Lost in the Light: A Poles Researcher on Living Inside the Ping Pong Ball
I’m starting to measure time as it’s marked by the ice caps. Two months here, three months there, then fall in Montana, or spring, or a month of summer, and then again to the Flat White. I scatter through the seasons and across hemispheres, losing myself in the months, the landscape, the cold and the heat.
I’ve worked for seven seasons at the Poles, running research camps in Greenland and Antarctica. I’m growing accustomed to swaying from here to there and there to here, but I still stagger. My body in the heat, my mind with the months. I say winter when I mean summer, April when it’s October. In June, I boarded a military cargo plane on the Greenland Ice Cap in the balmy 17-degree summer and 36 hours later I stood sweating on the curb, at midnight, hailing a taxi from Madison Square Garden. The disorientation I find on the Ice travels with me.
Some days on the Ice, when the light is flat and the world is without shadows, I live as if inside a ping pong ball. The clouds overtake the sky and the horizon dissolves. The sparkle, the wind waves patterned in the snow, the delicate blues and muted grays fade away. The landless landscape turns to eggshell white. The drifts I might otherwise avoid become memories. I walk from my tent to breakfast and feel with my feet. Blink, blink, blink. I stare at the remnants of shadows in front of me, shuffling one foot in front of the other, sometimes tripping flat to my knees as I bump an invisible obstacle. I am lost in the light as one feels lost in the dark.
In Antarctica, I groom the three miles of skiway in a Tucker Sno-Cat before complete flat light falls upon us. In my weather observation, I report the surface definition as “Poor.” Not yet “Nil,” but nearly. I can still follow the line from my previous pass but only if I strain—squinting, leaning forward in my seat, forehead pressed against the glass—at the snow just in front of the tracks. For three, four, five hours, there’s only single-minded concentration. Only the pacing of back and forth and back and forth, without having left one place or arrived at another. I exit the skiway, my mind numb and empty.
Eventually the grey breaks. The clouds part and reveal the clear blue stretching as a dome. I follow the infinite line of the horizon encircling me. Now, in this light, I can see, but I see emptiness expanding like an open-ended question. The ice sheet is a mass of continuity biting at my cheeks, my body pressed closely against its haunting calm. I stare into the void and feel like I’m standing at the edge of a cliff. At first I am overtaken by a sinking sensation and then a horrifying, irrational urge to jump. I back away and hide in the dark of a sleeping bag, the solace of books and coffee with friends. I find something to hold tight to, try to sit down and reground myself. Inevitably, I creep back to the edge and continue peering into the alluring abyss. Those hundreds and hundreds of miles stretching boldly to the coast. In this seemingly eternal light and eternal space, the Flat White reflects the palette of my mind. Exposed, raw, and unshielded.
I have no concept of this space. I cannot fathom this emptiness. At times I’ve fantasized about walking away from camp and out into that space, indefinitely. I’d tuck my chin and turn my head against the wind, the cold stinging the sliver of skin exposed between my gaiter and goggles. I’d hold up my hood and lumber through the crust like it was sand. Maybe then I would understand that depth of space. I told a friend of this fantasy after having spent two months in the Flat White with only four people. He had just arrived at camp and responded, “Tara, you’ve been here too long.” Yes, that’s possible. But ice sheets have their way of freeing me. From time, and expectations, and even place. After months living on only snow, two miles above land, I feel liberated, drifting on this frozen sea.
Despite my inability to comprehend the sheer expanse, this landscape is not truly empty. It’s snow. And ice. And wind. There are ice crystals floating and blowing here. This is a glacier. A place defined by the starkness of its uniformity. A place that reveals some of the most critical climate data in the world: a massive ice shelf extending from land and melting from the warmed waters of the Southern Ocean below, the significant increases in snow and fog and melt events in the Arctic, the most accurate climate records found in ice cores pulled from miles below the surface.
These findings are measurable and quantifiable. This is why scientists, and we as support staff, toil to come and then labor to exist here. Heating food, melting snow for water and sleeping in tents when it’s minus fifty degrees Fahrenheit asks everything of us. These ice sheets, they want to get rid of us, bury us in drifts, scour away our very existence. Everything we bring here gets ravaged, blasted and cracked by vicious, relentless wind. “Go away,” this place says to me. “You do not belong here.”
My family and friends say there’s nothing here. “Why would you want to go there?” they ask. I often don’t understand why I do. But I know that on the Ice, everything else fades away. There are no trails to run, no trees to sit beneath, no stores to shop or text messages to answer. There are few distractions, and those that do exist—movies, books, skiing, coffee—they can only occupy my mind for so long. The ice sheet is an abyss from which I cannot escape.
So I learn to be where I am, to keep going—in 30-knot winds, four coats, three pairs of pants, neck gaiter, nose gaiter, goggles, two hats and three-pound boots. I learn to be comfortable with the company that I keep, and in the darkness of isolation, I find light.
There, I feel alive.