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Summer 2014

Summers on Ice: Researching Antarctica

Dr. Adams’s Antarctic Research

Dr. Byron Adams, associate professor of biology at Brigham Young University, ventures to Antarctica every year for research.

It’s not easy to get a good night’s sleep when the sun never sets and incessant winds rattle your tent, but Dr. Byron Adams manages. In fact, he’s used to it. He has spent a month in Antarctica every year since 2001 as part of the McMurdo Long-Term Ecological Research program.

Dr. Adams, from Brigham Young University, studies the fragile, dry-valley ecosystem that miraculously manages to thrive in the Antarctic. Calling in from the field, Dr. Adams offers Stowaway a glimpse into the barren, alien continent that few people on earth have ever seen.

What’s the environment like in Antarctica?

Antarctica is the highest, driest, and windiest continent on earth. It is 99% covered by a sheet of ice that in many places is over two miles thick. I work in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, which make up a polar desert. Lichens and mosses are present but very rare. Aside from them there is nothing living above ground.

The sun rises and sets only once each year. It’s kind of a trip. The rest of the time it’s always sunny or always dark.

The Dry Valleys are often described more by what they lack than by what they contain. For instance, there’s nothing there to smell but cold, dry air. I think one of my most profound experiences has been returning to New Zealand after six weeks in Antarctica and being completely overcome by the smell of living things.

In Antarctica, there are no bugs buzzing or birds chirping. The only sounds to hear are the wind, the gurgling of glacial streams, and the occasional deep-sounding pops of the glaciers. When the wind stops blowing, there’s usually no sound at all.

Helicopters are essential for delivering supplies and transporting researchers from site to site.

During our long days of fieldwork, we stop occasionally to take in our surroundings—snow-frosted mountains, alpine glaciers, meltwater streams, and permanently ice-covered lakes with small moats forming around their margins. Fog from the coast and higher, denser clouds change the angle and intensity of the light so that every time we look up from our work, we see a new canvas.

What is a typical day like?

We get up very early, fly by helicopter out to the Dry Valleys, and spend all day studying the organisms that live in the soil. They come alive when it’s warm enough for the water in the soil to liquefy. My job is to figure out how these organisms respond to environmental changes and how these changes impact other parts of the ecosystem.

After recording and discussing our findings for hours on end, we go back to camp. We eat dinner, and then we go out to our tents and check to make sure they’re cinched down tight. (The wind is always blowing, and the more the tent flaps, the less sleep you get.) We climb into our sleeping bags and have to put our stocking caps over our eyes for a little darkness.

What are some exciting experiences you’ve had there?

A few years ago when we were hiking over Beardmore Glacier, I fell into a crevasse. We had harnesses on, and I was roped to two people in front of me and two people behind me. I was able to catch myself before I went farther than shoulder deep. But looking down beneath my feet, I saw this deep, aqua-colored void that would have swallowed me forever if I hadn’t been harnessed to my teammates. That forever changed the way I looked at the glaciers.

Another exciting experience for me was when I watched one of the animals I study—a nematode worm—get frozen in water, thaw out, dry to a crisp, and then come back alive again after we added a few drops of water to it. I knew this could happen, and I’d seen it lots of times before, but one day when I was in the lab it just sort of all came together for me at once what an amazing thing this was.

There's nothing to hear but Antarctic wind as researchers study in isolated groups.

Is this kind of Antarctic experience available to anyone else?

A lot of tour operators can take you to the peninsula region where you can see penguin colonies and stunning landscapes along the coast.

I don’t know of any tours that can take you camping in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, but if you have enough money you can at least see them.

I’ve seen tourists in the Dry Valleys only once. That particular tour circled the entire continent, and I heard it was pretty expensive—something like $75,000 per person.

It would be very difficult to get into the interior parts of the continent. The valleys are specially protected by the Antarctic Treaty for scientific purposes. I can’t go anywhere else that isn’t necessary to accomplish my work.

What’s your favorite thing about Antarctica?

My teammates are my best friends. We work in a very stressful, high-stakes, dangerous environment, and it requires high levels of trust, communication, and teamwork.

In a lot of ways, being part of this team is like being part of a family. We each bring our own unique personalities, egos, traits, skills, and quirks to the mix. And, like all families, it takes a lot of love, patience, and selflessness for us to be able to accomplish all that we have.

I love these folks. They are brilliant. They love what they do. They make me better. That, and the amazing science that we do, is why I keep coming back to Antarctica, year after year.

Emperor penguins are high in the food chain of the very limited Antarctic ecosystem.

—Carly Springer

Photo credits (from top):Byron AdamsByron AdamsEli DukeByron AdamsFlikr User Antarctica Bound