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The Crystal Desert: Summers in Antarctica

The Crystal Desert: Summers in Antarctica

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by David G. Campbell

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THE CRYSTAL DESERT: SUMMERS IN ANTARCTICA is the story of life's tenacity on the coldest of Earth's continents. It tells of the explorers who discovered Antarctica, of the whalers and sealers who despoiled it, and of the scientists who are deciphering its mysteries. In beautiful, lucid prose, David G. Campbell chronicles the desperately short summers on the


THE CRYSTAL DESERT: SUMMERS IN ANTARCTICA is the story of life's tenacity on the coldest of Earth's continents. It tells of the explorers who discovered Antarctica, of the whalers and sealers who despoiled it, and of the scientists who are deciphering its mysteries. In beautiful, lucid prose, David G. Campbell chronicles the desperately short summers on the Antarctic Peninsula. He presents a fascinating portrait of the evolution of life in Antarctica and also of the evolution of the continent itself.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Campbell's eloquent chronicle of three summers spent at a desolate research center in Antarctica details the region's geology, botany and animal life. (Jan.)
Library Journal
While Greater Antarctica has often been depicted as a vast, frozen wasteland, marine biologist and researcher Campbell writes that during ``the short erotic summer along the ocean margins of the continent, Antarctica seemed to be a celebration of everything living.'' A rare nonfiction winner of the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award, he recounts three summers he spent on the Antarctica Peninsula. Along with descriptions of seabirds, walruses, and plankton, Campbell ruminates on a number of topics, ranging from his research (``It is snow-hailing this morning when I make my first scuba dive into Admiralty Bay'') to sealing and whaling, geology and paleontology. Campbell effectively delineates the Antarctic with words as Ron Naveen and others did with photography in Wild Ice ( LJ 11/15/90). Crystal Desert will be compared to Barry Lopez's Artic Dreams ( LJ 3/1/86), but Campbell is a scientist who writes rather than a writer about science. Recommended for medium to large public and academic libraries.-- Jean E. Crampon, Hancock Biology & Oceanography Lib . , Univ. of Southern California, Los Angeles
The author's personal account of his experiences at the Brazilian Antarctic Research Station during three "erotic summers"--erotic because the only sensible balance to the cold, life-threatening winters of Antarctica is an all out procreative frenzy--both for indigenous life and visiting researchers. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A glittering, curlicued natural history of Antarctica: Campbell's literary debut and a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award winner. Campbell (Nations and the Global Environment/Grinnell College) passed three summers at Brazil's Antarctic Research Station, in a land of surprisingly abundant life "hatching, squabbling, swimming, and soaring on the sea wind" during the "short, erotic summer." His research centered on marine crustaceans, but his canvas here encompasses all wild creatures of the Antarctic—as well as the humans who have hunted them to near-extinction. Campbell scuba dives in unexplored waters and finds an ocean floor teeming with "a bouquet of species" that includes anemones, sea stars, limpets, giant sea spiders, and more sponges than anywhere else on earth. He collects Weddell seal dung; visits a penguin rookery with its "fetal barnyard stench"; notes the "incongruous—and sublime" presence of fiery volcanoes in a land of ice; watches a "blizzard of plankton" at night and likens it to the swarming stars above. Superlatives abound: the Atlantic Convergence (the waters cutting Antarctica off from the rest of the planet) is "the longest and most important biological barrier on earth"; Antarctica "is the windiest place on earth"; the continent's dry valleys are "the simplest of Earth's ecosystems." Fossils excite Campbell's fancy (he wonders if we might find similar remains on Mars, with its Antarctic-like climate), as do ornithology and plate tectonics. He deplores seal and whale hunting as "carnage," and he frets about the Antarctic blue whale, now protected but perhaps too decimated to repopulate. Yet Campbell seems to appreciate the economic motivesbehind the great age of Antarctic hunting, and he admits to some edginess about Greenpeace—a nuanced position that reflects his firm grasp of the lovely, impossibly tangled web of Antarctic life. Fits nicely alongside Stephen Pyne's The Ice (1986) on the very slim shelf of first-rate Antarctic natural histories.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt

The Crystal Desert

Summers in Antarctica


Copyright © 1992 David G. Campbell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0618219218

Chapter One

Seabirds and Wind

An albatross, whose wide-spread wings asleep Lazily follow, poised above the wake, The vessel gliding o'er the bitter deep.

... Thus with the Poet! though he ride the cloud, Soar with the storm in skyey wanderings, Exiled to earth amid the howling crowd, He stumbles, shackled by his giant wings.


