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As we have recently highlighted, plans in Antarctica often change due to the vagaries of the weather. Last week, after taking samples and treating experimental plots near Lake Bonney and South Side Lake Hoare, we were supposed to spend just one night in Lake Hoare camp – the main field camp in the Dry Valleys and one of our favourite places. But the next day all helicopter flights were cancelled due to poor weather, so we had to postpone our trip to sample an experiment and stay at the camp for at least another night. This gave us the chance to go on a hike to one of the most scenic places in the Dry Valleys. Along the way we encountered some remarkable signs of life – and death.

Walking along the Seuss Glacier in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

Walking along the Seuss Glacier in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

  • A mummified seal on the lakeshore
    Every now and then, seals and penguins stray from the vicinity of the ice shelf into the Dry Valleys. It usually doesn’t end well for them. There are many seal remains in the valleys, some well preserved due to the cold and dry conditions. Some are centuries old; some may be as old as the human-made mummies from ancient Egypt. One dead seal we saw close to our path during the hike, however, struck us as special for an altogether different reason: on the lake sediment behind its tail, we saw a trail of green and red. The decay of the unfortunate seal fertilized the sediment around it, allowing living algae and cyanobacteria to flourish and become visible to the naked eye. The fuel of this freshwater hotspot (the seal’s remains) came from the ocean, an example of what we ecologists call a resource subsidy.
A partly decayed, mummified seal from Lake Hoare. Photo by Walter Andriuzzi

A partly decayed, mummified seal from Lake Hoare. Photo by :Walter Andriuzzi

Life out of death - the bloom of life near the mummified seal. Photo by: Josh Heward

Life out of death – a dead seal provided a supply of much-needed nutrients to the microorganisms in Lake Hoare. Photo by: Josh Heward

  • A dead penguin and a hungry skua
    Near the Seuss Glacier, we saw another unfortunate marine animal – a rather fresh dead penguin lying on the shore. To our surprise, on our way back we found it a few meters away from its original position. A few scattered feathers all around, different from those of the penguin, gave away the culprit: a young skua which we had seen flying over our heads not long before. Skuas are large predatory seagulls with a particular taste for penguin entrails, but this seasoned penguin proved unpalatable even for the skua. The young bird will not find anything to its liking in Taylor Valley – unless scientists drop their guard long enough for the skua to steal their snacks, as sometimes happens at McMurdo base.
Mummified penguin on Lake Hoare shore near the Seuss Glacier. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

Dead penguin on Lake Hoare shore near the Seuss Glacier. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

  • The thousand-year old lichen
    Not far from the seal we found one of the largest lichens we have seen out there, at over 10 cm across. Since lichens in Taylor Valley have been found to grow less than one millimeter per century, this one must have started its growth at least one thousand years ago. This makes it older than most living organisms you will ever see, including some of the biggest trees.
A thousand-year old lichen in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

A thousand-year old lichen in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

It took us a couple of hours to get from Lake Hoare camp to the Seuss Glacier, one of several alpine glaciers in Taylor Valley. Courtesy of the cloudy sky, we could admire its jagged, rugged shapes without being dazzled by the albedo. But as impressive as its stalactites and column of ice were, the glacier was not our real destination today.

A large ventifact in Taylor Valley. Photo by Walter Andriuzzi.

A large ventifact in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

After a rather demanding trek over loose, sandy surface on a steep hillside, we reached our destination. In an expanse of sand incessantly swept by cold wind, overlooking the frozen cascade of the Seuss Glacier coming down from the mountain, we saw boulders standing out against the bleak sky. Instead of the curved or angular boulders typical of glacial landscapes, these come in shapes that would befit a sci-fi movie. This martian landscape is near Andrew’s Ridge in Taylor Valley and is a great place to see ventifacts, rocks wrought into peculiar shapes by the abrasive action of the wind-transported sand.

It took us almost four hours of walk to reach this place, and almost three hours to get back. On our return to Lake Hoare camp, after enjoying a wonderful meal prepared by camp manager Rae Spain and Renee Noffke, we were understandably tired, and eager to crawl into our sleeping bags! The next day there will be work to be done.

