I sometimes watch documentaries about far off things and by following my curiosity feel struck by a spiritual sense of wonder. It’s the total opposite of the heavy ashen feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when someone is watching one of those “reality” shows or a sitcom with a laugh track. One feels divine, the other feels banal and dreary as snack cake wrappers on the sidewalk.
I recently found this documentary about diving under the Antarctic Ice.
There’s a smoldering black volcano, frosted in white, Mount Erebus, looming over their wind-savaged ice sheet.
There’s the cozy McMurdo base that feels like a colony on another planet.
The film shows what the crew has to deal with trying to film there, it’s not just nature footage disconnected from their struggle.
There’s logistics we’d normally never think about. Because the ice changes constantly, a route that was safe for vehicles at the last survey might not be anymore. Even getting to the locations they want to shoot at comes with substantial dangers.
Their leader seems extremely patient and after decades of experience pretty much unflappable. Even when being told bad news he just respectfully listens. They have a task to accomplish, not make-work, so whining doesn’t help.
Once they start diving, it’s amazing how there’s plenty of life below thriving in an eerie glow of light filtered through tons of ice. I’ve been fascinated by these creatures ever since I read as a kid that they actually have anti-freeze in their blood. Growing like coral on the ocean floor are these formations of ice crystals, the points where freeze battles thaw. They find actual tubes of ice formed by sea water passing through currents of melting fresh water. The divers can only spend about 20 minutes even with heavy duty suits. And again there’s details we’d never think about—even with all their gear, their lips are still directly exposed to the sub-freezing water.
There’s just a short time they can do their work in the spring when they have enough sunlight and the waters are still among the clearest in the world, they can see a quarter mile in the dim light! They don’t have long before plankton and algae blooms cloud up the water for the summer.
I looked up some things on life in Antarctica and discovered that McMurdo base always has at least one bar open and signs in each building telling people the conditions outside, whether it’s even permissible to go out. Mount Erebus actually has a volcanology lab on top.
Apparently something like 5000 people live in Antarctica in the summer, closer to 1000 in the winter. There is still no such thing as an Antarctican, there have been 10 people born there since 1978, as close as we get for now.
It’s obvious watching this film that these people are operating in environments almost completely hostile to human life. Suddenly all the talk of moonbases and mars colonies seems quite silly.
Even life in Antarctica right here on earth is impractical. Or look at all the uninhabited deserts and mountains in pretty much every country on Earth. Not that many people are willing to live in Montana let alone on Mars.
I suppose the next frontier might simply be to develop technologies that open up marginal lands and make people less dependent on centralized grids.
At present all the trends point to urbanization and the more people are forced to live in the center to find jobs and mates, the more control the rulers will have, just as Pharaohs had over peasants stuck on a narrow fertile strip by the Nile surrounded by desert.