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Tuesday, January 26, 1999 Published at 19:35 GMT


Ice cool in Antarctica

Will the beauty of Antarctica seduce the Ministers?

By BBC News Online's Damian Carrington, who spent four months in Antarctica as a geologist

The 24 government ministers from around the world taken to Antarctica by New Zealand's Prime Minister are experiencing the trip of their lives.

[ image: The ice cap covers over 99% of the continent]
The ice cap covers over 99% of the continent
The sun never sets on an Antarctic summer, so the ministers can feast their eyes on Antarctica's icy beauty 24 hours a day. Their other senses will be strangely starved though.

Away from the clicking cameras, there is no noise except for the whistle of the wind and occasional thunderous rumbles as another iceberg cracks off a glacier into the ocean.

There are no smells either, barring the odd whiff of diesel from a snowmobile. Even dead seals do not rot in the cold air, but slowly freeze-dry over decades becoming mummies.

[ image: You can see for 50 miles in the clean air]
You can see for 50 miles in the clean air
The ministers' sense of taste are likely to be more stimulated than most expeditioners, who survive on rehydrated ready meals and orange juice powder. They may particularly enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail chilled with crystal-clear ice culled from a glacier.

Perhaps surprisingly, their skin is less likely to suffer from the cold than from sunburn. In the Antarctic summer, temperatures flirt around a relatively cosy zero degrees centigrade. However, there are no clouds or pollution to absorb the 24 hour sunlight and sunburnt ears are a common injury.

Antarctic clothing is not usually waterproof, as Antarctica is a desert with snow rare and rain unheard of. However the wind can be fierce and clothes protect from wind-chill. Expeditioners usually sleep in pyramid tents, wrapped in double sleeping bags and lifted of the ground on air beds.

[ image: Tents are expeditioners' homes for months at a time]
Tents are expeditioners' homes for months at a time
The ministers will have more comfortable accomodation but may still be kept awake by the snorting and belching of adolescent elephant seal bulls, rutting in the shallows like sumo wrestlers.

The ice which covers the sea tends to break up at this time of year, but if the ministers are allowed on to it they may see penguins propelling themselves out of the sea on to the ice, landing with a skid and a wobble.

The ministers will need to beware of killer whales skirting the ice's edge. They are stalking seals and knock them off the ice by crashing into its underside.

[ image: The wind carves boulders over millennia]
The wind carves boulders over millennia
Over 99% of the continent is ice-covered, but there are ice-free areas near the coast. Here the landscape is entirely barren - bare rock with no soil, plants or insects. It feels like you have landed on the moon and rocks sculpted by the wind into weird curves create an eerie atmosphere.

One of the most treasured privileges of visiting Antarctica is the opportunity to sit directly under the southern lights, or aurora australis. Watching the whole sky glow pink and green, pulsing like a heart or surrounding you with columns of ghostly light has caused many viewers to think they were dreaming.

Most Antarctic visitors leave the continent with a zealous desire to protect its pristine environment. Whether the ministers are seduced in the same way by the deep blue ice and the serene peace and purity and put in place protective measures remains to be seen.

Damian Carrington was a member of the 1992 Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition and expresses his thanks to the expedition members and the crew of the Aurora Australis.

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