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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Mystery Continent

Posted by R. Ann Siracusa


So, here's the deal.

I had this idea for a suspense novel set on a research base in Antarctica. Soo...I looked into the scientific facilities down there and found thirty countries have stations or bases on the continent for the purpose of research. Many of the projects could not be conducted anywhere else in the world.

It's hard to pin down the actual number of research stations and the number of people living in them, in part because it depends on what year's statistics one is looking at. In an article by Jennifer S. Holland for National Geographic, published in March, 2014, she writes that more than thirty countries maintain seventy research bases across Antarctica, housing from 1,000 in the winter to 5,000 residents in the summer. I did see one source (but only one) that claimed there could be 9,000 people living on the bases in the summer.

Thirty countries, as of October 2006, all signatories to the Antarctic Treaty, operate the bases, some of which are year-round facilities, and others which are occupied only in the summer months. There are no hotels or tourists facilities on the continent, although I read that tourists can actually visit and stay overnight at some of research stations.


No government? Oh, I love it already.

Antarctica has never had an indigenous population. It doesn't belong to a country, or any group of countries, and has no nationality. Systematic exploration began with the International Geographic Year, July 1957 through December 31, 1959. After that, the representatives of the twelve nations involved in the exploration met in 1959 and drafted the Antarctic Treaty, which dedicated the entire continent to peaceful scientific research. When it came into effect, all territorial claims were suspended. Now nearly fifty countries have signed the treaty, which represents about 80% of the world population.

The result is a continent that has never been affected by war, where the environment is protected, and where the priority is scientific research. Wow!


That's not quite true, but it isn't easy to move around on Antarctica. Access is by ship (sometimes), by plane (sometimes), and helicopter (sometimes). There are 20 airports, but none developed for public access or with landing facilities. Thirty of the stations have facilities for helicopter or fixed wind aircraft.

The only harbor is at McMurdo Station. Most of the coastal stations have anchorages off shore and supplies are transferred by small boats, barges, or helicopters.

Ships have to be ice-strengthened and there are only two places where larger cruise ships can anchor. Passengers are not able to go to shore. That's only in the summer. Most reference suggest that in the winter, the sea is impassible.


Although weather conditions in Antarctica are the harshest in the world, it doesn't rain or snow a lot...approximately one inch of water a year at the South Pole itself, and about twenty inches per year of water along the coast.

It is, however, proud home of the lowest temperature ever measured (minus -129° F) and winds have been recorded up to 200 miles per hour. The snow that has fallen is always blowing around.

Only cold-adapted organism such as certain types of algae, bacteria, fungi, and certain animals such a mites, nematodes, penguins, seals, and tardigrades (microanimals with eight legs), can survive.
Ugh! Aren't you glad they're microscopic?


The first station I saw a photo of was the Argentine research base at Paradise Bay, Needless to day, I was rather underwhelmed.

McMurdo base was a little more like what I had expected. It looks like a typical light industrial facility, in this case with living accommodations.

The photo of McMurdo must have been taken in the warm season, because in the winter the area is totally iced in.

Then there are those right out of science fiction movies. The Haley IV Mobile Station (Below) made me think of Star Wars.

Then there are those right out of science fiction movies. The Haley IV Mobile Station (Below) made me think of Star Wars.

Another American Research Station

This is a Chinese station

                                             Southern Lights

World's first anti-omissions base


You can't take us human anywhere!

Even though Antarctica is one of the most pristine environments on Earth, it has pollution problems. And, ironically, those environmentalists and scientists who are the champions of protection of the continent are also the perpetrators. These wondrous research stations are the contributors who release chemicals and waste into the environment that is hurting penguins and other wildlife. The most recent, although not the only problem, is a toxic flame retardant used for building and all kinds of other things.

In addition, similar to much of the planet, Antarctica appears to be affected by a long term global warming trend.  Ice shelves along the Antarctic Peninsula have broken up, and higher than normal temperatures have caused breeding disturbances among Adelie penguins, and there is concern over holes in the ozone layer.


Well, I can't write about places I've never been, can I? You got it! It's off to Antarctica. February, 2015. What are your ideas for a thriller at one of the winter-isolated stations?



Tina Donahue said...

Wow - sounds exciting! Great post. :)

Rose Anderson said...

Great Post! And going to Antarctica too. That's sounds like an exciting adventure in your future. :)

Judy Baker said...

OMG, I can't wait for your post on your trip to Antarctica to learn more. Thanks for all the information in your post - So much I never knew.

Sandy said...

How neat and exciting. Great post, Ann.

Cara Marsi said...

Very interesting! I can't believe you're going to Antarctica. How cool is that. What a story you're going to write. Whenever I think of Antarctica, I think of the horror movie, "The Thing." Isolated science research lab, a monster lurking, even a little romance.

jean hart stewart said...

Learned so much from your post, and all of it interesting. Don't want to go with you, but hope your trip is as wonderful as you make it sounds.

Melissa Keir said...

I love how passionate you are about visiting such a unique place. I think the cold wouldn't be a problem unless I had to go out and snowshovel! :)

Thanks for the lesson. It does sound like a great place to visit!

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