Skip to content

Dry Valley: Mars On Earth

November 22, 2014

Today, after dozens of training videos, I finally joined our research team in the Dry Valleys–one of the most sensitive protected regions of Antarctica. Packed like sardines, our helo flies across the Ross ice, then up Taylor Valley, passing the Kukri Hills of the Antarctic desert. You can see how steep they are, and how the snow is thinning out. Glaciers surge down between the hills, then we reach frozen Lake Bonney. The white stuff is like frozen foam–hard as glass, vicious if you fall. Our camp appears below: the Jamesway, then the lab (green box-like thing).

The scientific interest of the Dry Valleys is that they resemble Mars more than any other place on Earth. Looking south of Lake Bonney, the Kukri Hills rise above the sandy slope, strewn with boulders carved by the wind. To the west, a dozen glaciers flow into the valley, though most dry out in the wind before reaching the lakes. North rises Mount Thomson, with scarcely any ice or snow. Then east, the valley continues toward the Ross Sea and McMurdo Station.


The helo has landed in the camp. We unload food, supplies, and my tent. Everyone sleeps and dresses within individual tents dotted around the lake, at well below freezing temperatures.

Terrain From the mountains flow several small glaciers. But the glaciers all dry out before they reach the lake. The terrain is full of beautiful volcanic rocks, red, gray, and chocolate brown. The tents dot the landscape at spots specified by regulation, to avoid disturbing the landscape more than necessary. Not a rock may be carried off site.


Rachel checks out the sample cultures of photosynthetic microbes growing in the lake. For more on the research, see Rachel’s field blog.

Next: Frozen Waves in a Volcanic Desert
Index: Antarctica

  1. November 22, 2014 10:16 pm

    stranger and stranger–any particular reason why there’s a desert between the lake and the mountains? and what’s with no rock-souvenirs–are there that many tourists or is there something special about the rocks?

  2. November 22, 2014 11:04 pm

    The whole valley is a desert because the water content of the air is so low that it can’t rain or snow. Winds blow down and suck up all the moisture from the ground.
    In the bottom of the valley, water flows through in summer, but it quickly freezes, forming all kinds of unusual shapes; it’s not flat.

    The whole Dry Valleys area is considered so unusual that it was set aside by international treaty as an Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASPA). All geological and biological features are protected, to minimize outside interference and maintain the special character for scientific study. For instance, if people carried off all the “interesting” rocks, then scientists would be left with a skewed sample of the geological content. So no rock can be picked up, and no drop of pee can be left. (More on that in another post.)

  3. November 23, 2014 8:14 am

    these have been thrilling to read; also thrilling to imagine the fictional use you will make of them!

  4. Dawneva Cole Evans permalink
    November 29, 2014 8:46 pm

    Thanks for sharing Joan. It’s really fascinating!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: