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Describing Antarctica

Some places are difficult to describe, but Antarctica might just be the hardest.

Describing Antarctica

It’s hard for most people who visit Antarctica to express the feeling that comes from seeing it first-hand. Visitors returning from some destinations can talk about it easily because the experience is accessible. Visitors to Africa struggle, because the overall experience is one so natural as to be surreal. But, a visit to Antarctica presents a whole other challenge in communication. It’s the challenge of trying to convert the unimaginable into the understandable.

I’ll give you an idea of what we mean. Bear with us as we crunch the numbers, it will be worth it in the end.

We all know that Antarctica is covered in snow and epic glaciers, as it is the defining image of Antarctica. The snow that feeds these glaciers mostly falls in the High Polar Plateau, the large flat middle part of Antarctica. It falls at less than 50mm per year, which is an incredibly low amount (one of the reasons Antarctica is actually technically a desert). This snow then compiles as each snowfall passes, and becomes denser and denser as the fresh snow on top presses down on the snow beneath. Over time, a lot of time, this snow will eventually progress through to be a substance called firn, eventually compressing further to become glacial ice. There is a difference between the two. Whereas fresh snow has a density of around 50 kilograms per square metre, glacial ice instead has a density of over 830 kilograms per square metre.

This is where it starts to become mind-boggling.

Antarctica is a massive continent, almost two times the size of Australia. The polar plateau we talked about is covered by an ice cap over 4 kilometres thick.

Yes, you read that right. There are massive mountain ranges, lakes, and much more, completely buried underneath the ice cap. That ice cap alone is taller than most mountains in Europe. Not only that, but that ice alone is 90% of the ice in the entire world, and also 70% of the entire world’s fresh water. And, remember the 830-kilogram density we talked about earlier? With over 4 kilometres in thickness, and almost a tonne of weight every square metre, the entire continent of Antarctica, and its massive mountains, are being pressed down into the earth. The massive amount of ice is pushing the continent below the waterline.

Then we have glaciers. Glaciers are essentially frozen rivers, flowing in epic icy currents towards lower land. This polar plateau creates massive movements of ice, whether it be through the many, many glaciers that dot the landscape or through massive ice sheet movement. When glaciers and ice sheets meet the water, icebergs are born. Some are cute, only the size of an aeroplane. Others are the size of an apartment block, whilst others are larger than an entire city block. There is one currently floating about that is larger than the entire country of Jamaica.

This then brings us to the challenge of describing the sights of Antarctica. How do you describe something that almost defies description? How do you express the feeling of seeing an entire city block of ice float past you, or witnessing the gigantic icy barriers that stop you from landing wherever you want? What the Irish Cliffs of Moher are to rock, Antarctic instead does in ice.

There’s even something, in the nothing. In a world of colour and noise, there is something so surreal about being utterly surrounded by silence, standing in a largely monochrome environment. There is no insect noise, no bird call, no human noise. All you can hear when away from other visitors, is the infrequent creak and crack of ice. Occasionally an epic boom rings out as a glacier calves, and an iceberg is born before your eyes. There is no green on display, no red, no yellow, except the sunsets. The only colours on offer are just a landscape of black, white and blue, save for the occasional orange beak of a Gentoo penguin.

And yet, there is something in the nothingness. In fact, there is everything in the nothingness. This leads you to the biggest revelation of all.

Antarctica doesn’t want you there.

It will allow you to visit, but it isn’t made for you. In fact, it is made for no one.

In most places, Mother Nature gives in abundance. Rainforests are dense in nutrients and savannah grasslands provide enough for millions of animals to graze. All of these ecosystems are designed to maximise biodiversity and life.

Antarctica is not that. If the world is home, and the rainforests are the kitchen cupboards, Antarctica is the bedroom behind the closed door. You can see it in the quiet moments when the wind stops and the place falls silent. It is utterly still. And if you are lucky, the slightest touch of wind causes the floating ice sheets to rise in a rolling rhythm. It looks like the world is breathing like you are in the bedroom whilst Mother Nature herself is sleeping.

But, this is Mother Nature’s personal space. If she doesn’t want you in there, you won’t be going in. As early explorers can attest, it only takes a moment before the tides turn and the ice blocks your entry, or worse, the exit. Only a select few get invited in, at select times, and that privilege can be quickly withdrawn if you overstay your welcome.

And ultimately, that’s what Antarctica is: A privilege. In a world where battles for resources are always ongoing, somehow in the middle of the Cold War the countries of the world agreed to set aside national interests for the benefit of a mutual interest. Maybe because it was so uninviting, so inhospitable, or so remote. Or perhaps they realised there was something special about this place. It remained the only place left on earth where man had not, and could not, bend the environment to its will.

It remains the only place with enough power to push mountains underwater, and birth icebergs the size of countries.

It remains, indescribably, Antarctica.

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Travel isn’t what is used to be. It used to be undertaken with a sense of adventure and discovery. As the world shrunk, so did our imaginations and over time, manufactured experiences, sponsored travel lists and mass tourism have slowly extinguished that magic. Amazing destinations, catering to the crowds, have become overwhelmed shadows of their former selves.

And so, we established The Explorer Society to be a travel company for like‑minded travellers. It’s for those who travel for the destination and the incredible experiences to be found within, not just for the bragging rights. We are passionate about avoiding the crowds and providing real and revelatory experiences.

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