GETTING TO ANTARCTICA, whether by airplane or by ship, is often uncomfortable and always dangerous. Tonight, the beginning of my third summer in the Antarctic, I board the Barão de Teffé, the supply vessel of the Brazilian navy, at Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia. At the hour of our departure the rotund Brazilian consul is at the quay with a coterie of women and children, who hold hands in a large circle and sing seafarers' songs of loneliness and isolation. A lone woman in the front seat of a green Subaru seems to be sobbing and praying. The sailors are morose. There is a certain unease tonight. What does the Drake Passage have in store for us? Crossing the roaring forties and screaming fifties by ship from Patagonia can be serene, on wide, slow swells. Or it can be a nightmare, on seas so madly kinetic that you have to brachiate from handrail to handrail and adapt toknee-buckling extra G's as the ship rises, and near weightlessness when she falls. If you stand on the poop deck, you hear the propeller turning in the air one second and are inundated by freezing sea the next. And even if you don't become seasick, the constant battle against the ever-shifting sea dilates every mundane activity and makes you grumpy and tired.

Last week the Profesor Besnard, the research vessel of the University of São Paulo, sheared her drive shaft in the Drake Passage and, without control in the high seas, almost foundered. The captain radioed an SOS and the crew was ordered to the lifeboat stations, although launching the open boats in the high seas would have been suicidal. The metal tables in the laboratory, located over the bucking stern, were bowed by the extra strain placed on them during the wave shocks. But the Profesor Besnard was lucky. As abruptly as the storm started, it marched eastward, and the ship was safely towed to port.

The Barão de Teffé was built in Denmark specifically for expeditions to polar regions. She has changed hands several times, first serving the Danish Lauritzen Line (the blankets and towels still bear the insignia of that company) and later carrying the French flag before being purchased by Brazil. Her charter Brazilian captain was Comandante Ferraz, who died while bringing her to Brazil from Europe. Her ice-strengthened hull is painted bright red for quick identification, and if need be, rescue, among the white ice floes.

She is a clamorous vessel. The hydraulic steering mechanism, located behind my cabin, whines and clinks every few seconds. Each cabin has a ghetto blaster playing Bronx rap music, which is all the rage among the crew; only rarely does one hear an indigenous samba or tropical. The ship is overcrowded, and three or four people are crammed into cabins made for two. My two roommates are engineers who preen the diesels. Their orange deck clothing, grimy with grease, hangs from hooks on the door. Career officers, they alternate five months at sea with seven at home in Rio de Janeiro. They have developed the easy amiability that is requisite for survival in crowded quarters for long periods at sea. But still they have become slightly stir-crazy, spending their leisure hours playing cards and dominoes, slapping the chips on the Formica table with reverberating cracks, and sipping maté from ornate chimarrãoes (gourds) through silver straws named bombas. In southern Brazil the passing of the chimarrão is a gesture of friendship, like the passing of a peace pipe; I was offered a chimarrão as soon as I entered the cabin. We live in a claustrophobic world stripped of privacy, a realm of competing stereos, humid bath smells, a pall of cigarette smoke. You have to close the lid on the head before pumping the flushing mechanism, else it burps in your face. The grubby brown pile carpet is constantly damp with burp water. I sleep, wrapped in wool blankets, on a sofa that is impregnated with engine oil and cigarette ashes. It is at water level just under the porthole, which turns sea-green and then sky-bright every few seconds. An ice-cold condensate drips from the brass clamp of the porthole; I cover my head with the wool blanket and try to ignore it.

The journey takes four days. Our days and nights are regulated by a series of whistles and bells marking the watches. This an anachronism from the days when ships had no telephones. At his appointed hours, the officer on watch walks purposefully through the lurching corridors, blowing his whistle like a child on the loose with a toy. The whistles cause every conversation to pause, wake every sleeper, but they also convey the comforting news that all is well. You can roll over and sleep a little easier.

The scientists eat in the officers' mess. The beer-bellied steward is always dressed in a T-shirt with anchors and eagles painted on it. There is a fixed pecking order at the table. Before lifting a fork or sipping our coffee, we must wait for the first mate to begin eating. Sometimes he doesn't appear, and the steward must phone the bridge for permission to start. Then he walks from table to table giving the thumbs-up signal, as if blessing each hungry group of sailors. The dining room table has a curb around its edge and rubber pads to keep the dishes from spilling onto the floor during a rolling sea. For breakfast, at seven bells, we eat Sucrilhos, sugar-frosted flakes, with hot milk. Antonio o Tigre grins from the box. The coffee is delicious-dark-roasted and viscous with sugar-but most of its caffeine has been burned out and it doesn't pack any zing. Lunch is liverwurst and lots of beans; dinner, meat and lots more beans.

