Chief Science Correspondent
In 72 days, I'll be heading off to one of the least populated regions on Earth.
My work as a graduate student at Ohio University centers around a suborder of Antarctic fishes known as the Notothenioids and how different species are impacted by changes in environmental temperature. I'll be working for three months at Palmer Station, a base operated by the United States Antarctic Program.
I want to learn as much as possible about living in the Antarctic before my deployment, and experiencing the continent through video seemed like a logical place to begin. One of the films on my must-see list was Antarctica: A Year on Ice, a documentary which was released to a limited number of U.S. theaters last November. I watched the film yesterday at the Athena Cinema, a local theater near OU's campus.
There are two seasons in the Antarctic: summer (October to February) and winter (February to October). The summers are mild (as a reference point, it was partly sunny and a balmy 24 degrees Fahrenheit at McMurdo Station today). The winters are, unsurprisingly, severely cold to a point that is difficult for most to comprehend, reaching temperatures below -100 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter in the Antarctic also brings severe storms and several months of uninterrupted darkness (in contrast, the summer brings several months of constant sunlight).
Antarctica is currently dedicated exclusively for science research. The 1959 Antarctic treaty, currently held by fifty nations - including the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Chile - was established to designate use of the Southern Hemisphere for "peaceful purposes only...[and to establish] freedom of scientific investigation."
One interviewee, Keri Nelson, said that the treaty is part of what makes the continent so special; the Antarctic is one of the last places on Earth relatively untouched by two man-made problems: global conflict and environmental destruction.
"We have nations getting together better in Antarctica than they're doing anywhere else in the world...That's happening right now on this continent," Nelson said. "And it's special."
Nelson also said that the Antarctic is both "magic and fragile," warning that the continent could easily be destroyed by commercial activity.
"If we're not cautious, if we're not careful, it could all get ruined," she said.
In the film, Powell documents the non-scientists who work in the science research bases, primarily McMurdo Station (U.S.) and Scott Station (New Zealand). Powell interviews firefighters, a store clerk, mechanics and engineers who have all chosen to venture down to the Antarctic. He also documents his own personal experiences - including his adventures with his wife Christine, whom he met and married while in Antarctica.
"Most days I can't believe I get to work in this place," Powell said. "But there are some days when I think they can't pay me enough."
"We have nations getting together better in Antarctica than they're doing anywhere else in the world...That's happening right now on this continent. And it's special.
And while this may be true, Powell's method of time-lapse photography was breath-taking in a way that still photos can't quite convey. This was especially true for Powell's numerous captures of the sky - both in the constant daylight of the summer and the constant nighttime of the winter. Personally, I was most captivated by Powell's images of the night - both of the nearly infinite, and colorful, stars and numerous images of the aurora australis, the southern counterpart to the northern lights.
Powell also documents the social and psychological aspects of living in Antarctica. Most scientists and workers inhabit the bases during the summer, but a select few will stay through the winter. The interviewees describe the experience of "wintering over" - including the weather, the total isolation, the complete darkness and the lack of fresh food. Anyone who chooses to stay on the base through the winter is unable to leave at any point during the season, as the harsh weather limits any air travel.
I initially chose to watch this film because I believed it would help prepare me for my own experience in Antarctica. And hearing people talk about their daily routines and seeing their community was extremely helpful. But I believe that even viewers who have no intention of setting foot on land south of Chile or New Zealand will find this film to be worth seeing. The Antarctic holds its own sort of allure, a land that holds great beauty but has yet to be fully explored. Of course, the best way to appreciate anything is to experience it in person, but Powell succeeds in offering the second best option.
Antarctica: A Year on Ice is playing in select theaters across the U.S. To look up a list of current showtimes, or to request screening in a certain city, click here.
Note: This film was part of The Common Experience Project's spring film series. These films are free and will play on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. in the Athena Cinema. Below is a list of upcoming films:
-Growing Cities (2/4)
-Food Chains (2/18)
-Chasing Ice and Thin Ice (2/23 - at Baker Theatre)
-Groundswell Rising (3/11)
-William and the Windmill (3/25)
-Oil & Water (4/15)
For more information on upcoming events, visit The Common Experience Project's Facebook page.