As you saw in my last post, the 2019 expedition —months in the planning — has made landfall, if you will, on its way to one of the harshest regions in Antarctica. Their official mission is to gather vital data on the rare and little-studied species of marine life which call the icy western Weddell Sea home, and to monitor the effects of rapidly accelerating climate change.
The unofficial mission is to find the remains of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, which could only endure so much before it was crushed by pack ice and abandoned at 5 p.m. local time on Oct. 27, 1915 — this, after Shackleton and his crew of 27 had survived nine months trapped in the Antarctic ice, four of those months in winter darkness.
On this past New Year’s Day, while countless partygoers around the world nursed a hangover from the night before, the roughly 30 scientists and 138 crew members aboard the expedition ship SA Agulhas II played an impromptu game of soccer on the Antarctic ice — 104 years to the day after Shackleton and his crew played a New Year’s Day soccer game of their own, even if they called it football. (That event was photographed for posterity by Shackleton expedition photographer Frank Hurley — who, it’s often noted, deserves much more credit than he’s received over the years for making a record of Shackleton’s exploits for future generations.)
The Weddell Sea expedition is enthralling stuff, especially as it comes in cynical, jaded times, when global anxiety and an all-pervading sense of gloom rule the day. Social media gets a bad rap — it probably wouldn’t be as bad if only users learned how to use it, but that’s an argument for another day — but the age of instant communications has its upside: Not only are events from the Weddell Sea expedition being shared around the world in real time via Twitter (@WeddellSeaExped) but the UK Royal Geographical Society, one of the expedition’s primary sponsors, has made teaching resources available for educators, presumably for those public schools that haven’t trashed their history and geography programs.
Why do we care about Ernest Shackleton more than 100 years later? Perhaps it has something to do with courage. And competence. After all, in an age when little of social or political consequence ever seems to get done — when more people are concerned about who got voted off The Voice last night than finding a way to fix Brexit, the polar ice melt, species extinction and our growing climate emergency — the idea that, with cool heads and strong leadership, more than 20 human beings can survive nine months trapped in polar ice and then navigate their way to safety in lifeboats across 1,300 km (800 miles) of open water — in Antarctica, no less.
And then there’s the place itself. Even as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft discovery of the most distant object ever explored at the edge of the solar system continues to make news headlines, Antarctica remains the last great unknown in the annals of contemporary exploration of the world’s land masses. Much like the snowman-shaped, 33-km (21 mile) long asteroid 2014 MU69 orbiting the edge of the solar system, well beyond Pluto, much of Antarctica remains unchanged since the beginning of recorded time, in no small part because of the desolate conditions.
“There’s no way to make anything like this . . . type of observation without having a spacecraft out there,” New Horizons deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin told reporters in a press conference just days ago.
The same could be said of SA Agulhas II and the Weddell Sea Expedition. It’s hard to beat being there.