Today, we explore earth's last frontier. The
university of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In 1935 the great polar
explorer Admiral Richard Byrd remarked:
It's a curious ... fact that long after most
astronomers [knew] there were no canals on Mars, no
geographer ... could have told you whether
Antarctica ... was one continent or two.
Antarctica was first sighted in 1820.
For a over a century geographers had tried to figure
out what -- on earth -- it was. Was it a collection
of islands? Was it floating ice, as large as the
United States and Europe put together? Some people
expected to find a lush inland garden around the
Finally in 1898 an explorer named John Murray came
before the Royal Society to present 25 years of
study. He spoke with careful scientific reserve.
"We are," he told them,
in possession of abundant indications that there
is a wide extent of continental land within the
icebound regions of the southern hemisphere.
But what form did that land take? Huge
ice shelves indent it in two places. Were there
really two separate continents under all that ice?
Maybe it was just a huge atoll.
Murray's dry talk became a stirring call to arms.
It triggered a great exploratory effort. Ships
sniffed about the edges. Amundsen's dogsleds
reached the South Pole. By 1928 airplanes joined
the struggle to learn what was there.
But the Antarctic mysteries didn't yield easily.
Airplanes flying over the featureless wastes
couldn't keep track of flight patterns. Mountains
reported by one explorer would vanish for another.
Compasses misbehaved near the pole.
Some of the mystery began yielding to modern
instruments around 1960. First sensitive gravity
meters, then seismic and radio echo soundings,
revealed the depth of ice and what lay under it. A
huge continent did indeed lie below, although the
peninsula reaching out toward South America may yet
prove to be separate. Large subsurface seas are
found where geothermal energy rises to melt the
The strangest finding of all is the topography of
the land. Instead of rising inland, Antarctica is
ringed with mountains. Their peaks reach within a
few hundred yards of the ice surface. But inland,
elevations drop far below sea level. The inland ice
is often two or three miles thick.
We know a little today, but the rest is still
mystery. What's in the land below? What promises
does it hold for earth? What can it tell us about
the formation of our planet and the nature of our
being? Mystery is the great animator of the
inventive mind. We hunger for it, and Antarctica
still gives us much to feast upon.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds