By Monsignor Stephen J. Rossetti, M.A. 1982, D.Min. 1985

Four years ago, Monsignor Stephen Rossetti traveled to Antarctica for the National Science Foundation and ministered as the Catholic chaplain to the American and New Zealand communities there for three weeks This past December, he returned for a month as chaplain. He offers his reflections on his time on the “Ice.”

For those who work in Antarctica, the continent is simply referred to as the “Ice.” This huge land mass, about the size of the United States and Mexico combined, contains 90 percent of the world’s ice. If all the ice in Antarctica melted, the sea level worldwide would rise more than 200 feet.

The rest of the continent is barren rock. There are no trees, flowers, grass, or anything green. The climate is too harsh to support such life. The barrenness creates a sense of solitude and vastness. Stepping off the Air Force C-17 on the Antarctic ice runway at McMurdo Station, I felt like I had stepped onto the moon.

On the coast there are birds called skuas (resembling seagulls), Weddell seals, penguins, and the sea containing a variety of life, including orcas and the Antarctic toothfish. However, move inland only a few hundred yards, and there is nothing but ice and rock.

The continent is bleak and the wind blows fiercely. The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was in Antarctica at minus 128.6º F. Antarctica is the highest, driest, windiest, and coldest of the seven continents. It holds a strange beauty for those who love it. Perhaps it is the barrenness itself that attracts us. There is a pristine quality here that is captivating.

The continent is not to be taken lightly. It has claimed more than a few lives and there are memorial crosses dotting the landscape at McMurdo Station as reminders. Dangerous crevasses zigzag the continent and can be hidden by a thin layer of snow. But it is the weather that is the greatest threat. It can change quickly from a benign sunny day into a raging whiteout that can be life threatening without the proper precautions.

Our Endangered Planet

One of the important lessons from an Antarctic experience is the fragile nature of our ecosystem and planet. Here in Antarctica, so far from the populated world, some of the world’s most important science is being conducted for the health of our planet.

Like the Arctic, many Antarctic glaciers are melting at an alarming rate. The Pine Island Glacier (PIG) scientists are putting a probe through the ice shelf into the sea below (affectionately called “Poking the PIG”) to determine some of the causes and dynamics of the rapidly moving ice shelf. This melting glacier alone is contributing to 7 percent of the global sea rise. Before the end of this century, scientists are predicting a rise in sea levels that will likely endanger many coastal cities.

The Antarctic is home to many other important scientific experiments as well, ranging from seismology to climatology to studying the origins of the universe. I saw an alarming chart showing steadily increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Scientists also continue to monitor the depleted ozone levels above the continent. 

I am concerned about the Antarctic toothfish, commonly called Chilean seabass. I spoke with the New Zealand scientists at Scott Base and they say it is rapidly being fished out of the Ross Sea, a deep bay of the Southern Ocean in Antarctica. The toothfish is an important source of food for the orcas and the seals. Its disappearance will endanger the ecosystem here. This knowledge will certainly affect how I look at seafood menus back in the States!

Centennial at the Pole

After three weeks at McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica, I was flown in an Air Force C-130 equipped with skis to minister to the 130 people “summering” at the South Pole. When I stepped off the plane after the three-hour flight, with every inch of my issue ECW (extreme cold weather) gear on, I felt a bit of the brutal weather that froze British naval officer Robert Scott and his party on their return from the South Pole in 1912.

Thirty-four days before Scott arrived, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his party reached the Pole, thus becoming the first human beings to set foot at 90 degrees south latitude. Having mastered cross-country skiing and the use of sled dogs, they fared better and returned safely. I was fortunate to be on the “Ice” for the centennial celebration of Amundsen’s accomplishment on Dec. 14, 2011.

As an important part of the celebration, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg cross-country skied several kilometers into the Pole, replicating the end of Amundsen’s journey. In our conversation, the prime minister downplayed his own effort, but I noted that the temperature at the time was minus 40º F at an altitude of more than 9,000 feet. Norway is a country full of hardy skiers and people accustomed to the cold. It is little wonder that a Norwegian was the first to make it to the South Pole.

Christmas on the Ice

The highlight of the trip was Christmas day itself. It had been many years since a Catholic chaplain had spent Christmas day at the South Pole. Many of the staff expressed their profound gratitude to have me there, with many hugs and prayers of thanks for a safe arrival. 

On the “Ice,” the usual holiday hype back in the States was gone. We had a lowkey but meaningful Christmas Mass. I gave the invocation at the common meal as we thanked God for all the Divine blessings, especially the gift of the birth of the Son of God. Later, we gathered around the radio in the communications room. All the American sites around the continent (more than 20) tuned their radios to a common frequency and then site after site sang Christmas carols so all could hear. It was a touching moment as we heard from these isolated souls, far from home, singing their beloved Christmas hymns.

A Welcome Sunset

During my month on the “Ice,” I made new friends and gratefully experienced a world that few are privileged to visit. Antarctica is both frigidly beautiful and deceptively dangerous — a place that fascinates us all. When I finished my tour in Antarctica and stepped off the C-17 in Christchurch, New Zealand, the warm summer air and riot of colors were stunning. But best of all, after a month of constant daylight (the sun never sets during the austral summer), the sun over New Zealand went down. It was dark. I fell into my bed and said, “Thank God,” and slept soundly.

Monsignor Rossetti is associate dean for seminary and ministerial studies in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America.