Monday, December 25, 2006


At large holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, most of the people working in the Dry Valleys gather at the central field camp, Lake Hoare. The camp manager Rae plans elaborate meals and activities. For Thanksgiving this year, we had a full dinner- better than most have at home! There were 8 pies for dessert. For Christmas/Hannukah/Solstice Rae cooked roast beef, baked veggies, mashed potatoes, asparagus, baked pumpkin and bread pudding.

It is a tradition for Santa to visit the field camps in the Dry Valleys and bring mail and packages from town. The head National Science Foundation representative for Antarctica traditionally dresses as Santa, and he has just the grey beard for the job. There are also elves! It is a real treat to get to be an elf, and the roles are reserved for people that have worked at McMurdo station for years but haven’t gotten to see the beautiful Dry Valleys yet. The smiles and looks of awe on their faces really reminded me how lucky I am to have this experience- many people would give a lot to do what I do every day!
Santa disembarking from his updated sleigh

This year, 15 people gathered at Lake Hoare for the Christmas weekend and we celebrated the holidays on Dec. 24th. During the day everyone was busy decorating hundreds of gingerbread and sugar cookies using homemade icing of various colors. The big event was the construction of the gingerbread house, complete with stained glass windows, a working chimney and candles inside. After dinner we had the traditional Lake Hoare gift exchange. Everyone who comes for the holidays brings a wrapped present. One person starts the game by picking a present at random and unwrapping it. The next person can either steal the first gift (in which case the first person goes again) or pick another wrapped one. The game proceeds like this until everyone has a gift. This year, gifts ranged from fancy maps of the area to DVDs to chocolate to hand-knitted hats. I happily ended up with some Antarctic hot sauce and matching t-shirt. The assistant station manager, Sandra, strategically stole my gift (a journal I covered with a collage about Antarctica) from another woman late in the game. I would say everyone was happy with the way things ended. The night culminated by transforming the hut into the “Velcro lounge” by securing black fabric over the windows to simulate night. After a dance party, everyone retired to their tents and enjoyed sleeping in the next morning.

The gingerbread house!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Besides hiking, helicopters are the main way we travel around the Dry Valleys. The US Antarctic Program and the National Science Foundation handle the helicopters as a service for all scientists down here, who pay for the helicopter hours with grant money. There are 4 US helicopters in use: 2 small A-Star models that can accommodate up to 5 passengers (with limited gear), and 2 larger Bell-212 models that can carry 10 passengers or a lot of gear. The Bell-212s have a helitech on board that serves as a co-pilot and helps with on and offloading gear. This is a complicated process because weight distribution has a great effect on the safety of the flight as well as the amount of fuel used. Since our group is small and we generally don’t have to transport a lot of weight in gear, the stream team usually rides in the A-Star models. These helicopters are special because it is just you and the pilot and one person gets to ride in the front passenger seat (where the helitech would normally sit). This is where you get some of the best views of the scenery!

View of the Commonwealth Glacier from an A-Star helicopter's front seat

Before anyone gets to ride in a helicopter, you must go to a class that teaches you how to fasten the complicated seatbelts, how to act/load gear on a helicopter when the rotors are turning, and what to do in case of an emergency. Before you depart McMurdo, a helitech gives another short lecture about how to weigh and label your gear and how to pick a helmet that fits properly. The sound of an operating helicopter (especially a 212) is deafening and helitechs encourage the use of earplugs because it cuts down on the sense of hurriedness that you get when working around helicopters. Good luck trying to sleep in if helicopters are in the area!

Offloading a Bell-212 when the rotors are turning

The helicopter pilots come from all over (the states, England, Bulgaria, etc) and we’ve gotten to know them all. Some have been coming down to fly here for years. There are 6 or 7 of them that rotate doing day flights and evening flights. They are all interested in what we do, and will do their best to help you out by flying over a stream you’re surveying, or trying to land as close as possible to your destination. Mostly they just enjoy flying the helos (as they’re called down here) and if they have extra time you get to play around a bit.

Riding in one of these machines is fascinating. Instead of creating pressure differences to generate uplift like fixed-wing aircraft, the helicopter’s rotors beat the air into submission through much more complicated physics, allowing the pilot to hover. This feature makes it easy to land in tight spots and most importantly allows you to do some neat sightseeing because you can go slow without losing altitude.

