While we face numerous challenges out here on a glacier in Antarctica, there are two basic tasks that prove to be the most difficult. These are two common activities many of us take for granted back at home. Can you guess what they are?
The first is walking. Yes, walking. We are located in what is called a blue ice zone, where it is so cold and dry that no snowfall accumulates from year to year, and strong winds help to expose the bare glacial ice at our feet. The surface is not smooth and slick like an ice-skating rink, as you might expect. Instead, it is uneven and undulating.
The glacier surface looks as though it is covered by thousands of mini-mountains. These interesting features are formed primarily by the sun, which is why they are known as “sun cups”. The formation of sun cups is also aided by windblown dust and sand particles, which can accumulate in the depressions. These particles are dark in color, and so absorb more heat from the sun—just like how hot you feel when you wear a black shirt on a sunny day. This extra warmth from sand and dust can cause the depressions of the sun cups to deepen.
These uneven sun cups make it difficult to walk, but provide entertainment when watching other members of the team move about camp. Everyone tips and teeters around, making slow progress moving from place to place. To help ease our movement around camp, we all wear special treads on our boots. While these help keep us (mostly) upright, movement it is still a slow, tricky endeavor.
Knowing how quickly you can move on the ice is critical for planning for the second most challenging activity at Taylor Glacier—making it to our yellow Scott tent, the camp toilet.
Taylor Glacier is located within the McMurdo Dry Valleys Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA). The ASMA provides special environmental protection and requires that we leave no trace, including removing all of our waste.
Because we don’t have running water and also need to ship out all of our waste, our toilet tent looks quite different from any bathroom you might be familiar with. The basics include a bucket, a can and a barrel.
We dispose of our liquid in a 55-gallon urine-grey water, or UG, barrel. Solid human waste is collected directly into 5-gallon buckets, which are sealed with a tight-fitting lid once they are full. All of this waste is flown by helicopter to McMurdo Station and much of it is transported on a cargo ship back to the United States where it is processed.
While these details are somewhat unpleasant, they are very necessary to maintain the pristine Antarctic environment—which is of interest to scientists as a relatively undisturbed baseline against which to compare other environments more heavily impacted by human activity.