Day 1: A Stopover in New Zealand

As the first Smithsonian secretary to set foot on Antarctica, Secretary Clough prepares for his trip from a research center in Christchurch

Christchurch is the home of the United States/New Zealand polar logistics center and is the jumping-off point for the flight to Antarctica. (iStockphoto)

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The remainder of the day is spent reviewing materials for the trip and packing our duffles. Rise and shine around 5:30 a.m. for the five-hour flight tomorrow morning. Exciting!

Here are a few facts about the unique place I will be seeing tomorrow for the first time:

1. The Antarctic is the coldest, windiest and driest place on the face of the earth. Temperatures average 70 degrees F below zero and have plunged as low as -129 F. Six to eight inches of precipitation measured in water equivalent falls on the Antarctic, and in the Dry Valleys, no rain has fallen for 2 million years.

2. The continent is the fifth largest of the seven continents of the world and is larger than the United States and Mexico combined.

3. All but 2.4 percent of the continent of Antarctica is covered by an ice sheet that averages more than a mile in thickness and in some places reaches three miles thick. The ice sheets contain up to 70 percent of the world’s fresh water.

4. If the ice sheets were to melt, sea level would rise more than 200 feet around the globe and Antarctica itself be elevated more than 500 feet because of the relief from the weight of the ice.

5. There are no trees in Antarctica and the largest terrestrial animal is the wingless midge (Belgica antarctica), a tiny fly less than one-half of an inch long.

6. The Antarctic continent itself was not sighted until 1821 and the first man to reach the South Pole was Roald Admundsen, a Norwegian explorer, in 1911.

7. Here’s a good one. The Antarctic was not always cold. Some 200 million years ago, the land masses that were to become South America, Africa and the Antarctic were linked as Gondwanaland, a southern supercontinent that eventually split up. The part of Gondwanaland that was to become part of Antarctica was warm and tropical plants and animals flourished. Assembling the Antarctic into a separate continent was the work of millions of years of plate tectonics and plate movements. The eastern part of the present continent is much older than the western part, with the two separated by the Transantarctic Mountains.

8. The Antarctic as we know it today is about 20 million years old at which time it became completely surrounded by the sea. The Antarctic, a continent surrounded by water, differs from the northern Arctic, which is floating ice surrounded by land.

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