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Shadows on the Ice

Cape Roberts
"If the moon is a platform for contemplating the beautiful world, Antarctica has become a place from which to peruse the changes we are wreaking on it."

—Paul Shepheard, The Cultivated Wilderness

My Antarctic friends often chided me for my expressions of solemn guilt about the work we did for the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). We toiled together in the southernmost polluting reaches of the American empire, and our paychecks came from whatever monstrous defense contractor the National Science Foundation (NSF) had chosen to manage the USAP. (Currently it's a division of Raytheon.) I'm liberal enough, I suppose, to loathe the corporations that consume the greater part of the U.S. budget building weapons that threaten to decimate life on Earth. And I often bemoaned helping them meet their bottom line in McMurdo Station, our large scabby base set down in the icy splendor at the bottom of the planet.

I had fallen in love with the Antarctic landscape, however, and so spent nearly a decade of my life using the USAP to help me travel the hard lunar beauty of the ice. With each successive austral summer, I found ways to work longer periods away from the mess in McMurdo, camping instead in Earth's wildest hinterlands. Most workers love McMurdo and thrive on the gossip and politics. As the citizens of Antarctica's largest community, a hulking town full of prefab structures, imported bureaucracy and transient workers, set down on the difficult edge of the polar strangeness, we've created an intense microcosm of America. We've imported at great expense the ways and means of American society to what were once inhospitable shores. 100 buildings spread over several square miles are fed by cargo arriving via three airfields and our harbor. Most Antarctic bases are 10- to 80-person affairs, consisting of a few buildings nestled together against the cold. Of all the 30-odd nations that inhabit the ice, only the U.S. has created a sprawl that effectively isolates us from the isolation. Bingo games, online shopping, intramural volleyball, TV and Bud Light compete successfully against the cold mysteries of Antarctica. Nothing like McMurdo exists elsewhere on the ice continent. The world's tottering empire runs Antarctica's big dirty town.

When I first arrived in McMurdo in 1994, all the bright deodorant pucks in the urinals contained dichlorobenzene, a labeled Marine Pollutant. Several times a day, I marinated my urine in fish-killing chemicals and flushed it out to sea. The irony was that I'd been hired as a Waste Management Specialist, and though I had no relevant experience, I was sure that poisoning the Antarctic waters was wrong. I'd left America as a poet and teacher, and somehow arrived in McMurdo as a "specialist"; my new managers employed me to stand at a lectern and educate the community on the new complex recycling rules for over a dozen different waste categories. I spent half my time giving talks and writing reports, and half as a McMurdo garbageman, picking up, sorting, and compacting trash and recyclables for shipment back to the States. When I mentioned the urinal pucks to my Waste Management overseers, they were unimpressed. Oh yes, they said absently, those are being phased out. Under pressure from the NSF, they were focused instead on perfecting the slideshow and script I gave to arriving science groups. Nobody seemed to know how many more poison pucks were left. So I quietly talked to McMurdo's janitors, who had noticed but ignored the labels. They were happy to search storerooms for stray boxes of the offending pucks, deposit them in Hazardous Waste bins, and replace them with the already-purchased eco-friendly versions.

My overseers were unhappy that I'd dealt with it myself, that I'd meddled with their slower phase-out plan. They were even more unhappy when I outraged the top NSF official in Antarctica at one of my trash talks. I stood before an audience of impatient academic researchers and held forth on the subtleties of Burnables and Construction Debris. At the lecture's end, a scientist (or so I thought) stood up at the back of the room and demanded to know what action we took when we found a resident had received a package containing styrofoam peanuts. I explained that since the peanuts were a recently-banned substance in the Antarctic, we took great care, double-bagging them and placing them in our Unbaleable Plastic waste bins.

To my shock, he shouted "NO! You will inform them that they are in violation of the Antarctic Conservation Act, and that they may be fined up to 25,000 dollars!" I stared at him, eyebrows raised, as the now-revealed NSF bureaucrat stalked off to angrily email my managers. I was in trouble. Within a few days, I was declared unsatisfactory as a lecturer. I was only a mediocre speaker, admittedly, still unsure of my material, but the demotion was political.

