Trash or Treasure?

As humans have explored the Antarctic wilderness further, their impact on it has become more problematic. For instance, in 1974 I traveled to a Lake Vanda in Wright Valley across McMurdo Sound—a very beautiful place. My party had been stuck at McMurdo Station for five weeks waiting to be put into the deep field, and I had an acute case of cabin fever. So, I ginned up a day trip by helicopter to Lake Vanda, which I had always wanted to see because of its unique, ice-free landscape. I was able to convince the National Science Foundation rep that we should examine the lake because one of the members of the party was a sedimentologist with an interest in the effects of algae in sedimentary environments, and we had heard that algae grew profusely in its frigid waters. In late summer Lake Vanda is rimmed by a wide moat of meltwater, but when we flew there in November the moat was frozen solid. The ice around the lake was magnificently clear, becoming an ever-deepening field of blue and shot through with lacy white fractures. In the shallows, the clear ice revealed a blanket of algae wrinkled across the bottom.

Lake Vanda, in January 1983 with its moat of meltwater. Note Vanda Station at right end of the lake.

As we hiked along the shore, marveling at the patterns in the clear ice and the great walls of Wright Valley that rose more that 5,000 feet above us, we stumbled onto a collection of cans, rusting in a neat pile at the edge of the lake. “How cool,” I thought, “Who would have left these? Which year were they here?” I wondered if I knew them personally or perhaps by reputation. I thought of taking one as a souvenir. Then, about a hundred yards down the shore we came upon another pile. And then a couple hundred yards more, a third. By now I was disgusted. Images came to mind of the heaps of oxygen bottles at Everest base camp, or the calling cards of climbers under every rock on the path to the summit of the Matterhorn. Lake Vanda was trashed. So where is the dividing line? To an archeologist, the dump at the mouth of a Paleolithic cave is a treasure trove of goodies, whether they be superbly crafted artifacts or the scraps of last week’s big meal. The litter along Highway 61 has no less meaning about our current culture, but we find it rude and repulsive. Since my visit to Lake Vanda in the 1970s, the U. S. and New Zealand programs have established a new policy: nothing is to be left in the Dry Valleys. Every ounce of waste must be bagged and flown back to McMurdo Station or Scott Base by helicopter. Furthermore, the two countries sent litter crews in to pick up the trash of the preceding decades. Today, there are encampments in the Dry Valleys at various spots of scientific research, but when the research is completed, the researchers fold up their tents and depart without a trace. For me, the dividing line between trash and treasure is the line between recent events and history. Tin cans in the Dry Valleys disgust me. But were I to find a sardine can dropped by Amundsen, a torn mitten worn by Scott, a broken ice axe left by Blackburn, or some of the debris scuttled by Byrd as he flew over “The Hump” on his way to the Pole, such finds I would behold with awe and treasure as if a relic from the Holy Land.

Gallery – Vanda Ice Cracks 2.0

Fall Break

For the first time this semester Arizona State has had a Fall Break. Regina came out from that small island to the east of the Hudson, joining Harriet and me in a loop through northern Arizona. This month's blog is a gallery of that trip.

