I’ve finished two sculptures made from 3D scans of the Antarctic landscape so far. This latest one is of a ventifact — wind-eroded boulder — that I photographed in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, a trip I recounted in an earlier blog post. I call it the “Bird” Ventifact because from certain angles, it looks like a giant beaked bird with a crest.
In addition to its lively, birdlike presence, part of what attracted me to this form was its concavities and holes, worn by the abrasive action of volcanic gravel carried by fierce Antarctic winds. If a successful sculpture is judged by how it transforms as one walks around it and takes it in from different vantage points, this ventifact certainly works as sculpture. By capturing it in 3D, I’ve “brought it home” for others to experience as an object and not just as a series of flat photographs. Looking at one side hardly predicts what you’ll find on other sides:
In order to capture the complexity of the form, with all its undercuts and hollows, I chose 3D printing over CNC routing, because the router bit only moves up and down in one direction, and does not tilt to get other angles. 3D printing, by contrast, is additive, and builds the form in layers, preventing the undercuts from collapsing during the printing process with temporary supports that can be broken off once the print is finished. Since the 3D printers that I have access to only have a capacity of about 8 x 8 x 11 inches, and my finished sculpture is 16 x 29.25 x 29.25 inches, I had to print it in sections, epoxy it together, and smooth the joints between the pieces before painting it. However, I was able to assemble the 25-odd pieces into a seamless whole. I’ve made this short video of the process. Watch it full screen and see it come together:
Let’s clear up one thing that I get asked a lot: there are no polar bears in Antarctica. That’s the Arctic. The only mammals are marine mammals, found along the coasts: seals — which I saw on a number of occasions — and whales —which I did not see at all. The only birds I saw were skuas, which are feisty brown birds related to gulls, and Adélie penguins. Uphill from the sea ice pressure ridges in New Harbor beneath the Double Curtain Glacier was a highly unusual sight — several square yards of gray and tan moss — the only plant life I saw growing in soil the entire seven weeks I was in Antarctica. Further inland, walking the gravel hills and ice-covered lakes of the Dry Valleys, you and your companions are the only living things in sight — nothing green, feathered, scaly or furry. The exception was a lone skua occasionally spotted in the vicinity of the Lake Hoare field camp, nicknamed Taylor by the field camp residents. The major life forms of the Dry Valleys are microscopic organisms in the lakes, streams and soil that scientists sample and study as part of the long-term ecological research study, but of course, they’re not visible without a microscope.
Against that backdrop, it was startling to periodically come across the bodies of mummified seals in the Dry Valleys, several miles from the ocean. Seals are built for swimming. Underwater footage shows even 10-foot-long, 1,200-pound Weddell seals gracefully gliding along. They spend most of their time in the water, occasionally poking their heads out to take a few breaths. Periodically, they laboriously haul themselves onto the ice to rest, like the young Weddell seal in the photo at the top of this post. The ellipsoidal body shape, wing-like flippers and tail that serve them underwater are definitely not made for walking. Once you’ve seen a seal galumphing with great difficulty across the ice like a giant slug, it’s even more remarkable to imagine how they could travel for miles on their bellies, dragging their rotund bodies over ragged lake ice and gravel hills. An oft-quoted statistic is that mummified seals have been documented as far inland as 41 miles. If that’s the case, this one at Lake Bonney must be one of them, since that’s about how far the lake is from McMurdo Sound:
The dry, freezing climate and lack of bacteria and invertebrates that break down carcasses in warmer regions leave the seals in varying states of preservation that make it impossible to tell how long they’ve been lying there by their appearance just by sight. Some are mostly skeletal, some still have a substantial amount of leathery skin attached, but you can’t tell if they’re a few years old or several hundred without doing a laboratory analysis of carbon and nitrogen isotopes.
A research team led by Paul Koch and Brenda Hall in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons has done just that. They saw these seals not as a weird curiosity, but as a way to investigate the history of seal populations over the past 1,500 years, and how they adapted to changing amounts of ice in McMurdo Sound in terms of their diet, which is also revealed by the chemical analysis. Up until about 500 years ago, McMurdo Sound had far less ice than it did afterwards, when ice shelves formed. Knowing how the seals responded and how their diet changed would help predict how warming oceans might affect them in the future. To that end, the scientists a undertook a comprehensive inventory of Dry Valleys mummified seals and took over 400 samples to be analyzed (read more about the study in the Antarctic Sun and this press release). “Studies of fossils let us see how species do or don’t adapt to environmental shifts. Here, we are using that approach to explore the adaptability and vulnerability of different Antarctic seal species to less icy conditions in the near future,” said Koch.
If you’ve read every single one of my Antarctica blog posts, you’ve encountered a few of the following scenes before, but I thought it would be interesting to bring them all together in one place, along with some information about what is known about them.
The presence of mummified seals has posed a scientific mystery since the first explorers of the region in the early 1900s ran across them. They’re generally small, and I have run across only one account of researchers encountering a live seal in the Dry Valleys. The current assumption is that these are young seals that get lost during whiteout conditions in the harsh Antarctic winter, when the seals usually stay near cracks in the sea ice. Without visual cues, they get turned around and crawl along in a futile search for the sea until they expire. As of October 2015, Koch’s team published that it had reported identified mummies of over 300 crabeater seals, 100 Weddell seals and around 20 leopard seals, a proportional breakdown roughly corresponding to their current numbers in the sound. That sounds like a significant number of wayward seals, but the mummies can be as much as 1,500 years old. Koch told the Antarctic Sun that it may be that only one or two lose their way each year.
The leopard seal shown below, on the Lake Fryxell side of the Canada Glacier, is a rare sight on a few counts. Leopard seals make up less than 5% of the mummified seals. This one is pretty much intact, including fur, which is unusual. And unlike the vast majority of the mummies, we know for sure that this one is a recent arrival, because this area is frequently traversed by Dry Valleys researchers and they took note of its appearance a couple of years ago.
Mummified seals are not only found in the Dry Valleys. There’s one on the black sand beach at Cape Royds. It’s notably well preserved, but it’s right by the sea ice so there is no mystery as to how it ended up there:
I photographed all the mummified seals I encountered, with the exception of one that had remarkably made it the length of Lake Hoare and part way up a hill near the Suess Glacier. It was dismembered into two halves, lying in the dirt side by side, which for some reason struck me as more grotesque and disturbing than a dead seal in one piece. I just didn’t want to look at that again! But probably the strangest one I saw was also near the Suess Glacier: rather than lying on its back or its side, it’s perched on its belly, tail curving upwards and head lifted as if flash-frozen in mid motion.
The scientists who have studied these seals are interested in them as a fossil record and a way of understanding the history of ocean ecology. What drives the seals to travel for miles over land and how they survive the journeys is ultimately beside the point in terms of their research. The lack of information about that aspect is a reminder, though, of how little we still know about what Antarctic animals do during the long, dark winters — that includes seals and penguins. At one of the science lectures, I asked Jennifer Burns, who has been studying Weddell seals for over 20 years, if she had seen any changes in behavior related to climate change. She responded that she hesitates to make comparisons because monitoring and tracking hardware is so much better quality now than 20 years ago. Devices are smaller and less intrusive to attach to the animal — in the past they were bulky and generally didn’t stay on long. In years to come, perhaps more seals will be tracked and shed some light on the mystery of the lost seals.
The evening of December 18th, I shook the snow off my tent from the snowstorm earlier that day and spent my first night at the Lake Hoare field camp. Though the dense fog and gray skies lingered long after the snow stopped, camp manager Rae had checked the forecast and said the skies were expected to clear overnight. Sure enough, in the morning we awoke to bright sunshine. I set out on a day hike with Renee, Rae’s assistant at Lake Hoare, to cross over the Canada Glacier and visit the eastern side, which faces Lake Fryxell. The Canada Glacier snakes down from Mt. McLennan, which is about 1,600 meters (5,250 feet) high on the north side of the Taylor Valley. The Lake Hoare camp is nestled beside the western side of the glacier, a tall wall of ice with a relatively smooth and rounded profile reminding me of an adobe house. In the course of walking over it and visiting the other side, I would see that the other side of the glacier looked very different.
Renee is an avid hiker who runs a backcountry lodge at Glacier National Park in Montana during the summer. Before we left, she told me, “I always hike with poles,” and offered to let me use one of hers. In all my years of hiking I had never had used walking sticks or poles; they’d struck me as just another thing to carry. But I figured this was not familiar terrain and if as strong a hiker as Renee relied on them, I’d follow her lead.