I felt blindsided. I'd learned nothing about the current politics of environmental stewardship in McMurdo. I had learned that intense negative press in the 1980s, due primarily to Greenpeace making notorious McMurdo's environmental record, prompted an about-face in NSF policy. I knew that millions of dollars were spent to clean up McMurdo, and that part of my Waste Management speech proudly stated that the entire USAP had finally shifted to a pack-it-in-pack-it-out standard; I told my audiences that by the early 1990s, all waste streams except sewage were being separated and processed for shipment back to the U.S. for landfilling, burning, or recycling. (The NSF even instituted "daisy-picking" days, during which workers were sent out into ditches and snowdrifts to pick at the ubiquitous corners of trash.) But I had no idea that the NSF was still so self-conscious about the image they projected to the outside world.

The documents that defined all this shiny new behavior, the Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty on Environmental Protection (internationally) and the Antarctic Conservation Act (for the U.S.), established among other things a ban on mining, protections for marine and terrestrial life, and an obligation to write environmental impact statements. Among the realities these documents didn't foresee were the well-meaning families of employees, for whom Antarctica is a country somewhere near Alaska, lovingly packing homemade strawberry jam and superfluous Christmas gifts in those useful white peanuts. The NSF decreed the peanuts illegal after years of watching them spill out of McMurdo's ruptured crates, sail away on the gusts like snowflakes, and tumble invisibly out over the snowy sea ice, where they became a choking hazard for penguins and other sea-life. The ACA does in fact threaten a 25,000 dollar fine and up to one year in jail for each violation, though no one has ever been prosecuted or fined under these provisions.

Now born-again paper-tiger eco-warriors, NSF officials like the one who stormed out on me took the public debate seriously. Thus, by 1994, the focus on words (my speech and slideshow) rather than smaller pragmatic deeds (the pucks). After the dust settled, I joined my friends full-time driving forklifts and diving into dumpsters. I'd arrived excitedly on the edge of the Antarctic wilderness only several weeks before, but already I'd wrestled bales of ketchup-soaked plastic bags, lectured clumsily about aluminum foil to glaciologists, and been demoted by the vicissitudes of styrofoam peanuts. At least I could urinate without guilt.

For over 40 years, until a wastewater treatment plant came online in 2003, all of McMurdo's sewage was piped directly through the sea ice into the slow cold ecosystem of McMurdo Sound. Up to 70,000 gallons of effluent per day from as many as 1200 people (in summer, 250 in winter) ran into the ocean under our pristine-looking front yard. We pumped out the typical 20th century stew of soaps and oils, detergents and cleaning chemicals, toilet paper and undigested corn. We continue to flush an unwelcome river of fresh desalinated water. We cultivated some populations of undersea life (poop-loving worms, corn-eating fish), evicted others, and perhaps introduced our intestinal fauna into the local population of Weddell seals. Underwater video footage in 2000 showed a sea urchin on the edge of the sewage outfall pile, attempting to camoflauge itself with a mottled white panty liner.

Winter Quarters Bay, our scenic harbor, is the southernmost port on Earth. It is also one of the planet's most polluted bodies of water. The high slope running down from McMurdo's dormitories to Winter Quarters Bay was a landfill for many years, while the Navy (which dominated our Antarctic presence from 1955 through the early 1990s) and the NSF pragmatically put our old trucks, equipment and fuel drums on the ice, waiting for them to sink out of sight or sail on ice floes out to sea. The bottom of the bay is still covered with decades of trash, discarded vehicles and hundreds of barrels leaking unknown toxins. Levels of PCBs and PAHs from the upper reaches of the bay are at least as bad as those in the ugliest industrial harbors elsewhere in the world (one PCB reading came in at 6 parts per million, absurdly high). Research in the summer of 1999 showed that healthy fish brought in from clean deep waters of the Ross Sea developed diseased gills and liver tumors when left in live traps in the harbor for just two weeks.

