Monday, January 11, 2010

The real last frontier

I have heard of Alaska referred to as the last frontier, and although I have never been to Alaska, I would say Antarctica is the last frontier on earth. I notice it right here at Palmer station, in the mentality of the people around me. There is a frontier sense of hospitality: when a ship comes by our base, we will invite them to have dinner with us, unless it’s a cruise ship with more than 200 passengers, in which case we will give a presentation onboard the ship about our research. The visitors usually bring an appetizer to share, and then invite us onto their ship or yacht for the evening. There are so few people around here that them showing up in the harbor is reason enough to socialize. Similarly, we all rely on each other for help if things go badly; our search and rescue team has rescued extreme skiers in the mountains near the station.

Safety is a huge concern on the station because help is several days away. As I wrote in a previous post, it seems that half of station employees are on the fire brigade, and there are frequent drills. Every several years, an Antarctic base goes up in flames and it could be us next time. If there were to be a fire, we would have to fight it ourselves, and survive until help could arrive. This is the reason for two main buildings: if one burns down we can shelter in the other one. There is also danger associated with the scientific research and chemicals at the station. I have never seen so many spill kits in a lab! Likewise with health and hygiene: there is a sink directly in front of the food table in the kitchen, and everyone must wash their hands every time they get food, even if it’s for seconds. In addition, the bathroom nearest the kitchen is for No. 1 only, to reduce possible contamination by fecal matter.

The sense of being on a frontier is even more strongly evident when you think about the landscape beyond our station. A google image search for maps of this area turns up few results, and none on a fine scale. The nautical chart seems to be the best respresentation, and it doen’t map more than a few miles inland. But who would need it? No one goes there. And some of the islands on the charts have little notes saying that they are probably not placed in the correct location. At the southern end of her scientific cruise, the Gould will attempt to circumnavigate an island that emerged last year when the Wilkins ice shelf collapsed. The captain is concerned because the waters that have opened up are uncharted. Uncharted! Who can say they have literally been to uncharted waters anymore? Actually I suppose it will become more common as the ice shelves continue to collapse.

Another important aspect of a frontier to me is a lack of state presence. True, the settlement of a frontier is almost always a political act, and it is here to some extent as well (the Chilean and Argentinian bases pointedly have children and schools). But the governing Antarctic Treaty, an agreement between 45 countries to protect Antarctica, remains an abstract concept to me. More than anything Antarctica is a place where anyone is free to come, with no borders and few rules beyond not disturbing the wildlife.

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