We started up the steep rocky moraine beside the Canada Glacier with the stream ecology team, who were planning to take water samples at various locations. Beside the glacier are piles of large and medium sized rocks and the Andersen Creek, fed by meltwater that comes off the glacier, but it was still so cold and shady in that area that the stream sampling team was having trouble finding thawed meltwater to collect. When we came to an area where the top of the glacier flattened out, we parted ways as they headed for another of the sampling spots. Renee and I put crampons on our boots and headed toward the ice falls, a slope where gravity had creased the glacier and separated it into rows of irregular boulder-sized chunks of blue ice. To the right of the falls, an enormous tongue-shaped section of the glacier clings to a steep face of Mt. McLennan.
Once we were on top of the glacier, I quickly discovered why climbing poles aren’t, um, pointless. The layer of about four inches of snow from the day before lay on top of the glacier, covering areas of thin ice where your foot could punch through into a hollow spot that could be anywhere from a few inches to a couple of feet deep. Underneath could be rocks or small melt pools. This made traversing the area more challenging than usual, when the hazards are more visible. As she walked, Renee rapidly jabbed at the ice ahead with her pole. If the pole punched a hole in the ice, then she’d pause and continue probing until she found a solid spot before taking the next step. I followed suit. Here is a detail of the ice falls, taken with the assistance of a telephoto lens:
After photographing the falls, we continued over the top of the glacier, carefully poking the surface with our poles to avoid the gaps until we stepped off the glacier onto the rocks and gravel on the other side. We looked for tracks where the stream ecology researchers had walked before, but couldn’t always find them, so we had to pick our way carefully, especially when we got close to the edge where the glacier tapered off onto the gravel-covered hill. To the south, there were thin clouds in the sky and the previous day’s snowfall gave the opposite hillside the texture of a tapestry:
Looking toward Lake Hoare while standing on top of the glacier you can take in its scale. We had walked up from the right:
Our next destination, Lake Fryxell, lay ahead to the east. We were up high enough to see the ice-covered summit of the Mt. Erebus volcano in the haze across McMurdo Sound about 13 miles away. After crossing the glacier to the gravel hill on the other side, we ate lunch in a sheltered spot, then headed downhill towards the Lake Fryxell field camp. Our plan was to get in the ATV that stays on the sea ice during the research season and double back across the lake ice to have a closer look at the Fryxell side of the Canada Glacier.
In order to protect the ecology of the streams which run off the Canada Glacier into Lake Fryxell, approximately one square kilometer of the hillside adjoining the glacier and the lake shore has been designated an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA). Although it looks like just more of the same rocks and gravel you can see for miles in every direction, its relatively sheltered location and the meltwater coming off the glacier makes this tract one of the best places to find life in the polar desert, especially bryophytes (e.g. mosses) and algae. The tiny plants are freeze-dried most of the year, but come briefly to life during the austral summer. To enter one of five ASPAs in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, you must be issued a permit by a national authority, which for the U.S. is the National Science Foundation. I obtained a permit to enter the Blood Falls ASPA but not the Canada Glacier one. The NSF staffer who issues the permits assured me I would be able to get close enough to the glacier from the lake to photograph it and that there was no reason for me to enter the protected site. When I got there, I could see her reasoning. That portion of the glacier isn’t even particularly interesting from a visual standpoint:
Hiking across the gravel to Lake Fryxell we encountered the first of two mummified seals. I made a tentative ID of the one below as a crabeater seal, based on its teeth. The three types of seals found in this part of Antarctica — leopard seals, Weddell seals and crabeaters — all have different shaped teeth.
The next seal we encountered was easily identified as a leopard seal, because due to the freezing temperatures and the lack of organisms such as bacteria and insects, it still had its fur, even though, according to the people at Lake Hoare, it had died there about three years ago. Leopard seals are ferocious predators — when I asked Sam Bowser if his dive team ever saw them at New Harbor, he responded, “No! And I wouldn’t want to.” Leopard seals could attack the divers. Weddell seals, which the divers often do see, are essentially harmless and non-intimidating, even though they weigh over 1,000 lbs. But even a young leopard seal that had drawn its last breath a few years ago looked somewhat sinister with it’s long powerful jaw.