Gallery – Fall Break Loop

The Remote Heart of the Transantarctic Mountains

A glacier flows through the remote heart of the Transantarctic Mountains, a land so alien as to be of the imagination, an icy fastness engraved in a children's storybook. Granite spires puncture undulating fields of white, reaching into a crystalline atmosphere lit by a perpetually shining sun. The mountains form a barrier between two vast oceans of ice. At the lower shore rounded nubbins of gneiss rise out of the ice shelf; in the headreaches, nearly two miles above, tabular, bedrock blocks slip gently beneath the ice sheet, brim full behind the range, draining through the spillways of the outlet glaciers. In every recess of the heights ice creeps downward through broadening tributaries, and merges with the central outlet in a spectacle of frozen motion. Tremendous forces are at play, crustal uplift, erosion, glacial flow, yet all are gripped in a stillness so profound that every detail of landscape is poised, on the verge of itself. Silence reverberates. Then imperceptibly the scene begins to shift; a presence moves out of the south, quickens, funnels into the valleys and on down the outlet glacier. Above the summits, clouds gather in stationary, arching streaks, tracing the passage of air. In the lee of peaks and ridges eddies churn along the crests of ancient drifts. Every edge is whistling, when quite suddenly the surface of a snow field lifts up, dissociates, and races along with the wind. This is Nature at her polar extreme, simplified to three elements, ice, rock, and wind, all in motion, each with a different timeframe. Elsewhere mountains rise and winds blow, but nowhere on this planet is such a realm of ice as grips Antarctica. The ice sheets are immense plains of monotonous white; the intricate, glacier-laden mountains are the retreat of gods. To visit this land and glimpse its icy secrets is to wonder at the fringe and lose all sense of scale.

Storm clouds grip the Tapley Mountains.

Gallery – Random Shots 3.0

The week’s gallery features a set of random shots from the 1985-86 field season in the Nimrod Glacier area.

The Aesthetics of Field Science

This month marks the first anniversary of my blog. The following is an abridgement of a presentation that I gave at the XXXII SCAR (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research) and Open Science Conference, held in Portland, Oregon in July, in a session with the theme of Arts in the Sciences. Some of the images shown below have appeared elsewhere in my blogs and galleries; others are new. The fundamental goal of Science, one might say, is an understanding of the natural world, and of the universe, through insights into the breadth and detail of Nature’s creations. The practice of science can be portioned between field science and laboratory science, with the fundamental difference being how scientists collect their data. A field scientist collects data by making direct observations of Nature; a laboratory scientist collects data from machines. To be sure, samples for analysis must be collected in the field, bashing off bits here and there, but the conversation is different. I’ve practiced both aspects of the trade, and prefer the field where discoveries of Nature’s secrets are made face to face. The basic goal of field geology is to record the rocks as they occur at the Earth’s surface, and from that to extract knowledge of their origins and their history. In practice field geologists hike the countryside eyeing what passes beneath their feet. The data we collect is presented in the form of geological maps. Field geology, by its nature, requires keen observational skills. And I would also suggest that it demands a certain degree of athleticism, for at the end of the day, one measure of your success is the amount of coverage added to your map, which directly correlates with the distance you have travelled. I started Antarctic research in 1970-71, as a grad student at Ohio State. On the geological folio maps published the year before by the American Geographical Society, the only areas unmapped in even reconnaissance fashion throughout the Transantarctic Mountains were the central Scott Glacier area and two small areas of coastal northern Victoria Land. My early proposals focused on the Scott Glacier area, and although there were stratigraphical and structural questions in my proposals, there was also a stated objective simply to map the area for the first time, to find out what was there. Those days are gone forever. The fundamental geology of the Transantarctic Mountains is divided into three main rock groups: 1) the McMurdo Volcanic Group, epitomized by the currently active Mt. Erebus, 2) the Beacon Supergroup, a sequence of sedimentary rocks that crop out throughout the upper reaches of the Transantarctic Mountains and 3) the Ross Supergroup, a complex suite of rocks that formed during an active episode of mountain building a half billion years ago, the so-called Ross Orogeny. These are the rocks to which I have devoted much of my career. And what a ride it has been! Over the years, through design and good fortune, I have conducted research throughout the length of the Transantarctic Mountains, from the lofty coast of northern Victoria Land, with its ice tongues pushing into the Ross Sea, to the Dry Valleys in the McMurdo Sound region, to the snowy central Transantarctic Mountains, to the spired, gothic peaks of the Queen Maud Mountains. The “Ah-ha!” or “Eureka” moments have come, for example, in the discovery of a contact that relatively dated two granites, in the recognition of a stratigraphy that can be mapped throughout a region, and in the discovery that Mt. Early, Earth’s southernmost volcano, was erupted beneath the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. My first season working in the Transantarctic Mountains, I was awestruck by the utterly pristine landscape. There was a purity about it, bare rock and ice, devoid of vegetation and soil. Here was alien wilderness beyond my imagination, a continental scale mountain range that almost no one had ever heard of, let alone seen. It was a secret that I felt should be shared. For most of my career I fancied doing a picture book on the Transantarctic Mountains, but there was always the backlog of research papers, and never the time. When I turned 60 I said to myself, you better get going on that book, or it might slip by altogether. The result has been “The Roof at the Bottom of the World,” to which this website has been dedicated. A fortunate result of my procrastination is that as the seasons passed, I managed to visit all sectors of the contiguous Transantarctic Mountains, providing me with a uniquely comprehensive set of images of this magnificent mountain range. But beyond the images that appear in the book, there was so much more of Nature to behold in this polar fastness.

