Because of its stark and desolate landscape, scientists often compare this region to the surface of Mars. Instead of ice, loose gravelly material that comes from the end moraines of the valley glaciers makes up the substrate. This landscape is also unique because running water is very rare on the surface of Antarctica. Here, as summer temperatures rise to just above freezing and the 24 hour sunlight begins to melt the glaciers, streams start to run. It is this melting season that my group is interested in.
There are very few macroorganisms in the valleys, but a surprising amount of life is hidden in the streams and soils. Some examples of organisms are: stream algae, nematodes, moss, plankton, bacteria and other microorganisms called tardigrades and rotifers. In the winter, most of these organisms exist in a freeze-dried state calledanhydrobiosis. When the water begins to run in the summer months, they spring back to life within days or weeks.
The valleys are so sensitive to human impact that you can find footprints made by people 60 years ago. Earlier expeditions were careful, but often contaminated the land with trash or fuel. Science groups have dug up trash heaps from 1945 that still haven't decomposedat all. Modern environmental regulations were established to avoid contamination in an environment where any pollution would last for extremely long periods of time. Now, all fuel is delivered to the valleys in 55 gallon drums at the start of the season, and even aspill of a teaspoon has to be reported and cleaned up by the spill response team. All used water (even for washing hands) and human waste is put in barrels and flown out at the end of the season. The dry valleys were designated as an Antarctic Specially Managed Area in 2004. This designation means that scientists from the US, New Zealand and Italy as well as tourists work together toward stricter environmental standards established by the agreement.
View from my tent at Lake Hoare Camp