Eventually, we reached the Lake Fryxell Jamesway hut. Nobody was staying at the field camp, though a team of carpenters were expected to return shortly to resume work building a new hut on the site, of the same design as the one at Lake Hoare. When they’re done, the Jamesway will be dismantled, and these photos will be documents of a vanished era. The Lake Bonney Jamesway will be replaced next. There’s something cool and retro about the Jamesways, especially the quirky improvisations and embellishments added over the years as teams of researchers have come and gone, but whatever the boxy Lake Hoare hut lacks in character it is way more functional and comfortable.
After eating a snack in the hut, we headed for the ATV, which was parked on the thick, permanently frozen layer of ice that covers Lake Fryxell. This time of year, the margin of the lake melts, and is a few feet deep. So how do the limnologists (lake scientists) get onto the ice? The ingenious solution, arrived at with Rae’s input, was to have an aluminum rowboat rigged up so that at either end a loop of rope was attached to the boat. Through those loops runs a very long loop of yellow rope, which is threaded through two pulleys, one set up on shore and one on the ice. Get in the boat, pull the yellow rope hand over hand and the boat travels across the water and glides up onto the ice. It kind of reminded me of the old rope tows at ski areas in the 1960s and ’70s.
Once on the lake ice, we walked to the ATV, pulled out the pan underneath it protecting the ice in case oil dripped from the engine (every effort is made to not have any alien materials enter the environment), and made sure the tires weren’t frozen to the ice. Renee got it started, I straddled the back part of the seat behind her, and off we went.
Renee drove cautiously, taking care to not drive too close to cracks around the periphery that might indicate unstable ice, and slowing down when crossing rough areas, which we encountered increasingly as we approached the glacier. I was grateful that she took her time and I wasn’t being bounced around on the narrow back part of the seat. Later on, when we were back at the hut, I told her that I’d appreciated her restraint. She burst out laughing and said, “Oh good! I was thinking, ‘She must think I’m such a wimp!'”
In the distance, Renee waits at the ATV for me to finish photographing the glacier. There were some raised areas of ice at that end, left behind when the rest of the lake ice surface ablated (vaporized). There is nothing as irregular as the ice structures on Lake Hoare, but driving over and around them made for a bumpy ride in places.
The Lake Fryxell face of the Canada Glacier looks completely different than the Lake Hoare side. For one thing, at its tallest, it’s about twice as high — around 20 meters. That’s because the land slopes beneath it and the surface of Lake Fryxell is actually about 55 meters lower in elevation than that of Lake Hoare. If you look at the second photo from the top of this post, taken from a helicopter, you can see the slope. I am guessing that it’s this downhill gravitational pull as well as the directions of prevailing winds and sunlight that make it look so different — spiky and Gothic with narrow pointy-topped spires, as opposed to the rounded contours on the west-facing side, which get the warmer afternoon and evening sun.
Renee waited patiently while I shot some 300 photos of the glacier side. That’s way more photos than I usually took at a site, because I wanted to see if I could produce a 3D capture (i.e. scan) of the complex surface, and since I hadn’t had much experience tackling something that is both that immense and that detailed, I wasn’t sure how many different angles I would need. So I decided to err on the side of “more than enough.” Eventually some of these 3D captures will be produced as sculpture. (Read more about the process.) Recently I processed one section that I shot that day. It took the software about 18 hours to calculate the relative distances between points to produce a model of the section below, and another few hours for it to generate a polygon mesh, but I’m really pleased — and relieved — with the results. Below is one of the source photos, followed by screenshots of the model.
After returning the ATV to its parking place, the hike back to Lake Hoare was more challenging than the hike out had been, due to gusty winds that had kicked up. The rowboat tilted to one side while Renee was pulling it to shore and I immediately shifted my weight onto the gunwale to stabilize it, to her great relief (amazing how those instincts kicked in from the long ago days of taking out sailboats at Camp Whippoorwill, when I was 13 ). The sky started to cloud, and on the top of the glacier, the previous day’s snowfall was swirling around, making me even happier to have a pole in my hand to prod the ice in front of me, and also glad that I’d stopped to photograph the ice falls in the morning. Then we walked down the moraine to camp.
