John Kerry becomes the most senior US official to visit Antartica

John Kerry became the highest-ranking US official to visit Antarctica yesterday, when he landed there for a two-day trip during which he will hear about the impact of climate change on the frozen continent.

Secretary of State John Kerry inside the historic Shackleton hut near McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Picture: PA
Secretary of State John Kerry inside the historic Shackleton hut near McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Picture: PA

The US Secretary of State left from New Zealand after being held up for about a day by bad weather.

Mr Kerry and his entourage left Christchurch airport at 6am aboard a C-17 Globemaster military cargo plane and landed in Antarctica at about 11am local time yesterday.

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An experienced pilot, Mr Kerry spent much of the flight in the cockpit of the huge jet, chatting with the pilots.

After a smooth trip of about five hours, the group landed on the Pegasus Ice Runway – the strip of ice that serves McMurdo station. The large base is the hub for US operations.

Mr Kerry made no public remarks on the initial leg of the trip.

In Christchurch a day earlier, he congratulated president-elect Donald Trump for winning a “momentous election” and said he had reminded state department staff of the “time-honoured tradition of a very peaceful and constructive transfer of power”.

In Antarctica, Mr Kerry’s his entourage transferred immediately at the airstrip to a smaller military transport plane for a three-hour flight to the research station which the US government operates near the South Pole.

Mr Kerry planned to visit that station for about two hours before returning to McMurdo for the night.

His aides described the trip as a learning opportunity for the Secretary of State. He planned to receive briefings from scientists working to understand the effects of climate change on Antarctica.

He has also made climate change an intensive focus of American diplomacy during his term, and had previously spent decades working on the issue as a US senator.

He planned to return to New Zealand on Saturday.

Lying in the Antarctic Circle that rings the southern part of the globe, Antarctica is the fifth largest continent. Its size varies through the seasons, as expanding sea ice along the coast nearly doubles its size in the winter. Most of Antarctica is covered with ice, with less than half a per cent of the vast wilderness ice-free.

The continent is divided into two regions, known as East and West Antarctica.

East Antarctica makes up two-thirds of the continent, and is about the size of Australia.

Ice in this part of the continent is usually around 1.2 miles thick.

West Antarctica, on the other hand, is made up of a series of frozen islands stretching toward the southern tip of South America. The two regions are separated by the Transantarctic Mountains, which stretches across the entire continent.

Despite its covering of thick ice, Antarctica is classified as a desert because so little rain falls.