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Mary and Paul spent several days in the Dry Valleys. See a slide show of their visit .

How to Melt a Glacier

by Mary Miller

January 4, 2002

The first thing you notice when you fly into the Lake Hoare field camp in the Dry Valleys is the Canada Glacier. It’s like a living, breathing presence, a wall of steep white ice atop a lake the color of a blue tourmaline gemstone. When we hop out of the helicopter after a twenty-minute ride from McMurdo Station, I’d like to gawk at the glacier and the incredible landscape of the Dry Valleys, but there’s work to be done first.

After we unload gear from the helicopter and wave goodbye to our pilot, we get a quick orientation of the area by camp manager Rae Spain. Rae has been working out in the Dry Valleys for four years (she’s one of the pioneering women of the Antarctic program and has spent twenty seasons on the continent), and she outlines the camp rules for us. We are to leave no trace of our presence here, except for footprints.

Everything brought into the valley must be brought back out, including all cooking and washing water and human urine and solid waste, all of which is collected in barrels and flown back to McMurdo for disposal. We also can’t take any souvenir rocks home with us, which is a tough rule because the rocks here are so beautiful and unique. We must content ourselves with taking pictures instead.

The reason for this environmental code of ethics is that this unique and starkly beautiful place contains a very delicate ecosystem. The Dry Valleys is a study site for intensive environmental research, one of twenty-four Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) projects in the United States. This site is particularly important because it represents the only polar desert ecosystem being studied and has been largely untouched by human presence.

  paul drilling  
Paul drills a hole that will help monitor the mass of the glacier. Click to enlarge .

After we get a lay of the land and have some lunch, geologist Andrew Fountain takes me on a walking lesson in glaciology. Andrew, a professor from Portland State University, has been studying the Canada Glacier at Lake Hoare and other glaciers in the Dry Valleys since 1993. As one of the project scientists for LTER, it’s Andrew’s job to understand the role of glaciers in the Dry Valleys ecosystem. In the coldest, driest desert on earth, glaciers are the only source of water to the lakes and soils here. With water comes life: This delicate ecosystem is built upon single-celled microbes and algae, which in turn support larger life forms such as nematode worms, rotifers, and tardigrades.

Even the tops of the glaciers provide a refuge for life. As soil is blown across the valley floor, it collects on the glacier, creating little pools of dirt and water called cryoconites. These little pools harbor their own complete ecosystems of microbes and invertebrates, some of which can live there for years without making it to the valley floor. Such are the extreme conditions for life in an ecosystem that has been compared to Mars.

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