Camping With the Stream Team

At work with scientists in Antarctica

Jan 31, 2014 | By David Bjerklie
PETER REJCEK—NSF

If there is one thing that people who live and work in Antarctica say they miss, it is fresh fruits and vegetables. "Freshies," as they are called here, are hard to come by and always a treat. That's especially true for the people who live and work in field camps, which are often far from major research stations. This is why, when we learn our helicopter flight to a field camp is approved, an old hand in the group suggests we bring fresh apples as a present.

At Lake Hoare base camp, scientists study the way water moves through the environment. TFK's David Bjerklie, second from right, looks on.
PETER REJCEK—NSF
At Lake Hoare base camp, scientists study the way water moves through the environment. TFK's David Bjerklie, second from right, looks on.

The camp we are visiting is Lake Hoare, named for the lake that it overlooks. We are in an unusual area known as the Dry Valleys. The camp sits in front of a towering wall of ice called Canada glacier. The rest of the valley is completely ice-free and at first seems barren. When we land and climb down from the helicopter, we are greeted by Rae Spain, who manages the day-to-day activity at the camp. That includes coordinating helicopter flights and cargo drop offs, opening and closing the camp each season, and cooking and baking, too. Spain has been at Lake Hoare for 16 seasons and has worked in the U.S. Antarctic Program for 32 years.

Mike Gooseff is a researcher at Lake Hoare who has spent nine seasons on the ice. Gooseff is a hydrologist, which means he studies the way water moves through an environment. For several weeks in the Antarctic summer, the 24-hour sunshine and warmer temperatures are enough to melt a tiny amount of ice from the surrounding glaciers. The runoff is enough to create small temporary steams that feed nearby lakes. Adam Wlostowski, a student of Gooseff's, explains how the glacial stream flow is measured. In recent years, the flow has increased, which is causing Lake Hoare to rise. There are many things affecting this system that scientists want to understand better, says Gooseff.

We eat a delicious carrot cake and researchers talk about their favorite camp foods.  It starts to lightly snow and each of the nine people at the camp heads to his or her tent to sleep. There is a main building which houses the kitchen, communication center and work desks, plus smaller buildings for labs, bathrooms, and storage areas. Tents for sleeping are arranged in a large area around the camp.

The next morning Spain is on the radio confirming our helicopter ride to another location and updating weather conditions at the camp. "Winds are calm, view is unrestricted," she reports. We get ready to head out to meet researchers in a nearby valley. Gooseff and his student, along with another researcher and a mountaineer, will take measurements on Canada glacier. They strap on special climbing harnesses. "Today we will be roped in for safety," explains Gooseff, "because we are going higher up on the glacier." We can hear a helicopter from far away. Gooseff identifies the model even before we see it because of the deep and distinctive thump-thump-thump it makes.

Sampling a Stream

After 15 minutes in the air, the helicopter pilot spots three figures in the distance. Diane McKnight and two of her students are waiting for us. The researchers are part of the group known as the "stream team." One of the students, Aneliya Sakaeva, will be taking samples of the water that flows in the temporary streams. She will also take samples of the orange and black mats of microorganisms that live on the bottom of these shallow streams. The organisms that live in the streams survive being freeze-dried most of the year. And yet they spring back to life within 15 minutes when water enters the stream again.

The Lake Hoare base camp is named for the lake that it overlooks. It sits in front of a towering wall of ice called Canada glacier.
DAVID BJERKLIE FOR TIME FOR KIDS
The Lake Hoare base camp is named for the lake that it overlooks. It sits in front of a towering wall of ice called Canada glacier.

Sakaeva is studying a group of organisms called diatoms. The water is freezing cold but she is patient and careful, taking samples and recording measurements at certain points along the stream. Another group of researchers called the "wormherders" sample the organisms that live in the soils surrounding the streams. And still other research teams study the lakes into which the streams flow. The research being conducted in the Dry Valleys is part of a much larger project called Long Term Ecological Research (LTER), which has 25 sites worldwide.

We hike with McKnight and her students to a small nearby field camp next to another lake. We have tea and coffee, and some of the researchers eat lunch. The Lake Hoare camp will be open for another couple of weeks, but this camp is closing for the season today. Life in the field camps is clearly a challenge, but one that researchers and the people who make their work possible also love. "You don't really think you'll never come back," says Spain. "There may come a time when I'm not coming down here. But his place will never leave me."