All told we’d been out for about eight hours. Photographing — or for that matter doing scientific research — in the Dry Valleys is often very physical, and involves a lot of walking up and down hills while carrying a pack. And I still had a lingering cold the entire time, but was damned if that was going to stop me. Last week a woman who writes a travel blog called me up to interview me about the Antarctica trip. She asked about my formative travel experiences. This got me thinking about the aforementioned Camp Whippoorwill, where I was introduced to hiking and camping in the Adirondacks, and Crossroads America, a cross-country teen tour I took the summer I turned 16. I spent those nine weeks riding around the U.S. in a Ford Econoline van with nine boys and girls and two adult leaders whom I’d never met before the day we started out. All my belongings were in a duffel bag, we camped outdoors almost every night, and we all had to get along with kids at close quarters whom we might not otherwise have chosen as friends.
I’m grateful and maybe a little surprised to arrive at this age with the energy, physical conditioning, and the ability to tolerate a lack of creature comforts and to roll with the inevitable glitches that arise, but I think it goes back to those formative experiences: reaching the summit of an Adirondack peak on a day where you could see for miles, singing to keep our spirits up while we walked in plastic ponchos getting drenched with rain, campfire meals of tuna-rice-a-pea (open cans of tuna, rice, peas and cream of mushroom soup, and stir), picking up my ground cloth after sleeping in the open at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to find a little white scorpion had also spent the night there. Somewhere were planted the seeds of confidence, resilience and determination to push onward until you reach your destination that have never left me. I think my teenage self would have been happy to know that.
The Lake Hoare field camp in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, where I spent five days, sits at the east end of the lake right next to the immense Canada Glacier. At the opposite end of the lake is the smaller Suess Glacier. When I first heard the name, it would not have surprised me if a glacier in Antarctica had been named for the children’s book author Dr. Seuss, given the odd landscape features that resemble some of his fanciful illustrations. But no, the 1910-13 British Antarctic expedition led by Robert F. Scott named it for Professor Eduard Suess (1831-1914), a prominent Austrian geologist and paleontologist who helped lay the basis for paleogeography and tectonics.
One day I hiked there accompanied by Mari, a young woman who normally worked at McMurdo in the field camp supply center, but was spending a couple of weeks at the Lake Hoare camp assisting camp manager Rae during a particularly busy period of the research season. There are many people in their twenties who work 10-hour shifts, six days a week at McMurdo during the austral summer as dining hall workers, supply staff, janitors, cargo loaders, etc., but their opportunities to travel beyond the base are limited. So Mari was thrilled to be in the Dry Valleys and enthusiastic about hiking to the Suess. We followed a path of sorts that had evolved from the walks of other researchers, which wound around the perimeter of the rocky north shore of the lake (on the right in the photo above).
After about an hour, we came across a mummified seal. Positioned on its belly rather than laying on its side made it look curiously animated, as if it was in the process of clambering out of the water. The mummified seals strewn throughout the Dry Valleys are an enduring mystery, and one I plan to write more about in a future blog post. Suffice to say, the icy climate and lack of organisms to break down dead animals keeps them in a state of preservation such that it’s difficult to know if that seal has been there a few years or a few hundred.
As we continued following the lake’s shoreline, we soon reached a very tall gravel hill that blocked our view of the glacier. Mari climbed to the top to scout the best route around it (remarkably quickly, too — it’s hard to get a footing on steep, loose gravel). As you can see in the photo at left, a stream of water was running downhill off the glacier into the lake. Mari had determined there was no shortcut to the glacier from where we were so we continued around the lake side of the hill.
