Gen-X On Ice

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.

Antarctica is not only the coldest
continent but also the driest.
Although devoid of precipitation and
thus vegetation or anuimal life, a
delicate ecology of microbes and algae
exists below the ice, providing a
locus for a team of graduate students.

Raised in Wyoming and Oklahoma, Arnold is the first person in her family to go to college. In her clan, women marry young and make babies quickly. Arnold, who turned 24 in the Antarctic, has fulfilled the first part of the equation — she married her high school sweetheart at 18 before she started college — and is eager to fulfill the second part. (“I so much want to have kids,” she says.) At the same time, she dreams of earning a doctorate in science. Like many young women scientists, she worries about doing justice to both activities simultaneously — careers in science being notoriously demanding not just in terms of intellectual energy but also in terms of time. Despite Harvard president Lawrence Summers’ recent ill-informed remarks about gender inequity in scientific fields, what most women scientists lack is not the mental aptitude but hours in the day.

One of the great surprises of the Dry Valleys is indeed how many women are there. Three of the four members of Arnold’s “limnology” team are women. In all, six out of nine of the MSU Antarctic group this year were female, including Dr. Christine Foreman, a rising star in the world of Antarctic ecological research. At the Blood Falls camp farther up the Taylor Valley, Dr. Erin Pettit, a 33-year-old ice dynamicist from the University of Washington, has been heading a team studying glacial formation, and again four out of six of her crew were women, including ice-core technician Lou Albershardt, who along with her husband also runs the U.S. polar program’s ice runway in Greenland. The main camp at Lake Hoare is presided over by the queen of the valley, Rae Spain, a woman whose outdoor competence is matched only by her legendary cooking — the meal she served the night I stayed was better than you’d get at most pricey L.A. restaurants. Even the infamous Stream Team, whose waking hours are spent hiking with enormous packs, monitoring the valleys’ glacial streams, included this year a delicate undergrad named Chi Yang. Self-reliant, competent, physically fit and engaged in science at the most intimate level, these women are proof of the outmoded absurdity of Summers’ views.

While several of the field camps consist of nothing but the gear the scientists bring in, at Lake Bonney — one of the two largest camps, along with Lake Hoare — more permanent facilities are installed. Here an old army Jamesway (feral cousin of the Quonset hut) is fitted out with a kitchen, complete with a stove and fridge and propane heater, and a cluster of tiny portable labs where the students prepare their samples. The Jamesway also serves as an office and their link with the outside world, including Internet access so they can upload data to the Net. Bizarrely, “Net access here is often faster than in McMurdo,” says Chiuchiolo, the team’s official leader. Several years ago the NSF put in a chain of microwave repeaters along the valley, an innovation that has enormously speeded up the pace of scientific research in the region.

Amy Chiuchiolo, in lab

In all environments save the deep oceans, photosynthesis is the basis of the living web. Without vegetation, there is no foundation in the Dry Valleys on which to build a food chain, and the region is consequently void of animal life. There are not even any insects — Antarctica is the only continent without flies, fleas and mosquitoes. “It’s weird,” says Chiuchiolo, “you can get into your tent and not have to worry about spiders.” The mummified seal on the lake surface was never a native inhabitant but a hapless visitor far from home. From Lake Bonney it is more than 20 miles to the sea, but seals and penguins are sometimes observed wandering up the valley, trying to find their way back to the water. The seals are said to be particularly sad, dragging themselves bruised and bloody across the rocks. Since the Antarctic Treaty forbids interfering with natural patterns, scientists who see them are not allowed to intervene, which “can be pretty distressing,” Arnold notes.

But the Dry Valleys are not entirely absent of life: Down in the lakes beneath the permanent mantle of ice, and in the tiny streams of glacial melt-water that feed them, lives a delicate ecology of microbes and algal mats that scientists have recently begun to explore. During their two months on the continent, Arnold and her teammates are working as assistants to Dr. John Priscu, a professor in Montana State’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences and one of the leading scientists engaged in what is known as long-term ecological research in the region. Under the auspices of the NSF, four research teams have spent the past decade collectively trying to chart the patterns that sustain life in this unforgiving world.

Brianna Arnold

“We’re trying to understand the yearly cycles and the long-term trends,” Moore explains over dinner. “That provides a background against which we can measure any transient changes.” In 2001, for example, an unusually warm summer showed up immediately as a spike in the microbial activity, fueling speculation about whether it was an effect of global warming. One of the team’s main tasks is to sample the microbes within the Taylor Valley lakes and to measure the rates at which different species are photosynthesizing.

