This week we had a slight change of location as we decided to meet up with one of the other science teams. The Limnology group was spending a few nights at their Lake Bonney field camp which happens to be the locale of several of our streams, so we decided to make an evening of it. And with any slumber party, cookies are an absolute necessity.
Lake Bonney is a strange body of water: half of it, the West Lobe, is located at the terminus of Taylor Glacier and is just barely connected by a 50 meter wide channel to the East Lobe. This narrow channel, in addition to the fact that the lake is under several meters of permanent ice, means that the two halves of the lake don’t mix – they have completely unique and different chemistries. The West Lobe is currently the location of NASA’s ENDURANCE robotics project and serves as a prime testing site because of several bizarre characteristics. Within the West Lobe there exists a strong halocline – a vertical division of water with a saltwater layer on bottom and freshwater on top. Every other year divers will enter the lake for research and reach the bottom at an impressive 40 meters (130 feet).
One of the more eye-catching physical features of the area, Blood Falls, drains into West Bonney. Blood Falls is a gushing, bright red streak that flows out of the center of Taylor Glacier. When Scott (1911) and his men first discovered the falls they attributed the color to red algae. While correct in that organisms live in the falls, the color is actually an iron deposit from an ancient seabed that is leaking out of the glacier. Way back in history, the floor of the Valleys were covered by the ocean and iron deposits built up. As the seas retreated and the glaciers moved in this deposit remained trapped underneath. Amazingly, small microbes were trapped along with the iron. These secluded creatures, having no access to oxygen, evolved an incredible ability to use sulfur and iron for metabolic respiration (this is actually pretty cool). The microbes that are using the blood-red iron in the glacier are extremophiles found no where else and are a completely distinct set of organisms that may contain clues as to how life may have survived in Earth’s early history or even on other planets. I think it’s pretty.
Since we were spending the evening at Lake Bonney as opposed to our usual 5 hours we had the time to explore several new streams. Two of my teammates took one ATV over to the West Lobe, and I took the other and explored the East Lobe. I absolutely love getting the chance to wander off on my own and do a few side trips in my spare time. On this particular night I wished I had brought someone along.
After finding two new stream sites on my map from the 1950’s, I started driving down the center of the lake towards the farthest end from base camp. The reason I drove down the center’s permanent ice is that the moat ice near the shore is incredibly weak this time of year, making it very easy to sink a vehicle. After an hour’s drive that was so rough it would make Cambodia’s roads look sophisticated, the ice under the front of my ATV collapsed. The two front wheels and the engine were sticking face down, propping the rest of the ATV up in a way that the back 4 tires were off the ground. ‘No problem’ I thought, as I shifted into all wheel drive. It was at that horrifying moment that I discovered that the front wheel drive was broken. The only two tires to be touching the ground weren’t moving. Alone and a two-hour walk from camp, I was stuck. Badly.
I tried everything I could think of. I got out my beat up shovel and tried to dig out the center section of ice that was propping up the back-end of the ATV. I tried filling in the gaps between the back tires and the ground with large rocks. After two incredibly fatiguing hours of digging out the ATV with no improvement I started to think that I’d have to call a helicopter to help get the damn thing out. It would be hours until it could arrive. In one last-ditch effort, I stood in the hole in front of the ATV, threw the gear in reverse, and with one hand on the throttle and another under the engine I lifted it out of the hole. As it flew backwards and my face hit the ice I realized it was free. After two hours of stress and breaking part of myself from physical exertion I realized that there were more important things than work that night and headed back. I had cookies to eat.