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Larenazo asks if we know where the penguins go in the winter.

"Can’t your scientists help you with that?" I ask, assuming he’s joking.

"There are no scientists here, just us. Fifteen soldiers, plus me."

The greeting is generous—and practiced. The comandante welcomes more than 6,000 tourists a year to his base for a walking tour, glimpses of the three rare white penguins that live on the island, and even a small museum.

Meanwhile, very real science is still done at the Ukrainian base of Vernadsky. Once a British base called Faraday, 12 years ago the U.K. gave it to the Ukrainians. We pull into the station on a sunny day; from Vernadsky south, Antarctica grows more exposed, windier, and wilder.

Fourteen Ukrainian men, most from Kiev, live, sleep, and work at Vernadsky for 12 continuous months. Strangers when they begin their yearlong assignment, they maintain what may be the best meteorological record on the continent, started by the Brits and going back more than 50 years. It was at this isolated metal-and-cement block station, on an island separated during the summer months from land by the Didier Channel, that the ozone hole growing above Antarctica was discovered 23 years ago.

A rudimentary wooden ladder leads up to a tiny bedroom where, five times a day, Dennis Tavrov—a geophysicist from Kiev, known simply as "Ozone Man"—slides back a small square panel in the roof and pushes the scope of his oblong measuring machine out into the sky. Every day for more than 20 years someone has been doing exactly the same from this same small room—it is the reason the world knows about the hole.

Black ponytail hanging down his back, light blue overalls over a heavy wool sweater, Ozone Man shows us graphs pinned to the wall charting monthly variations in ozone coverage going back two decades. It was at its thinnest in the mid-1990s, and he explains how proud he is to be the only person in the world monitoring the hole, which has begun to fill in during the past decade, in part due to the global ban on new chlorofluorocarbons.

Armstrong and McBride have squeezed into the tiny bedroom with me, and we exchange looks of amazement that from such a humble place, great science is made. When Armstrong expresses his surprise that a seemingly simple machine, jammed up through a small hole in the roof, is responsible for such an important discovery, Tavrov smiles defensively. "It is not a simple machine! There are very complicated opticals inside! There is nothing automatic about it, it is all manual. It is the very best!" When the Brits first detected the hole, they replaced the machine, thinking it askew. When the new machine returned the same results, they reinstalled the original.

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