Sunday, November 14, 1999

Present at the creation: Geologist Peter Webb got in on the ground floor of Antarctic research

Published in the Antarctic Sun

When Peter Webb left Antarctica in 1959, he thought he’d never be back. Not only was he wrong, but he’s now in the middle of his 20th season on the Ice.

A geology student at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, Webb cajoled his way down
to the Ice in 1957 on a U.S. ship as a cargo handler.

With a friend, Barrie McKelvey, accompanying him, Webb was quickly snapped up by New Zealand and U.S. field parties for the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Both countries’ expeditions were long on geophysicists but short on geologists.

Webb spent the rest of that summer season in the field.

The following summer he returned to continue research associated with the IGY, and became one of the first people ever to explore the Dry Valleys.

Webb himself corresponded with and ended up meeting some of the geologists from Scott’s and Shackleton’s expeditions, who were still alive in the late 1950s.

“We headed inland to all the places they could never go,” he remembered.

Webb said he feels like he falls between eras. His first year in Antarctica was only 40 years after the age of the early explorers. His four decades since have centered on the scientific exploration of the continent.

“I often feel caught between those early expeditions and the present day,” he said.

The first part of that gap he bridged in U.S. helicopters over the Dry Valleys. The best maps they had were from early expeditions, which were closely tied to the coast and their supply ships.

“It was a very strange sensation to be holding a 1910-11 map on your knees in a helicopter in 1957,” Webb said. The maps weren’t all that complete. To find their way back to McMurdo, the pilots climbed in circles until they saw Erebus and headed that way. They had no other way of knowing where they were.

The Dry Valleys were so remote then that the only time Webb saw a helicopter was when it dropped him off and when it picked him up.

Between those times, Webb and three others spent their time walking. They set up two base camps, at Lake Vida and Lake Vanda, and “radiated out from there,” Webb said. They would carry supplies to outlying camps and then take day trips from those sites. They would climb high points and take photographic panoramas, which could later be patched together into maps.

“We were doing reconnaissance, mapping, and geology,” Webb said.

Once a week they would make radio contact via Morse code, relaying only the most basic information.

“We could have been dead six days and no one would have known,” Webb said.

They ate surplus Korean War military rations and pemmican, and had a hard time heating water. “It was all very primitive,” Webb said.

They collected rock samples, too, and all of those had to be carried by hand. The researchers would spend time collecting rocks from various places and then take a few days to hike them all
back to the nearest base camp—making several trips per day if necessary.

“One season we calculated we walked 1500 miles,” Webb remembered.

His feet aren’t worn out yet, and over 40 years later, he’s still coming to Antarctica. Now he’s the science leader for the Cape Roberts Project.

He comes for the learning, he said. “This is very good training for students.”

One of Webb’s former students now has a graduate student of his own; all three are members of the Cape Roberts team.

With such diverse minds focused on specific questions, Webb said, “it’s been a great problem-solving environment.”

The exposure to new possibilities has just appeared again, with the discovery of fossilized wood in the Cape Roberts core.

“This is a serendipitous environment,” Webb said. When planning research here, he allots 20 percent of the time for things he doesn’t yet know about.

He’s also impressed by the people who are here now.

“Back in 1957 the people who were here didn’t have a lot of interest in the place,” he said.

There was a time when Antarctica was something most people didn’t know anything about. Disinterest in the early days was such that students in his classes who had spent time in the Navy would see his slide shows, recognize places they’d been, but not even known they’d seen Antarctica.

“People would come up after class and say, ‘I think I’ve been to Antarctica,’” Webb said.

Now, though, the people here know a lot about Antarctica. “The level of education amongst the total current population is pretty good,” he said.

He is interested in seeing what happens to McMurdo as a community over the long term. “It’s unusual to take a group of people who don’t know each other and put them in this remote environment,” he said.

As for his own future, he’s not sure of specifics, but he’s confident. “Something always shows up.”