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Where Antarctica resembles Central Otago (+photos)


By Will Hine in Antarctica

Published: 9:01AM Wednesday January 22, 2014 Source: ONE News

Flying above the Dry Valleys (Source: ONE News)
Flying above the Dry Valleys - Source: ONE News

Ask anyone to describe Antarctica and the chances are their answer will have something to do with ice or snow.

However, there are areas here that far closer resemble Central Otago and inland Canterbury than an iceberg.

We've visited one of those regions, the McMurdo Dry Valleys, in the past two days.

The largest of the row of valleys drop from high up on the polar ice cap down many hundreds of metres to McMurdo Sound, at sea level.

Thick, bulging glaciers snake down some of the valleys and mountainsides, but there are also large expanses of barren rock, and at this time of year, streams and lakes.

Taylor Glacier, at right, flows past Finger Mountain

The valleys are contained within one of the continent's six Antarctic Specially Managed Areas – large areas not unlike national parks, where human interaction with the environment is limited.

The valleys are of tremendous scientific value. That's partly because they contain more habitats and lifeforms than the icy plateaus found elsewhere on the continent.

Life somehow manages to exist here despite the low temperatures, prolonged dark of winter, and pervasive dryness.

Researchers in the valley we visited are working on several projects. These include the aerial mapping of bacterial lifeforms in the stream bed, the analysis of carbon dioxide levels below the ground and the collection of tiny organisms, called springtails.

Waikato University field camp at the base of Howard Glacier

But it isn't easy getting permission to work here. Scientists must justify their work in the valleys and seek permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to take away samples.

There are no large animals in this region, save for the few seals that tried to walk up the valleys in the past.

Their mummified torsos remain in the valleys, the carcasses frozen in time for many hundreds or thousands of years with only minimal decay. The odd bone that pokes through the weathered flesh is bleached white by the perpetual summer sun.

Everything taken into science camps is taken away at the end. Even the bodily waste is flown out by helicopter in buckets.

Were the poo and urine left behind, it could remain in the environment for hundreds of years, not unlike the petrified seals.

Utmost care is also taken to preserve the gravelly terrain, with workers largely confined to established trails. Even those footprints that are left behind are liable to remain locked in the soil for many years, unless scattered by the wind.

Looking west to Wright Upper Glacier

Lakes of melt water accumulate near the Wright Lower Glacier

Sand dunes build up at the base of Wright Lower Glacier

Researchers testing biological and non-biological carbon dioxide production

Aerial mapping of cyanobacteria using an unmanned aerial vehicle

Researchers at Spaulding Pond are silhouetted against Canada Glacier

Evening sun bounces off the terminus of Howard Glacier