The Value of Google Earth’s Antarctic Expedition

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Brad Herried of the University of Minnesota Polar Geospatial Center and Julie Bonneau of the U.S. Antarctic Program were required to use heated packs to keep the equipment from freezing at the Ceremonial South Pole during the Google photo shoot

Antarctica is the definition of remote. The southern-most continent on the planet is also the coldest and most forbidding; the only way to get there is via countless plane flights, and just about the only people who travel there are scientists. Also, there are penguins. But as far away as it is to most of us, Antarctica is incredibly important to the planet—and the changes going on deep down under will have effects that we’ll all feel. “It is a harbinger for what is going to happen in the rest of the world,” says Brad Herried, a research fellow at the Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota.

(MORE: Google Street View Goes to Antarctica)

That’s what makes the Google Street View Antarctica project so important. As posted earlier this week, Google has put up amazing Street View photos from historic locations near the south Pole, including the virtually intact huts of the explorers Ernest Shackleton and Robert F. Scott. The result is an astounding panorama of this polar region, something that gives any individual with a computer and an Internet account the ability to experience life in Antarctica. “Even if you have the financial means, it’s hard to go to Antarctica,” says Alex Starns, technical program manager for Google Earth Street View. “People can explore a place they can never visit.”

The expedition took place from October 2011 to the beginning of January. That’s the “summer” for Antarctica, but even then the conditions made photography challenging. Herried, who was part of the expedition, remembers trying to keep the cameras and other equipment warm despite temperatures below -60 F. “It’s not easy and it’s not comfortable,” he says.

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But the photos of Shackleton’s and Scott’s cabins—which date back to the early 20th century—show that the work of polar exploration used to be even more difficult. (And sometimes lethal—Scott died on his Antarctic expedition.) Seeing those cabins and that equipment “gave me a better appreciation for what they did,” says Herried. “It took these guys months of trekking across the ice and cold temperatures to reach the South Pole.”

But as beautiful as the Antarctica photos are—and really, check out the amazing TIME panorama that was created—the real hope is that Google’s work will draw attention to the vital research being done in Antarctica. The University of Minnesota group that worked with Google is funded by the National Science Foundation, and helps support other scientists as they carry out vital work on climate change, mapping and other research goals. Some of that work has pretty esoteric goals—Russian scientists recently managed to drill deep into the subglacial Lake Vostok, uncovering water that hadn’t been contaminated by the surface for hundreds of millions of years. The microbes found in Vostok could give scientists an idea what life could be like on the icy moons of Jupiter. “Antarctica is a great analogue for many other place, including Mars,” says Herreid.

But the work also has very real consequences for the planet we live on. Antarctica is changing quickly, melting at a faster rate than scientists had predicted in the 2007 U.N. assessment on climate change. By mapping the ice sheets of Antarctica, researchers can understand exactly how the continent is being affected by climate change. That’s important for the rest of us to know, given that Antarctica has enough ice to swamp the world’s coasts if it all melted. (Though that’s something that won’t happen for centuries.) “Part of the motivation for Street View is to give people a view of the modern science going on in Antarctica,” says Herreid. “Most people have no idea.”

It’s time to take a trip to the deep, deep south.

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