New York Times LENS Blog: Dispatch from Antarctica #1
Spanning Seas, Species and Centuries
Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012
The Drake Passage
My first ever overnight at sea is to be spent on some of the roughest ocean anywhere in the world: the Drake Passage. I’m on the last major expedition for my project, where I’ve set out to find and photograph continuously living organisms 2,000 years old and older. The work spans disciplines, continents, and millennia — it’s part art and part science, it has an innate environmentalism and is driven by philosophic inquiry. I begin at “year zero,” and look back from there. The idea is to find the oldest possible representative individual of any given species. Right now, I am in search of 5,500-year-old moss. In Antarctica.
Over the past six years, I’ve photographed nearly 30 individual organisms that have met or surpassed the 2,000-year mark, including lichens in Greenland that grow only one centimeter every hundred years, 100,000-year-old sea grass meadows in the Balearic Islands in Spain, and the Stromatolites in Western Australia, whose lineage can be traced back 3.5 billion years to the oxygenation of our planet and the very existence of life on Earth. There is no formal scientific discipline that looks at longevity across species, so just determining what to look for in the first place is part of the process.
In the case of the moss, I started with rumor and honed my way down to fact.
A couple of years passed between receiving the hot tip on the old moss from a friend’s travel guidebook and getting my hands on published research. Finally, I unearthed what I was looking for: a 1987 paper by Svante Bjorck and Christian Hjort confirming the age and location of the moss on Elephant Island — named for the elephant seals, not the pachyderms — which arcs out beyond the Antarctic Peninsula. I immediately tracked them down at Lund University in Sweden, with a barrage of questions.
There is something especially thrilling about meeting researchers who not only study these ancient organisms, but who are also the first to discover and identify them. It underscores what is so easy to forget in our quotidian existence: there is so much yet to be done, so much we do not know — and brushing against the arm of discovery is invigorating. As far as we know, 25 years later, not a single person has set eyes on the old moss since they discovered it.
Elephant Island is perhaps best known as the infamously inhospitable land mass made home by the marooned Shackleton crew — that is, when they finally made it to land. Their ship had long since been crushed and sunk by the Weddell Sea, and they spent months living on the ice before an impossible journey to solid ground. What was left of their rations steadily tapered off and then disappeared entirely, the tobacco being one of the hardest losses. They took it so hard, in fact, that they attempted to smoke the native lichens, though with little satisfaction. Thank goodness their camp was on the opposite side of the island from the moss bank or they surely would have attempted to smoke that as well.
Antarctica is enormous, and the chance of finding anything, let alone a little dark growth against the glare of snow and ice — well, good luck. It was pre-GPS when Christian and Svante did their field research, so their paper includes some contextually broad maps with photographs and altitude readings for reference. They had been dropped off by helicopter, so they could not provide me with a suggested approach beyond the name of the nearest bay. I put out feelers to NASA, the British Antarctic Survey and Google for help. Ultimately it was Google Earth that came through, connecting me with the Polar Geospacial Center at the University of Minnesota, where they work with some of the most sophisticated remote imaging technologies currently in use. (Speaking of helicopters, I was told the “black helicopters” would be dispatched for me, should I get my hands on the wrong set of images.)
These days it is easier to reach Antarctica from space than from Earth.
But that’s not going to stop me from trying.