Vast & Frozen: Dartmouth Explores Antarctic Circle

by Maggie Doyle | 4/17/19 2:15am


Author Jon Krakauer once wrote, “Antarctica has this mythic weight. It resides in the collective unconscious of so many people, and it makes this huge impact, just like outer space. It’s like going to the moon.” In February 2020, a group of Dartmouth alumni will get to experience the magic of Antarctica firsthand with Dartmouth Alumni Travel. On the “Antarctica in Depth: Crossing the Antarctic Circle” trip, travelers will sea kayak, wildlife watch and camp overnight on the Antarctic peninsula. 

I have to admit I’m jealous. I, like Krakauer and so many others, hold Antarctica to mythic standards. I’m fascinated by its total extremeness, and my reverence is only intensified by how few people have the chance to go. Environmental studies professor and director of the Institute of Artctic Studies Ross Virginia, the Dartmouth faculty member accompanying the Antarctica trip, is one of the lucky few to have experienced the ice-covered continent. 

“A lot of people go down one time and that’s it, but a lot of people go down once and then, we call it ‘still stupid,’ you keep coming back ... in part because of all the people you’ve connected with,” Virginia said. “Eventually you become a part of this growing community, year after year after year. It’s addictive in many ways.” 

Virginia has been to Antarctica 21 times but says his most defining experience was his first impression of it in 1989.

“The helicopter dumps you out and flies away ... you’re the only people, and maybe the only people that have ever been in that place, and you’re just overwhelmed by how vast and majestic it is but also isolated you are there,” Virginia said. “I just remember [feeling] frozen, if you will, in getting started because it was overwhelming, the emotional experience.”

He tells me this with broad hand gestures and a warm smile in his office, which is covered with Arctic and Antarctic paraphernalia. He doesn’t bring it up, but his staff biography on the trip brochure says that a portion of the McMurdo Dry Valleys has been renamed “Virginia Valley” in honor of Virginia’s “lifelong efforts in conducting long-term ecological research.” 

This will be Virginia’s first time leading the Dartmouth alumni trip to Antarctica and his first time traveling to the Antarctic peninsula, which is the northernmost part of the mainland. In the past, the trip has been led by professor of environmental studies Lauren Culler, who shared her experience with the expedition.

“Those trips are pretty cool because everyone has in common that they went to Dartmouth, and that’s a great starting point,” Culler said. “The oldest folks on the trip were Class of ’58, which is really cool, and there were some younger alumni too...[It’s] a whole collection of really interesting people who’ve done really interesting things with their lives.” 

Culler said that alumni self-select into experiences like this.

“[They are] an adventurous group of people who value nature and the outdoors and the remoteness of a place like Antarctica.”

Professor Culler’s research focuses primarily on the Arctic, but she’s been to the Antarctic a total of five times. She, like Virginia, said she believes traveling to Antarctica is a life-changing experience for those who have the chance. 

“I pictured it as this all-white, no life, but then there we were, and it was raining, it was above freezing ... with all of this wildlife and all of this life, and that was really surprising,” Culler said. “It’s alive ... it’s not just a snow-covered continent.”

 Culler also spoke wonderingly of the wildlife they were able to see on the continent. 

“The boat would anchor, and we would take these smaller boats to some of the islands and onto the continent, where we got to visit penguin colonies and see different kinds of wildlife — we saw seals, whales, all kinds of birds.” 

If you are a ’19 who will be an alumnus by the time the cruise leaves — and you have $10,000-$17,000 to spare — act quickly. Though the trip is still about a year away, according to Virginia, the slots on the ship originally allocated to Dartmouth are almost sold out. Virginia said this popularity reflects a broader trend. 

“A lot of people have this on their bucket list, to go to Antarctica,” he said. “People are curious, because they know things are changing … [they’re] motivated to get to these places, so the number of tourists to Antarctica has been increasing steadily.” 

Some, like Clara Goldberger ’22, have expressed worries that the increasing tourism to Antarctica isn’t a good thing. 

“Obviously I would love to go to Antarctica,” she said, “but also going on a cruise to Antarctica is going to contribute to the decline of the ecosystem, and I don’t know if it’s fair for me, just wanting to see Antarctica, to be like ‘Yeah, I’ll totally go.’”

Though there are some concerns about the environmental impact of this increasing tourism, Virginia believes that if it’s done responsibly, increased tourism can actually help Antarctica by increasing awareness of issues around climate change. 

If you’re not a ’19, don’t have $10,000-$17,000 or are reading this after spots have sold out but are still envious of the alumni embarking on the Antarctic expedition, good news: Virginia said they’re hoping to bring along two to three Dartmouth undergraduate students. 

Culler described Antarctica’s potential future impact.

“[It is] a bellwether of what’s to come,” she said. “When we’re looking at changes in some of the marine and terrestrial ecosystems, because it’s warming so fast, the responses we’re seeing there are responses we expect to see in other parts of the world as Earth continues to warm.”

Similarly, Virginia punctuated Antarctica’s relevance to the world, especially in the context of climate change. 

“For most of us, Antarctica is just this far, far away place,” Virginia said. “The way we’re becoming more connected to it here is sea level rise. As the Antarctic ice shelves continue to break up, and more ice from the ice sheet is being capped off into the ocean and melting, that contributes to sea level rise.”

In light of these startling realities, Dartmouth’s trip to Antarctica isn’t just an exciting opportunity — it is an expedition in pursuit of truth, and of change.

“It’s important to step back and think about, ‘What is Antarctica?’” Virginia said. “In our imagination but also in reality.”