On Wednesday I had the incredible opportunity of visiting the Antarctic Dry Valleys. It was one of the best days of my life and I don’t think much could top this experience. The Dry Valleys constitutes around 30% of the ice-free land on Antarctica. The air here is so dry that ice and snow are not able to accumulate in the valleys. The scenery is truly impressive; like a mix of Mars, the Southern Alps, and the Grand Canyon all rolled into one. Actually NASA uses the valleys to test their equipment for their Mars programme.
There were two aims of the trip, the first to do some environmental monitoring at Don Juan Pond, and the second was to collect a historic food cache left behind in the Allan Hills. Our small group of three hopped on board the helicopter first thing in the morning and started the 1 hour flight out across the sea ice edge. The sea ice is such a dynamic environment at the moment due to it being summer and warmer temperatures causing the ice to crack apart and melt. From the air we could spot lots of penguins on the edges and large pods of orcas breaching in the cracks. The abundance of wildlife here is awe-inspiring. We then flew up and over the mountains into the deep valleys, which are a geologist’s dream.
Our first destination was Don Juan Pond, located in the Wright Valley. The pond is only 10cm deep, but is the saltiest water body on earth – 14 times saltier than seawater. Because of its high salinity it never freezes, even at -55 degrees Celsius. Two years ago a science expedition out to the pond left behind many tracks and trampled the surrounding environment. The environment and ecosystems in the Dry Valleys are highly susceptible to damage due to the sensitive nature of the area. Our goal was to undertake photo monitoring of the site to see if the area had recovered at all in the past two years. Once we landed at the pond, we had an hour on the ground to recreate the same images taken 2 years ago. When we analysed the photos back at the base later. it was positive to see that many of the tracks were starting to recover. However, hopefully our report can be used for better management of these sites in the near future.
Another interesting thing at this site was the presence of a mummified seal. Seals sometimes enter the valleys by mistake, get lost, and end up walking up to 40 kilometres inland – an amazing feat for an animal that’s not very agile on land – before dying of thirst.
Once back in the chopper, it was up across the Antarctic plateau to the furthest corner of the valleys, to our next destination in the Allan Hills. In the 1950s an expedition in this region left behind a supply cache here. The reason for why they did this is still unknown. This cache consisted of four wooden boxes, three jerry cans of fuel, and some clothing. The Antarctic Heritage Trust wanted the removal of the cache so they can conserve the items, as well as stop the fuel and other items potentially leaking out into the environment and harming it. We documented the items, before wrapping them up carefully and placing them in the chopped for transportation. The anticipation of seeing what was contained inside was like Christmas. Luckily the boxes were easy to open, and back at base that evening we got to have a sneak peak. These were the usual items such as canned and dried goods, but also open packets of bacon and honey. The Trust will hopefully be able to raise some funds to conserve this cache so that the items can be displayed in the future.
Flying back across the valleys and sea ice was amazing. Our pilot, Andrew, was awesome and went out of his usual flying route to make sure that we had a fantastic look around the entire region. The photos hardly do the Dry Valleys justice. We had an hour refuel at the American fuel point at Marble Point, before finishing up our epic day.
BLAKE Antarctic Ambassador 2013