Shiffel.

"There's 17 hours time difference between Antarctica and Michigan," he said. "One of the radio operators let me call my wife Joanne from the South Pole. I really don't remember what we talked about, but there were a lot of long pauses in the conversation interrupted with 'over' in the conversation interrupted with 'over' each time you finished a sentence."

Schiffel said the penguins had little fear of man.

"You only get so close to the penguins—which were mostly Adelie," he said. "The seals on the other hand, you can walk across the ice and scratch and pet the animals. The seals will even roll over and you can scratch their bellies. To think, seals were almost hunted to extinction about 100 years ago."

"Since penguins rest on the ice they eat and play under the 8-foot ice cap. So, they created a pipe about three feet in diameter that you could climb down about 15 feet on a ladder through the ice to a chamber with 360 degrees of windows to watch the seals and other animals in 28 degree water."

"There were many science studies ongoing in Antarctica—including weather studies, wildlife and the physical impact on humans in constant cold and total darkness," added Schiffel.

Schiffel returned home and compiled a series of stories of his trip to Antarctica for The Grand Rapids Press and other newspapers statewide.

Today, Antarctica remains a focal point of scientific research and continues to attract exploration from a many groups each year.

Michael Gottfried has been at Michigan State University since 1997, and is currently an associate professor of geological sciences and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the MSU Museum. Gottfried has also served as director of MSU's Center for Integrative Studies in General Science since 2006.

Since 2007 Gottfried has led trips with MSU students to Antarctica through the study abroad program. Additionally, he's made several excursions on his own to study the environment.

"The biggest change in Antarctica since the mid-1960s has been the emergence of ecotourism," said Gottfried. "The transition from Antacrtica as exclusively a research location to an extreme vacation spot is just one of many changes to the vast continent. The ships can come in via Argentina (about 700 miles) or New Zealand (about 2,500 miles). It's an extreme destination for sure. It's a spectacular trip in late November to March, the months that are accessible via a ship."

Gottfried said that while tourism continues to grow in Antarctica, the scientific gains over the past 45 years continues to add to the research.

"Today Antarctica is still a pristine environment—the landscape is fantastic there. Many students would love to make a return trip after their first visit," he said. "In my opinion, the greatest environmental study was regarding the depletion of the ozone layer— first noticed by scientists in Antarctica in the '80s."

According to NASA, the stratospheric ozone layer protects life on Earth by absorbing ultraviolet light damaging to DNA in plants and animals including humans. It's also recognized as a major cause of skin cancer. In the early 80s, scientists began to realize that Earth's natural sunscreen was thinning dramatically over the South Pole. The ozone depleting chemicals were banned in the early 1990s.

Also since the 1960s NASA has been conducting research on how animals and humans can survive in extreme conditions not unlike planets, added Gottfried.

"The water around Antarctica is rich in wildlife—with several species of whales," he said. "At one point it was an important commercial hunting ground for whales. But, that number has dwindled to less than 1,000 whales taken each year. It's also occupied by a variety of nations who, at least so far, all get along good."

Ice core samples three miles through the ice have provided an excellent record of climate change over the last 4,000 years, he added.

"We can still learn a lot about ourselves and the world we live in."

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