By my arrival in 1994, the NSF had scraped off the upper layer of the garbage-strewn shoreline, and landscaped the leftover trash with gravel. The area is now smooth to look at but unsafe to walk on. Metal tendrils stick out here and there, and there are pockets in the remaining hidden garbage into which a boot might suddenly sink. Snowmelt running down from town - including a once cream-colored polluted stream called Buttermilk Falls - still picks up chemicals and carries them into the bay. The harbor remains a disaster. We're told that minimal currents and topography have kept much of the toxins concentrated in the harbor, though affected fish may in themselves distribute chemicals out into McMurdo Sound. Despite the NSF's proclaimed concern, they have never seriously considered the difficult and costly job of cleaning the harbor. Their stated reason is that moving those old rusted fuel barrels and trucks would stir up the toxic sediments or cause a sudden spill, and that would be a tragedy. But like the larger political decision to maintain our industrial presence in Antarctica, the USAP's 295 million dollar budget will always be spent on astrophysics and aviation fuel rather than on a clean-up of the unseen ocean floor. Better yet, the NSF is uniquely qualified to redefine its wait-and-see approach as an opportunity for science: they've boldly funded a few studies to examine the effects of our disintegrating waste.

"In the past, I had too much respect for nature. I would stand before things and landscapes and let them do what they wanted. That's over and done with: now I will intervene."

—Henri Michaux, Darkness Moves

After my one stint in Waste Management, I moved on to the Fuels department, and stayed there for four of my eight Antarctic summers. Responsibility for fuel handling had only the year before switched from Navy to civilian hands. As we updated equipment and rewrote procedures, stories of huge fuel spills during the old Navy days were rife. 140,000 gallons were lost in McMurdo Sound in 1956 when a barge was crushed by ice floes. For years, as the Williams Field airstrip shut down at summer's end, Navy fuelies drained several miles of four-inch diameter fuel hose directly onto the ice shelf. For much of the 1980s, we sprayed our landfill with gasoline before igniting it. In fact, so much fuel has soaked into McMurdo Station - Paul Shepheard has aptly called it a "kerosene oasis" - that the barren gravel is now colonized by oleophilic bacteria.

The USAP burns between 6 and 7 million gallons of aviation diesel and gasoline a year, much of it consumed between August and February by LC-130 Hercules flights in and out of McMurdo. Hundreds of flights to and from New Zealand, the South Pole, and small temporary camps in West and East Antarctica sprinkle several tons of soot across the snowy ice caps of the Antarctic interior.

McMurdo in peak summer will use over 30,000 gallons of fuel a day; two thirds of that are for aviation, the rest for generating power, fueling transport, or making heat: McMurdo's furnaces, for example, blast warmth into buildings whose bay doors open constantly for forklifts. South Pole station burns about 2000 gallons per day in summer, and 1000 in winter. (In 2003, burning a 60W bulb cost eight dollars a year in McMurdo, 590 dollars a year at Pole.) All of South Pole's fuel is delivered in the wing tanks of Hercs, and it costs us nearly two gallons of AN-8 (the Antarctic-specific diesel formulated to stay liquid during a -110F South Pole winter) to deliver a gallon of AN-8. We pour AN-8, JP-5 (diesel for trucks, furnaces, and helicopters), and gasoline into Antarctica like water onto a desert garden.

