This past summer I had the incredible opportunity to spend six weeks in Antarctica, spending a month undertaking fieldwork in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. I was working alongside worldclass researchers trying to solve some of the countless uncertainties attached to our current understanding of climate change. We were investigating the potential of the permafrost (frozen ground) to release greenhouse gases by measuring the concentrations and fluxes of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. Being immersed in such an amazing environment was one of the most rewarding, extraordinary experiences and I will carry the skills and knowledge I gained with me for the rest of my life.
The Dry Valleys are one of the most unique and beautiful parts of the planet; rocks of all colours and sizes litter the ground as huge glaciers pour into each valley from its walls and dramatic mountains frame the landscape. The McMurdo Dry Valleys are the largest ice-free area of the continent and hold precious records of past climate and the evolution of Antarctica’s ice sheets. At times it felt more like being on the Moon or Mars than on Earth with no trees or buildings to give any sense of scale.
The timelines for change here are completely different to the rest of the planet. Erosion and landscape evolution happens exponentially slower than here in Aotearoa. Mummified seals that have been preserved for hundreds to thousands of years are found throughout the valleys, highlighting just how harsh the environment is. The impact of human activity is easily seen with footprints still being visible months to years after they were formed. Being the driest place on Earth, it has not rained in nearly two million years and the only water source comes from glacial melt, forming small streams that run inland into frozen lakes. This has led to a lack of life, with only microbes, algae, mosses, rotifers, tardigrades, and nematodes found in the valleys.
Importantly, there is a heightened sense for the vulnerability this environment has to atmospheric changes and the interconnect between Earth systems. It was only once I arrived that I comprehended the complexities of Antarctica, how little is known about it and why there are so many uncertainties around the processes that occur here.
Living in such an amazing place for 30 days was an experience I will never forget. Each day we would walk up to 20 km over the rolling, uneven ground in sub-zero temperatures taking measurements at over 300 sites throughout the lower areas of two of the three largest valleys (Wright and Taylor valleys). We camped beneath a 30 m cliff of ice at the front of the Commonwealth Glacier, drinking from its melt water. 24-hour daylight meant the sun rotated above us, lighting the mountains in the morning, and illuminating the glacier in the evening. During the night, the Commonwealth Glacier would carve next to us with the impact of huge blocks of ancient ice hitting the ground and echoing through the valley. The sense of wilderness and raw beauty of the valleys is impossible not to be in awe of.
Problem solving and teamwork were essential for success with equipment breaking in the harsh conditions and having to be fixed with limited supplies and tools. Success relied on us working together to effectively complete the science and keep camp running. Our team consisted of eight geologists from New Zealand and Italy who were passionate about finding answers to help us better understand how Earth will respond to warming temperatures and the feedbacks associated with this. The significance of this science cannot be understated, and I have the deepest admiration for the work and time they put into conducting quality science to help us understand Earth’s processes.
The permafrost is the frozen ground found approximately 30 cm beneath the soil surface in polar regions. Any sediment that has been frozen for at least two years is classified as permafrost. It has been estimated that in the Northern Hemisphere there is 1,500 gigatonnes of carbon stored in the permafrost. This is over twice the current amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. The amount stored underneath Antarctica’s surface is still unknown. Warming temperatures, and consequently melting of the permafrost would result in this stored carbon dioxide, along with methane, being released and amplifying warming. The stability of the Antarctic permafrost, along with the amount and rate of the greenhouse gases being emitted from it, is what this research is trying to quantify. While numerous studies have been conducted on this issue in the Northern Hemisphere, this is the first to be undertaken in Antarctica.
Sir Peter Blake was passionate about inspiring people to care for our environment and firmly believed that it was through having a relationship and being immersed within these places that a passion to look after them is born. On his final voyage he wrote “We want to restart people caring for the environment…through adventure, through participation, through education and through enjoyment.” The time I spent in the Dry Valleys highlighted the importance of building these connections with Earth’s mountains, oceans, and wildlife. We are lucky to live in a country with so much beautiful and accessible nature from the Southern Alps to the Pacific Ocean. We have the opportunity to inspire a passion for sustainability in generations of young people through immersion in nature. Exposure to these landscapes is how a love and need to look after them is born. We cannot protect our glaciers, our native bush, or our native wildlife by promoting disconnect and isolation from the environment.
I hope that by inspiring people to care for the environment close to home, vulnerable and special places like the McMurdo Dry Valleys can be safe guarded long into the future. Although it is desolate, Antarctica is not as foreign as it is often made out to be – it is deeply connected to the rest of our planet. Changes in the atmosphere and ocean, Earth’s life source, are felt acutely by these polar environments and in turn, changes to Antarctica’s earth processes will be felt globally.