What Are They Doing?
A small team of earth scientists and engineers used a specialized drill to reach buried ice deposits in Beacon Valley – a part of the Dry Valleys region of Antarctica. Buried ice deposits represent a new and potentially far-reaching archive of Earth’s atmosphere and climate. The drill operations retrieved ice cores, which enabled the research team to gain access to a record of atmospheric and climatic change extending back for many millions of years. The ice that was drilled was estimated to be over several million years in age, making it by far the oldest ice yet known on this planet.
Simultaneously, the team worked in the Dry Valleys to seek a better understanding of surface processes above buried ice on Earth, for insight into Martian history and the potential for life on Mars. The cold-polar desert of the Dry Valleys is one of the most Mars-like climatic environments and landscapes on Earth.
Additionally, the team continued to investigate the timing of tundra extinction in Antarctica. Collaborating with colleagues from North Dakota State University, the team examined ancient lake beds outside of Beacon Valley that contain freeze-dried remnants of mosses, beetles, and diatoms, all of which underwent rapid extinction around 13.9 million years ago. For the past 13.9 million years, climate conditions in the Dry Valleys have been too cold for even the hardiest of tundra plants and animals; fortunately, however, the conditions have been ideal for long-term preservation of multi-million year old, buried ice.
Where Are They?
The McMurdo Dry Valleys are located on the western coast of McMurdo Sound (77°00'S 162°52'E) and form the largest relatively ice-free area (approximately 4800 square kilometers) on the Antarctic continent. The perennially ice-covered lakes, frozen alpine glaciers, and extensive areas of exposed soil and permafrost within the McMurdo Dry Valleys are subject to low temperatures, limited snowfall, and salt accumulation. In the coldest and driest part of this region, where the team set up camp, liquid water is basically non-existent and the landscape has remained frozen in time for millions of years. Walking through Beacon Valley today is akin to walking back in time; the 10+ million-year-old landscape gives the researchers a glimpse of what the world was like millions of years before the first recorded events in human history.