Antarctica 2013: The Coldest Place On Earth

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For the Antarctic explorers that we’ve been following over the past few weeks, yesterday was mostly just another day out on the ice. Most are making slow, but steady progress towards the South Pole, but the frozen continent isn’t being particularly hospitable. High winds, cold temperatures and whiteout conditions are all part of the norm there, and at times all of those things conspire to make for tough going. The skiers have now entered “the grind” where they’re simply in a monotonous routine that they’ll just have to stick with until the very end.

It is important to note that it is currently spring in Antarctica (summer begins 10 days) and this is the time of the year when the weather is at its best. This was underscored earlier in the week when it was announced that researchers have located the coldest place on the planet and it is in Antarctica. The exact location is known as the Valkyrie Dome, which is found in East Antarctica. Back in August of 2010, the mercury dipped to -135.8ºF (-93.2ºC) as recorded by NASA climate satellites. That beat the old record of -128.6ºF (-89.2ºC), which was recorded at a Russian research station also in the eastern part of the continent. The researchers warned that at those extreme temperatures it can hurt your lungs just to breathe. It is so cold in fact that carbon dioxide gas would freeze to a solid, creating dry ice. One researcher estimated that without protective gear to keep you warm, a human being would survive just three minutes. Now that is cold.

Fortunately, Richard Parks isn’t dealing with those kinds of conditions on his attempt at the speed record to the South Pole. Richard is now six days in and fighting an uphill battle. Two days ago the winds were so bad that he only managed to cover 9.6 km (6 miles) before returning to his tent. Yesterday was much better, has he knocked 34.8 km (21 miles) off his total, but he still has roughly 977.5km (608 miles) to go. At this point, I’m not sure how he can break he record. He simply isn’t able to cover the distances he needs to do so. That could change, and it’ll take a herculean effort on his part to do so, but the weather is going to have to cooperate first. Strong headwinds and lots of soft snow on the surface are working against him at the moment.

South Pole cyclist Daniel Burton did finally get a good days riding in yesterday. He has also been plagued with high winds and poor surface conditions, but yesterday he managed to cover 15.3 nautical miles (28.3 km). He says that if he can manage to average 15 miles per day, he should be able to reach the Pole as expected. If his average drops below that, he may not have enough food and supplies to complete the journey. Either way, it is going to be a struggle all the way to the end. He has started to take a different approach to the ride however. Initially he was hoping to be on the bike for 10 hours, but now he will ride for five, stop and have a good meal and melt more snow for drinking water, before proceeding for a second shift of five hours. He hopes the break will keep him more rested and energized.

Kite skier Geoff Wilson reached several milestones yesterday thanks to strong winds and improved surface conditions. First, he was extremely happy to clear a section of difficult ice and be out in the open once more. That allowed him to cover 170.9 km (106 miles) in a single day. That means, thanks to his kite, he was really moving out there. He also crossed 80ºS and found a Russian road that runs all the way to the South Pole. He’s going to stay close to that road as he passes through major crevasse fields between 81-83ºS. That should help keep him safe in that treacherous area. Finally, he also set a new record for an Aussie traveling solo in Antarctica. Geoff has now covered 1159.4 km (720.4 miles), more than anyone else from his home country has done on their own. He is now more than halfway to the Pole, with just 1050 km (652 miles) to go. After his epic day yesterday, Wilson is taking a rest day today.

Finally, the Scott Expedition has completed a bit of a milestone themselves. After 46 days on the ice, the last of which was particularly draining, they have now put the bulk of the climbing behind them and have nearly reached the top of the Antarctic Plateau. That means relatively smooth and straight sailing all the way to the South Pole. Yesterday they dropped another supply depot for their return trip, which has also lightened the sleds considerably. Hopefully that means they’ll be picking up the pace in the days ahead as they near the halfway point of their journey. Total distance yet to go: 1222.2 miles (1967 km). Hand in there boys.

That’s it for today. More soon I’m sure.

Kraig Becker