Category Archives: 2015 (01/15) The Mountains are Alive with the Sound of Glaciers

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, I’m left with more subtle sounds; infrequent events that act like cameo appearances softly breaking through the void. The crackle emitted by my safety radio when a faraway helicopter uses the same call frequency. The swishing noise of my sleeping bag when I reach out of it to check my watch, reassuring myself that I haven’t overslept in 24hr daylight that doesn’t indicate the time. The mechanical screech when one of my two campmates turns our solar panels to face towards a rotating sun.


Our two lab huts (center) and the camp’s three solar panels (right)


Useful sounds, like the different tone my footsteps make when I walk towards a weaker section of lake ice, warning me to turn back. I’ve become particularly fond of those sounds not only for safety purposes but because I love the fact that I can identify such minor differences in the sound of boots on ice. It’s such a specific morsel of knowledge that makes me feel more connected to this place.

But beyond that, Antarctica is such a quiet place. There are no trees for the wind to rustle or hallways where high heels click-clack around. Whenever I work in the field it usually takes less than a week before I can identify a teammate standing behind me simply by the way they breathe. That may sound creepy but I don’t mean it that way, it’s just inevitable that you notice so much more about your environment when there is so little sensory input to begin with. I think one of the reasons I’ve been lucky enough to have four seasons of fieldwork is because I’m fairly comfortable with silence. There are many things that can stress you out in Antarctica, but if silence isn’t one of them you’ll have a much better time in the field.

The fact that I’ve just written three paragraphs about silence may demonstrate how narrow our focus becomes here, but in a blog where I explain life in the Transantarctic mountains, the LACK of certain sensory input can be so much more descriptive than repetitive comments about my work or the weather. Recently, though, my life actually combines all three.

The melt has finally started. You could hear it for a few days before you could see it, because it began with water running through internal channels in Canada Glacier and gathering underneath. 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. 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. And for you readers out there, hopefully this post helps to explain why I’m so incredibly entertained by SOUNDS in the video below and another I’ll post later. Water makes the Dry Valleys a more dynamic place; it changes the biology, chemistry, and physics of this area in ways I’ll elaborate on later. But for now, as I rush off to do my work, have a listen to this-