In 2003 an iceberg the size of Rhode Island broke off the shelf and blocked the channel leading to McMurdo Sound. At the time, it was the largest moving thing on Earth. For Smith and the rest of Operation Deep Freeze, it was a catastrophe.

"None of the currents could get in," recounts Smith. "The sea ice got thicker and thicker. We had 40 or 50 miles of ice instead of 20. When ice sits, the salt and brine leaches out of it and decomposes the ice and makes it weaker. Dust would blow over the ice and turn it brown. When sun hits the ice, the dust particles heat up and increase the rate of melting. The sun melted the top layer of ice, and we had planes sitting in a foot of water. We didn't know what was happening. We had to evacuate the planes."

Eventually, the iceberg floated out to sea. But it may be a harbinger of more environmental disasters for Antarctica. In the past 60 years, thanks to global warming, the continent's average air temperature has risen five degrees. The warmer weather has already affected the Antarctic ecosystem: the iconic tuxedoed Adélie penguins have begun to die off because the ice they used to cross to reach their richest feeding grounds has melted away.

Ron Smith.
Ron Smith.
An aerial view of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
National Science Foundation
An aerial view of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

the primitive cry
of raging ice
collides with ravenous
brutality of light

According to a recent report by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, 87 percent of the continent's glaciers have shrunk significantly in the past 50 years. The ice shelves have been retreating as well, causing the glaciers to move more rapidly outward from the Polar Plateau and melt when they find the warm currents flowing southward. The committee predicts that by the year 2100, global sea levels will have risen four feet and six inches because of Antarctic ice-melt.

Smith has become something of an expert on the Antarctic environment. This past November, when the U.S. military and state department met in Germany to discuss a new Arctic policy, Smith was invited to speak on global warming. "I was one of the only ones there who had worked in the Arctic and Antarctic."

Smith had less success making himself heard at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last month. He'd flown to Denmark at his own expense in the hope that he would be able to participate. But security was so tight he couldn't get near the buildings, let alone the meetings.

Smith wrote his first poems when he was thirteen. He gave them to his art teacher, who told him he had talent. But there wasn't much time for writing at the science and engineering high school he attended in Baltimore or during the early years of his flying career when he was married with three young sons.

When he was 40, he went to upstate New York, home of the 109th Airlift Wing, to train for Operation Deep Freeze. "The kids stayed in Baltimore," he says. "I was alone at night. I started writing about the snowfall. When you're in the Air Force, you go on missions all over the world. It's intense and emotional. But when you're in the military, you do your job and maintain a stoic outer shell. The only way for me to express these things was by writing them down."

wordspray you never wanted
to touch, yet it pushes you
out to scale this frigid ledge
of perception, when your
best is to pretend; feign
fearlessness leaning against
the bar.

None of his colleagues was aware Smith wrote poetry. The first his friend German heard of it was when Smith sent him a poem he'd written about a holiday visit to German's family. German was surprised and pleased. "He caught the hustle and bustle of our family," he remembers. "It was very profoundly written."

In Antarctica, Smith worked eleven hours a day, seven days a week. "Work in that environment is very intense," he says. "The cold polar environment never goes away. You walk out the door, it's there. You go to the plane, it's there. Everywhere you fly, it's there. Nature dominates. Your first impression is, 'How could anybody survive in a place like this?'"

Nature dominates in Smith's poems, too, which he composed in his dorm room during his few off-hours. As a commander, he felt uncomfortable having a drink with the enlisted men at the Southern Exposure bar. But he also felt alienated from the outside world, even from his family.

"Coming off the Ice after a long time down there was like coming back to a world that couldn't relate to me...estranged in some ways," he says. In 2000, midway through his time in Antarctica, he and his wife divorced.

Smith's poems are mostly free verse, musical and heavy on alliteration. By the time he left Antarctica, he had amassed a full manuscript, which he's now shopping to publishers. He has published his poetry in literary journals, the New York Times and McMurdo's paper, The Antarctic Sun.

Other poets have written about Antarctica, notably Donald Finkel, a long-time English professor at Washington University and father of Riverfront Times editor Tom Finkel. But most of them have been visitors, invited by their governments as part of arts programs. Smith is one of the few who has actually lived there.

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