The social center of the Barão is the praça das armas, which in the old days of sailing ships was the armory. On the Barão it is a lounge and bar. It has a television, tables heaped with four-month-old magazines, chess, and checkers. I have renamed it O Salão Grande do Povo (the Great Hall of the People), and this seems to amuse the scientists, although it is considered vaguely disrespectful by the officers. There is a party in the praça das armas tonight, celebrated with slugs of duty-free Stolichnaya and various friendly toasts. The seas are too rough for dancing. The music is Broadway, Engelbert Humperdinck, and reggae-the shards of alien cultures. I am asked to translate the lyrics, which are cryptic even in English, and incomprehensible in Portuguese. How do you explain "Every Little 'Ting Gonna Be Alright" and "Follow the Yellow Brick Road"?

* * *

Antarctica begins not at the edge of the pack ice, or in the fastness of glaciers, but invisibly, at sea, where the cold polar surface water slides beneath the slightly warmer water from the north. This is the Antarctic Convergence, an undulating front of water masses that completely circles the Antarctic continent. Today, at dawn, halfway between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula, we crossed this subtle barrier. One does not at first notice the transition. Over a stretch of about 80 kilometers the water temperature drops a few degrees to near zero centigrade, bringing a gray-blue haze and a penetrating clamminess. The southern horizon is lighter, and beyond it is unseen pack ice; early polar mariners named this phenomenon "ice blink" and used it to avoid the pack ice. Soon the first floating ice begins to appear: a wind blown litter that rattles and grinds down the length of the ship, as well as flat-topped tabular icebergs, sixty meters tall, which look like phantom continents. In this sector of Antarctica, tabular icebergs break from the 300-meter-thick Larsen, Ronne, and Filchner ice shelves of the Weddell Sea. Some are kilometers long and generate their own local weather of gauzing fogs and katabatic winds.

In 1898 the American polar explorer Frederick Cook described his passage over the Convergence, somewhere near this spot, in the bark Belgica. In those days little was known of the physical characteristics of the boundary. Cook knew only that far out to sea was the beginning of Antarctica. "The night which followed was dark," he wrote.

The sea rolled under our stern in huge inky mountains, while the wind scraped the deck with an icy edge. We kept a sharp lookout for icebergs, which might come suddenly into our path out of the impenetrable darkness ahead. The sudden fall of the temperature and the stinging, penetrating character of the wind seemed to warn us that ice was near; but we encountered none. Life was plentiful, but melancholy. Curious albatrosses and petrels hovered about us, uttering strange cries, and in the water there was an occasional spout from a whale. It was a night of uncertainty, of anticipation, of discomfort-an experience which only those who have gone through the wilderness of an unknown sea can understand.

To the traveler sailing south toward Antarctica, the Convergence is the first hint of things to come and of the complex layering of the Southern Ocean. Every spring the Antarctic surface water is diluted by the meltwater from the pack ice and the glacier-born icebergs that calve from the continent. Near freezing and low in salinity, the surface water spreads slowly north. But no water can be exported north from the Southern Ocean unless it is compensated for by other water masses heading south. This balance is maintained by the warm deep water that flows, 50 to 100 meters below the surface, from the temperate Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans, under the Convergence to the edge of the Antarctic continental shelf. There it upwells, spewing nutrients onto the shelf and, each spring, fostering a bloom of phytoplankton. This upwelling is known as the Antarctic Divergence and, like the Convergence, is a zone splendidly rich in life. Part of the Divergence heads north, eventually descending at the Convergence and creating a huge vertical gyre; part heads south, right to the edge of the continent.

The water that heads south from the Divergence collides with the continent, eventually sinks, and joins the deepest layer of all, the north-flowing Antarctic bottom water. Like the Antarctic surface water, the bottom water is born of ice. But it is created when ice is made, not melted, and is therefore opposite in character from the light, low-salinity surface water. When sea ice is formed, the salt is concentrated in channels of brine, which slowly work their way to the bottom of the floe and are extruded into the sea. The water under the floe is therefore near freezing and high in salinity, both conditions that make it dense. The Antarctic bottom water slithers far north on the belly of the sea, over the edge of the continental shelf and into the abyssal zones at the bottom of the oceans. It oozes beneath the tropical seas, crosses the equator and insinuates itself into the deepest areas of the North Atlantic and North Pacific, a journey that takes decades, perhaps hundreds of years. All the while, the temperature of the deep water remains near freezing. In the Bahamas, for example, the three-kilometer-deep Tongue of the Ocean, between Andros and the Exuma cays, is paved with frigid Antarctic bottom water. The abyssal areas of the world's oceans are therefore remarkably uniform: born in Antarctica, dark, salty, cold, and subjected to enormous pressures. And the life forms found there are also remarkably similar: giant isopods, glass sponges, soft corals, and slow-moving fish with low metabolic rates. Many of these organisms are adapted to feed on the gentle rain of organic material from the surface. It is no coincidence that these animals also occur in the shallow seas around Antarctica. A scuba diver in the Antarctic can observe types of animals that elsewhere on Earth can be seen only from the portholes of deep-diving submersibles.

The Antarctic Divergence is not only a frontier of the vertical separation of water masses, it also marks the lateral shearing of ocean currents and winds. South of the Divergence and close to the continent, a narrow band of currents plies westward, pushed by the cold easterly winds that spin off Antarctica. This is known as the East Wind Drift by the few sailors who have ventured so far south. North of the Divergence, the opposite takes place. A massive band of the Southern Ocean, from nine hundred to several thousand kilometers wide and extending beyond the Convergence, is pushed inexorably east by westerly winds. This is known as the West Wind Drift and is the zone of the roaring forties and screaming fifties. The incessant winds that generate the West Wind Drift completely isolate Antarctica from the other continents. Antarctica is alone at the bottom of the world amid a swirl of sea and storm.

The Antarctic Convergence is perhaps the longest and most important biological barrier on Earth, as formidable as any mountain range or desert. It is an obstacle to the dispersion of birds, fish, and, most important, plankton. South of the Convergence the seafloor is smothered with a soft glassy ooze of diatom shells, the accumulation of a near infinity of one-celled plant bodies that have rained down from the sunlit surface waters. But the warmer waters north of the Convergence are dominated by another phylum of one-celled algae, the coccolithophorids, and the seafloor is covered with their calcium skeletons. Both diatoms and coccolithophorids are invisible to the naked eye, yet the shift in their relative abundance affects all of the species that directly or indirectly depend on them for food. Diatom-eating Antarctic krill range only as far as the Convergence, for they would perish in the stifling warmth to the north. The species of squids are also different on either side of the Convergence.

South of the Convergence there are only thirty-nine species of nesting birds-seven penguins, six albatrosses, eighteen petrels, one cormorant, two skuas, a gull, a tern, a sheathbill, a pintail, and a pipit-fewer species than can be found in a small garden in Colombia or Costa Rica, but numbering about 70 million individuals. All but the pipit and the sheathbill are seabirds, which consume about 7.8 million tons of krill and other zooplankton per year. In spite of their low diversity, the density of birds is often astounding. On South Georgia Island more than a hundred nesting burrows of white-chinned and blue petrels have been counted per hundred square meters, creating huge avian metropolises that ramble for kilometers over the lumpy meadows of tussock grass. Volcanic Zavadovskiy Island, in the South Sandwich archipelago, has a colony of approximately 3.5 million chinstrap penguins. This is the recurring evolutionary motif in polar areas: a paucity of species but an abundance of individuals.

* * *

Today, halfway from Patagonia to Antarctica and just south of the Convergence, I watch seabirds from the bucking prow of the Barão de Teffé and muse on the complex interactions of water and air. The bow cuts the Antarctic surface water; sixty meters below me is the warm deep water; a kilometer and a half or so below me is the lightless and practically unknown realm of the bottom water.

A ship sailing through the roaring forties toward Antarctica is always trailed by a coterie of seabirds. Almost all are broadly classified as tube-nosed birds, a reference to the salt-excreting glands on their bills. The tube-nosed birds include the petrels, prions, albatrosses, fulmars, and the aptly named shearwaters. They dust the sea for days and nights on end, like gnats on a stormy lake. In the chaos of wave and bird, and from the pitching deck of a ship, it is often difficult to tell one species from another unless you are close enough to observe the way they feed and the way they fly. These behaviors also reveal the separate niches of these birds, their ways of avoiding direct competition with each other.


Excerpted from The Crystal Desert by DAVID G. CAMPBELL Copyright © 1992 by David G. Campbell
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

David G. Campbell is the author of the prizewinning Crystal Desert: Summers in Antarctica. He is a professor of biology at Grinnell College.

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