In order to do this, the limno team, as they are known, take samples from the water and seed it with carbon-14, a radioactive isotope that can be traced later with a scintillation counter. The samples are placed back in the lake and left for 24 hours while the microbes chew up the carbon, after which the bottles are retrieved and the living material filtered out. Hence the trips to the ice hole, plus the long evenings after dinner when the entire team repair to the labs to finish filtering the morning’s haul and to prep a new batch for the next day. At midnight, when I decide to turn in, Chiuchiolo is still filtering.

Everywhere you go in the Antarctic, eating is a major preoccupation; in this extreme cold, people need at least double the usual calories each day, and one of the lessons from snow school is always to carry chocolate bars, especially when working outside. (Even so, many visitors to the Antarctic lose weight.) Before taking off for the field, research teams are let loose in a vast warehouse at McMurdo and told to order what they think they will need. If you’ve never been in expedition mode before, it can be a pretty daunting process: “We were clueless,” Arnold confesses. By the end of their first three-week stint, they had run out of meat and were living mostly on rice and beans. They had also gone through their candy and, more important, juice. Along with plenty of food, drink is also imperative in the cold, since the body attempts to jettison heat-sapping fluids by forced diuresis (a.k.a. peeing). Three to four liters a day is the recommended Antarctic minimum.

In a landscape of scarcity, every molecule of nutrient counts, and life has evolved to get by with the bare minimum of organic matter. For this reason, the ecology of the Dry Valleys can all too easily be overwhelmed. In order to protect its fragile microbial communities, the Antarctic Treaty forbids scientists from leaving waste — including human waste. Even the water samples taken from the lakes cannot be thrown back in, Chiuchiolo tells me, and literally everything brought in must be taken back out. The injunction against wastewater means that washing is essentially off the agenda — only the main camp at Lake Hoare is equipped with a shower, the rules allowing a 1-gallon dousing on Sundays. Researchers at other camps have been known to hike for six hours for the privilege, and during the limno team’s first three-week stint, they managed just a single wash. Since weight limits on personal luggage are strictly enforced, one cannot even evade the problem by an excess of clothing. “You bring two pairs of long underwear, and you just get used to it,” Chiuchiolo tells me. A moment later, as if confessing something illicit, she adds furtively, “I did bring 24 pairs of undies.”

Out here, the very word plumbing is anathema — field camps are supplied with 55-gallon drums into which all human waste is deposited. Helicopters ferry the drums out to a station farther along the coast, where once a year they are picked up by a supply ship and carted back to the U.S. mainland at California’s Port Hueneme. Lavatory facilities may or may not include an actual toilet — usually not. At Lake Bonney, the privy contains a bucket and a coffee can, the contents of which are emptied directly into one of the drums via a handily placed funnel. At least you are shielded by plywood walls; at the Blood Falls camp, the buckets are located in a Scott tent so that just as you crawl through the entrance lock, there they are in front of your nose. It is said that the Dry Valleys are a world without smells, but I can personally vouch for the falseness of this remark.

Ever since the discovery of the ozone hole above the South Pole, the Antarctic has become a centerpiece of research into global environmental trends. Scientists believe the continent acts much like a canary down a mine, a singularly fragile creature registering changes in the Earth’s condition before they are detected elsewhere. With their combination of exposed ground, minimal nutrients and exotic life forms, the Dry Valleys present a rare opportunity to study a totally pristine environment. At least for a while. One of Arnold’s tasks this season was also to assist Foreman with her research into the after-effects of a fuel spill on nearby Lake Fryxell. NASA is also eyeing the region, with a view to building a station in which to study living in extreme environments.

The USA is the only country that maintains a permanent presence in the Dry Valleys, and for those lucky few who get to go, it is a pretty extraordinary experience. “It is one thing to sit in a lab and work on samples that someone else has collected for you,” says Arnold, speaking both as an outdoor lover and as a scientist in training. “But you don’t realize all the work that goes into getting that sample until you are the one collecting it. I don’t think you can really understand the process until you get out to the field.” During their time in the Taylor Valley, she, Chiuchiolo, Moore and Rogers have collected hundreds of samples of the region’s water. Each sample must be filtered and analyzed and sent back home to be rendered down to another set of incremental data points on Dr. Priscu’s long-term charts. In the spectrum of scientific research, this is neither paradigm-shattering nor intellectually glamorous work, but the painstaking activity that is absolutely essential for helping scientists to understand the state of our world.