We’re still in transit back to the dock. The weather finally seems to be cooperating with us and we’re making good time. Everyone on board is busy writing up details of our research activities for the cruise report—a write-up that details the work done on ship during an expedition. As we finish them up, I’ll summarize everything we’ve done on our trip.
The Sights of Antarctica
Antarctica is a huge place, and while we were only studying along the coastline, there are a lot of other cool natural features here that people have asked me to take a closer look at. While we didn’t get to see these features during our research, I wanted to be sure to answer as many people’s questions as I can.
The South Pole
There are two different “South Poles,” both located in East Antarctica. There is the geographic South Pole—which is based on earth’s rotational axis—and there is the magnetic South Pole—which is based on earth’s magnetic field. During our surveys, we were actually relatively close to the magnetic South Pole, but this pole shifts regularly due to changes in Earth’s magnetic field. Right now it is several miles from the geographic South Pole. The geographic South Pole is home to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (established 1956) which sits on an ice sheet about 9,300 ft above sea level. It is roughly 12,400 miles from the North Pole. There is actually a pole at the South Pole, though it is ceremonial. And since the ice sheet it sits on moves several feet each year they have to regularly adjust the location of the ceremonial pole.
Blood Falls is a very cool natural phenomenon found in East Antarctica. Lakes and pools of water can be trapped deep below the glaciers. Some of this water has not been exposed to air in thousands of years. In the case of the Blood Falls, this water happens to be very iron rich. As it comes up from deep in the ice, it mixes with the oxygen in the atmosphere, instantly oxidizing and turning bright red (it’s kind of like the water is rusting). This red water then pours, from five stories high, into the ocean, making it look like a waterfall of blood—this is where it gets its name. Blood Falls was first discovered in 1911 by Australian geologist Griffith Taylor. Look for it on Google Earth: -77.7167° S, 162.2667° E
- L.G., 11th grade, would like to learn more about Lake Vostok. Lake Vostok is a huge lake, underneath the glaciers in East Antarctica. It is the largest of Antarctica’s subglacial lakes and sits about 13,100 ft below the surface of the ice. Scientists are interested in studying this lake because it has been isolated from the rest of the world by the glaciers above it for over 15 million years. By drilling through the massive ice sheets above the lake, scientists were able to collect water samples and found organisms living in the water! Some of these organisms are similar to organisms that can be found on certain ocean animals suggesting that maybe at one point the lake could have been connected to the ocean. There are still lots of things to learn about Lake Vostok!
The Transantarctic Mountain Range, one of the longest mountain ranges on earth, divides East and West Antarctica. They were first discovered by James Ross in 1841 and first crossed by Ernest Shacklelton in 1908. The mountains are home to the Dry Valleys, some of the driest places on earth and one of the few ice free places in Antarctica.
There are about 35 volcanoes in Antarctica and its surrounding islands, though not all of them are active. They occur primarily in West Antarctica. Of these Antarctic volcanoes, the most southern, most active, and the most well-known is Mt. Erebus. It stands in West Antarctica near McMurdo Station on Ross island at 12,448 feet high. It has been active since 1972. Mt. Erebus is a unique volcano and an excellent place for volcanologists (volcano scientists) to study. It is home to one of the only five constant lava lakes in the world. The lava, which is always exposed at the top of the volcano, is about 1700 degrees F. It also has regular, low level activity that makes it an interesting, but still relatively safe place for scientists to study volcanoes up close. Around Mt. Erebus, fumaroles (holes near volcanoes that emit steam and gasses) create intricate ice caves as gasses rise from the ground and melt holes in the ice. The volcanic gases make these caves relatively warm, about 32 degrees F.
Aurora, the Northern or Southern Lights, are a natural phenomenon seen at high latitude regions (Arctic and Antarctic). Under the right conditions they can be seen anywhere around Antarctica. They are caused by charged particles (electrons and protons) entering the atmosphere near the poles. The magnetosphere, which protects the majority of the earth from solar wind, can be “open” towards the magnetic poles, allowing in the charged particles. The particles excite elements in the atmosphere that emit visible light. In the Southern hemisphere the lights are called aurora australis or southern lights. The lights do not occur every night, but under the right conditions, they can be visible from Antarctica, South America, New Zealand and Australia. The lights can be red, green, blue or a mix of colors based on their altitude or height and what type of element (like oxygen, nitrogen, or other) is excited.