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As Antarctica changed, so did he

Forrest McCarthy built a career supporting scientists on the ice. Then he decided to be a scientist himself.

By Eric Niiler

In a landscape as tough as Antarctica’s, every scientist needs a roadie.

Someone has to make the mission happen and keep the scientists safe. To scout the best route for the paleontologist to reach a choice fossil bed, make sure the pudgy grad student doesn’t fall down a life-ending crevasse, and double-check that the diesel generators that warm the tents stay running when it’s 50 degrees below zero.

For nearly three decades, Forrest McCarthy has been that guy — visiting the continent 18 times, documenting dangers and changes, both subtle and extreme.

And as the landscape has changed, so has the adventurer.

McCarthy was six years old when he asked his mother if all deserts were hot. She answered “no” and showed him a National Geographic article about the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

They are the largest swath of Antarctica that isn’t covered by ice, with soils devoid of plant or animal life — except for strange bacteria that biologists say resemble what might be found on another planet.

After that, McCarthy read and watched everything he could about the distant continent. Growing up in suburban Massachusetts and New Jersey, he dreamed of extreme landscapes, and, as soon as he could, signed up for outdoor adventures: a Boy Scout camping trip to the Rockies at 14; Outward Bound; treks to Alaska and Nepal. He finished college in Arizona and, in 1995 — by then a lank, tall man with piercing blue eyes — he moved to Jackson, Wyoming, to pursue an outdoorsman’s life.

He met his wife Amy on a wilderness EMT course that summer. Their first date was an ascent of the South Ridge of Nez Perce in Grand Teton National Park.

He also met a man named Buck Tilly, who told him that he spent the past wintertime — the Antarctic summer — working as a “sea ice safety instructor.”

Antarctica. It clicked.

With Tilly’s help, McCarthy applied to the U.S. Antarctic Program, run under the auspices of the National Science Foundation. The program supports the scientists who work at three permanent bases and more than a dozen temporary field camps, studying everything from neutrinos at the South Pole to penguins on the Ross Sea ice shelf.

For his first assignment, in 1995, he taught visiting scientists how to survive outdoors. Everyone who visits McMurdo takes a cold weather survival course. And any scientist who goes beyond the base must learn how to build a fortified snow shelter in case something goes wrong, such as a fire or communications failure. McCarthy showed the scientists how to use climbing harnesses and ropes, essential gear for traveling across the ice cap where crevasses can swallow a person without warning.

The job lasts five months, but he was hooked.

“You can melt snow and ice to drink. There’s no crime and nothing that will eat you. In the field, life is simple and the landscape sublime.”

His second visit to Antarctica was a treasure hunt, recovering a battery — powered by a radioactive isotope — that was buried near a French Research station called Dome C, a remote camp at 12,000 feet elevation. Most pilots don’t want to fly into Dome C; thin air caused several planes to crash there in the ’70s. McCarthy and his colleagues got flown in by a Twin Otter aircraft and pulled the battery to the surface.

In later trips, McCarthy helped glaciologists set up GPS stations on the world’s largest iceberg, a 30-mile long, 150-foot tall behemoth that blocked penguins from migrating and caused trouble with the human inhabitants at McMurdo Station. He led geologists through lava tubes on the active Mt. Erebus volcano, trying to predict its next eruption. He accompanied a geology expedition to discover new fossil beds.

In 2015, he lived in the Dry Valleys he had read about as a child, guiding visitors to Blood Falls, an outcropping at the edge of a glacier where microorganisms and minerals form an eerie reddish waterfall.

In 2017, he shepherded a team from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center across the ice sheet, negotiating waves of ice — known as “sastrugi” — that were formed by the region’s constant winds.

He got a reputation as a calming influence, constantly thinking of what can go wrong, how to stay safe, and how to dig out of a jam.

“The middle of the ice sheet is a flat, boring place,” says Tom Neumann, a climate scientist who shared driving duties with McCarthy on the trip. “But things can go sideways pretty quickly.”

The key to navigating risk is knowing your surroundings. And over the years, McCarthy came to understand this continent, its dangers and its quirks, and its otherworldly beauty.

“I feel at home in Antarctica,” he says. “Many people compare Antarctic exploration to space travel. I don’t. I’m an Earthling and Antarctica is part of Earth. There’s gravity and fresh, healthy air to breathe. You can melt snow and ice to drink. There’s no crime and nothing that will eat you. In the field, life is simple and the landscape sublime.”

That landscape, however, is changing. Glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula are melting faster than anywhere on Earth, and McCarthy saw for himself how human activity is altering the frozen continent. Algae now blooms in meltwater pools on glaciers that should be frozen solid. Cracks calve the world’s biggest icebergs.

On expeditions to other parts of the planet — where he works as a guide for scientists and vacationers — McCarthy began to record the shift. In 2008, he got his masters in geology from the University of Wyoming. For his thesis, he re-created 32 historical photographs of Arctic Alaska, documenting tiny changes that suggest greater forces at work.

In 2011, he testified before Congress about the role of federal lands in combating climate change. In 2017, after an expedition to Greenland, a Dartmouth scientist listed him as a co-author on a scientific paper.

“I was considered one of the fellow scientists,” McCarthy says, “not just a hired ice axe.”

Now, at age 50, McCarthy is going back to school to get a PhD in glaciology and oceanography. For the next four years, through a program at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks, he is studying marine life underneath the melting glaciers that extend from the edge of the Antarctic coastline to the ocean.

“I was considered one of the fellow scientists — not just a hired ice axe.”

In practice, that means moving a big portion of his work indoors: using thousands of bits of information from satellites, ships, and ground stations, and assembling them into graphs, charts, and computer models.

“He’ll have to learn some math and physics, oceanography, and how to dig into data,” says Peter Winsor, McCarthy’s graduate advisor. But he’ll have an advantage over other students, too: “He has an enormous bank of knowledge from being out there and seeing things. That’s something you can’t teach students early on,” Winsor says. “It builds up some sort of intuition in your spine that you can use for science.”

McCarthy is ready to take the leap.

“I’m at a point in my life that I have this outdoor skill set, and I find the most rewarding thing to do is research — to better understand our planet and what our future might look like,” he says. “And it would be neat to come back and be in charge myself.”

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Eric Niiler is a writer based in Washington, D.C.


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