The Mountains Are Alive… With the Sound of Glaciers
[Written January 15, 2015]
Living in a small Antarctic fieldcamp can be a very quiet experience. Without the sounds of traffic, dogs barking, doors slamming, strangers talking, and cell phones ringing, for the most part all you hear is the wind. It doesn’t take long to fall into a routine with your campmates where you know what they want without speaking, and as chatty as I am there’s less to talk about halfway into a four month season with the same two people. Every morning we use a safety radio to call the main base at McMurdo Station and confirm that we’re alive and safe, but the radio operators at McMurdo need to keep the frequencies open to other calls so it’s usually a 20-second conversation. Our solar panels screech when we rotate them towards the new angle of the sun a few times each day. The rest of our time is spent in an oddly and somewhat hypnotizingly silent landscape.
One of the things I love about the field is how much you become attuned to your environment, and it makes me feel so much more connected to this place. “Genius loci” is a somewhat obscure latin phrase used in anthropology and architecture that I’ve always found beautiful. It means “the spirit of place” and in modern language it refers to how people may find particular locations so meaningful that it influences their personal identity. Don’t worry, I haven’t been in Antarctica long enough to get “toasty” (a little bit nutty from the isolation) and I don’t think “I AM Antarctica”. But without much contact with the outside world, my brain becomes entirely focused on being here and I’ve picked up on some of the tiniest details that keep me aware of my surroundings. It’s so quiet that I know the specific sound my footsteps make when I walk across particular lakes (the sound is different on each lake), and I can tell when I’m walking towards a weaker section of ice by VERY subtle changes in the tone of my steps. My research involves collecting liquid from little pockets of meltwater (called cryoconite holes) on glaciers. The pockets are sealed underneath a layer of ice, and my ice screw can’t crack through more than 4 inches of ice without contaminating the water inside. Ice lids can be as thin as tin foil, or more than 1ft thick. The thicker an ice lid is, the less water there will be underneath it, and I need to be able to collect at least 2 liters of water for each of my samples. So I use a sharpie marker to gently tap on the ice lids, and it gives me an idea of how thick the lid is and how much water there may be beneath it. Everything in Antarctica is subtle… until now.
The melt season has finally started. If you’ve been reading this blog you know that this is what I’ve been waiting for; this is the time of year my research is particularly important. I could hear the water for a few days before I could see it because it began with meltwater flowing *inside* the glacier. A few days later the combination of higher temperatures and the ionic pulse caused meltwater to gush down glacial waterfalls and feed the Dry Valley’s ephemeral streams. I can hear the sound of waterfalls from my tent, and now that the ‘hydrologic tap’ has turned on I’ll have a lot more fieldwork to do in order to collect enough data on meltwater characteristics. The melt season occurs in austral summer, but it’s a short 6-week season before temperatures dip well below freezing in austral fall and nothing melts until the next year. So for now, it’s time for me to get my game face on and hike my heart out to all of my field sites. Water makes the Dry Valleys a more dynamic place; it changes the biology, chemistry, and physics of this area. But it also throws off my familiarity with each glacier because I can’t hear the tap-tap sound of my sharpie marker to know where the best cryoconite holes are, and the density of the ice I walk on is different. It sounds like I live next to a river. My glaciers are suddenly strangers again and I need to retrain my senses to “know” this place.
Wondering what it looks like when meltwater is flowing off of a glacier surface? Here’s a quick peak-
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