From the Lake Hoare side, the Suess glacier is not nearly as impressive as the Canada Glacier in size or height. This panorama made from three negatives is pretty much what you see as you approach from the lake:
Walk around to the left of it and you can look uphill to see it flowing from the crest of the hill on the right:
But the really good stuff was just around the corner. The Suess flows down one steep hill and comes to rest where another steep hill meets it, forming a narrow passage called a defile. Once you enter the defile, you encounter another side of the Suess, a towering wall of glistening scalloped ice. It glowed with a peachy color reflected off the gravel hill:
One of Scott’s party in the 1910-13 expedition, the geologist Griffith Taylor, described the discovery of the Suess in his 1916 book With Scott: The Silver Lining (you can find the section referred to here on Google Books). The title implies a motivation to spotlight the expedition’s accomplishments and successes, which had been to some degree overshadowed by its sad ending, when Scott and four of his men died on their way back from the South Pole. The following year, World War I broke out and was still raging when the book was published. As the book’s editor, Leonard Huxley, put it in the Introduction, “It is for Mr. Griffith Taylor to tell of the daily life of that company from within, to tell in careless detail its lighthearted cheerfulness lining solid effort, which the cloud of English earnestness so constantly turns out upon the night.” The section on the journey through what is now known as the Taylor Valley exudes the joy of discovery and is illustrated with Taylor’s charming drawings, including a humorous depiction of “The Compleat Explorer” wearing the state-of-the-art cold weather gear for 1911. (This includes “Beard,” which continues to be a popular male accessory in Antarctica. Once somebody said, “You know who I mean? The tall guy with the beard,” and the rest of us started laughing since that did not narrow it down at all.) At any rate, I’m guessing the Dry Valleys were associated with particularly fond memories for Taylor, because along the way Scott informed him he was naming the magnificent Taylor Glacier after him! Taylor’s book also includes his sketch of the Suess:
Taylor and company approached the Suess from the west, i.e. the opposite direction we took. His description remains apt today: “a face of ice forty feet high; but just where it butted into the steep south slope of the defile, there was a narrow gap where thaw-ice had filled in the interspaces between the cliff debris.” Mari and I put on crampons (velcro sandals with spikes on the soles) over our boots to walk on the icy passage where it narrowed to the width of a typical sidewalk.
We walked alongside a wall of ice with such hard, polished surfaces that it looked like it had been cast from a mold:
We also encountered the most impressive frozen waterfall I saw anywhere in Antarctica:
I was fascinated by the large rocks protruding from the icy wall that had apparently been swept up by the slow-moving glacier long ago. You see a couple of them in the photos of the waterfall above. The one below had to weigh several hundred pounds, and yet was somehow securely frozen in place in its icy niche:
Toward the end of the defile, where the narrow space opened up and the glacier height tapered off, another frozen waterfall had formed an ice stalactite and stalagmite:
Once out of the defile, the Suess presents yet another aspect, a frieze of rounded shapes:
We reached the end of the defile, and looked down at the small blue lake on the other side (below). It was 5 p.m., we’d been out for four hours and decided to go back to the camp, figuring we’d be there in 90 minutes, just time for dinner. That was the time we decided to take a direct route back across the lake ice which turned out to be, ah, no shortcut at all for us lake ice rookies. If you haven’t read that story, you can find it here. Long story short, we made it back, albeit almost three hours later with wet socks. It was unnerving while we were in the middle of it, but funny once it was over: silver lining!
The word “awesome” has taken on a casual meaning, approximating something like, “Super cool!” or “Hey, that’s great!” But there were many times in Antarctica I was confronted by something awesome in the original sense of the word, as in awe-inspiring: difficult to grasp in its immensity and power. Even if you learn the scientific explanation, there’s something unfathomable about a large expanse of bright orange and red ice spilling from the end of the steep walls of a glacier that towers overhead. It’s one of those moments where I’d just stand there for a minute thinking, “I’m in Antarctica. I’m really in Antarctica.” That’s how I felt when I stood at the bottom of Blood Falls, at the toe of the Taylor Glacier in the Dry Valleys, overlooking the west lobe of Lake Bonney.
In those I’m-in-Antarctica moments I felt how privileged I was to even be standing there. Since my Antarctic Artists and Writers Program project involved photographing ice formations to recreate in 3D I was among the fortunate few granted a permit to walk around it, not to mention a helicopter ride to the site. Blood Falls is among the highly protected zones of Antarctica because it is both a rare natural phenomenon and harbors delicate mineral deposits, which in turn harbor unusual microbes, all of which one must take care not to trample. National Geographic’s Blood Falls web page offers a good overview of where the minerals and and their colors come from, and the scientific significance of the site. In brief, the iron oxide salts percolate up into the glacier from a hypersaline lake (i.e. super-concentrated salty water) trapped beneath it from geological processes occurring over a period between two and five million years ago. When the iron salts hit the air, they oxygenate and turn red and orange. This is a dynamic process, and I’m told that the depth of the colors varies from year to year.
National Geographic goes on to explain that scientists from a variety of disciplines are interested in the microbes who live in the unusually harsh conditions of these deposits: glaciologists (who study glaciers), limnologists (who study lakes), microbiologists (who study microbes) and astrobiologists (who speculate about the presence of life on other planets). As a group, the microbes fall into the broader category of extremophiles because they “are able to withstand and even thrive in extremely harsh environments.” The extremophiles (I like to think of them as the X-philes) of Blood Falls manage the trick of converting sulfur and iron compounds into energy under freezing conditions. Hence the interest on the part of astrobiologists, since this may be the closest Earth can come to approximating conditions on a freezing planet.
I visited Blood Falls with mountaineer Forrest McCarthy, a veteran of about 20 seasons “on the ice” in the US Antarctic Program. We flew in a helicopter and were joined by Mike Jackson, the National Science Foundation science representative on station for that period. Since Mike’s trip was spur of the moment due to their being room in the helo, he had not obtained a permit. Even an NSF administrator isn’t allowed to walk all the way to the falls without one, so he stayed on a nearby trail overlooking the site, while Forrest and I waded across the shallow but wide melt waters of the Taylor Glacier at the edge of Lake Bonney, which was ankle deep in some places. I had changed into hiking boots instead of bunny boots, so I splashed through the freezing water as fast as I could, hoping my boots were as waterproof as advertised. (They did reasonably well. Lowa boots, in case you’re wondering, from REI. They’re the only ones that come in true narrow widths, so I didn’t have much choice. But they turned out to be great boots.) This was my first view of Bonney, and I knew it was a frozen lake, but I didn’t realize the edges would be swiftly moving water. Or that streams of water would be spilling off the top of the glacier in little waterfalls. I’d never seen a glacier do that before; it seems to be a particularly Dry Valleys phenomenon, where the glaciers are basically grounded rather than actively moving out to sea. (I’ve posted a 13-second video to YouTube.) It was a cold and windy, but sunny day, with a brilliant blue sky.
If all goes well, the photos I took during my walk-around can be processed into a 3D file after I return home to recreate this special place as a sculptural form.
I spent Dec. 18 to Dec. 23 at what may be the most beautiful field camp site in Antarctica. Having seen a grand total of four field camps, I am admittedly not in the best position to judge the fairest of them all, and certainly they all provide fabulous scenery. But when you come out of your tent and towering over you a mere matter of yards away are the glistening white walls of the Canada Glacier with inset vertical crevices of blue ice emitting a turquoise glow, that’s hard to beat. I mean, check out that photo above. That little yellow tent in the middle is where I slept. Now look at the photo below — you crawl out of that tent turn around, and you are that close to it.
The view down the lake from the campsite toward the Suess Glacier (that light-colored triangle you can glimpse at the end of the lake) is not too shabby either:
The Lake Hoare field camp is the first to have the vintage Korean-War-era Jamesway huts replaced. You’ve seen the Jamesways in my posts about New Harbor and Lake Bonney. In the near future, word is that all will be replaced with this more functional rectangular design, that allows for more wall storage, higher ceilings, and windows that you could more easily hang curtains on if you wanted to shut out the 24-hour light. Lake Hoare is a busy camp with three small lab buildings, two “rocket toilets” (outhouses with the capability of incinerating human waste and transforming it to non-polluting ash) plus a standard Antarctic camp outhouse as a backup. The camp is presided over by Rae Spain, a 35-year US Antarctic Program veteran who coordinates the various activities of the Dry Valleys LTER camps, which include Lake Bonney and Lake Fryxell — the comings and goings of the researchers, some of whom move from camp to camp throughout the season, the helicopter supply schedules (due to the number of people working in the area there are frequent visits from helicopters, ferrying passengers, food, water, supplies and waste between McMurdo and the Dry Valleys camps as well as short hops between the camps). Rae is an imposing-looking woman, about six feet tall, who wears her hair in a thick braid that reaches to her hips. She’s organized, efficient, and a masterful cook, one night transforming the field camp ingredients into a tasty dinner of Indian curry. (And in between analyzing soil samples in the lab, Dave, one of the scientists, whipped up some naan dough, which he baked on the outdoor grill to complement the meal. That’s right!) Then there’s Renee, Rae’s assistant and all-around field camp utility player, who, when not occupied with assisting Rae at the hut or the researchers in the field, enjoys baking cookies and other desserts with an attention to detail that would impress Martha Stewart. I digress — but it’s hard not to talk about Lake Hoare without mentioning the food.
The research at the Dry Valleys LTER centers on the unusual polar dessert ecosystem, with its mostly ice-free terrain, the stationary Canada Glacier (in other words, it’s grounded and not sliding out to sea) and three perpetually frozen lakes: Lake Bonney, Lake Hoare and Lake Fryxell. (Fryxell is on the other side of the Canada Glacier from Hoare.) The lakes are covered with ice that is about four meters thick, in other words, about 13 feet. That’s just the ice — there’s deep water beneath that. Lake Hoare, for example, has an average depth of 30 feet and a maximum depth of 112 feet. This time of year, the ice at the edges, which is over shallower water, melts in the sun, so there are makeshift bridges to get across to the thicker ice without getting your feet wet, like the one shown at left.
Anyway, late on the evening of the 21st, one by one the camp denizens closed up their laptops, finished their tea or whatever they were doing in the hut and brushed their teeth (field camp life breeds a peculiar intimacy where you floss, brush and spit out your toothpaste into a bucket in front of people you’ve known for all of three days) and went off to their tents to sleep. By about 11:45 p.m. only Dave and I were left, working at our laptops. “The light is really beautiful out there,” Dave remarked. I’d been thinking that I should photograph the glacier in the evening when the light was on it, because in the morning it’s in shadow. The wind was calm, it wasn’t bitter cold, and he was right, the glacier was glowing in the sun against a sapphire sky. So even though I’d hiked to the Suess Glacier and back between 1 and 8:30 p.m. that day, I decided I should take advantage of the conditions and just sleep in the next day. From midnight to almost 2 a.m. I roamed around the campsite taking most of the pictures you see here. The only ones with this post that weren’t taken then are the ones above of the bridge, the hut and the view down the lake toward the Suess Glacier.
This being a LTER (long-term ecological research site) there is a stream gauge to capture the flow of the stream of glacial meltwater that flows down the hill alongside the glacier and into the end of the lake. I came across the above plaque on the side of the gauge box atop one of mounds overlooking the stream, which explains that the stream has a name: Anderson Creek at H1. It also helpfully notes that “This gage [sic] box may be used as an emergency shelter for one or two persons.” That struck me as an odd kind of qualification. What do they mean by one or two? Depending on overall size, shape, interpersonal compatibility and relative degree of distress of said persons? I hadn’t even noticed the gauge before coming across the plaque because it’s tucked behind a mound. It’s not a tall structure so the flow must never get very high:
My initial plan was just to photograph the side of the glacier. But as I was walking around the shoreline, I noticed a lot of beautiful forms in the surface of the lake ice that were thrown into low relief by the light of the midnight sun. Here are a few of my favorites. An NSF glaciologist on station referred me to a lake ice web site where I found some of them:
This patch of snow high on a slope above the campsite (left) never changed the entire five days I was there. I privately referred to it as “The Smoking Monkey.” If you’re too young to remember them, Smoking Monkeys were a novelty item for children during the “Mad Men” era, made in Japan — a little plastic monkey with a set of tiny cigarettes the thickness of a toothpick. Put one in its mouth, light it, and the monkey blew tiny smoke rings. For some reason nobody thought this was an inappropriate toy. You think I’m just blowing smoke? Here’s one that’s for sale on eBay:
Enough about smoking monkeys. I’ll bring this post to a close by waving goodbye:
On Dec. 17th, with Forrest McCarthy as my guide, I hiked up some steep gravel inclines in the Antarctic Dry Valleys above Lake Bonney to elevated ridges and plateaus to see the ventifacts. These are large granite boulders that have been pummeled by fierce winds picking up grains of gravel — imagine a giant sandblaster over millenia.
I saw smaller ventifacts at Cape Royds. Those were volcanic stone hollowed out into curved shapes, sometimes pierced with holes and generally in the one- to three-cubic-feet range, and mostly on the smaller side of that range. But nothing prepared me for the ventifacts of the Dry Valleys. It was a steady climb for some time and then we came over a ridge where the ground was strewn with huge granite boulders curved, hollowed and pierced into strange shapes. I felt like I’d entered the world’s largest Surrealist sculpture garden.
The ventifacts obey a cardinal rule of good sculpture — that it should present different forms as you walk around it. Believe it or not, these are two different views of the same ventifact: