Despite the widely held notion, not all of Antarctica is an ice-covered wasteland like the planet Hoth in Star Wars.
On the contrary, the Dry Valleys where we work are representative of the two percent of Antarctica that is relatively ice-free, although behemoth glaciers still spill over the mountain ranges onto the valley floor. These glaciers are what will eventually produce meltwater and cause the streams to flow, but that could be weeks away…
We are starting out on our adventure at Lake Hoare, which is in the middle of the Taylor Valley, and is probably the most developed of all the camps in the Dry Valleys. Lake Hoare always feels like “home away from home”, and is complete with a camping shower and home-cooked meals. The Lake Hoare camp itself consists of a hut, which is disproportionately a kitchen area (not a bad thing), as well as a couple laboratory facilities and outhouses. Residents here along with other camps in the Dry Valleys sleep in tents, which have to be anchored down by tying them to large rocks because the permafrost is too hard to drive stakes into.
Once our tents were set up and we got all settled in, our first mission was to go to House Stream, which is nearby and is generally one of the first streams visited due to its proximity to the Lake Hoare camp. This year was largely ceremonial however; the stream gauge at this site was removed last season because rising lake levels made the site unusable (we will talk more about this later). However, the higher water consequently makes it an easier place to get to, since Lake Chad (which House Stream empties into) is now connected with Lake Hoare as a result, making it a quick ATV ride across the frozen lake ice that was not possible about 5 years ago. Now that we are in the Dry Valleys, we will have to visit all of our gauge sites and service them so they are ready for the flow season.
It is hard to describe exactly what one feels in the valleys. There is silence like you have never experienced it before. You feel totally exposed, at the mercy of the continent and the elements. It’s really a great feeling. Adding to this is the fact that there are no higher plants or animals…just a lot of rocks. In fact, the best way to describe the Dry Valleys is to think of what you would imagine the surface of Mars to look like. This is more than a useful metaphor, as investigators have repeatedly used the Dry Valleys as a surrogate for researching Martian terrain, and studying life here might give us a good idea of what extraterrestrial life might be like!