Over the years many people have asked what the Navy was doing in Antarctica, and more importantly, why were we there.
The "what" is easier to answer. The mission of our outfit, Antarctic Support Activities (ASA), was to provide a sort of working holding company to enable members of the United States Antarctic Research Program (USARP) to study the stuff that compels them to pursue pure science.
The winter-over crew was under an umbrella command within ASA. While the "summer support group," to which I was attached, arrived in the Austral spring and left in the Austral fall, the winter-over crew stayed on the ice for about 13 months.
For large construction projects, a new pier, or large building, we got help from Construction Battalion Unit 201 (CBU 201), home- ported in the States. We also had contingents and men from all branches of the military. All of this came under the overall command of Task Force 43, also called Operation Deepfreeze. Task Force 43 had the command authority and the budget to back it up, second only to Viet Nam. The overall and simplified mission of Task Force 43 was to get people to the ice, keep them alive while they were there and to get them home.
A little known link between the military and USARP was the Navel Civil Engineering Laboratory (NCEL). These men gathered ideas from everyone and delivered engineering for us. They created stabilized-snow roads. They contributed to the invention of specialized equipment to make the roads. They contracted to have prototypes built Under them, new engineering concepts were tested and evaluated.
The USARP's (an individual civilian engaged in scientific study was referred to as a USARP) on the ice were professors and graduate students from almost every field of study. Pure scientific study was/is done in spades, in Antarctica. On a notepad, I jotted down some of the disciplines off the top of my head.
Volcanology: On Ross Island there is an active volcano. Mt. Erebus has been active for many years and provides a laboratory, in and of itself, for study. There are other active zones on the continent.
Biology: Penguins are cute, aren't they? Who wrote the book that you read to learn about them? How did the films you have seen of penguins get made? Until a few short years ago, civilian operations on the "Ice" were nonexistent. Taskforce 43 was the only way in or out. The climate and remoteness of Antarctica shielded it from frivolous visits.
Some time after I was deployed to the "Ice," a form of life was discovered there. In the dry valleys formed from receding glaciers near McMurdo, small lakes formed like a string of pearls in the seasonal runoff. Some of these lakes were too large to freeze solid. Scientists have dived into these lakes and found forests of biota happily living under the ice in the lakes.
Recently, the Russians, continuing the work started by the Soviet Union, have completed drilling into Lake Vostok. The waters of Lake Vostok have been isolated for about 20 million years. Genetic sampling of any life found there will add volumes to our knowledge.
Some bacteria and plant matter has been found at other locations. These materials were covered and protected by tectonic activity. Studying this new material has not been completed. These studies will advance our understanding of our planet's life.
Psychology: Groundbreaking studies were done of the effects of isolation and lack of daily light changes on the human mind.
Astrophysics: What better place to study the effects of magnetism on particles coming from space than sitting at the end of that large magnet called Earth?
Just last month, February 2012, reports on the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, garnered a lot of news time and YouTube imagery. Antarctica is at the other end of that magnet In the South the phenomenon is called the Aurora Australis. Scientists all over the Antarctic continent closely monitor particle interaction with the Earth's atmosphere.
Atmospheric and weather studies - If you want to study weather go to the place that initiates a lot of it. What about the hole in the ozone layer? Is the global climate changing?
A massive effort has been ongoing to determine how the Earth's climate might be changing. Pursuant to that, scientists have found that a core drilling of the ice in Antarctica can reveal indicators of weather conditions by the composition of spores and pollen found in the cores. The combination and ratio of gases making up the atmosphere can also be determined. The icing on the cake is that the yearly cycles can be counted, much like the rings of a tree stump, to assign the time frame of the ice within the core.
History: Near the pier at McMurdo is Robert Falcon Scott's last hut. This is history preserved by the harsh climate of Antarctica. What could an historian learn if Gettysburg could have been freeze-dried in July 1863?
Geology and Earth history is a subject that I enjoy. I got my first lesson, as an adult, on the subject during the pre-deployment briefing. In 1967 plate tectonics was almost wide-eyed illusion. The presenter talked about the hypothesis as a hypothesis. Since then the concept has been proven.
Almost all of human knowledge has a lineage back through pure science. Many of those lines run through Antarctica. We, the members of the various units in Task Force 43, provided the logistical support and the infrastructure to make this happen. Therein lies the answer to the "why" of what I/we were doing in Antarctica.