In Antarctica, the wind can tear a tent to pieces. During some storms, the gusts are so powerful, you can’t leave the safety of your shelter. It’s one of the many reasons why the alluring, icy continent of Antarctica is an unforgiving landscape for human explorers.
“It’s incredibly beautiful, but it’s also incredibly dangerous,” says geologist Nina Lanza, who conducted research in the Miller Range in the central Transantarctic Mountains of Antarctica for about five weeks in December, 2015. “It’s not like Antarctica is out to get you, but it’s like you don’t matter at all. You are nothing out there.”
Yet, this landscape—unfit for human habitation—is where Lanza and the Antarctic Search for Meteorites program (ANSMET) volunteers find themselves banded together. They are prospecting for meteorites. Embedded in the sparkling blue ice sheets of the Antarctic interior are scientifically precious stones that have fallen to Earth from space. Lanza is a rookie meteorite hunter, enduring the hostile conditions of the Antarctic for the first time—searching for little geologic fragments that reveal the history of our solar system.
While most people associate Antarctica with penguins, in the Miller Range, there are no visible signs of life. There are no trees, animals, insects, or even birds in the sky. Being that isolated and alone is strange—it’s “very alien,” says Lanza.
“You know the cold and the living outside part? That is easy compared to the mental part,” she says. “It’s almost hard to explain the level of isolation. Like we think we’ve all been isolated before, but for real, in the Miller Range, you are out there.”
In this dramatic, extreme environment, Lanza finds comfort in the familiar details of everyday life at the ANSMET camp. Amid the Antarctic’s wailing winds, you can hear the recognizable hiss of a camp stove. During the holidays, Lanza got everyone singing Christmas carols. And then there’s the ‘poo bucket’—complete with a comfortable styrofoam toilet seat, scented candles, and bathroom reading reminiscent of home (including the New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly).
In the field, Nina documented these features of everyday life in detail, in pictures and voice recordings. “Everybody talks about how beautiful it is and you always see a million pictures of these grand vistas, but I’m like, ‘let’s talk about the less pretty stuff,’” says Lanza. Unless you make an effort to remind yourself, “you could almost forget that the poo bucket ever existed.”
The work isn’t easy. The ANSMET field team can spend up to nine hours a day on their skidoos (Lanza’s skidoo, “Miss Kitty,” is covered with Hello Kitty stickers) combing ice sheets and flagging potential meteorites. The never-setting sun glares intensely on the stretches of glistening, blue ice. (Old, compressed, ice appears blue.) On a clear, cloudless day out in the field, the sky and ice sheets seem to meet in one continuous field of blue, says Lanza.
“It’s almost like an artist’s conception of water rendered into glass or plastic,” she says about the ice. “It’s blue and it goes on forever.”
The meteorite hunters concentrate their searches in these shimmering, blue ice areas, because these ice fields are gold mines for meteorites. When a meteorite impacts Antarctica, it becomes buried in snow. Over time as the snow compresses, the rock gets trapped in glacial ice. If that ice doesn’t break off and fall into the sea, Antarctic winds can eventually resurface that buried treasure.
Over the last four decades, ANSMET scientists have collected over 20,000 rock specimens from the ice. And in December, 2015, Lanza thinks she may have helped strike gold in the form of a five-pound, grey rock. She and her colleagues will spend the next nine months wondering if this rock could be one of the most prized meteorites of all. Could it be a little piece of Mars?
This episode of Undiscovered was reported and produced by Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Editing by Christopher Intagliata. Fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Original music by Daniel Peterschmidt. Our theme music is by I am Robot and Proud. Voice acting by Alistair Gardiner and Charles Bergquist. Art for this episode by Claire Merchlinsky. Story consulting by Ari Daniel. Engineering help from Sarah Fishman. Thanks to Science Friday’s Danielle Dana, Christian Skotte, Brandon Echter, and Rachel Bouton.
Founding support for Undiscovered comes from the John Templeton Foundation.