It’s why this place exists. Every job, every building, every person is down here to support science directly or indirectly. Nearly everyone is interested in it – the helicopter pilots chat up scientists about the details of their research as they fly around, the carpenters who build the field camps are well versed in climate variations, and science lectures are packed with everyone on base – defying the norm back in the real world.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) oversees the US Antarctic Program that encompasses all US research stations in Downunderest. McMurdo (under New Zealand), Palmer (under South America), and the South Pole (under the world) act as staging and support centers for scientists. Carpenters, engineers, cooks, janitors, mechanics, electricians, and a medical doctor are all here for the purpose of supporting science. It’s an amazing array of skills and people who come together for a common goal. And everyone is interested in it.
I’ve talked about logistics a lot, but have completely neglected to say why I’m down here in the first place. Science. I’m working as a research assistant with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (UColorado – Boulder) to come down to Antarctica and help run research on the streams and rivers of the Dry Valleys. We’re part of a bigger research group called the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project. The LTER is a network of research stations across the world that are in place to monitor and collect long-term data of the environment. The Dry Valley LTER consists of five main teams – Glaciers, Streams, Lakes, Soils, and Meteorology. I like to think of this as following the chain of water in the Valleys – the glaciers melt and run off into streams, and the streams flow into lakes.
I work for the Stream Team. We’re not here testing any hypotheses. What we do is open up these fancy stream gauges in the beginning of the season that monitor temperature and flow rate. These systems operate on ultra-modern technology designed around 1991. Once we’ve fed the hamsters that power the computers, we “shoot levels” of the streams and gauges. Ever see those two guys standing on the street, one’s looking through a telescope on a tripod and the other’s standing far away and holding a giant ruler? That’s us. It takes us 2 hours to survey each site to see if the elevation of the stream gauges have changed. And we have to get it correct to within 6 thousands of an inch. Or we start over. And over. If you bump the surveying instrument, slip, breath too heavily… even just think negative thoughts, you could misalign the instrument and have wasted half a day. Standing in place for hours gets pretty cold.
And lastly, we look at the flow rate and chemistry of the streams. Flow rate is measured by standing in the freezing water, holding a big stick with spinning cups (circa 1903), and counting clicks. Chemistry is done by bottling water samples and bringing them back to our shack for analysis. We process for anions, cations, dissolved oxygen, nutrients, alkalinity, and other tests with imaginary names.
On any given day our three person team stumbles into our shack around 8am, we have a leisurely breakfast, and then jump on our ATV and drive across the frozen lake in front of us to get to our stream sites. Since we can’t drive the ATV on land (environmental restrictions) we end up hiking short distances inland to the streams. When summer actually comes, the edges of the lake will melt and we’ll have to hike the full distance. Once we’re at the stream we collect samples, feed the hamsters, and stand in freezing water. Hike back to ATV. Repeat.
We also have to monitor streams in other Valleys, which means helicopter rides. A lot of them. At least one day a week we fly over to the Wright Valley (“North” of us) and are dropped off for two hours at each site. On another day every week, we get flown up Taylor Valley to our more distant sites. At least 10 times a week we’re flying over mountain ranges, through valleys, and over massive glaciers. All for science.
Life is good.