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January 14, 2009

Lake Hoare: Day 2

The Dry Valleys are an ancient, unique, and fragile ecosystem. It remains largely pristine thanks to an Environmental Code of Conduct initiated by a nine-country panel in 1995. Its enforced Leave No Trace principle aims to minimalize impacts on the region’s biological and geological features and preserve them for study by future generations. The effort’s ultimate success though depends on continued group diligence and an effective waste management system. Here’s some of what’s involved…

Sorting one’s trash into categories is as much a way of life in field camps as it is in McMurdo. Full garbage bags are put in tri-wall boxes outdoors and then removed by helicopters with sling load nets, like the one seen around this tri-wall’s base. The boxes are stored at Marble Point over winter, then traversed over the frozen Sound to McMurdo in the fall.

Waste water must also be dealt with. Commonly referred to as grey water, it includes washing water, toothbrushing water, cooking water, any type of dirty water. Caught in buckets indoors, it’s then transfered into large drums for eventual transport back to McMurdo.

And then there’s human waste, which brings us to Lake Hoare’s famous “rocket toilet.” Not your ordinary outhouse, the toilet’s contents gets incinerated by a propane powered blast. Don’t worry, it won’t ignite while you’re seated. The burning takes place when the pit is two-thirds full, when the outhouse is empty (and marked ‘off-limits’ by a black flag), and under the camp manager’s supervision.

This is the rocket toilet’s backside. The contraption’s environmental friendliness is debated but it’s cleaner than sling-loading the waste out by helicopter given the fuel and emissions involved there. Another thing the rocket has going for it is the styrofoam seat. No cold toilet seats in the Antarctic!

The rocket toilet, incidentally, is the luxury bathroom in the field. Otherwise bottles, buckets, and bags are used (Leave No Trace here means no pee or poop on the ground) and yes, you’re expected to carry your “collection” around till you return to dump it in the collective receptacle. It’s a harsh continent.

I spent part of the afternoon hiking the hill alongside Canada Glacier’s northern edge. The path gradually rises to a height greater than the glacier itself, affording a view out over the ice. Its downward slope is positively dramatic, a feature unseen from below.

These rock formations are a common phenomenon here. What look like artfully stacked shrines by previous hikers are single rocks artfully split by Mother Nature.

Relaxing on a boulder on my way back to camp, I snapped a picture of a helicopter flying overhead…

…to find I’d been snapped back! The picture was taken by Chris Gardner, the McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER Information Manager. He’s taken some beautiful photos of Antarctica during his four seasons here; I especially like the Abstract McMurdo set.

Farewell to Lake Hoare and the great people here. Hassan Basagic is a researcher collecting seasonal data for the LTER project. Love it or hate it, he’s a Night of the Hunter fan.

En route to McMurdo, a quick stop at Lake Fryxell field camp which, like Lake Hoare, uses
solar power.

A helicopter will eventually hoist Fryxell’s tri-walls to Marble Point for the winter along with all the other Dry Valleys camps’ boxes.

A reader recently asked where all the waste goes once it’s shipped off of Antarctica. The answer is Port Hueneme in Oxnard, California. From there the majority of the load goes to local mom & pop recyclers specializing in wood, metal, glass, aluminum. Hazardous waste (batteries, aerosols, fluorescent bulbs, medical and lab waste) goes to handlers in Washington State. Food waste and human waste is incinerated and the rest goes to landfill.

My last Dry Valleys sighting is Commonwealth Glacier squeezing between two peaks and spreading out like a fan, waving good-bye.


January 13, 2009

Lake Hoare: Day 1

For many, the word “Antarctica” brings vast ice-covered fields to mind. Rightly so, for that’s what most of Antarctica is. But many scientists take special interest in the remaining 2% of the continent known as the McMurdo Dry Valleys here in the Transantarctic Mountains. The Valleys receive the equivalent of only 6 mm of water on average each year in the form of snow, making them among the most extreme deserts on the planet. This ecosystem’s unique processes, biodiversity, and response to climate change attracts scores of researchers to Lake Hoare and surrounding Taylor Valley each summer season.

Lake Hoare is situated alongside Canada Glacier, looming like a frozen tsunami in the midnight sun. Katabatic winds push clouds about relentlessly, creating dramatic shifts in light across the sky. This is one of the most spectacular locations I’ve ever seen, let alone camped in.

I was welcomed by Rae Spain, Taylor Valley camp manager. This is her 11th year at Lake Hoare, the main support camp for Lake Bonney, F6, and Fryxell field camps in this southernmost of three Dry Valleys. (See a map of all field camps here.)

Operating out of this main hut, Rae provides her field camps with basic maintenance and arranges for labs, fuel, propane, waste disposal, construction and many other needs. Her job in looking after all these things, she explained, is to allow scientists to focus on their research.

Her operations are powered almost entirely by the sun. The use of generators is minimal, totaling less than 40 hours per year. Because so little fuel is used, Rae has had to order it just once in her 11 years at Lake Hoare — and that was only because fuel caches are required to be replaced every 7 years.

The solar panels were donated by NASA which has a large Antarctic presence and whose research is largely linked to extra-planetary applications. The ENDURANCE underwater bot is among the most fascinating of these projects taking place right here in the Dry Valleys.

Rae gave me a tour of the campsite and allowed me to pick a tent to my liking. I picked a Scott tent whose entry faced the glacier — a nice sight to wake up to. The camp was relatively quiet; Lake Hoare hosts an average of 8 people at any given time, with a maximum of 15.

There are no mammal colonies here and the lost souls that wander into the Dry Valleys may not find their way out. This mummified crabeater seal came up in the winter of 2003, Rae said. It will take a very long time to decompose in the cold, dry air. Some intact seals in the Valley are believed to be over 1,000 years old, but carbon-dating them precisely is difficult.

An Adelie penguin carcass lays exposed near the entrance to my tent. Sometimes he lays covered in snow but this evening he’s enjoying the mild weather, bones bleaching in the sun. This one, Rae says, has been here for at least 15 years and was likely picked apart by scavenging skuas. He looks as if he’s still up and about, with his raised head and watchful eye sockets.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at Lake Hoare’s waste disposal system and take a hike alongside the glacier. See you then.


Filed under: Antarctic Research Facilities,Dry Valleys,Environment — mbartalos @ 11:23 pm

January 12, 2009

Marble Point

The weather was a bit better today, and our helicopter was cleared to cross McMurdo Sound to mainland Antarctica. We were headed for Lake Hoare, an established field camp that serves as a hub for scientists doing research in the Dry Valleys.

The Sound is where McMurdo’s annual sea ice runway is located from the start of the summer season till early December before the ice breaks up. By now the ice is extremely fractured in places, creating stretches of beautiful textures.

The path to Lake Hoare got socked in by fog by the time we reached the coast, so the pilot diverted to Marble Point till it cleared. Marble Point is a small outpost chiefly used as a helicopter refueling station. Soon a second helicopter of scientists arrived to wait out the weather.

The setting is rather bleak and desolate but the couple who run the station are extremely hospitable and baked up a batch of cookies for their stranded visitors. They also offered me some nice rusted artifacts for use in my project. I’ll be posting pictures of these collected items towards the end of my trip.

The tri-wall box seen above is a ubiquitous sight at camps and stations. It contains sorted waste to be transported back to McMurdo for processing at summer’s end.

The fog lifted and we headed back to the helos. A nearby castaway (note shark fin — nice touch) watched on forlornly as we lifted off the heli-pad.

Next stop: Lake Hoare!


Filed under: Dry Valleys — mbartalos @ 11:40 pm

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