Saturday, January 10, 2009

The McMurdo Dry Valleys: a different facet of Antarctica

I woke this morning in no particular hurry to do anything. Our flight was scheduled for 1pm. The weather was foggy and I was feeling discouraged as a science field party scheduled to fly out to the Darwin Glacier in a Basler at 7:30am had not gone. Their flight was delayed until Monday. Then Renee came and found me to say our flight had been shifted to 10am and I had to be down there at 9:30am. Twenty minutes and I was going to be flying in a chopper!

Silly me, of course it wasn’t twenty minutes. Around midday, we travelled over the hill to McMurdo Station’s helipad. The fogginess of Scott Base was holding us up, so we opted for the blue skies and warmer temperatures of McMurdo instead. The contrast in weather conditions between the two bases was phenomenal, but there was even more to come.

Our pilot was Rob, a New Zealander from Picton flying for Helicopters (NZ) Ltd. So a complete change! Different time, different pilot and different aircraft… but they made it happen. We took off and traversed the vast sea ice and ice shelf. We passed over the barren Bratina Island and then into the narrow Miers Valley of the McMurdo Dry Valleys. What a different world! After looking at the white of the ice for days, all of a sudden I was looking at expansive mountain ranges of loose sediment, with lakes and rivers. The only white to be seen was in the massive glaciers scouring the valleys.

The McMurdo Dry Valleys are located southwest of Ross Island. They have a unique ecosystem and landform that is very sensitive to disturbance. For this reason 15 000 square kilometers of these Dry Valleys have been designated as an Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA), one of the first to be designated under the environmental protocol of the Antarctic Treaty System. There is an overall ‘Code of Conduct’ for the ASMA and a specific management plan for each of four Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) within the ASMA.

The purpose of our travel was to visit a few field camps of scientists and make sure they are taking the appropriate measures to stay safe and protect this special environment. Antarctica New Zealand supports around 45 science events (~191 personnel) annually, representing all the New Zealand universities and three Crown research institutes. 75% of these events have international partnerships with the USA, Australia, Italy, UK, and/or Canada. It also runs media, arts and ‘Youth on Ice’ events aswell as a Graduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies course. It is Antarctica New Zealand’s responsibility to make sure each of these events and every individual conforms to our Treaty requirements as a signatory nation as described within the Antarctica (Environmental Protection) Act 1994. To ensure this is happening, environmental officers (i.e. Renee) from Antarctica New Zealand conduct a series of audits on a selection of events they are supporting. The information collected in the audit is given to both the leader of each event and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as part of Antarctica New Zealand’s annual compliance report.

Our first visit was to a camp of six scientists in the Miers Valley. Their camp location was picturesque; I didn’t want to ever leave! The weather was mild, a glacier up valley was feeding a flowing river that ran alongside camp and further down valley into a lake. We received a great welcome as we touched down from the two scientists present at camp (probably because we were bringing in more supplies). They had been doing the lab work inside a large tent. The other four could just be seen as dots up in the mountains, but we managed to have a chat via radio. These scientists, along with others in the Garwood and Shangri La Valleys, are focusing on describing and interpreting the biocomplexity of terrestrial ecosystems in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. They record landscape and environmental factors and take soil samples, assessing their chemical and physical properties and checking for any kind of life. This research will provide much greater understanding of the region and help New Zealand manage it appropriately. After having a look about and a chat, it was time to fly elsewhere unfortunately.

We scooted down valley, over a ridge, over the campsite of the Shangri La group and turned toward a haze of snow that was spilling out of the Garwood Valley. Rob the pilot turned to me and said ominously, ‘that’s where we’re meant to be headed’. Leaving behind the clear air and the infinite visibility, you could physically feel the jolt as we penetrated the snow flurry. Visibility was instantly reduced so Rob kept us close to the valley floor. I get the feeling Rob knows these valleys better that the back of his hand. Word on the street is that he has been flying down here for around 40 years. I felt safe. As the second field camp came into view, we could see we were in for quite a different experience. The scientists still came out to greet us, but weather had brought their fieldwork to a holt for the day. We had a quick look about, but were restricted by time as the chopper was accumulating snow and we were turning into snowmen. Our stay was long enough to feel the scientists’ frustration at the weather, and the difficulty that comes with it. We loaded up their samples to be taken back to Scott Base and got out of there. They were brief visits, but long enough to see how well the camps are operating. I know the field groups appreciated having the contact, I imagine it can be lonely in these remote regions.

Just minutes after take off, we had traveled over the glacier at the head of the valley and we were back in clear skies. I hoped the weather would pass just as quickly for the field camp we’d left behind.

What a big day! Two personal high points for me in this visit to the Dry Valleys was seeing a mummified seal in the Garwood Valley and ventifacts in the Miers Valley. Seals and penguins often travel inland to die. It is quite common to come across a dead seal in the Dry Valleys. They remain remarkably well preserved in the dry and cold climate of these mountains. Ventifacts are rocks that have been weathered by the wind, forming very distinct angles and faces reflecting the prevailing wind patterns. For these rocks to form they must remain undisturbed for very long periods. Today’s experience has provided me with a very different view of Antarctica. I think it is going to take a while to all sink in.

Renee and I were on Scott Base dishes tonight. At the base, everyone pitches in to make light work of the domestic stuff. This is particularly the case on Saturdays when there is a base meeting and tasks are read out, for which people will volunteer. Tasks vary from helping with cargo, peeling potatoes, making new trail flags and today many surrounded the upcoming rugby match. Couches and chairs were being organised for spectators… it is going to be quite an event; I am looking forward to it.

Where the ice meets the foothills of the McMurdo Dry Valleys

The McMurdo Dry Valleys. A glacier can be seen at the top of the valley. All erosion is by way of wind and ice, there is no rain

The tiny field camp in the vast Miers Valley. The glacier in the head of the valley feeds the river that runs alongside camp and down into the lake

The Garwood Valley field camp. The polar tent is their 'toilet' tent, the dome tents are for sleeping and the big tent is for cooking and science. About 15 metres to the right of their camp is a lake

Scott Base from the air, taken just before landing. Observation Hill can be seen in the backgound, beyond this in McMurdo Station (not seen)

1 comment:

James said...

Hey Libby, Great news - keep it up!!!!!