While much of the discussion is still about aircraft, ships and traverse vehicles, some early results are emerging. Some results are scientific. Sediments cored from the edge of the Antarctic ice sheet indicate the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has grown and shrunk much more frequently than previously appreciated. Water beneath the ice sheets has been documented to move rapidly thought subglacial systems.
Some findings have to do with the fabric of science. A remarkable new network of young scientists has formed, new stations have been built, and new ways of collaborating have been developed. The next five years will see the blossoming of polar science and new data interpreted, delayed programs implemented, and a new generation of scientists actively working together to understand our planet. The polar regions are changing faster than any other place on the planet. The data sets acquired within the framework of the IPY, the new young networks of polar scholars, and the new infrastructure incorporated during the IPY will be crucial to advancing our understanding of these changing places over the coming decades.
Last month, I opened an e-mail from Professor Emeritus Frank H. Pabodie of the Miskatonic University Engineering School. At a quick glance, the letter seemed legitimate—it was not from Africa and did not ask for my bank accounts. The letter touched my vanity by mentioning my other work so I read on. Then, in the third paragraph, it began to seem strange as the professor claimed to have been to East Antarctica prior to 1958. So I Googled Professor Pabodie. Oops! I had been reading a letter from a fictional character in an H. P. Lovecraft 1930 science fiction novella.
Apparently in 2008 this fictional character has a G-mail account and the university has a Web site. Certainly H. P. Lovecraft, an early science fiction writer often compared to Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King, had neither an e-mail address nor a Web site. In the 1920s Lovecraft was entranced by polar exploration. Admiral Byrd's first flights over Antarctica during the second polar year serve as the core of this novella, The Mountains of Madness. Professor Pabodie had been responsible for both the drilling devices and the heaters for the aircraft engines—both useful skills for our upcoming expedition.
While Pabodie claimed that the Gamburtsev Mountains had been discovered in by his expedition in the 1920s during the Second International Polar Year, it is more accurately attributed to the 1958 Soviet Antarctic expedition. This expedition was part of the Third International Polar Year, more widely called the International Geophysical Year. Shooting small explosives and recording the echoing energy, the expedition discovered a region of very thin ice in the center of the ice sheet—a mountain range entirely covered with ice. The expedition named the mountain range for Grigory Gamburtsev, a Soviet seismologist known for his efforts to predict earthquakes.
Even without the ghostly figures that inhabit Lovecraft's Antarctic mountain ranges, the Gamburtsev Mountains remain a mystery. They are completely covered with ice. Not a single craggy peak sticks up out of the ice sheet. They are tall—rising about 9,000 feet (2,700 meters) above the surrounding terrain. This means the Gamburtsev Mountains tower over the Appalachians and are about as high as the Alps—and hundreds of miles wide. If a well-maintained highway cut across them it would take the better part of a day to cross them. But, alas, there is no highway. Our team from six nations (which conceived of the Antarctic Gamburtsev Province, or AGAP, project as part of the Fourth IPY) has been working for eight years to figure out how to cross this remote terrain in three small scientifically equipped aircraft.