Despite the NSF's intolerance for bad environmental press, a new strict set of guidelines for fuel handling, and an atmosphere of genuine concern among new workers, spills still happen. Hoses leak, tanks are overfilled. To my shame, I caused a fuel spill at Williams Field in 1997. Tired from twice switching to 12-hour nightshifts and back over a few weeks, I dozed off while working solo during a 300 gallon-per-minute fuel transfer. Half an hour later, as I raced wide-eyed along the long row of 20,000 gallon tanks, aviation diesel began to burble out of a 4-inch top vent like a soft fountain. As help arrived, we quickly soaked up what we could, but much of the fuel disappeared under the tank and into the snow. Afterward, while I was beating my breast and calculating a loss of 200 to 1000 gallons, my supervisors studied the matter carefully and said in their official report to the NSF that, sadly, 20 gallons had seeped into the ice shelf. I stared at them (with eyebrows raised), told them it didn't make sense, but left it at that.

As a Fuels Operator, my work sent me to remote camps every summer, sometimes for weeks at a time. This, I told myself, was my deeper experience of the ice. I imagined McMurdo as just the purgatory I worked through on my way to the white Elysian Fields… I was thrilled and assuaged by my paid immersion into the pristine continental icescape of snow, ice, and sky. Inevitably, I looked inward to the vast Antarctic beauty for solace from our coastal stain.

The solace peaked in my final Antarctic summers, when I was put in charge of small remote operations in the hinterlands. I camped for up to three months at a time with one to three others, building temporary runways (on ice) or skiways (on snow).

When you've arrived on the East Antarctic ice cap with little more than some duffel bags and cardboard boxes, a snowmobile and two tents, and the whirring plane that brought you is a remote dot in a pale blue bell jar of sky, a silence six times larger than Alaska seeps into you like love. With two miles of ice below your feet, and several hundred miles of wind-carved snow in every direction, you realize there are no meanings you can bring to such a place beyond a passion for what you find. For over twelve years now, that empty snowy oblivion has obsessed me, consumed my writing, and generally separated my imagination from the workings of the busy world. In the course of all that lovely touching of the void, however, I dribbled a little oil here and there, dropped torn paper and plastic from my cold-clumsy fingers, watched the gales steal our nylon flags. I salvaged burst fuel drums and their unopened parachutes, and said goodbye to hundreds of bamboo runway markers buried in hard layers of blown snow. Out in these tiny field camps, silhouetted against the icescape, the beauty is bigger and our sins seem darker. But some little voice always wonders, after the rivulet of fuel bores into the snow, whether we can hurt a place that's lifeless.

"The resilience of mankind in Antarctica is inexorable; even the constant bleating of those who whine for permanent silence and infinite pristineness dissipates into an insignificant Buddhist drone beneath the soothing rumble of fleets of machines with pulsing hydraulics."

—Nicholas Johnson, Big Dead Place

And here's my answer: All of this abuse, all of the inhabitants' insults to the pure austerities of the Antarctic wilderness, add up to very little. All the thousands of Americans who've staggered in insulated rubber boots through our wealth-built communities at the end of the Earth have made no essential difference to the greater Antarctic ecology. All of the sites occupied by humans during the last 50 years along the enormous coastline or in the vast interior have been radically altered, but each of them, including McMurdo, is a local tragedy only.

The French dynamiting of a penguin colony? McMurdo's leaky "Nukey-Poo" nuclear reactor and the 11,000 tons of radioactive rock removed with it? Local tragedies. The 1989 Argentine oil spill along the Antarctic Peninsula? The siting of India's unnecessary new base in a rare ice-free Site of Special Scientific Interest? Local tragedies only.

But the ecological revisionism of the "fragile" Antarctic has institutionalized the notion that 5.4 million square miles of ice caps are as delicate as a remnant patch of threatened mangrove swamp. In fact, the vast bulk of Antarctica - ice one to three miles deep, essentially devoid of biology and spread over an area larger than China and India combined - is impervious to us, and may be so beyond our likely tenure here on Earth. How much of the continent is free of snow and ice? Only .4%. Smear a stony Rhode Island along the coast of a frozen North America and you get the idea.

