The Antarctic & Arctic Data Consortium has included two of my photos in its 2017 wall calendar (shown above and below). 7,000 calendars were printed; 3,500 were distributed at the 2016 American Geophysical Union Meeting in San Francisco. The remainder were shipped out to other organizations and collaborators.
Both of the photos were taken in the McMurdo Dry Valleys when I spent a week there in December 2015. The photo above is of a ventifact field above Lake Bonney that I called the Surrealist Sculpture Garden (more about that here). The one below is a close-up of delicate ice designs that had formed over sediment atop the frozen surface of Lake Hoare (more photos here).
The a2dc (as they render their acronym) “was initiated to provide a centralized resource for scientists to submit, use, and discover polar data. The participating organizations provide the expertise and tools to support fellow polar researchers.” When I was in Antarctica, I met staff from two of the ten organizations, UNAVCO and the Polar Geospatial Center (PGC). Both organizations had offices in the Crary Science Labs at McMurdo, where their staff provided crucial mapping and geophysical data for the scientists. The PGC is based at the University of Minnesota and specializes in aerial views, assembling detailed maps from satellite photos of remote locations and have dozens of Antarctic maps online. UNAVCO works on the ground, doing GPS surveys, terrestrial laser scanning, and other kinds of measurements. An example is this two-year study which tracked the erosion of an ice cliff in the Dry Valleys and concluded that it was melting faster than anticipated due to climate change.
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!
As I mentioned in a previous post, the lakes in the Dry Valleys have a permanent crust of ice that’s on average four meters thick, a thickness that stays constant from year to year. The lakes themselves can be as much as 30 to 112 feet deep. The thick ice layer is added to by water freezing from the bottom, while the top is lost to ablation — that is, it goes from solid to gas. Scientists who studied the lakes used to think that 30 cm was added to the bottom and 30 cm was lost from the top each year, but recent research suggests that the average rate is more like 75 cm.
In December, even with temperatures that never get much above freezing, under the 24-hour summer sun a moat melts around the shallow areas of shoreline. The width of the melted water and adjoining thin ice varies and camp manager Rae cautioned that it can change from day to day. So getting out onto the ice on Lake Bonney while I was there only necessitated about a six foot walk on a plank of wood the limnology team placed there, while to get on Hoare a more substantial (although still pretty makeshift) bridge of lumber lashed to pipes was needed, and at Fryxell there was a rowboat with a rope pulley rigged up to cross the much wider moat of shallow water. Once you get onto the lake ice, any ice that’s rough and crunchy is a better bet to walk on than ice that’s smooth and blue, because it’s older and likely to be thicker. Both Bonney and Fryxell were relatively level and stable to walk on once you got across the moat. In fact, on both those lakes, the researchers drive around on an ATV if they have a distance to travel.
Hoare is different. Ice that has a thick layer of sediment blown onto it is generally firm to walk on, but you still have to watch where you step or you may end up in ankle-deep — or mid-calf-deep water, as Mari (a McMurdo field center worker who was helping out at the camp the week I was there) and I discovered when we returned from a hike to the other end of Lake Hoare one day. We had hiked down to the Suess Glacier via a little footpath that followed the shoreline, and had been told if we could get onto the ice down there, we could just walk down the middle of the lake on the way back as long as we had on ice crampons, so we wouldn’t slip. We started back on the trail, then after about 10 minutes we saw a spot where we could just take a giant step across the moat onto the lake. This appeared quicker and more direct than the land route we’d taken earlier. Turns out, slipping on slick ice was not the problem. After about 15 or 20 minutes, Mari tripped when her foot abruptly punched through to her mid-calf. She scrambled to her feet. We were both a little spooked, but it seemed to make sense to continue rather than double back. Seemed. Some parts were solid, while others made an ominous hollow sound, and they looked pretty much the same from the top with the slight coating of snow remaining from the storm a few days before, which definitely obscured thin areas that would otherwise have been more obvious. We zigged and zagged from one highly uneven patch of sediment to another, sometimes making good progress, but punching through up to our ankles periodically. This was unexpected after my experiences on Lakes Bonney and Fryxell. I had already walked out onto Hoare with Dave, one of the scientists, and hadn’t encountered this much difficulty. That’s when I took some of these photos — the others I took on another walk onto the lake with him the day after Mari’s and my adventure. But Dave’s been coming here for several years and can size up where to walk pretty readily. At one point, Mari said, “I just remembered, in case you don’t know this, if you fall in, you’re supposed to stick out your arms straight in front of you like this and catch the edge.” Then we started laughing at the absurdity of the situation.
None of the areas of thin ice were more than a foot deep before you hit the permanent lake ice, but it still was unnerving. Also, sometimes there was no water under the ice, but it shattered with the sound of breaking glass, which I think we’re all hard-wired to find jarring even when we’re not worried about stepping in the wrong place. We didn’t see any narrow moats to cross back to the shore, so we ended up walking cautiously down the middle of the lake, and kept camp manager Rae informed over the two-way radio of our progress. Our “shortcut” ended up taking an extra hour over the path. Boy, were we relieved when we stepped off the bridge onto the shore.
As long as I knew I would not end up in freezing water up to my armpits, I enjoyed walking around with my camera looking for interesting formations and peering inside the taller ones, which were about knee high. There is no shortage of oddities and we didn’t have to walk far to find a wide variety. Some were like thick glass pillars. The ones at left looked like part of a chandelier. Then there was a whole other world of fascinating designs that looked drawn or painted on thin layers of ice that had formed on the surface of the sediment.
I’ve zoomed in on the formation at left so you can see how a thin ice layer has formed a rainbow-colored interference pattern.
We saw ice embellished with concentric curving lines, overlapping dots, and so-called Tyndall figures, which are pale shapes separated by straight and curved lines. And sometimes there were combinations of any or all of the above as in the following photos:
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: