Cloud Cities of Antarctica

With regards to colonization in science-fictional alternate histories such as the one I primarily write in, my mind has been wandering lately to Antarctica, ruminating over what sort of colony would be best: an ice cave a la Project Iceworm, a giant vehicle or road train like what I suspect would work best on Mars, a building on stilts a la the present-day Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, or something else completely to overcome the hostile terrain…and then it hit me. Why even deal with the forbiddingly icy surface at all? Why take on that headache in the first place, when you could instead just float above it all in an airborne installation, a cloud city, landing wherever and whenever is most convenient?

Visions that fire the Imagination

I’ll confess my inspiration for this came from The Antarctic Pavilion art project’s website. I was going through their gallery of visionary concepts wondering what sort of colonies you’d build in Antarctica, but it all seemed just meh, the sort of colonies that are plopped onto the ice and have to awkwardly kludge themselves into having a place on it, rather than the sort of installation that truly fit in with the local environment and could use it to advantage. All, that is, except Veech Media Architecture’s:


Authors: Stuart A. Veech, Mascha Veech-Kosmatschof. Project Team: Mihai Potra, Tudor Sabau, Thomas Milly. © Stuart A. Veech & Mascha Veech-Kosmatschof.

The project “Migrating Cities” envisions a new model for Antarctic architecture on the cosmic scale inspired by the irreversible technological progress in the field of extra-terrestrial solar energy. Space-Based Solar Power plants (SBSP) will globally revolutionise future master planning interventions through harnessing solar energy power at 32km in space for direct transmission to strategic receiver stations on Earth resolving long-term dependency on fossil fuel consumption.

We imagine a migrating city where the “infrastructure” is a series of mobile energy stations powered by SBSP enabling self-sustainable, offgrid light weight hovering structures free from fixed foundations and rigid network systems. In analogy to migrating birds penguin groups, the architectural airships “migrate” or agglomerate to form larger communities adapting to the hostile environmental conditions.

Now that’s the sort of thinking that’ll be required to develop such a forbidding continent: let Antarctic colonies be distinctly Antarctic, not iced-in imitations of the temperate world’s cities.

The Real-Life History of Cloud Cities; yes, Really

Outside the Antarctic context, floating cities were famously proposed by Buckminster Fuller in the form of his “Cloud Nine” concept. Interestingly, unlike a blimp or a zeppelin, a sufficiently large “tensegrity sphere” (think on the order of a mile wide) could loft itself with just hot air, with air warmed by only one degree over the ambient temperature! In much of the temperate world, especially at the higher altitudes a floating city would inhabit, one degree warmer than the surrounding air is comfortable room temperature for human beings. Sure, the interiors of the spheres would have to be (mostly) light and airy, but the whole volume of such a sphere could be a shirt-sleeve environment, and a rather pleasant one at that!

Interior Antarctica: a Cloud City’s Natural Habitat?

Where it gets fancy is that this “room-temperature air is warm enough to loft you up” technique is effective in interior Antarctica like nowhere else on the Earth, for the simple reason that it’s the coldest part of our planet.

If your interior temperature is 70 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s 87 degrees warmer than the average daily high temperature in midsummer at Vostok Station, 167 degrees warmer than the average daily low temperature there in midwinter! Every degree over the surrounding temperature expands the gaseous envelope, lowering the density of the lifting gas (air, in this case), and generates lift. Instead of just 1 degree, you could get a 167 degree differential; to get the same sort of lift in an average part of the world your interior would need to be heated to 225 degrees, far too hot for a human to survive.

So if there’s anywhere a city-cum-warm-air-balloon could work it’s over the interior of the Antarctic ice sheet. There’s another advantage to the cloud-city option in an Antarctic context. An often-cited drawback of Buckminster Fuller’s Cloud Nine concept is that it’s just a lot cheaper and easier to build a structure on the ground to live in. Well, that drawback probably doesn’t apply in interior Antarctica, considering how notoriously difficult it is to erect and sustain a building on an ever-moving ice sheet where blowing snow accumulates onto the structure over time. Sure, there are techniques to overcome this, as we see with the new Amundsen-Scott building, but are they really any easier to build and maintain than a cloud city would be? Probably not. Certainly, ground construction doesn’t present the same sort of compelling advantage on an ice cap as it does on terra firma.

