Planet polar: The lure of Earth's ends

Earth's two poles are remote and dangerous. But they have what no nearby planet has: water, air, and abundant natural and biological resources. That makes these frigid regions hot.

By , Editor

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    Adélie penguins stand atop melting ice at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, in East Antarctica.
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Imagine NASA announcing the discovery of a nearby world with an Earth-like atmosphere that supports marine animals and plants, along with birds and assorted fauna. Also abundant: hydrocarbon and minerals. Unlike Mars, Venus, and the other neighboring planets, this would be a place humans could work with. It would be cold and snowy and have long periods of darkness, but there would be air to breathe, water to drink, and possibilities for food and energy.

Its biggest asset: It would be on Earth.

Not to take anything away from space exploration, which deepens our understanding of the physical universe, but Earth exploration isn’t exactly passé. That’s especially true of the polar regions, which, as Doug Fox explains in a Monitor cover story, are now hotbeds of exploration and exploitation.

There are huge differences between the poles. The north is a sea surrounded by land – a frigid Mediterranean – and thus caught up in territorial claims. It is coveted as both a destination and a transit zone. The south is an ice-impounded continent moated by formidable seas. Isolation makes Antarctica one of the world’s most cooperative scientific projects.

Polar exploration is a surprisingly young endeavor. It began seriously only in the mid-19th century during what is known as the Heroic Age. Its history is marked by dramas, mysteries, and eloquence – the lost voyages of the HMS Terror and Erebus, the stoic tragedy of Robert Falcon Scott (“We took risks. We knew we took them. Things have come out against us. We have no cause for complaint.”), the epic endurance of Ernest Shackleton.

Polar interest went cold during and after World War I, heated up again with Richard Byrd’s solo Arctic missions, subsided during World War II, returned with the postwar establishment of permanent research outposts on the southernmost continent, quieted somewhat during the 1960s rush of space exploration, and has now been energized by the quest for knowledge and resources.

Polar expeditions push technology to the edge and challenge the human conceit that we have conquered our planet. The great Shackleton knew what he was in for when he advertised for a crew: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” To his credit, he led all his men to safety.

The Shackleton saga ended just before the advent of radio, which might have allowed the icebound crew to issue a distress call. For Admiral Byrd, helicopters, snowcats, and the Internet would have eased an ordeal that verged on mental breakdown (“A discordant mind, black with confusion and despair, would finish me off as thoroughly as the cold.”). Even now, human ingenuity has not fully conquered these regions. Last month, the Russian research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy got trapped in the Antarctic.

As difficult as the poles are, however, they are at least on this planet. Driven by climate change and economics, humans will figure out how to live and work there. But it would honor the polar Heroic Age – and vastly benefit humanity – if the enduring resources extracted during the new polar age aren’t mineral and biological or even scientific. The ends of the Earth can become a school where humans learn how to work together and how to protect and share the planet. That would be a crucial lesson to take with us as we reach for the stars.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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