On Wednesday we flew out to Cape Evans, about 15 miles north of McMurdo. This is the only other spot on land where we went aside from the station. What a change of scenery. Cape Evans, nestled against the “ice barrier” flanking Mt. Erebus, is where the Terra Nova landed Scott’s last expedition. Much like in 1911, the land is currently directly accessible by boat, so long as one avoids floes and icebergs. Once on land, a look back at the ocean will not reveal the same landscape twice: the ice drifts surprisingly quickly, and the ever-changing sky dyes the ocean in sparkling blue one minute, threatening gray the next, with a dash of orange along the horizon as the evening settles in.
The hut is still there, and it’s much cosier than the Discovery hut. Scott had learned the lessons of the 1901-1904 expedition. This hut was meant to be inhabited in any season, and it was for three consecutive years by about 25-30 people. Inside, it’s divided in “rooms” with walls of crates. There are separate spaces for seamen, officers, and expedition leaders, a kitchen (still well furnished and with much of the food probably still edible), a small laboratory, and even a dark room to process photographs. The interior is tidy, well lit and insulated, and centered around a stove and a long, inviting dining room table. The berths are very poignant, with folded clothes and personal photographs and items (toothbrush, playing card, candle, newspapers dated Feb./March 1908) that make it look like the expedition left yesterday. Along the wall and up in the ceiling beams are 1910s skis and Nansen sleds ready to be taken out for a ride.
Against the outer wall are stables where the Mandchurian ponies were housed. The ponies are long gone, but there are still crates, piled seal blubber, and even a bicycle! (The tires need to be inflated.) All around the hut, pieces of glass and wood are scattered. Some are brought by the wind, and some by the sea, to this day. We put our ECW bags down by an anchor from the Terra Nova and a dead seal and went to explore the surroundings. Climbing the hill just south of the hut provides a fantastic panoramic view of the iceberg currently just passing the cape, Tent Island and Inaccessible Island, and southward all the way to Hut Point.
On these heights are several freshwater ponds colonized by orange mats of microbes called cyanobacteria, the scientific reason for us coming here. They are pretty much the only life form able to withstand the harsh environment, aside perhaps from skuas (their only predators?). It’s nesting season for the skuas, which were very defensive and swooped every time we intruded on their territory.
Back at the water’s edge, a seal had come out of the water, and so had Adélie penguins. We’re very close to their rookery at Cape Royds, so some must have been venturing out here. One got chased by a leopard seal and jumped out of the water in a narrow escape. As the evening drew in, the sky and water took on a metallic sheen against which contrasted the white/blue ice, a spectacular sight. We came back exhausted, but had to push this and the day’s memories aside to finish our project reports and polish our presentations, which took the better part of the night. Thankfully, it’s been snowing since, giving us indoor time to recuperate.
Our experiments to investigate the drivers of algal vs. diatom dominance of the surrounding waters have shown that it’s not bacteria that cause the algae’s demise. Yet, in the past week, the algal bloom of mid-January has collapsed and the diatoms have taken over again. Our environmental measurements (temperature, salinity, light) suggest that the ocean hasn’t changed that much, so maybe it’s just that the algae ran out of nutrients (food). We won’t know until the water composition is analyzed, but that will have to await our return to the US.
Our flight back was scheduled Saturday, but it’s been postponed to Monday. We’re flying a larger C-17 this time, out of a different runway, because it’s late and cold enough in the season that these larger, faster planes can land. Our flight will be on the second C-17, but getting the first one to Antarctica has proven more difficult than expected. So, we have a couple of days to catch up on sleep and world affairs north of here, learn some scientific programming, and mentally get ready to see trees, children, and paved roads again.