Meanwhile, a cloud city presents the compelling advantages of being able to rise above any adverse weather conditions such as ground blizzards, adverse geological conditions like crevasses opening up under you, and being able to either be anchored to a specific site or travel to different sites if it’s considered desirable to do so.

Antarctica as a Springboard for Venus

Where it gets really fancy is when you realize that this Antarctic cloud city concept also bears quite a similarity to the leading concept for colonization of Venus, which also revolves around cloud cities. I wrote on this possibility a couple years ago, and NASA has done work on it under the aegis of the “High-Altitude Venus Operational Concept” (HAVOC).

The cloud cities of Venus would, just like the Antarctic cloud cities, use regular ol’ air as the lifting gas, but in the upper atmosphere of Venus the lift comes from the fact that oxygen is substantially less dense than carbon dioxide, rather than a difference in temperature; surprisingly enough, at the altitude band with human-habitable atmospheric pressures (around 60 kilometers from the surface) the temperature ranges from around 0 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly the same as Earth! The only real difference is the ambient air is not breathable, mandating the use of breathing masks, and clouds are enriched in sulfuric acid, mandating the use of corrosion-resistant materials for hulls and outerwear.

The so-called Antarctic oases (usually taken as just the McMurdo dry valleys but in fact there are many more such areas across the continent) are often (and rightly!) cited as excellent training grounds for going to Mars, but what’s not nearly as well known is that the Antarctic skies offer a training ground for going to Venus. The coldest region of the Earth is about the last place you’d probably think of as a good springboard for the hottest planet in the solar system, but both places are best colonized with more or less the same technologies.

Exporting Antarctic Aerostats elsewhere in the Solar System

Titan too would be very well-served by similar techniques. Plain ordinary air should be a lifting gas on Titan too, considering that its atmosphere is substantially denser than Earth’s, and certainly a room-temperature envelope should tend to rise, considering that the ambient temperature is -291 Fahrenheit, cold enough to make inner Antarctica look like a realm of fire and brimstone by comparison!

Those would be about the only two other places in the solar system you could go to using the “envelope filled with room-temperature air for lift” concept. As far as I understand it Mars’s atmosphere, though cold and made up of heavy carbon dioxide, is far too thin to permit any breathable gas mix to float. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, on the other hand, have atmospheres that, while thick enough and cold enough, are (being made of hydrogen and helium) too light at human-habitable pressure ranges to permit any breathable gas mix to float.

Hot hydrogen would float in all these places, sure, but that’s a bit different from having a light airy spherical city float with just the ambient breathable air. The technologies developed in Antarctica and on Venus should still prove useful, however, as only relatively minor adjustments would be needed.

One if by Air, Two if by Sea

Personally I think that’s really interesting. A final note: I specify “interior Antarctica” in the above a lot for a good reason. The coast of the continent is much warmer, meaning the lifting effect and the amount of payload you could take on would be correspondingly less, making the whole idea of an aerostat considerably less compelling, but more importantly, the coast of Antarctica offers more and perhaps better options. For one, the terrain is merely tundra, not a glacier or an ice cap, so more or less normal building techniques on the ground work effectively enough. People think of Antarctica as being totally uninhabitable, but in reality the coastal portion, especially on the lower-latitude Antarctic Peninsula, is no worse for human habitation than, say, northern Greenland. There are literally towns on the Peninsula, such as Esperanza Base, pictured below; this settlement wouldn’t look too out of place in Wyoming or Alaska.

Esperanza Base. Photographer: Dr. David Demer, NOAA/NMFS/SWFSC/AMLR. CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Secondly, if you want to live on the coast of Antarctica, by far the best way to do so would be to live on a ship or a submarine, i.e. in the water. Colonies that would fall under the umbrella of seasteading offer a dizzyingly wide array of possibilities there. While aerostats could in principle land in the water a la the old-fashioned seaplanes, a vehicle more specialized for staying on the water’s surface, i.e. an actual ship, would perform considerably better if you want to live primarily on the water, and this goes double for any colony that desires access to the rich underwater ecosystem of the Antarctic region. Even the penguins don’t fly in the air here; they dive underwater. Perhaps man should follow suit in his effort to conquer this most forbidding of all the world’s seas, and think even more boldly and creatively when it comes to conquering this most forbidding of all the world’s continents, and destinations beyond.

NASA map of Antarctica.

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