Humanity discovered the planet Uranus earlier, in 1781, than the existence of a sixth continent on Earth itself.
The belated discovery of Antarctica and its cyclopean ice cliffs, in 1820, triggered the imagination of writers.
Edgar Allan Poe imagined a route full of bloodthirsty savage tribes.
Jules Verne fantasized about a magnetic sphinx at the South Pole.
And Lovecraft placed there the mountains of madness, populated by voracious fetid creatures.
Dutch glaciologist Veronica Tollenaar, born in Amsterdam 30 years ago, tells the true story, just as amazing, as she walks carefree through deep Antarctica.
Under the blanket of snow, says the researcher, there are no monsters or relics of forgotten civilizations, but space rocks from other worlds, perhaps with signs of alien life.
It all started with a joke.
A few months after astronaut Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon in July 1969, in the midst of a global space exploration fever, Japanese geologist Masao Gorai jokingly told colleagues going to Antarctica: “Bring me some meteorites.
Days later, the expedition members came across a strange black rock in the ice.
Then with another.
And with another.
In just 10 days, nine meteorites were found.
The enigmatic finding revealed an unsuspected mechanism.
The snow that falls in Antarctica compacts and after centuries becomes immaculate ice, without bubbles, which sinks and moves a few meters each month in monumental glaciers.
Tollenaar estimates that several hundred meteorites weighing more than 50 grams fall on the continent each year, eventually disappearing from sight in the depths of the white mantle.
However, he enthusiastically relates, there are points in Antarctica where these rivers of ancient ice run into a mountain and end up emerging.
Entombed meteorites surface in patches of blue ice.
His colleague Harry Zekollari found more than 400 space rocks in a single expedition.
“We have made a treasure map to find these places full of meteorites,” Tollenaar proclaims.
The English explorer Frank Bickerton was the first person to collect a meteorite in Antarctica, in 1912. Since then, almost 50,000 space rocks have been found on the white continent, 62% of all those found on Earth.
It's not that they fall more here, they simply accumulate over millennia in specific areas, in full view of anyone passing by.
"Almost all meteorites come from the asteroid belt, but there are also those from Mars and the Moon," says Tollenaar, from the Free University of Brussels (Belgium).
His team has used machine learning computer tools to calculate, with an estimated 80% accuracy, where the meteorites may be outcropping: they are especially cold areas of blue ice, with very slow speeds and on moderate slopes.
One of the most famous meteorites in history is ALH 84001, a Martian rock that was ejected from the red planet 16 million years ago and fell in Antarctica about 13,000 years ago.
A NASA team ruled in 1996 that it contained chemical compounds likely produced by extraterrestrial microbes.
The US president himself at the time, Bill Clinton, solemnly presented the find to the world.
“[The meteorite] tells us about the possibility of life.
If this discovery is confirmed, it will be one of the most amazing revelations science has ever made about our universe," Clinton proclaimed.
A year ago, other American scientists showed that these compounds could be formed without the need for Martian microbes.
Glaciologist Veronica Tollenaar and her colleague José Jorquera, in an area of blue ice in the Ellsworth Mountains.Claudio Álvarez
Glaciologist Veronica Tollenaar, inside a tent with measuring devices at the Glacier Unión camp.Claudio Álvarez
Glaciologist Veronica Tollenaar inspects an area where the ice is melting due to the accumulation of heat in the rocks.Claudio Alvarez
The Dutch researcher Veronica Tollenaar takes ice samples around the Escuela de Montaña peak.Claudio Alvarez
Glaciologist Veronica Tollenaar and her colleague José Jorquera take ice samples, with two military explorers in the background.Claudio Álvarez
The engineer José Jorquera collects an ice sample obtained by the glaciologist Veronica Tollenaar.Claudio Alvarez
The Cabeza del Elefante peak, in the vicinity of the Chilean camp Glacier Unión.Claudio Alvarez
Scientist Veronica Tollenaar walks through an area of blue ice near the Escuela de Montaña peak.Claudio Alvarez
The Chilean camp Glacier Unión is so called because it is located at the confluence of several glaciers.Claudio Alvarez
Military explorer Fernando Inostroza, glaciologist Veronica Tollenaar, and engineer José Jorquera inspect a zone of blue ice.Claudio Alvarez
Snowmobiles parked in an area of blue ice, at the foot of Charles Peak, in the Ellsworth Mountains.Claudio Alvarez
Dutch glaciologist Veronica Tollenaar takes samples to study the age of blue ice.Claudio Álvarez
Today is a very good day in this place in deep Antarctica: it is five degrees below zero.
