Four weeks of field research in the perpetual dark of an Antarctic winter in -50°C temperatures is not most people's idea of a good time. But for the Antarctic researcher Professor Ian Hawes, it will represent the pinnacle of a career visiting the ice almost every year since 1978. In a world first, five New Zealand scientists are planning to carry out research in the middle of the Antarctic winter. The project has attracted the attention of NASA, which is keen to learn lessons it could apply to a manned trip to Mars.

The blue ice covering Lake Fryxell, in the Transantarctic Mountains, comes from glacial meltwater from the Canada Glacier and other smaller glaciers. The freshwater stays on top of the lake and freezes, sealing in briny water below (Photo: Joe Mastroianni, National Science Foundation, Antarctic Photo Library)
The blue ice covering Lake Fryxell, in the Transantarctic Mountains, comes from glacial meltwater from the Canada Glacier and other smaller glaciers. The freshwater stays on top of the lake and freezes, sealing in briny water below (Photo: Joe Mastroianni, National Science Foundation, Antarctic Photo Library)

The New Zealand scientists plan to study the microbial systems at the bottom of Lake Fryxell in the Dry Valleys, which have never been observed in the middle of winter. "One reason we study them is because the only records we have of similar-type structures really are fossil records, which date back to the origins of complex life on Earth, and they are almost like a window back into the origins of Earth life", Professor Hawes who is leading the project explains. Lake Fryxell is a frozen lake 4.5 kilometres long, between Canada Glacier and Commonwealth Glaciers at the lower end of Taylor Valley in Victoria Land, Antarctica.

Field camp at Lake Fryxell in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica (Photo: Eli Duke, via Wikipedia).
Field camp at Lake Fryxell in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica (Photo: Eli Duke, via Wikipedia).

The researchers will live in accommodation built ahead of their arrival in the summer. They would overcome the hostile conditions outside by erecting a heated shed above the section of frozen lake they wanted to drill into to take samples, Professor Hawes said. "If you take any standard piece of scientific equipment, it's probably got a cable on it. “Those cables go very brittle at extreme low temperatures and so what we have found in the past is that before you can even use anything, you've got to warm it up for a significant period of time so that they can bend again and all of those sorts of things take up extra time." Even getting to Lake Fryxell is more complicated in winter. “It's normally about a 30 minute helicopter ride, but of course in winter it won’t be flying. “We're going to have to go by vehicle. It's going to be about a 60 km drive and then we've got a 13 km walk.”

Traveling in Antarctica during summer is relatively easy. Here two scientist use Skidoos to travel on Taylor glacier to their research site, but winter conditions hold new challenges. (Photo: Katja Riedel)
Traveling in Antarctica during summer is relatively easy. Here two scientist use Skidoos to travel on Taylor glacier to their research site, but winter conditions hold new challenges. (Photo: Katja Riedel)

The project has attracted the interest of NASA, which will investigate how the researchers communicate and collaborate with colleagues from around the world while they are carrying out their work at Lake Fryxell. “They need to develop the same sorts of strategies, for people who are working on Mars when we finally get people going there, and the same deal is going to happen with people who are going to near-Earth asteroids. “There are going to be people there who can collect data and transmit it back to decision-makers on Earth and they can then advise people on exactly how to do it."

One of the few areas of Antarctica not covered by thousands of meters of ice, the McMurdo Dry Valleys stand out in this satellite image. For a few weeks each summer temperatures are warm enough to melt glacial ice, creating streams that feed freshwater lakes that lie at the bottom of the valleys. Beneath a cap of ice these lakes remains unfrozen year-round, supporting colonies of bacteria and phytoplankton. This image was acquired by Landsat 7 satellite on 18 December 1999. (Image credit: Image by Robert Simmon / NASA GSFC Oceans and Ice Branch / Landsat 7 Science Team)
One of the few areas of Antarctica not covered by thousands of meters of ice, the McMurdo Dry Valleys stand out in this satellite image. For a few weeks each summer temperatures are warm enough to melt glacial ice, creating streams that feed freshwater lakes that lie at the bottom of the valleys. Beneath a cap of ice these lakes remains unfrozen year-round, supporting colonies of bacteria and phytoplankton. This image was acquired by Landsat 7 satellite on 18 December 1999. (Image credit: Image by Robert Simmon / NASA GSFC Oceans and Ice Branch / Landsat 7 Science Team)

If the trip gets the final sign off, the job of making it possible will be in the hands of Antarctica New Zealand. General Manager of operations Simon Trotter said the project represented good ‘bang for buck’ from a research standpoint as the findings would be the first of their kind. "There was always this assumption that everything sort of shut down in terms of the biological community, but there are some assumptions now that that may not be the case and this is what Ian Hawes and his team are looking at. “So any of those new insights.... I don't think you can put a price on that.”

The United States had just started flying to Antarctica in winter, making more research possible throughout the year, he said. "There is now a desire to see the support and the operations continue across the year instead of being squeezed into a five to six month part of the summer season. “Now if you start to move some of that work to the shoulders of the season then you reduce those pinch points we start to experience in terms of logistics."

The researchers hope that the trip will take place within the next two years.

Source: Conan Young, Radio New Zealand