Thursday, October 22, 2009

My Bonney lies over the Ocean... or Frozen Lake

Antarctica is the most extreme and inhospitable place on Earth...

The coldest plateaus of ice surround the South Pole and cover the Eastern side of Antarctica where deeply frozen Lake Vostok and the Russian Station at Vostok sit with the record low temperature of -89.3C (-128.6F); the windiest place on Earth with Katabatic winds, cold heavy air racing downhill, like we have here in the Dry Valleys, reaching 100mph; the driest continent with less that 2inches of annual precipitation, most storms occur out at sea, and on land storms usually consists of winds blowing snow up and around to cause a very disorienting storm, known as a whiteout. The Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica freezes in the austral winter, in effect, doubling the size of the continent. Antarctica is the highest continent, with the mean average height of some of the highest mountains on Earth sky rocketing it upward, including Mt. Erebus sitting at 12,448ft. Antarctica is the most inhospitable continent on Earth, with no land animals or fixed human population. Where upwards of 2million people live above the 60degree N latitude, there is a fixed population of ZERO below 60degrees South... the only people here are visiting to work, study, or conduct research and that is at most 4000 people throughout one austral summer August (Winfly) - February (close of season for winter). When winter hits Antarctica and the temperature drops to 80 below and the sun sets for six long months of night, only the most insane of the insane stay, and experience the cold, the darkness and the wondrous Aurora Australis... the Winter-overs.

When looking at a map of Antarctica it may be quite disorienting for many, as it was for me, to understand just what is N,S,E, and W. With the South Pole at the center and the peninsula, the most distinguishing border of Antarctica, the part that comes up to meet South America, at the top left of your map, or globe, then you have East Antarctica on the right (60%) and West Antarctica on the lower left (40%). McMurdo Station (the main US station, the NYC of Antarctica) sits in the top right notch of the Ross Sea, the small indent on the bottom of the map, near New Zealand. I started my Antarctic quest in McMurdo Station, and still think of it as my little home away from home. But now I have moved to my field camp, my home for the next 8 weeks... Lake Bonney which is located in the Dry Valleys (which is - if your map/globe is still oriented like we discussed above - just to the right of McMurdo Station).

I am located in Taylor Valley at the front of Taylor Glacier in the middle of Lake Bonney.

The Dry Valleys are valleys nestled into the Transantarctic Mountains. They completely lack snow, except for the frozen lakes and the many glaciers that wind through the valleys. The Dry Valleys are the world's most extreme dessert. (Although it is snowing as I am writing this - which is extremely rare- but makes me really happy, because I love the snow and miss watching it fall, even very lightly.) The shores of frozen Lake Bonney are covered in rocks, sand, and pebbles and they slant uphill on all sides, up into the mountains. The rocky, sandy sloped shores are also strewn about with ventifacts. Ventifacts are rocks that have been eroded, pitted, polished, grooved, and reshaped by the constant wind. Some main features of these rocks are smooth surfaces, holes, curves, bends, jagged and sharp edges and points. Some are small enough to pick up and others are large enough to sit in the holes and curves from the wind.

Ventifact near camp

Jim and Maciek up on top of one of the larger ventifacts

Lake Bonney
Lake Bonney's Wikipedia page - this was fun for me to find!

The helicopter ride to my camp was breathtaking. The views of Mt. Erebus, sea ice, and mountains, and the frozen lakes and glaciers of the valleys were unbelievable from the helicopter - you just cannot get views like those from anywhere else. It felt as if I was in a BBC/Discovery nature documentary, like maybe - Frozen Planet, a sequel to Planet Earth, about the poles, presently being filmed here in Antarctica! We were flying over mountains and down into glaciers. Then this huge glacier came into view and we were so close to the steep drop off at the front of the glacier - my jaw dropped, I could not believe I was seeing this, it was a huge sheet of ICE! It opened to the edge of a huge frozen lake, with mountains on either side. It was the most beautiful, breathtaking area of the flight yet, and then I noticed some orange boxes in the center of the lake and then a camp came in to view. I suddenly realized that while I was taking in the sights, the amazing sights of this lake, that the helicopter had been getting lower and lower and was about to land at my new home... Lake Bonney!!! I started exploding with excitement and a smile spread across my face, that would take a while to fade... I was here, I was finally here! I could not believe it. I climbed out of the helicopter and the co-pilot helped me un-load my gear. I got out my radio and made contact with the helicopter, you have to make contact so they know that you have contact, before the helo can leave the landing pad. Then I sat through the immense wind of the helo taking off again and paused to looked around at my new home. The frozen lake is right there, we are basically up on the beach, it's our own little lake house. My Antarctic summer on the beach had only just begun...
Helicopter Views

Photo credit to Loralee Ryan, as I did not have my camera during my flight. The views were just spectacular, even more breathtaking in person (or in helo).

Life here at Lake Bonney camp is definitely rough. Everyday we wake up and have to check that all of the following are working, fueled, and if anything needs to be replaced, changed, or moved: water, fuel, heat, bathroom, garbage. Our water supply comes from chipping ice off Lake Bonney - which is hard work. Then we check how full all the garbage bins are - all of our trash is separated from food waste, to aluminum, light cardboard, and paper towels (which is really compactable non-recyclables: paper towels, tissues, clean food wrappers, paper wrappers, plastic wrappers). Next we check the barrels holding gray water (dish water, hand washing water, cooking water), the urine barrel (self explanatory), and the diesel source for our heater (it's very important that our heater runs!). Next I start on some dishes, cleaning in a bucket in the sink and rising in a bath of very lightly bleached water. We only change the sink water once a day, to use less water. Basically, besides drinking water, we limit any unnecessary use of water. Our power is generated by two large solar panels. Our Jamesway at Camp, a long, half dome shaped building, is always heated. It is a miss-mosh of years of use. It has silly wigs, posters, stickers, and pictures up from seasons past. In addition, since we have helicopter constantly coming back and forth from McMurdo and our field site, West Lobe of Lake Bonney, we have to make sure that everything is always held down by rocks, cargo straps, or is heavy enough to not be lifted by the wind of the propellers, and become trapped in the helicopter or become a UFO or weapon flying through the air. All fuel related items, barrels of fuel, generators, ATVs, propane tanks, all need to be on top of berms, or fuel containment liners, so no environmentally hazardous fuel spills into the ground.

Food Storage in our Jamesway

My work station, propane stove and refrigerator because, as we learned last night, power is not always reliable

The back of the Jamesway, with our little couch and back door

View of the Jamesway from shore

Our Jamesway and Outhouse

Our ice-chipping station, where we chip out ice for water

It has taken some adjustment to sleep well here, in the light and cold. I have also slowly become more comfortable on the ATVs we take to and from our work station on the other edge of Lake Bonney. The views constantly make my jaw drop. Every time I am stressed, cold, or tired, I look around and it immediately changes my attitude. This place is the essence of wilderness and untouched extensive landscape. The mountains and glaciers are things I could never quite put into words. I hope some pictures help...

Some of our tents set up in front of two descending glaciers. There are no trees or points of reference here that we know the size of, the rocks do not give us a clear picture. So it is nearly impossible to judge distances; while these tents were about a 45sec walk from me, that glacier is an hour away, easily.

My tent up on the hill with snow covered mountains and glaciers in the background

My tent with my sleeping bag and duffel



Lake Bonney Camp Manager


  1. I like what we are learning today.

  2. This is cool wo man
    Did u get money for this?
    Did u help any thing there?