Antarctica is a continent that has time and again defied my expectations. I didn’t expect to find a quiet lake retreat here... but that is where I found myself. To my ear, Lake Bonney sounds like it belongs somewhere in the Midwest—not in Antarctica. “Lake” anything, in fact, doesn’t sound like it belongs in Antarctica… especially in a region called “The Dry Valleys.”
It is a little-known bit of Antarctic geography: Antarctica has lakes and ice-free “dry” mountains just a 45-minute helicopter ride away from McMurdo Station. The lake surfaces are frozen over with a thick layer of ice in winter, but they thaw around the edges in the summer, allowing for liquid running water and streams.
The Dry Valleys are a no-man’s land for megafauna. Remains of seals and penguins that lost their way can be spotted throughout, mummified by the cold. Early Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott described the landscape as a “valley of the dead.” But to scientists today, it is anything but. It is here that they have discovered a microbial wonderworld of exotic lifeforms uniquely adapted to the harsh Antarctic conditions. But still, to the naked eye, it is barren and lifeless, and otherworldly. Think Mars… this is about the closest analogue to Mars that exists on Earth.
Our trip to the Dry Valleys was perhaps the most anticipated part of the whole Antarctica trip for me— for personal reasons. I wanted to cold weather camp in Antarctica. Throughout the Dry Valleys, the US Antarctic Program establishes several small camp sites with huts. Scientists come to these and set up their tents in the vicinity, but each site has a heated hut with a kitchen, an outhouse, and in some cases, an employee who manages the camp by doing much of the cooking, cleaning, and maintenance. So… more like glamping.
When we landed, I was taken aback by the beauty of the place. I expected desolate and barren, which had until this point conflicted in my mind with the concept of “beauty.” But here, dramatic mountains jut up above the clouds, framing a narrow valley – much narrower than the impression I had from pictures. (Antarctica creates a problem with scale… it is hard to understand the relative size of things.) And here we were, at a small 10-person camp on the shores of a lake—a real lake—surrounded by dramatic peaks poking through the clouds, and capped by glacial ice. Not a bad place to have to work. The scientists we met here would agree.
The pace of life is slower here. McMurdo is a metropolis compared to Lake Bonney. Lots of people, lots of walking to get anywhere, lots of complicated rules and systems required of any society. Here, it was just ten people, living together and united by a common passion for studying the place. And the lab was right outside the door. Dinner and breakfast were eaten communally. Everyone pitched in with the chores. And we stayed up late into the night playing music, card tricks, and talking about anything and everything—and that is after a 12-hour workday out in the cold. It was during a late-night conversation that we were initiated into the camp by getting our radio call sign nick-names, based on our initials. Arlo is “Apple Pie.” Zac is “Zoom Focus.” And my name is “Can’t Sleep,” because everyone now knows that I have been having a really hard time sleeping for more than a few hours each night (because of the constant daylight, I think).
If you can imagine a lakeside camping retreat with a tight group of friends… that is what this felt like to me, Zac, and Arlo. Despite the new nickname, I got the best nights of sleep of the entire trip out in my tent at Camp Bonney. My sleeping bag was heavy and cozy, and I went to bed hugging a water bottle of warm water, my “warm buddy.” It felt like vacation.
But it wasn’t vacation. Our team came here to explore one of the most perplexing formations in the Dry Valleys: Blood Falls. At the far end of Lake Bonney is the Taylor Glacier. On the face of the glacier where it meets the lake is a striking deep red stain. It looks like a waterfall of blood, hence the name. What happened here?
After our first night at Camp Bonney, we set out with Peter Doran, Jill Mikucki, and their respective research teams to investigate. Peter studies lake and stream flows—his team was setting up a camera to monitor Blood Falls year-round to try and understand when and why it flows. Arlo helped them set up the camera, while I worked with Jill taking samples of the water. Jill is a microbiologist who is investigating the unique lifeforms that live in the Blood Falls and Lake Bonney waters.
We lucked out on our trip to the falls. “Falls” is actually a misnomer—they are not constantly flowing. In fact—flow is the exception, not the norm. But today they were flowing. Jill and I gingerly entered the Blood Falls protected area (it requires a permit to enter, as it is a sensitive ecosystem). While there, we heard the trickle of water… but it was well below freezing, water should not be melting and flowing here. Yet, it didn’t take long to find the steady stream of water. Jill’s salinity meter said the water was three times the salinity of seawater—that’s super salty. This explains why it was flowing. Salt lowers the freezing point of water, meaning it can flow when it is colder than the normal 32 degrees F.
The unusually high salinity also hints at the source of this exotic feature: it isn’t melted glacier water! Other measurements have corroborated that this water actually comes from much deeper. Blood Falls is tapping a reservoir of groundwater—not glacial melt. This water is iron rich, and when it reaches the surface, that iron oxidizes, staining the ice with rust, and giving the falls its striking bloody color. The Dry Valleys—far from being dry—are underlain by a vast reservoir of ground water. Blood Falls is not merely a dazzling visual feature, it is a window into a hidden Antarctic underworld. Some scientists describe this underworld as a “Dark Eden,” a hidden realm where water is unexpectedly flowing, and unusual biology is thriving.
This is why Peter and Jill are so eager to learn more about it. This is a new, unexplored realm of our own planet. If we can learn about groundwater that has been cut off from the Earth’s atmosphere for thousands of years, under the harshest continent on Earth, what else might we discover? Exotic new microbial species? Or perhaps clues to what we might find under similar formations on Mars?
Once again, Antarctica has belied my expectations. The tranquil lake retreat is the gateway to a new frontier.
Science Editor Caitlin Saks and Digital Associate Producer Arlo Perez are in Antarctica for the next month reporting about science research in Antarctica as a part of NOVA’s “Polar Extremes” project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Joining them is Zac Fink, field director and director of photography.