25 November, 1999
Research in the dry valleys!
The McMurdo Dry Valleys are found within the chain of mountains known as the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. This is a huge mountain range that traverses the western side of the continent almost from the Palmer Station to McMurdo Station. About 60 kilometers from McMurdo Station, across McMurdo Sound is the Taylor Valley with a chain of lakes and bare valley bottom all the way up the valley to the Taylor Glacier. There are several field camps in this valley. We visited the Lake Hoare field camp in hopes of taking some stream measurements as part of our work with the Schoolyard LTER. Unfortunately, all the streams remain frozen with no water flowing at all. I could not take any measurements at this time. We will be back to the valley at the end of next week when I think the streams may be flowing. I can then get some water samples and collect some data using the equipment that I brought along from Lakeside School in Seattle. When the sun is not blocked by clouds, it beats down on the glaciers causing some of the surface ice to melt, run off of the glacier and flow into streams which in turn will flow into the lakes. If there is rock debris on the glacier surface, then more solar radiation is absorbed causing more water to flow into the streams. Of course, all of this is dependent on the number of hours of direct sun light, the air temperature and the wind. One big question being asked by scientists in the McMurdo Dry Valley Long Term Ecological Research is about material transport. How much and what kinds of chemicals, ions, and other materials are being carried into the lakes by the melt waters flowing into the streams and then the lakes? What ions are trapped in the snow that has fallen on the glacier during the past year? Is there any evidence of human activity in the meltwater from the glaciers? How important are these ions and chemicals to the organisms living under the ice in the lakes? What other ions does the water pick up as it flows over the rocky streambed on its way to the lakes?
Another big question is about the energy balance. By this I refer to how much energy is hitting the glaciers? What happens to the energy hitting the glaciers? How much is bounced back as albedo? How much is absorbed causing the ice to change to liquid? How does the energy influence the level of water in the lakes? These are just a few things to think about. What would have to happen to cause the lake level to change? Can you describe the scenario that will cause a lowering of the lakes? This study may actually contribute to the even bigger questions related to past, present and future climate of earth.
Since Pete has never been to the valley, I took him on a tour of the area around the field camp. We had the in camp briefing on the living and sharing the work load while in camp as well. I will include some photos to show you some of the tents and the "HUT" where Thanksgiving dinner is being prepared. The water we will use comes from "ice berries". These are big chunks of ice that have broken off of the Canada Glacier, are brought up to the hut and set aside to be melted in a huge pot used just for melting water. There is a special pair of gloves for use only to collect and handle the ice berries. This way the drinking water and cooking water stays clean. The field camp is powered almost exclusively by using solar panels. There is enough power generated to provide for the lights, coffee maker, stereo, refrigerator, microwave, computers and battery re-charger for the field radios. If the scientists need a continuous supply of power for filtering water samples or for other experiments, then a generator can be turned on. However, no one wants the noisy generator turned on so everyone is really careful about use of the power, especially on a cloudy day.
We travel to the Taylor Valley by helicopter. Everything must be weighed including us. The helicopter is loaded, we are loaded, given helmets and a briefing again on safety, and then we are on our way. The trip takes about 35 minutes one way. The weather seems to be better in the valleys with more sun and fewer clouds than at McMurdo Station this time of year.
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