Blaine woman recounts life, work in Antarctica

Published on Wed, Feb 10, 2010 by Tara Nelson

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At the age of 49, Blaine resident Elle Tracy took a 90 degree turn in her career. About 10 years ago, Tracy, a former computer executive for IBM, spent a year in temperatures as low as 113 degrees below zero working as data processing staff for the National Science Foundation in Antarctica.

With 5.4 million square miles, Antarctica is the fifth-largest landmass in the world. It is also the coldest with temperatures ranging from 10 degrees to minus 130 Fahrenheit. Because of the harsh climate, the continent is not home to any indigenous peoples, plants or animals, except penguins and seabirds that live there seasonally.

The experience later led Tracy to write a screenplay, study at Cambridge University, and start a collection of more than 1,000 rare books. She will speak about her experience at 7 p.m. Thursday, February 25 at the Blaine Library. Books of early explorer stories will be available.

What do you plan on talking about?

What I want to talk about is how Antarctica is now and then. Now what goes on is scientific research to study the
health of the planet. It’s an interesting place because it’s 10 percent of the earth’s surface and there is no government or law enforcement there so people are basically on their own.

People police each other and also look out for each other. Nations do the same thing based on the Antarctic Treaty. The treaty was signed by 10 signatory nations and ratified by the U.S. in 1961. The signatory nations represent 80 percent of the earth’s population. It basically says the continent is dedicated to science, it says there is nothing nuclear here, nothing exploratory and no arms or armaments. There are no colonies and no established cities only research stations. You can’t go there unless you have a job.

What’s the difference between Antarctica and the Arctic?

Well, there are no polar bears in the Antarctic or Antarctica and there are no penguins in the Arctic. They are two very distinct ends of the earth. Not only that but Antarctica is land, the Arctic is frozen sea. Antarctica, is also much colder and there are no indigenous people or animals there because it’s too cold. Penguins migrate to the ice to breed but they don’t live there, same with seals and other birds. One of the mysteries of the world is where do penguins go when they’re not breeding because they only come to the beach to breed. Nobody knows.
How did you land a job with the National Science Foundation?

I used to live above Elliot Bay Books in Seattle and I went to listen to author Will Steger, an American explorer who lives in Minnesota. He had walked across Antarctica with a team of six beginning in July and made it to the South Pole on Christmas Eve. They walked more than 4,000 miles and eventually returned April 1. When he got up on stage, he threw his parka on the podium and it was filthy. He then pulled out his belt and demonstrated how its bright orange color had been blanched by the sun’s radiation under the hole in the ozone layer.

I had always been a bit of an environmentalist but when I saw this, I thought if I want to kvetch about global warming and greenhouse gases, I’d better go there so I know what I’m talking about. So the next morning, I called the National Science Foundation. Eighteen months later I was to be stationed 77 degrees latitude at McMurdo, a research station on Ross Island.

Did you find it difficult to make such a drastic move later in life?

At 50? Heck, no. I believe people can leverage their skills and craft their usefulness to almost any task at hand. People just need to be smart about it. It’s the work: It’s not the title, the size of the office or the color of the desk. I have been a professional career woman all my life. I simply kept myself busy.

What was your impression?

There’s no more of an exotic, beautiful place in the world for my money than Antarctica.
One thing that happens is the sun goes down and stays down for four months. During that time, you learn a whole new hemisphere of stars. You can also read a book outside because the moon is so bright. The only thing is you have to take your gloves off to turn the page.

What’s a warm day in Antarctica?

A real tropical day is about 9 or 10 degrees above zero, and when that happens, people are out in their shorts.

What lasting impression did this experience have?

What I come away with from this experience is a deep, deep sense that what really matters is community. It’s imperative that you learn how to manage yourself and understand how you affect other people.

When people are so tangled up in their ideas about how important they are or what kind of car they drive, they’re not thinking about the community. We’re all in this together and we have to take care of each other. I know this is the Wild West and all that, but if you’re in it for yourself you need to go live on your own little island.