Antarctic fragility is a valid concept if you think of the continent merely in terms of the spotty penguin-dotted coastline and the surrounding Southern Ocean. And in fact, this is how the ice is advertised and romanticized up north: "The penguin and iceberg crowd", as my friend Nicholas Johnson calls them, keep the cameras trained on the charismatic and truly fragile coast, while the exquisitely monotonous landscape of the ice caps is lost in the collective wowing. The Antarctic interior is so strange and so unknown that its distant audience naturally grasps at coastal symbols, whether cute (penguins) or filthy (McMurdo).

The legions of tourists (now approaching 50,000 passengers and staff per year), which seem at first to be whalers with cameras, have proved to be a small but growing concern. The worst aspect of Antarctic tourism is that it nearly always Zodiacs its quasi-educated masses onto the beaches of that .4% of delicate fertility. No doubt the cooing arrivals kick some penguins, stress some seals, throw trash overboard and run the risk of spilling fuel from whichever of their vessels is the next to run aground. Already exotic grasses brought to Antarctic Peninsula sites on tourists' clothing have taken root. Tour operators, already courting disaster with larger and larger cruise ships, are starting to squawk for dormitories and airstrips.

While humans in the Antarctic have been (or still are) grossly negligent in their handling of waste and fuel, this represents only a small symbolic part of the human damage to the Antarctic. The largest changes to the south polar region have come from whaling and sealing in the 19th and early 20th centuries, from human poisoning of atmospheric chemistry (global warming, ozone depletion) since the industrial revolution, and from current overfishing of species such as the Patagonian toothfish. Wholesale deformation of the ocean ecosystems, which are pretty much the only south polar ecosystems, are the ongoing result. Further changes to the cold nutrient-rich waters are likely to be disastrous.

The possible collapse of ice shelves and coastal glaciers by rising sea levels would also owe everything to mankind in general, not its little polar outposts. The mysterious tipping points that disintegrated the Larsen ice shelf in 2002 and threaten (possibly) portions of the West Antarctic ice sheet in the near future are tipped by northern hands

"The evolution of mankind - a growth of death-force."

—Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks

Those who inhabit American Antarctica view the polluting world by two means: First, as Paul Shepheard suggests, we occupy a lunar landscape closer to the abstractions of space than any other on Earth, and are able to cast a cold eye back north at the temperate continents ravaged by the zones of human commerce that now rule them; and then, stepping back, we see its local shadow from the porthole of a droning Hercules, through the windshield of our McMurdo truck, or under the power lines strung from imported telephone poles.

We strive busily on the far edge of empire, but often forget that we squat on the rim of an ice continent. We do not as a community meditate together on the vast fields of light. Mostly, we point to an odd shimmer, occasionally grow silent, and then move back to the dark task at hand. Is it any surprise that 40 years after arrival we still happily loaded up our urinals with lemon-scented Marine Pollutants?

The paper towel that started as a spruce on public land in Idaho before being chopped, pulped, rolled, trucked and then shipped down the Earth to the South Pole will have a 3-second hand-wiping life before being dumped, baled, and shipped back to the U.S. for incineration. The environmental costs per pound and per gallon for Antarctic food, furniture and fuel are insane, not least because of the additional costs of responsible removal of our things from the continent when they outlive their usefulness. We who pave the Earth are as obliged to that spruce as we are to the penguins.

To the NSF's credit, the USAP now does an excellent job of handling waste and promoting recycling. And a well-publicized Environmental team (full-time daisy pickers, essentially) has for the last several years chipped old debris out of the ice shelf and dug up some of the more notoriously fuel-contaminated ice and gravel. Also, certain efficiencies (tighter buildings, a waste heat capturing system, etc.) have been slowly brought into McMurdo, years after the initial proposals.

As for alternative energy, by 2010 some wind generators may be set up on a ridge over town, testing conditions for long-term use. Wind generation was used in Winter Quarters Bay by Robert Scott's 1902 Discovery expedition, and has not been seen in McMurdo since. Likewise, none of McMurdo's power is generated by solar panels. Why, at a base which at full population enjoys four months of 24-hour sunshine, and in a region characterized by its frequent winds, is there no alternative energy producing quiet power? The main answer is that because we already purchase such a large shipment of fuel for aviation, vehicles and heavy equipment, none of which can be replaced by alternatives, it's cheaper for the NSF to buy the extra gallons from an already necessary tanker than it is to invest in a new re-wired power source that is both partial and seasonal. Power plants don't plug their own lights into solar panels.

