Everything Gets Worse: An Unforgiving Land
Mankind’s proclivity to risk-taking in the quest for adventure is hardly more evident than on the Frozen Continent.
Since the continent’s discovery in 1820, explorers and researchers have been brought down by its harsh winter season, a six-month stretch from March to September. The land’s brutal climate and fickle weather assault both body and soul, driving many an invader over the edge.
There’s even a term for it: polar madness.
In 1996, Peter James Spielmann of the Associated Press reported on a brawl between cooks at McMurdo Station that resulted in stitches and an FBI investigation. Today, most problems are handled by the station manager in the capacity of Special Deputy U.S. Marshal.
In his engaging piece, “Everything Gets Worse: An Antarctica Story,” John O’Connor relates the darker incidents associated with the unforgiving life at the bottom of the world. Many are a result of the seasonal winter darkness and isolation, giving rise to a syndrome called “Polar T3.” The symptoms of this syndrome are the same as those of a person with subclinical hypothyroidism and may be related to the symptoms suffered by those wintering over in Antarctica.
Antarctic exploration: Assault on the soul
During the Heroic era, eight countries launched sixteen expeditions under extreme difficulties. Seventeen expeditioners lost their lives in the effort to explore and conquer the ice. Others paid the high emotional cost of living in the harsh environment.
During the 1897-1899 Belgian polar expedition led by Adrien de Gerlache, the crew descended into physical and mental darkness when their ship Belgica became trapped in the Bellingshausen Sea ice in 1898. During the thirteen months they were caught in the ice, all eighteen crew members became ill. One died, two developed polar madness, and the captain made out his will.
One man tried to walk back to Belgium.
Similar stories and misery and death followed other expeditions before technological advances made exploration easier. Researchers and workers since the Heroic Age have continued to learn the brutal physical and emotional dangers associated with living at the bottom of the world.
- At Australia’s Mawson base in the 1950’s, a staffer became deranged and violent, endangering his co-workers. Since there are no flights out during winter, he was locked in a storage room to wait out the winter months.
- In 1960, a Soviet staff member killed a colleague with an axe after losing his temper over a chess game. The game was then banned at Antarctic’s Russian facilities.
- In 1983, a doctor at Argentine’s Almirante Brown Station in Paradise Bay decided he’d had enough of the winter there. Angry he was not allowed to leave, he simply burned the place down. The staff was rescued by ship and the station rebuilt as a summer-only station. Brown Station was abandoned in 2000 but has operated some summers since 2007.
- In 2018, a Russian staffer at the Bellingshausen station on King George Island was charged with attempted murder after suffering a breakdown and stabbing a colleague.
Never Solved: The mysterious death of one scientist.
Australian astrophysicist Dr. Rodney Marks inadvertently set international relations on edge when he died suddenly in Antarctica in May of 2000 at the South Pole’s Amundsen-Scott Station. His body was stored in a freezer in the observatory for six months due to the Antarctic winter conditions, when no flights out are allowed. The U.S. authorities finally flew his body out to Christchurch that November.
The coroner at Christchurch took over the jurisdiction of the case and investigated along with New Zealand police. For unknown reasons, the U.S. government refused to cooperate with the New Zealand authorities, even though the South Pole Station is under U.S. jurisdiction. They declined to confirm the identities of the staffers who worked with Marks or to allow authorities to question them. Even Marks’ coworkers were reticent to cooperate with the investigation.
It took eight years to learn the official cause of death for Dr. Marks. Officials did not issue a final report until September 16, 2008. The coroner concluded Dr. Marks died of methanol poisoning, but it was not determined how he had ingested it. Homicide was considered unlikely by New Zealand authorities.
Today, the case remains a mystery. Whether Dr. Marks died from an accidental poisoning, suicide, or homicide has yet to be determined. Given the murky jurisdictional waters and lack of cooperation, the truth may never be known.