The instrument panel in an A-Star

Both the A-Star and Bell-212 helicopters can transport a lot of weight by something called a sling load. This is basically a net attached to a cable that is hooked onto the bottom of the helicopter. Most of our fuel drums get out to camp this way. The loads have to be pretty heavy (at least 700 lbs) or they can bounce up or get blown into the rotors! This was the cause of the most recent (2003) helicopter crash in the Antarctic.

Pilot Marco in an A-Star helicopter delivering a sling load to F6 camp

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Unique Antarctica

Just walking around the Dry Valleys you may stumble (literally and figuratively) upon many interesting wonders of nature. Here are a few examples:

Mummified seals and penguins: Carcasses of seals and penguins have been found in the Dry Valleys over 30 miles away from the sea. This is not the result of a sea level drop, but simply because the seals and penguins have “lost their way.” Scientists say that when seals travel, some follow cracks in sea ice that lead them far from open water. When winter comes and they are far from open water, they become extremely stressed, perhaps causing their navigational systems to deteriorate. At this point, seals either try to return overland before winter sets in or share a breathing hole in the ice created by another seal. Often the seals choose the former and cannot find their way back, ending up in the Dry Valleys and other areas. The seals and penguins appear to be in pretty good shape but this can be very misleading because some are hundreds of years old. The very dry, cold weather makes it hard for any organic material to break down (this is also why prevention is the best remedy for pollution in the Dry Valleys).
One of the many mummified seals you may find in the Dry Valleys. I think this one is a Leopard Seal.
Kenyte: Kenyte (a type of phonolite) is a volcanic rock type found only in Antarctica and Kenya. It is so rare because it contains minerals that do not usually occur together. The kenyte in Antarctica comes from Mt Erebus, 20 miles from McMurdo station. The heat in the caldera of this volcano is not uniform, causing differing viscosities and temperatures within the same lava body. These varying conditions allow several families of minerals to form in an environment that would normally support only one type.

Kenyte. The lenses are made of a mineral called microcline.

Venefacts: A venefact is a rock that has been sculpted by the wind. Wind speeds get so high in Antarctica (especially in the winter) that large sediment particles become entrained and effectively sandblast a regular piece of granite or other rock into an abstract sculpture. The largest and most stunning of these venefacts can be found on high ridges where the wind whips through notches.

One of the many venefacts on a high ridge. We found some that were 5 or 6 times as large as this one.

Blood Falls: You can only stumble across this one if you’re not looking very closely. Blood Falls is an outflow of subglacial water at the terminus of the Taylor Glacier in the Taylor Valley. The researchers studying this landform believe that a large quantity of iron-rich seawater became trapped in the glacier, part of which is released and oxidized each year. This creates a striking frozen waterfall that looks like the glacier is bleeding.

Blood Falls emerging from the Taylor Glacier. Lake Bonney is in the foreground. The glacier face (not including the brown sediment) is about 50 feet high.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Antarctic History

A view of the Canada Glacier with Lake Fryxell in the foreground

Antarctica’s age of discovery and exploration began during the 19th century and continues through today. It is one of the least explored areas on Earth, and the largest. Notable explorers include Ernest Shackleton, Robert Scott, and James Ross. The (magnetic) South Pole was first reached by Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer.

Although there are no native Antarcticans, so to speak, the first year-round residents of the continent were whalers during the 1800s. A number of semi-permanent settlements were established for this purpose; the majority of them were Norwegian. During this time and through 1959, various countries made land ownership claims; Australia’s claim being the largest at over 25% of the landmass. It is interesting to note that part of West Antarctica is the only land on Earth not claimed by any nation. Beginning in 1959, the Antarctic Treaty and other related agreements were signed by nations wanting to be involved in the future of the continent. The treaty suspended recognition of any land claims and set forth a variety of articles outlining the activities that may occur. Among other things, the treaty states that Antarctica is to be used for “peaceful purposes only,” prohibiting military activity or weapons testing. It does not prohibit the mere presence of military. In fact, US flights to Antarctica take place on air force planes, and many of the helicopters are flown by members of the military. The treaty also prohibits the storage of nuclear wastes and promotes the continuation of scientific activities. Disputes between treaty signers are settled by the parties themselves or by the International Court of Justice (World Court) of the UN. Signing countries of the Antarctic Treaty have consultation meetings yearly. Accessory agreements can be proposed and adopted by the members of the treaty at any time. Currently there are over 200 accessory agreements, including ones that govern the use everything from mineral resources to seals.
Antarctica isn't all ice...although I do appreciate the glaciers.