The glaciologist walks in the sun through an unlikely place.
Scientists call this corner "the beach" because it really looks like a small frozen sea, about 1,000 kilometers from the South Pole.
"Meteors always show up in blue ice like this," says Tollenaar.
With each step, the spikes of her crampons tear off splinters that sound like bells as they bounce off the icy ground.
Around it rise the Ellsworth Mountains, the highest mountain range in Antarctica.
One of the peaks is called the Elephant's Head, because it looks like a pachyderm carved by an extinct civilization.
The scene would fit into the wildest fantasies of Allan Poe, Verne, and Lovecraft.
“Antarctica is the best place to find meteorites.
They are concentrated in specific points and you can also spot them easily, because they are a black thing on the blue ice.
It is almost impossible to find a meteorite that falls in an agricultural region or in a forest.
Also, it's very cold here and they keep better, they don't deteriorate”, explains Tollenaar.
"There are areas where every rock you come across is a meteorite."
Military explorer Juan Pablo Muñoz made a hole in the ice with an ice ax.Claudio Alvarez
The researcher's analysis, published a year ago in the journal
, suggests that less than 13% of the meteorites found on the continent's surface have been found.
More than 340,000 space rocks would remain, concentrated in blobs on her map.
The Dutch glaciologist is participating in an 18-day expedition to the Chilean base Glaciar Unión, organized by the Chilean Antarctic Institute, in which she and her colleague José Jorquera study the properties of snow and ice to try to understand what is happening with the global warming on the surface of Antarctica.
Tollenaar is now seeking funding to organize future missions to the meteorite sites indicated on her treasure map.
The geologist Ralph Harvey has directed the Antarctic Meteorite Search Program since 1996, an American project that in half a century has found some 22,000 specimens.
The veteran space rock hunter applauds the new treasure map from the Tollenaar team.
"It will serve to prioritize search locations," he celebrates.
However, Harvey remembers that Antarctica is a hell in which temperatures of 89 degrees below zero and hurricane winds of more than 300 kilometers per hour have been recorded.
“The task of recovering Antarctic meteorites is only 10% science, the rest is training, planning and logistics.
We are faced with an enormous intellectual overload when it comes to organizing trips to places with extreme weather conditions, from another world,
Ancient ice, near the Chilean camp of Glacier Unión.Claudio Alvarez
“There are few of us who make our living from this and I don't think any of us decided, based solely on this map, not to visit a promising-looking area of ice.
In my opinion, the logistical support factor is the real key: if you have support in a region that is not proven to have meteorites, it may be a better option than going to a place with more potential, but where it is 10 times more hard to get to," he says.
The idea of making a treasure map came from the Belgian glaciologist Harry Zekollari.
A decade ago, this researcher participated in an expedition to search for space rocks in the vicinity of the Belgian Princess Elizabeth base.
In just over five weeks they found 424 meteorites, with a total weight of about 70 kilos.
“1% of the surface of Antarctica are areas of blue ice, but in most of them you don't find meteorites.
The big question was why there were in one area, but there weren't any in another place that was only 10 kilometers away, ”he recalls.
That's where Veronica Tollenaar came on the scene.
An area of blue ice in the surroundings of the Chilean camp Glacier Unión.Claudio Alvarez
The Dutch woman never imagined that she would dedicate herself to looking for meteorites at the end of the world.
For years, she dreamed that she would earn a living with her great passion, music, as a flutist, with a repertoire from medieval, renaissance, baroque and contemporary times.
Meanwhile, she studied civil engineering and learned to use artificial intelligence tools unusual among her glaciologist colleagues.
This unusual training allowed him to produce the first treasure map of Antarctic meteorites, as part of her doctoral thesis.
Tollenaar kneels on the blue ice and takes samples with his hammer.
In deep Antarctica, everyone has a combat name, which is used in radio transmissions.
The glaciologist is
, like the Norse god of thunder, who wielded a war hammer.
Two military scouts from the Chilean Army, nicknamed
, go a few meters ahead, opening holes with their ice axes.
Tollenaar explains that not all space rocks are worth the same.
“Maybe only one in 100 meteorites is special.
So to get that special meteor you need to find the other hundred as well,” she explains as she hits the blue ice with her hammer.
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