The soils team and friends at Lake Hoare Camp. Left to right, top row: Jeb Barrett, Ashley Shaw, Diana Wall, Walter Andriuzzi, Byron Adams, Matt Hedin, Josh Heward, Kelli Feeser; bottom row: Scott George, Andy Thompson, Ross Virginia, Kathy Welch, Renee Noffke, Melisa Diaz, Rae Spain. Photo by: Scott George

Soils team and friends at Lake Hoare Camp. Left to right, top row: Jeb Barrett, Ashley Shaw, Diana Wall, Walter Andriuzzi, Byron Adams, Matt Hedin, Josh Heward, Kelli Feeser; bottom row: Scott George, Andy Thompson, Ross Virginia, Kathy Welch, Renee Noffke, Melisa Diaz, Rae Spain. Photo by: Scott George

Written by: Walter Andriuzzi

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Every January, McMurdo Station hosts the McMurdo Marathon (half and full). The race is run on the ice shelf near Ross Island. This is near the airfields where the LC-130 planes (the ones that brought us here) land.

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Josh Heward and Byron Adams in front of Ivan the Terrabus. They are ready to run! Photo by: Ashley Shaw

The McMurdo Marathon began in 1995 with just 2 participants. This year two of our team members, Ashley Shaw and Byron Adams, ran the half marathon, and Josh Heward ran the full marathon. On Sunday morning, we got up early and boarded Ivan the Terrabus, who transported us to the starting line. About 70 runners, bikers, and skiers were on board, ready to race to the finish line. The day was chilly, 24°F, and the wind was blowing hard.

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Ashley is ready to run. Runners lined up at starting line on the right. Photo by: Byron Adams

At the starting line, we had a few minutes to pull on extra layers of clothes and to stash our extra gear. Then, with the sounding of Ivan’s horn, we were off. The race course was out-and-back (or, in the case of the full marathon, out-and-back-and-out-and-back). We ran 6.55 miles on the snow road to a turn around point and then returned to the start line.

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An unusual participant… Photo by: Josh Heward

The first 6.55 miles we ran straight into the wind. The road was full of ruts, snow drifts, and ice patches. The day was cloudy, with a flat light, making it impossible to see details in the ice or anything but a flat white road. The returning 6.55 miles, the wind was at our backs.

After the race, we got into the dunk tank – a huge tank full of freezing cold seawater, fresh from the Ross Sea. This is supposed to help remove lactic acid from muscles. Wow, it was painful!

We were all pumped up after finishing the Antarctic race! It was a race day unlike any other!

Written by: Ashley Shaw

This is a story about living in McMurdo, told in 3 separate parts. This first installment of “A day in the life” will focus on staying healthy in McMurdo and the things we do to maintain our health while on the harshest continent in the world. Safety is our number 1 concern of anything we do here – whether that’s fieldwork, lab work, or just walking around station.

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Ashley (left) and Diana (right) wash their hands before dinner at the Galley hand washing station. Photo by: Tandra Fraser

The first step for maintaining health in McMurdo is washing hands. It sounds simple, but keeping germs from spreading is a real concern here. Think about this: around 1000 people sharing living spaces, eating together, working in close spaces together every day. The station isn’t that big – we’re all contained in about 85 buildings on 618 acres. It sounds large, but the majority of activity is concentrated around the station’s center (Galley, Labs, and Dorms). While on station, we spend much time indoors near other people. If someone gets a common cold, those germs fly through the community at speeds approaching the sound barrier. By lunch time, half the station is reaching for Kleenex and hoping the Galley is serving chicken noodle soup.

It’s important to keep clean as possible, so wash hands we must. Before eating every meal, after using the restroom, in between lab work and coffee breaks. Over and over we wash our hands. As you might imagine – after all this washing, lotion is a hot commodity.

There are some other things we do to stay healthy in McMurdo – drink plenty of water, try to eat healthy, and take safety precautions in the lab and in the field. But, the one thing that we can easily control and continue to do out of respect for others and ourselves is to continually wash our hands!

Written by: Ashley Shaw

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