Last weekend, we spent a couple of days at Lake Bonney to tend to our two stream gauges in this basin. Lake Bonney is located the furthest up-valley of all the camps in Taylor Valley, and is easily one of the oldest. This part of the valley is reminiscent of the southwestern United States, as it looks a bit more like Utah than what one would envision Antarctica to look like.

Image

Lawson Stream is located uphill of the enormous Taylor Glacier, and from there a variety of notable features are within view. Below this stream, Blood Falls spills out from the tip of Taylor Glacier and is thought to be the remnant of an ancient marine waterbody that is sealed beneath the glacier. Blood Falls gets its name from the bright red discharge it produces, which gets its color from iron-reducing bacteria. Scientists are very interested in Blood Falls because it represents a poorly understood habitat for life on Earth, and exploring this place may help us understand life in general, but also aid in our search for life on other planets.

Image

Above Lawson Stream is the Asgard Ranger lightning bolt, a symbol held dearly by the Stream Team. These “lightning bolts” can be seen all over the mountains of the Taylor Valley.

Image

Above the Lake Bonney camp are some great sites as well.  Near the Hughes Glacier is the Ventifact Museum, which is a collection of enormous rocks that have been shaped by the wind over thousands of years, and was featured in the series “Frozen Planet”.  Here are some highlights:

ImageImageImage

Advertisements

After about 10 days at Lake Hoare, we have finally made it to our most frequented camp, F6. F6 is a quaint little setup located at the mouth of Von Guerard Stream in the Fryxell Basin, and comes fully equipped with a kitchen, helicopter landing pad, outhouse, pull-up bar, and Godzilla action figure. This is the home base of the Asgard Rangers because Lake Fryxell has the most stream gauges of any other lake in the Dry Valleys. For example, Lake Fryxell has 9 gauged streams, compared to 1 at Lake Hoare and 2 at Lake Bonney. As a result, a lot of time is spent at F6.   

Image

Now that we are here, we have been focusing efforts on readying the stream gauges. So what exactly does that mean? Well, the stream gauges that we operate consist of wooden boxes that are located at the outlet of each stream and contain various instruments (they can also be used as an emergency shelter!). The instruments utilize nitrogen gas to estimate the amount of water in the stream by measuring the amount of pressure it takes to pump a bubble of gas from a line in the streambed. The idea is that it should take more pressure to pump the gas if there is more water above the line, and using these data we can calculate discharge. This information is all stored onto a storage module over the course of the field season. Image

When we leave the Dry Valleys at the end of January, we leave these gauges “turned on” in case there is more flow that needs to be measured while we are gone. As a result, the nitrogen tanks in the gauges boxes are empty and need to be replaced, and the data inside the storage module needs to be collected. Therefore, we have to take a new tank and storage module to each gauge, as well as download old data and send it back home.

Image

In addition to this, we need to see how much certain parts of the streambed have changed over the winter from last year. The reason for this is that when we calculate discharge, we have to take into account the lowest part of the stream where the water flows out of our gauge, as well as the height of the line that pumps the nitrogen into the stream. If we don’t take these changes into account, the discharge may be incorrectly calculated later. Therefore, we measure these areas every year to see if elevations have changed due to freezing and thawing. The trick will be to get all this done before the streams start to flow!

Image

Despite the widely held notion, not all of Antarctica is an ice-covered wasteland like the planet Hoth in Star Wars. 

Image

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…

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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!

Image

Once at McMurdo station, there are a variety of tasks that must be accomplished before you can do anything else.  First off, there is a whole lot of training. Upon landing we were briefed as a flight group, and as a science group that next morning. Over the next couple of days, we additionally attended training for specific things like operating vehicles, laboratory safety, environmental responsibility, and radio communications. The coffee flows like wine. Also, before you can leave the base, you have to take a short 2-day course in cold weather survival, which is called “Happy Camper” snow school. This training actually has a bit in the movie “Encounters at the End of the World”, which is a great flick if you get the chance. However, it is only necessary if you are new to the ice or haven’t been in a while. Since we took the class last year, we only had to take an afternoon refresher course rather than repeat our adventure on the ice shelf.

Image

After our training was complete, we spent most of our time at Crary Laboratory, where most of the action takes place. In preparation for our time in the field, we washed a whole lot of bottles which will be used later for collecting stream water. All of our food and supplies were gathered and put in boxes before being delivered to the helicopter pad, where they were shipped out later along with our us.

Image

From time to time, we inevitably have to take a break from the lab, as 24-hour bottle washing isn’t good for anyone’s sanity. There are some really nice walks around the station, and from some of which you can view a few of the resident volcanoes on Ross Island, which have intimidating names like Mount Erebus and Mount Terror.Image

Once prepared for the field, we boarded a helicopter and took the 45 minute ride from McMurdo to the Dry Valleys, where we were unloaded with our supplies at the Lake Hoare field camp. 

 

So how exactly does one get to Antarctica? Well, over the past week this feat alone was our goal. After all the planning, paperwork, and medical examinations, we loaded up our bags and took a commercial flight from Denver to Los Angeles, then connected with a flight to Sydney, Australia. That last leg was a doozy, and took close to 14 hours from start to finish (I saw 5 movies before my eyes started to burn). After becoming pop culture experts, we caught a plane to Christchurch, New Zealand. Getting this far is good news because the majority of the sitting is (hopefully) over by this point. Once there, we marched through the Antarctic Clothing Distribution Center and gathered all of our extreme conditions clothing which are our primary defense against the elements for the next several months. Image

Then it is time to wait for our flight to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Image

Southbound flights from Christchurch to McMurdo Station are highly dependent on the weather.  For example, this year some nasty weather in Antarctica delayed our flight to McMurdo for 24 hours, keeping us in Christchurch for an extra day and threatened to keep us longer.  Even if the weather in Christchurch is bad too, staying off the plane is better than taking off and having to turn around after not being able to land. This actually happens regularly enough to have its own term, which is to “boomerang.” As the flight down to Antarctica from Christchurch is about 5 hours, we can assume that one might not be interested in experiencing a boomerang for themselves, though it would definitely improve your Antarctic street cred.

Image

The trip to Antarctica is affectionately referred to as “going to the ice”. This is appropriate, as the C-17 that we came down on actually landed on a chunk of sea-ice outside of McMurdo which is called “Pegasus Runway.”  From there, they quickly unloaded the plane and we loaded ourselves into a monster of a machine called “Ivan the Terra Bus” which took us to McMurdo Station.

Image

McMurdo is a U.S. base on Ross Island and is large enough to be a small town. In fact, it has its own post office, gym, ATM, and chapel. For the next several days, we will be at McMurdo performing various laboratory duties, attending additional training, and gathering supplies. Only after this can we depart from McMurdo to the Dry Valleys, where we will be spending the bulk of the Antarctic field season studying streams.

Image

If you are interested in checking out the current weather, as well as getting a glimpse of McMurdo station at this very moment, click on the live webcam!

Greetings stream enthusiasts! If you came here looking for a blog full of water, rocks, chemistry, and your favorite and mine…ALGAE…then you are in for a treat! For the next four months, the Stream Team is going to be in one of the harshest places on the globe, the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, studying glacial meltwater streams and blogging along the way to tell you about it. But before we do that, we have to actually get there…