What It's Like to Live on a Ship Sailing Through the Antarctic Ice

The beauty around the Earth coldest, driest, continent provides experiences that "are like touching infinity."
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In the middle of February, a team of scientists set sail from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, for a two-month mission around the frigid waters. For the first week or so, they never saw the sun set -- Antarctic summer days may not be balmy, but they are long. When it finally did dip below the horizon, the sight was spectacular. Cassandra Brooks, a scientist and writer who has been blogging her journey, captured that moment, "the summer's grand finale," in a photograph.

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Cassandra Brooks

Brooks and her team are on board the Nathaniel B. Palmer, an ice-breaking ship that has been home to researchers studying the Antarctic ice for more than two decades.

They sleep in beds like this:

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USAP

They eat in this mess hall:

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USAP

They work out in this gym:

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USAP

And they hang out in this lounge, or another one like it, complete with little libraries of books and movies:

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USAP

Brooks has now condensed her two-month expedition into just five beautifully narrated minutes.

Brooks and the other scientists on board are trying to understand how the dynamics of Antarctica's waters work, and the role they play in ecosystems around the globe. As NOVA explained in a recent special (see chapter 5), "It's hard to believe that anything life-giving could start here, in this bleak place, but that's exactly what happens. Antarctica's ice plays a vital part in maintaining global climate, sustaining life in lush, warm jungles, thousands of miles away." 

How's that? As ice crystals form on the sea's surface, salts separate from the water, and create a dense brine, which sinks below the regular sea-water. The scientists studying the Antarctic seas are trying to understand how far down that water sinks, in the hopes of solving the mystery of where all that brine -- "a vast submarine waterfall" -- goes. "All the water in the bottom of every ocean around the globe has its start within six miles of the Antarctic continent," says NASA oceans scientists David Adamec in the NOVA documentary. If we're to understand how a changing climate will play with that circulatory system, we need to first know how it works.

Brooks says that people often ask her "why I would want to work in Antarctica -- the windiest, driest, coldest continent on Earth." She found her answer to that question in that first sunset. "These moments -- humbled by the extreme elements and exhilarated by the sheer beauty of the place -- here at the bottom of the world," she writes, "are like touching infinity."

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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