By Melanie Challenger
There are over fifty of us living here in this small collection of buildings in Antarctica – scientists, carpenters, electricians, pilots, mountaineers, survival experts, two chefs and a writer – and yet every hour the snow erases our presence and ours are the first footsteps again. Snow is our timekeeper. Every hour in Antarctica reflects the snow. The endless daylight releases us from the habits of sleep and we trail into the dining room with yesterday’s shadows at our heels. The Dash 7 and Twin Otter aircraft, defying the snow with bright orange paint, fly to the remoter parts of the continent at any time of day or night, distributing fuel, equipment, staff.
The reality of living hard by this element is one of insulation from its power. Sheltered, shockproofed, most people’s experience in this glittering landscape becomes functional or else a kind of betrayal that asserts itself in adventure. We trudge across it in mukluk boots, balaclava, fleece, fictile, covering the communing organs of skin, hair, tongue, iris, so that we never truly touch the snow.
The term ‘white space’ in advertising refers to the broad, empty borders of a page or poster, the clear expanses that emphasise an individual’s connection to an object they might desire (not need, for there is never cause to advertise a necessity) – it is a space into which the observer expands their vision and mind to bring themselves into the picture alongside that being sold: the white space of desire.
Antarctica is all whiteness. All white space. Its whiteness is so hostile that we cannot fully master it or succeed in translating it to our terms. We are here, nations stake their claims, yet people and societies cannot fully see a place for themselves or for their wants – not yet. Antarctica’s endless snow and ice, for as long as they dominate, suggest both an imagination of ceaseless power and a nothingness, a void into which we cannot quite embed ourselves. We walk. Then another fall comes to bury our mark.
I spent time in Antarctica during International Polar Year, a global, concerted effort to gather as much information as possible from the continent and its environs. The first of these international scientific efforts took place in 1882–3, followed by another in the 1930s. But the complex of permanent scientific stations was not constructed on the continent until the International Geophysical Year of 1957–8. The two major objectives of the International Geophysical Year were explorations of space and of Antarctica. In 1947, the Russian military fired the first intercontinental rocket, technology which led to the more significant launch of the first satellite.
Shot into the atmosphere in 1957 at the peak of the Cold War, Sputnik 1 spooked the American government sufficiently for them to fund a continual vigil by military planes loaded with hydrogen bombs, weapons with a considerably greater destructive capacity than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War. Sputnik 1 was the first man-made sound from space and anyone with a shortwave radio could eavesdrop on it. There is some evidence that President Eisenhower delayed the launch of an American satellite to allow for relations between the Soviet Union and the United States to settle down. Whatever the truth, Antarctica staged an important ideological accord when the United States invited the Soviet Union and the other countries participating in the International Geophysical Year to sign the Antarctic Treaty in 1959.
The treaty was a singular document, a diplomatic assertion of unity between nations that had only recently shaken free of war. The treaty prohibited military activity on the continent in perpetuity, including weapons testing, and instituted a series of agreements to safeguard the flora and fauna and the mineral resources of the region. The treaty was a charter of shared values and intentions from the century’s terrible wars.
In Antarctica, rockets and satellites, and other inventions originating in the violent posturing of those years, were put to more humane use. Satellites enabled the growth of modern oceanography, phenomenally increasing our understanding of the Earth’s climate and the expansion and retreat of the sea ice and the ice caps. In the 1960s, the Space Race and the lunar landing swivelled mankind’s sights back towards the Earth, inspiring some of the environmental movements of the coming decades.
But snow is a cover-up, a natural spin doctor. It causes a kind of cataracting in all those that work amid it.
A few weeks before I left for Antarctica, I was given a tour of the British Antarctic Survey headquarters in Cambridge. After a cup of tea in the ‘Icebreaker’ cafeteria, I was taken to a chilly laboratory which stored cores of Antarctic ice. Inside these were bubbles of prehistoric air and traces of dust, captured in snowflakes that had fallen over thousands and millions of years. Research into ice cores began in the late 1940s with the work of Danish scientist Willi Dansgaard. In 1954, he proposed that through the frozen annals of ice scientists could establish climatic changes in the past. Engineers adapted technologies used in mining and oil exploration to the conditions of ice and snow, and one of the greatest means of understanding the ancient past became possible. Along with evaluating the composition of the bygone atmosphere, and estimating the global mean temperature from the oxygen isotope ratios, scientists could measure the presence of windborne dust in each layer of ice to distinguish phases of climatic cooling. I found it a provocative idea that the pristine polar ice cosseted past realities in this way.
In 1998, scientists detected pollutants blasted into the world in 1945 in ice cores drilled from the Agassiz ice cap in the Nunavut territory of the Canadian Arctic.
Towards the end of the war, one of the leading scientists working on the atomic bomb communicated to President Truman that they had succeeded in manufacturing ‘a new explosive of almost unbelievable destructive power’. As a teenager, this single most horrifying innovation of the war years fascinated me. When I began researching extinction, I decided to go and listen to some testimonies of those who survived the atom bombs of 1945. One late summer day in 2007, not long before I left for Antarctica, I visited the archives at the British Library in London. Entering one of the small listening booths, I spent the day eavesdropping on the wretchedness of the past.
‘The raindrops were big and black,’ one woman said in a small, gritty voice. ‘What I felt at this moment was that Hiroshima was entirely made up of just three colours – red, orange and brown. The fingertips of those dead bodies caught fire – and the fire gradually burned down. I was so shocked to realize that fingers and bodies could burn like that.’
American forces dropped the first atomic bomb on 6 August and the second on the city of Nagasaki a few days later. Many people died instantly but others inherited the damage from their exposure, from the poisoned atmosphere, through their mother’s breast-milk or their father’s genetic material; 100,000–150,000 people died by the end of the year. The sound that I heard on the archive recordings was like elastic sheeting being jerked in and out, the noise expanding and contracting in queer, rhythmic intervals. The invention that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki could obliterate life swiftly and even alter a person’s cellular structure, the invisible qualities that made them human. On the tapes, one of the witnesses, Taeko Terumae, born on 19 July 1930, spoke about the days after she began to recover. ‘I found a piece of mirror,’ she said, ‘I looked into it. I had scars just like a mountain range on a map, and my eye like a pomegranate. I almost wished I had died like my sisters. I was so surprised to look like a monster.’
The experiences of those who survived the first nuclear attack were of such incomprehensible proportions that they found it difficult to articulate what they had witnessed. One survivor, a photographer, said that the world became bright white as if he’d gone blind. He had his camera with him and, at first, he took a few pictures. But as he neared the centre of the city and saw the mounds of people dead and burned in the middle of their customary activities, his urge to document the reality was completely overwhelmed by his mind’s refusal to accept or comprehend the horrors. ‘I walked for two to three hours but I couldn’t take a single photograph of the central area. Nobody took photos.’ Few survivors effectively communicated their experiences of an event of such abnormal suddenness, but in ten thousand years, the polar ice will still speak of these mutant blasts, if melting hasn’t hastened the world’s amnesia.
Snow. White space. Blank space. It recalls the aspect of human nature that is most particular to us – our ability to return our minds to earlier experience and our knack for remembering the past, the better to re-imagine the future. But the pregnability of the snow, its gift for receiving the imprint of movement and intention, is also its downfall. When the great snows of the world melt, it will be a huge act of collective forgetting. The snows’ records of our acts, our choices as individuals and societies, will soften and disperse, taken up by other elements that do not carry and preserve but endlessly wash over.