Heading out to Taylor Glacier in the Dry Valleys

After a week of training and preparation in McMurdo station we are flying to our field site: Taylor Glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

The protection of Antarctica through the international treaties make visiting this continent a bit more complicated than other places, but the McMurdo Dry Valleys go along with one more layer of protection. The region is a so called Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA) which is set up to protect the regions very unique and fragile environment (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McMurdo_Dry_Valleys and http://www.mcmurdodryvalleys.aq for more details). For us it means that we will be able to visit a very unique and beautiful part of Antarctica, and that we also have to take special care to minimize the traces of our work in the field. With the exception of holes in the glacier (in some places people say we make the glacier look like a Swiss cheese 🙂 ) we put a lot of effort in not leaving traces (from human waste through spilled oil to food waste… everything has to be collected and brought back to McMurdo).

Map of the McMurdo Dry Valleys

Map of the central McMurdo Dry Valleys [source: http://www.mcmurdodryvalleys.aq/]

The McMurdo Dry Valleys are mostly ice and snow free. The glaciers in the valleys are fed from the inland ice shield where snow can accumulate over time. In the McMurdo Dry Valleys it is so dry, sunny and windy that no closed snow layer can build up and the glaciers flowing into the valleys constantly sublimate at their surface (in very rare cases melting occurs). In glaciology terms this is a so called ablation region. Therefore the glaciers are not covered by a nice white and soft layer of snow, but they consist only of pure ice, hard as rock, slippery as hell.

Obviously it is not the most pleasant place to set up camp and live for a couple of weeks (besides the beautiful scenery), but it provides very unique access to ancient ice. The ice layers of equal age – which are horizontally orientated at the inland ice shield – are rotated by 90° at Taylor Glacier in a vertical orientation. This has very practical advantages because we can drill parallel to the layers and can get basically endless amounts of ice from the same age. In classical ice coring at an inland site you drill rectangular to the layers which means you have only a limited amount of ice per age.

Arial Picture of Taylor Glacier with surface ice ages.

Taylor Glacier with the surface ice ages along the main flow line. The intensified lines across the flow line indicate our main work sites with the main transect at the narrow part of the valley (ka = kilo annus = thousand years before present). [credit: PhD thesis Daniel Baggenstos]

It is a nice coincidence that the layering is so practical orientated for drilling and it is in fact surprising how well preserved the layering is considering the rotation of the ice, the long distance and curved landscape the ice has been flowing through. You can stand on the glacier and see certain layers by the naked eye and just walk rectangular to the layering to change the age of the ice you are standing on.

In fact you can very easily observe the dusty layer of the last glacial period on the google maps satellite images and in this way study the stratigraphy of the glacier on your computer (go on earth/satellite view; coordinates -77.760389, 161.715335). The little feature rectangular to the glacier flow direction you see at these coordinates is our trench of our main transect (you have to zoom a lot to see it…). Near this point we are going to camp. We use these satellite images a lot in combination with our on-site measurements to figure out where certain ice can be found. For some reason, the McMurdo Dry Valleys are very well resolved in the google maps satellite images. Have a look and play a bit the glaciologist :-).

Aerial Photo of camp 2014/15.

Photo from a helium balloon of the field camp (season 2014/15). [credit: Sarah Shackleton, UCSD] 

While we are out there we do not have any web access. We can communicate via a satellite phone and are in regular contact with McMurdo station. There is a little chance a blog from the field makes it online via a USB stick in the helicopter and the McMurdo IT people. So until the return most blogs are going to be prepared.

Stay tuned!

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3 Comments on “Heading out to Taylor Glacier in the Dry Valleys

  1. Hello Mr Bereiter
    Because the teacher of class 2ra/2rb at Nesslau SG will have a look at your blog in the next English lesson. The students will try to understand what you wrote in your blog. So I had a look at it to prepare myself as an assistent teacher for this lesson. How fascinating. But please be careful on the Emmentaler cheese!
    How many hours has your day down there now? How long is the night?
    It would be great fun to get an answer …
    And here some information from Switzerland: It was snowing in the Toggenburg Valley all day, the Seven Peaks got a lot of snow – today – 10°C. So winter finally came.
    Best regards
    Judith Giger

    • Hi Class 2ra/2rb and teachers,

      Great to hear that you are using my blog for your English lessons. Makes me proud to be part of your school hours! I hope you can learn about both things: a great language useful all over the globe, and research about hour global climate. A little disclaimer here in particular about the first part… My English writing is not perfect and you might find some typos… I am trying my best thought.
      To your questions: We have 24 hours of sunlight here because it’s summer and we are above (or below, however you want to call it) the Antarctic circle. This does not mean we also work 24 hours thought, we need some rest as well :)… however, because there is not much more to do here than working on your project, we have working hours of around 10 hours a day, usually 6 days a week.
      Weather in Antarctica is cold but very dry, so it is quite unusual that we have some intense snow fall going on right now here at McMurdo station.
      All the best,

      P.S.: in (US-)English very quickly you use the first name to address people, not like in German where you do an official “du-zis” before using the first name.

  2. You have a Shackleton with you? (Fot credit). Never ever let her plan a boat trip 😉

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