Antarctica 101: Q&A

with anchor Susan Hassler Q&A with Glenn Zorpette

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This is part of the series:
Antarctica: Life on the Ice

Transcript: Antarctica 101: Q&A


Susan Hassler: My colleague Glenn Zorpette recently returned from Antarctica. He was there as a guest of the National Science Foundation, which runs the U.S. Antarctic Program. So, Glenn, what is it about Antarctica? Why does it have such a hold on us?

Glenn Zorpette: Antarctica was the Earth’s last great frontier. No one even laid eyes on it until November of 1820, when an American sea captain named Nathaniel Palmer brought his ship close enough to see it.

Then of course there was the great race to the South Pole. Starting in October of 1911, Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott raced to the pole from the edge of the continent, a round trip of about 1600 miles. Amundsen got there first, Scott and four of his men got there a month later, and all five of them died on the way back.

Susan Hassler: So tell us about Antarctica. Antarctica 101. How big is the continent? How many people live there?

Glenn Zorpette: It’s more than one and a half times the size of the continental United States. As far as the number of people: If you take a random day in the middle of the summer, there might be a little over 3000 people on the whole continent who are living and working there. In the winter, when the temperatures can hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, and it’s dark for 6 months, the whole population of the continent might be just 500 or 600 or less. Here’s a nice bit of trivia: Only 1267 people have ever spent a winter at the South Pole.

Susan Hassler: What are the major bases on the continent, and who runs them?

Glenn Zorpette: There are a couple dozen bases on the continent. The United States runs three permanent stations; the largest is McMurdo, which houses 1100 people in the summer. The U.S. also operates the only station at the South Pole. Including the United States, there are 29 countries that are involved with scientific research in Antarctica in one form or another.

Besides the people who work in Antarctica, there are also a lot of tourists. The tourists stay mostly on cruise ships off the coast, typically on the South America side of the continent. Antarctic tourism is booming. Almost 40 000 tourists visit Antarctica every year.

Susan Hassler: What do most of the people who work in Antarctica do down there? 

Glenn Zorpette: Science. Almost everybody is a scientist or supporting the science research in such fields as cosmology, astronomy, geology, glaciology, biology, or climate research. In any given season, the U.S. is sponsoring about 150 different science projects. This past year, the U.S. National Science Foundation spent about $70 million dollars funding science in Antarctica.

Susan Hassler: Who’s in charge of Antarctica? Does anybody govern it?

Glenn Zorpette: Good question. Actually, human habitation of Antarctica is governed by the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in 1959 and has been amended several times since then. The gist of the treaty is that no nation is allowed to claim or to colonize any part of Antarctica, no nation is allowed to use it for commercial purposes, like mining for example, and nobody is allowed to use it for military purposes.

Susan Hassler: What was your most memorable moment on the continent?

Glenn Zorpette: I was in a helicopter that landed on some sea ice near McMurdo. We piled out of the helicopter and started walking towards the water’s edge, about 150 yards away. It was a brilliantly sunny day, with the incredibly deep blue water sparkling in the sun, and Mount Erebus, an active volcano, looming beyond the water. All of a sudden, about a dozen Adélie penguins popped up on to the ice from the water and ran and waddled right up to us. They were flapping their flippers and sliding on their bellies and it was absolutely the most uplifting sight I’ve ever seen. Moments later, a pod of orcas slid gracefully by in the sound, blowing water out of their blowholes. I’ll never forget that sight. I’ll never forget that day.