Solar energy won't help McMurdo during the long polar winter, either, but many of the dorms and science support buildings are occupied only in summer and could plug into alternatives, with the town's generators as backup. In the long-term, moreover, costs of establishing alternatives should equalize. And if not, then that's the price of the new stewardship. This, however, requires a bureaucratic entity, forced to respond to the whims and terms of short-term politics, to think and budget long-term.

For the NSF, moreover, all of this initial investment will come out of a science budget already deemed too thin by scientists whose careers rest on projects they can only do in the Antarctic. Lawsuits from the environmental lobby and negative media coverage have been strong motivators of the NSF's stewardship before, but the USAP is no longer a lawless polluter. It is, instead, just another lazy well-intentioned human institution, willing to change only what it feels it can afford to change. McMurdo is an outpost not only of our modern geopolitical desires but also of our contemporary ecological standards. Why should we expect our outposts to be any more responsible than the homeland?

So, for you and I to hold off the human death-force a little longer from the shores of the southern continent, what do we do? We do what we need to do for the rest of life on Earth as well: work to cut our nation's industrial emissions, recycle already-extracted materials, reduce or eliminate fishing pressure from the most sensitive parts of the oceans, take personal responsibility for our actions, seek out and preserve beauty where we find it. The work to preserve Antarctic waters and shores happens up here in the warm world, where the damage originates.

In addition, if you question some of the alleged virtues of our Antarctic presence, then take the political path to change how we do business there. Make no mistake: America, like the other 29 nations occupying the ice, has as its highest priority not the quality of its scientific research but the maintenance of its control over Antarctic geopolitics. The first recommendation (science came in at number two) by the Congress-mandated USAP External Panel in 1997 stated our government's view clearly: "The geopolitical importance…, in itself, justifies a year-round presence at several locations." (The italics belong to the Panel.) While the Panel described this as "support for responsible governance of a non-sovereign territory", it may be described more succinctly as the omnipresence of empire. With this in mind, consider supporting Greenpeace's Antarctic campaigns, or donate to ASOC (the Antarctica and Southern Oceans Coalition), which aims to protect the region "as the world's last unspoiled wilderness, a global commons for the heritage of future generations". Blindside your Senators by asking how they plan to preserve Antarctica for future generations.

As for my dilemma regarding living against my principles and supporting McMurdo's status quo (as well as beasts like Raytheon), I knew early on that I had made my choice. I fell in love with not only the white wilderness but also its ugly American gateway. Every summer for eight years, I happily loaded up with friends on a growling Herc and rumbled my way down from New Zealand to McMurdo. Arriving amid rusted fuel tanks and beeping forklifts, I looked beyond them to gauge the aesthetics of the far-away emptiness. I cheerfully ate, drank and gossiped with friends, then stayed up late to write my lyrical Antarctic prose. McMurdo's industrial ghetto served as a convenient foil for the perfect horizons. The two were, and still are, intimately linked in my heart. My occasional guilt was a small broken chain jingling from my ankle, more an ornament than a burden.

What balance should we make between love and ethics, between art and environmental politics? You decide, I decide, the world decides, and nearly always we decide against the places we love: Just one more condo in a freshly-clearcut Idaho valley, just one more jet-ski on Maine's peaceful waters, just one more summer serving American geopolitics on the only continent actually discovered by modern humans. I have been one of the little dark figures adding complexity to the barren simplicity of the Antarctic, inking up the margins of the white map, and I have loved it. Even now, a few years after my last polluting flight off the continent, I'm haunted much more by the stark beauty of the ice than by my participation in its contamination.