Penguins watched us as we waited in our “big reds” (expedition parkas) to board a plane for a three-hour flight from McMurdo Research Station to the South Pole. In 1908-09, explorer Ernest Shackleton needed 73 days to travel from near McMurdo to within 112 miles of the pole, and then weather forced him and his team to turn back. Their return trek was a race against starvation, which they won just barely. Antarctica is the world’s coldest, windiest and driest place; in some valleys, there has been no precipitation for two million years. In January, I became the first Smithsonian Secretary to travel—with a group of leaders of other scientific organizations—to this magnificent continent.
The Smithsonian’s involvement in Antarctic research has been long and varied. The Wilkes Exploring Expedition (1838-42) proved that Antarctica is a continent; in 1858, the Institution received the expedition’s collections. Today our Antarctic collections comprise more than 17,000 meteorites (including some extremely rare ones from the Moon and Mars) and nine million invertebrate specimens. Since 2001, the Institution has managed the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Diving Program, which trains some 35 scientists for under-ice diving each year. From 1995 to 2007, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory operated the Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory.
December 1, 2009, marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, which governs Antarctica in the “interests of science and the progress of all mankind.” On the anniversary day, the Smithsonian hosted an Antarctic Treaty Summit to discuss science-policy interactions in the governance of international spaces.
This month I head to Alaska to celebrate a new Smithsonian exhibition at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. The Arctic has been a focus of Smithsonian anthropological and other scientific studies almost continuously since 1857. The National Museum of Natural History’s Arctic Studies Center regional office opened in Anchorage in 1994. I also plan to travel to St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. The Smithsonian has extensive collections from the island, dating back to 1881, and our studies of Arctic cultures and environmental change are ongoing there. My Antarctic and Arctic trips follow our participation in the Fourth International Polar Year 2007-2008 (www.si.edu/ipy), which highlighted our polar research—including studies of astronomy, biological organisms, environmental change, indigenous peoples and their cultures, and marine ecosystems. This research becomes particularly pertinent with the ever-increasing evidence that human activity is accelerating climate change—reflected in Arctic sea ice shrinkage and the shifting of food sources for Antarctic penguins.
G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution