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G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian, at Lake Hoare. (Tom Peterson)

Day 4: Touring By Helicopter

Secretary Clough visits the driest place on the planet, Ernest Shackleton’s hut, penguins, whales and more on his final day in Antarctica

The camp at Lake Hoare consists of a few buildings, mainly housing laboratory equipment, and a series of individual tents for the scientists, set apart from each other to provide some degree of privacy.

This camp has more than the norm in the way of facilities because it is a base for other camps up the valleys. Its operations are run by Sharon (Rae) Spain, a contractor for the NSF Polar Program, who is famed for her ability to make things work in this remote and difficult environment. Rae is so outgoing and enthusiastic it is immediately apparent that she loves the life she lives here.

In fact, every member of Diana’s team is enthusiastic about the work they are doing and each brings different skill sets to the project at hand. I am pleased to meet Dr. Fred Ogden from the University of Wyoming, a hydrologist studying water and moisture movement, who is also a research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Antarctica is a long way from the tropics, and I ask about his research. He is studying water flow to develop better hydrologic models for forecasting as part of the Agua Salud project. Shallow subsurface water flow is an important part of the Panama Canal watershed and since all subsurface water flow is shallow in Antarctica because of the permafrost, it is actually simpler to study.

Lake Hoare itself is not a large lake, but is significant and saline. The beach is composed of a dark soil with inclusions of rocks that have fallen into it from the valley walls. There are octagonal patterns in the soil that mimic those seen in dry lake beds in the desert. Talus deposits of soil and rock (or scree, broken bits of rock) rise from the beach towards the valley walls. Where these deposits have a smooth surface, they are often eroded with V-shaped channels that appear to have been created by water. Beneath them as they lead to the lake, the soil appears darker.

The science team helps us understand what we see. Fred and Joe Levy from Portland State University explain that the V-shaped features we see in the talus slopes are indeed water induced, forming during an especially warm day as a pulse of melt water from the glaciers above flows in small streams downward toward the lake. The dark areas on the soil are created by the melt water but reflect small flows that continue from above but remain underground. As to the octagonal features, these develop with freezing and thawing cycles in the permafrost, much as are seen in permafrost in the Arctic.

So, there is water here in the soil but it is intermittent and comes very rarely. How is life sustained in the frigid, arid environment of the Dry Valleys? This is another matter of study for Diana and her team. They look for a creature known as a nematode that is all of a millimeter long and resides in the soil. A nematode may be small, but it is mighty in its evolved ability to survive in a hostile environment. This tiny creature understands that it lives two lives, one for the long dry times and one for the fleeting times when a small drop of moisture might come its way. During dry times it can give up almost all of its body moisture and simply stop normal body activities. It can lie patiently dormant for tens of years, but give it a bit of moisture and it will absorb it and come back to life, making the most of the moment. Why should any of this be of interest to us? First, as noted, these dry valleys may mimic similar environments on moisture-deprived Mars and other planets. We can learn how to look for life on other planets by studying these unusual creatures. Second, with climate change, creatures like the nematode may disappear, so we need to do all we can to understand them now. We can best deal with the effects of climate change if we understand what it does in all of its ramifications for the earth.

Although we could have stayed all day to hear more about the research at Lake Hoare, our schedule dictates we have to move on and we lift off to head further up Taylor Valley. However, shortly after lift-off we are notified that winds at higher elevations are reaching dangerous levels for helicopter travel—and indeed, the helicopter is already pitching and yawing. We reach the site of Blood Falls, a glacial front at Lake Bonney in the Taylor Valley. The ice contains algae that create an unusual red color on the front of the glacier. It is believed this algae is related to those that cause red algal blooms along coastal areas from time to time.

Alex and our pilot agree that we should return to safer air and we turn back down the valley and land at Lake Fryxell where Dr. John Gillies of the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., and his colleague William Nickling are studying the aeolian—or wind-driven—processes that act on the valley soils and rocks. We are shown a rock with a split personality: One side has faced the winds that roar down the valley in the winter months while the other side was protected. Where it was exposed to the winds the surface is smooth and pitted with very tiny indentations. The protected side shows the rough rock surface one would expect: a graphic demonstration of the power of wind erosion.

Our next stop is for lunch at Marble Point, a site on the west side of McMurdo Sound that serves as a fuel depot for the helicopter fleet. It also is known for its gregarious cook, Karen Moore, who has prepared her famous chili for us. Maybe it is just the beautiful setting, the cold weather, or the excitement of being here, but this chili is maybe the best I have ever had. Topped off with cornbread fresh from the oven and it is a feast fit for a king. We can’t stay long, but we owe a debt of gratitude to Karen for making this stop both special and satisfying.

We board the helicopter and fly along the edge of the shipping channel that has recently been cut in the sea ice by the Swedish icebreaker Oden in preparation for the arrival of the annual fuel tanker and supply ship. The wind has disappeared and the air is calm. To the west, Mount Erebus stands in all its glory. Down below is the deep, clear water of McMurdo Sound. Suddenly, whales! Minke whales take advantage of the ship channel just as a car uses a freeway by cruising along the edge of the ice in pods of two or three. They glide through the water, occasionally coming to the surface for a blow and a breath of air before resuming their course.

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