- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

Ever wonder what life is like — and not just from a penguin’s perspective — at the bottom of the Earth? If so, “Wondrous Cold: An Antarctic Journey,” a photo exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, should give you some answers.

The exhibit, which features 65 photos (some black and white, some color) by photographer Joan Myers, presents a historic, geographic, zoological and scientific overview of the continent, starting with the climate of this fairly inhospitable place.

“It’s the coldest, windiest, driest place on earth,” says Jennifer Bine, project director for the exhibit, “but there is still plenty of wildlife, and people work and live there year-round.”

Not, however, very many. Depending on the time of year — our winters are their summers and vice versa — a couple hundred to a couple thousand humans might be in Antarctica. Many of them are researchers studying subjects such as astronomy, climate change and paleontology.

“But what people might not realize is that for every researcher, there are four or five support staff,” Ms. Bine says.

The support staff includes carpenters, cooks and people who maintain equipment, vehicles and buildings.

“Fresh fruit and vegetables — they call them ‘freshies’ — are a big deal,” Ms. Bine says. “Joan says someone told her that if they dropped oranges and $5 bills from an airplane, people would go for the oranges first.”

There are many research stations in Antarctica, the biggest one being McMurdo. It might look like a 19th-century mining town, but it’s high-tech, with helicopter and Internet access.

Not that life in Antarctica is easy, but it certainly is easier than it was about 100 years ago, when explorers Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, and Robert Falcon Scott, a Brit, set out to be first to reach the South Pole. Amundsen was first, in 1911.

A flag and marker stand at the geographic South Pole, but because the surface ice moves about 30 feet a year, the marker and flag have to be repositioned every Jan. 1.

In 1914 , Ernest Shackleton, also a Brit, attempted to be the first to cross the frozen continent. He didn’t succeed, but the hardships and heroism of Shackleton and his crew made the attempt legendary, according to the exhibit, which features several photos of huts, boats and other remnants from this exploratory time.

Politics and war also are part of South Pole history. During their 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, the Argentines used an area of the South Sandwich Islands as their staging area. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which are part of Antarctica, are about 600 miles to the east of the Falkland Islands, which are about 300 miles from the Argentine coast.

The Brits destroyed the Argentine base after the war, and a photo in the exhibit shows a chinstrap penguin in front of the base’s remains.

Speaking of penguins: Because of the box-office hit “March of the Penguins,” Ms. Bine says she made double- and triple-sure plenty of pictures of the beloved bird were included.

“We also had to double- and triple-check all the penguin-related facts since millions of penguin experts are out there now, and many of them will be seeing the exhibit,” she says.

Penguins are not the only fauna in Antarctica, though they are the most famous. The exhibit features pictures of seals, octopuses, fish and more penguins.

“There’s a lot more life under the ice than above, since the water seldom gets colder than 28 degrees,” Ms. Bine says. The air temperature can dip below minus 130.

There also are several shots of the thick ice that covers 99 percent of the continent. There is almost no new snow — only about two inches fall every year — but the little snow that has fallen over the millenniums has compacted into the South Pole’s extraordinary, 2-mile-thick ice cap. In some areas, where it has formed caves over the ocean water, the ice is the bluest of blues.

Antarctica is important for many reasons, including the cutting-edge research that’s being done there, Ms. Bine says.

“But I think it’s also important because it’s an untamed place,” she says, “and I think we need that because it’s a place for our imagination to go.”

When you go:

Location: Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

Directions: The museum is on the north side of the Mall, 10 blocks west of the Capitol.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. through Thursday. From Friday through Sept. 3, the museum will be open 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily, except for June 2, 13, 14, 19 and 21 and July 30, when the museum will be open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Parking: Limited free and metered street parking and various pay-parking options in the vicinity. The museum is close to several Metro stops, including Federal Triangle and Smithsonian on the Orange and Blue lines and the Archives-Navy Memorial on the Yellow and Green lines.

Admission: Free.

Information: 202/636-1000 or www.mnh.si.edu.


• The museum has a cafe.

• The exhibit is open to all ages, but the heavily photographic nature of the display may not hold the attention of children younger than 10.

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