The disappearance of three Canadians in a plane in Antarctica has the world worrying and hoping. But whatever news we get in the next hours, we should recognize that this is not just a far-away accident in a harsh place. The work these men were doing on behalf of all of us and our children makes them genuine heroes.
Heroes are not just people who do dangerous things. By definition, a hero is someone whose hardships and risks are undertaken in the service of others. That’s why the term applies to the Kenn Borek crew and all the other air crews, scientists and cooks who support scientific exploration on the hard and dangerous edges of the world.
This work matters to all of us, yet the people who do it seldom ask for praise. All they ask of us is the opportunity to keep working. But we should honour them just as enthusiastically as we salute the men and women in uniform who defend us. These people, too, go into harm’s way for us.
I was lucky to have the chance to work as a journalist in Antarctica during several long trips to the continent between 1983 and 1996. I travelled mostly with scientists and support personnel who worked with the U.S. National Science Foundation’s polar research program. I covered many scientific projects, including studies of global warming that began long before it became a high-profile issue. I also worked at or near Antarctic bases owned by Chile, Argentina, China, Russia, Poland, Brazil, New Zealand and Britain.
The various ongoing national programs in Antarctica are amazingly safe, but I nevertheless saw the evidence of risk: several wrecked aircraft near McMurdo station and other bases and, once, the last flames of an inferno that consumed an entire Argentinian research station in an afternoon. The ship I was on rescued the station’s stunned crew.
As a journalist, I found the day-to-day work of antarctic science to be riveting. Reporters like me who visited the scientists were always trying to get them to talk about discoveries or eureka moments. They almost never did. And what became clear to me was that the scientists and the people who supported the scientific work were driven more by a sense of service than by hopes for glamorous discoveries.
They knew that notable discoveries come seldom, but they found motivation in their service every day. And the service to which they pledged their extraordinary effort was the expansion of knowledge for all humans.
The combination of this sense of service and the very difficult conditions of working in Antarctica created an atmosphere of hard work and camaraderie built on a fundamental idea that the hardship and risks were worth it.
And that idea was justified: Over the years there have been advances in many disciplines based on Antarctic science, not just in geology and natural history, but in knowledge of global warming, atmospheric science and astronomy. This is vital work. Our modern world is built on a foundation of science – the more we know, the more we can learn how to survive on the planet that sustains us. Our health and well-being depend on it. There is no finer cause.
Scientific exploration in tough places like Antarctica happens without fanfare and with almost no outside notice, except when something like this happens. But though this work is done behind the scenes, this crew and the many other men and women like them are true heroes of our age. They put their lives on the line every day to advance our knowledge of the world, and they deserve our highest esteem.
Michael Parfit, who lives near Victoria, BC, is the author of South Light: A Journey to the Last Continent and of the forthcoming The Lost Whale: The True Story of an Orca Named Luna.