Gen-X On Ice 

Thursday, Feb 3 2005
Photos by Brianna Arnold
and Peter West
Brianna Arnold guns the ATV and it lurches forward, crashing through a mound of ice before coming to a standstill. We are driving — if that is the word for this spine-crunching stop-start process — across the frozen surface of Lake Bonney in the Taylor Valley of Antarctica. It is one of the most pristine bodies of water in the world. Over the lake, the wind has sculpted the ice into fantastical structures — little columns and turrets of an almost organic complexity, and miniature caves filled with translucent stalactites. It is as if the water has been dreaming and its reveries solidified. Though starkly beautiful, the terrain here is impossible to walk over without ice stabilizers. Since I lack the appropriate footwear, Arnold — a senior in microbiology at Montana State University in Bozeman — has offered to drive us out to the hole in the ice where she and graduate student Joel Moore have been gathering scientific samples.

Though the ice sheet is many feet thick, it is all too easy to plunge through a false surface into one of the cavelets and end up in two feet of chilling slush. “You haven’t really been to the Antarctic until you’ve fallen in,” Arnold remarks offhandedly. Every fiber of my being is praying against that option, but apparently Arnold is following a safe route. “Basically,” she says, “you head for the mummified seal and make a right.”

The mummified seal is a sign that this is not your average snowmobile country. The Taylor is one of the Antarctic’s so-called Dry Valleys, a unique and fragile landscape so alien, NASA scientists believe it is the closest thing on Earth to the landscape of Mars. Ninety-eight percent of the Antarctic continent is covered in ice; the Dry Valleys, so-called because of their extremely low precipitation rates, are some of the few places that are not. Virtually no snow falls here, leaving a landscape of dirt and rock. In effect, this is a polar desert — Antarctica is not only the coldest continent on Earth, but also the driest. Average precipitation in the Dry Valleys is just 6 centimeters a year, with an average temperature of -20 C. The primary source of water here is the glaciers, which slither over the tops of the mountains, adding a glittery white frosting to the scene. Because there is so little water, these valleys are completely free of vegetation: no trees, no grasses, no flowers, not even lichen. It is nonetheless a magnificent place — Immanuel Kant’s “sublime” incarnate.

Protected by the Antarctic Treaty, the Dry Valleys are a tourist-free zone; the only visitors here are the scientists who are trying to understand the geology, hydrology, glaciology and ecology of this remote corner of the world. Arnold is one of several Montana State students selected to spend the austral summer collecting data. In contrast to the usual summer-break antics of drinking, partying and getting laid, her day begins with a 6 a.m. trek to the sample hole to lie on her belly and fish for microbes. The rest of the day, she, Moore, fellow undergrad Delisa Rogers and technician Amy Chiuchiolo, all of them in their 20s, will laboriously filter the morning’s sample bottles and prepare a new batch to be deployed into the hole the next day. Bedtime will be around midnight, and there is no such thing as a shower in sight.

Midnight, of course, is a euphemistic term — during the summer months of the team’s residence, the sun circles endlessly above the horizon, illuminating the landscape with a perpetually brilliant glare. Polarized sunglasses are a must, as are sleep masks — one of the major problems one experiences down here is an inability to shut off when it is time to go to sleep. Without the cue of darkness to trigger the body’s diurnal response, circadian rhythms are thrown into flux and eventually you just have to accept that it is time to rest no matter what the sun is doing.

Yet despite the 24-hour daylight, hypothermia and frostbite are very real dangers — a lesson stressed during the compulsory survival training the National Science Foundation (NSF) requires all visitors to the Dry Valleys to undertake. Known in the local parlance as “snow school,” survival training includes lectures on the physiological changes that occur in the extreme cold and what to do to protect oneself from freezing to death. Like all field-trip preparation, survival training takes place at the main U.S. base of McMurdo, 60 miles across the sound on the shores of Ross Island.

McMurdo itself is a sizable town that during the height of the summer season swells to around 1,100 people, most of whom live in shared dorm rooms. It is a considerable irony of life in the Antarctic that although it is the emptiest continent on Earth, habitable space is so scarce, most visitors rarely get time by themselves. In the Dry Valleys, however, the sleeping quarters are mountain tents, which, Arnold notes, offer the much-prized luxury of “space alone.” One of the primary attractions of the Dry Valleys is the chance not only for solo communion with the wilderness, but also with oneself.

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