When Winonan Kurt Sarkiaho heard a presentation by Winona State University professor emeritus Carol Jefferson describing penguins and seals going blind from overexposure to UV rays on her recent trip to Antartica, he could imagine it. During the year he spent beneath the hole in the ozone layer working as a carpenter on that coldest continent in 2001, his employer provided him with special sunglasses for the year, a luxury the penguins and seals did not share. Jefferson, who travelled with a small ship of scientists this winter, and Sarkiaho, are two of the few Winonans who have been to Antarctica, and Sarkiaho is one of several hundred people in the world who have spent a winter at the South Pole itself.
Winona biologist Carol Jefferson (far left) travelled to the Antarctic Peninsula with her hydrologist daughter Anne Jefferson (far right), geologist son-in-law Chris Rowan (center left), and granddaughter Elisabeth.
Not including wind chill, it was -110º Fahrenheit on the coldest day of the winter when, like everyday, Sarkiaho walked from his quonset hut quarters to the main building of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
"We had red lights on buildings and posts," Sarkiaho explained. "You looked at the red lights and you went to it. You don't deviate from the path." If he ever lost sight of the red light in the driving wind and snow, Sarkiaho and his colleagues were trained to crouch down for cover and wait for someone to come looking for them. Being outside at the South Pole in the winter "was really nice," he said. He was not joking.
"Yeah, the cold and the wind — it was excellent," he said. Sarkiaho admitted that it was bitterly cold, but he said he loved the pole. When asked why, he laughed. "People do dangerous things just because there's is a thrill involved in it. That's the kind of people that go down there," he said. He added that Antarctica also attracts a disproportionate number of Minnesotans. The adventurous types made for good company, and Sarkiaho was surprised by how much he enjoyed the isolation of the place. He wound up going because he told a friend at church that he needed an adventure. The friend's brother worked at the pole. Sarkiaho was sold.
Outside of Sarkiaho's quonset hut, the landscape at the pole was horizontal. "Imagine you're on an ocean of ice that's two miles deep," he said. "If you were on an ocean and there were waves and swells, that's what the antarctic is; it's just snow drifts," he continued.
Jefferson's recent excursion to the Antarctic Peninsula, a rocky arm of the continent that nearly touches the tip of Argentina, was far from the South Pole station and far more mild. Sarkiaho said that the warmest day during the summer, when he and his fellow carpenters worked outside, was -30º F. Jefferson went with a small ship of scientists during the peak of summer on the Antarctic Peninsula. They enjoyed temperatures near +30º F most afternoons. The coldest it got was in the teens, she said. She laughed, "It was warmer than Winona."
Nevertheless, Jefferson's trip was not without risk. The passage from Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula is often violently stormy, she said. Ships always travel in pairs in the Antarctic because they are so far from other help, and the ship she travelled on saved the crew of the the original National Geographic Explorer, which sank in the Antarctic ten years ago, she said. On her trip, the ship made the passage during the only two days of the week that were not racked by high wind and heavy waves.
In the coves of the peninsula, Jefferson gripped the sides of rubber dinghies called zodiaks as they zipped around icebergs. "The scenery was just amazing," she commented. From geology to astronomy, the unique features of Antarctica inspired awe and lots of interesting, albeit technical, conversation on the ship full of scientist, she added.
Ancient glaciers sit beside active volcanoes in the bizarre peninsula. The lava is still spawning new islands and the crust of the seventh continent is crunched up into mountains. Teams of seals corral fish, while rocks teem with nesting penguins. Numerous whale skeletons rest on the shore, gristly relics of the whaling days. "I think we took 4,000 pictures," Jefferson said of herself and her companions. "Just seeing the place was amazing," she said.
It is all quickly changing, though, Jefferson said. Studies by the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research indicate that Antarctic climate has changed significantly in recent decades and that these changes may negatively affect the Antarctic ecosystems. Jefferson stated that overharvesting by fishermen and the changing climate are depleting the base of the Antarctic food chain, krill. "With the rapidity of climate change, you have to see these things now," she added.
The lingering awe was palpable in Sarkiaho's voice as he described his memories of the place. He remembers one sight best of all. A phenomenon called the green flash that only occurs when viewing the sunset during calm seas from a vessel in the open ocean. All over the world, voyagers may be lucky enough see a flash of emerald light for a couple seconds just as the sun slips below the horizon. However, the sun sets so slowly in the Antarctic that the phenomenon can last for hours, according to the British Antarctic Survey. At that tip of the world, it is more than an emerald flash, Sarkiaho said. He described it as "a gold and red orb in the middle and all shades of grey going up to it from the bottom, green all across the horizon." There is nothing like it, he said.
Sarkiaho did not pause when asked if he would go back to Antarctica. "Yes, and I would recommend other people do it, too."