Pressure ridges roil at the margin of Ross Island, with Mt. Erebus steaming in the distance.

Cascading crevasses pour from the summit of Mt. Markham.

An attenuated drift slips past the foot of Phlegar Dome.

Graceful glacial bulges part raspy ridgeline shadows.

This ice formed on the surface of a small meltwater pond. As the day progressed the pond drained, leaving the trace of an expanding bubble on the underside of the ice.

This is another image from the same pond. Here air has etched the boundaries of individual ice crystals, producing the white web of polygons.

The interplay of randomness and form reach a higher level in the intricacies of ice.

Intersecting fractures splay through the flawless, seasonal ice surrounding Lake Vanda.

And then there is sastrugi, windblown shapes on snow, Nature’s polar chemise,

With its infinitely textured windswept scenes.

Sastrugi is ubiquitous, pleading to be captured on film.

Slip into a crevasse, hung with fragile curtains of hoarfrost and snow.

Step outside into an alignment of ice shelf, rock, and sky.

Drift in a nether world of snow, rock, and cloud.

Sense the spirit of the land. Shiver deep down in your core.

Gallery – San Juan Backpack, 2.0

For the third summer in a row, I've backpacked into the San Juan Mountains of Colorado with my son Nick. Some images from last year's trip composed the Galley on November 7, 2011. This year we hiked up the east fork of Dallas Creek, camped at the upper Blue Lakes, and climbed Mt. Sneffels (14,150'). The last two images were taken to the east of Kayenta on the way home.

Gone Fishin’

Vacationing this month. I’ll be back to business in August.

The Unknown

What is it about the unknown? Why are we drawn to it? Why the fascination? Is it the rustling of the chimeras at the misty edge of perception? Perhaps it is the apprehension, that strange mixture of hope and fear that draws us onward, one eye cast back to keep the shadows at bay, the other trained forward searching out possibilities. Will the tiger be crouched in the shadows when I open the door? Or will sunlight flood a field of wonder, sights unseen by eyes of Man before? The distribution of our species attests to great migrations and voyages before recorded history, populating the distal reaches of the planet beyond memory of homeland and time. Quests run deep in our collective core, the myth of the Hero venturing into miraculous lands, vying with monsters, the plaything of Gods. Humans have always pushed toward the retreating horizon, or at least the Hero’s among us have.

Snowmobiling toward an unnamed peak on the west side of Scott Glacier, December, 1987.

In contrast to geographical boundaries which are ever diminishing, in science the boundaries to the unknown appear only to extend with each new discovery. Each deeper revelation opens new worlds. But as we come to contemplate a deep-field landscape of cold, dark matter and flat space/time, as we map the codes of life drawing ever closer to being one with the Creator, the mystery becomes no more explicable. Nature transcends in detail and in scale. What is the purpose, the cause, what is the nature of the Spirit? Why are we drawn to these questions at all? Perhaps we are drawn to the unknown for an understanding of ourselves. What does the seeker seek after all, but insight?

Ice-cored moraine swirls in the interior valley of the La Gorce Mountains, December, 1980.

[nggallery id=30] The week's gallery features a set of random shots from the 1986-87 field season in the Scott Glacier area.