So far, the geology on this trip has faced some stiff competion from history and penguins, but on tuesday it came into its own.
We moved across McMurdo Sound overnight and into the fast ice on the west coast, ready for an assault on the Dry Valleys. It was a lovely sunny day on the ice, but low cloud covered the mountains and the helicopters couldn’t fly. You soon get used to the idea that the weather and the ice dictates your schedule in this part of the world.
So we waited, passing the morning by lowering the gangway and wandering on the ice around the ship and photographing Emperor penguins who came to see what we were up to. They are just as curious about us as we are about them. The morning passed and mid afternoon, just as it seemed we’d have to wait until evening, a break in the clouds to the west gave us a chance to fly in a scouting party. There was still low cloud in places as we flew up the Taylor Valley and found a landing place near the foot of the Canada Glacier.
There were no penguins here, and no life apart from some endolithic lichens and bacteria. Just rocks. The valley floor is strewn with moraine containing a huge range of lithologies, sourced from the mountains. The main valley glacier is long gone and now the main agent of erosion is the powerful katabatic winds which race down off the icesheet at up to 320 km/hr.
Everything is blasted by wind-blown sand, pebbles and boulders are polished smooth or scoured hollow. These ventifacts were noted by Scott when he discovered this valley in 1903.
It was further explored on his second expedition by geologists Frank Debenham and Griffith Taylor for whom the valley is named. This extreme environment still attracts a lot of attention, especially for its likely similarities to Mars. It was almost midnight by the time we finished here, but with 24 hours of daylight, this isn’t a problem. Through the evening the weather got better and better, with beautiful sunlight on the hanging glaciers on the valley sides. I think I’ve now convinced most of the group that geology is cool!
Today, though, even geology has to take a back seat. We’re at Cape Evans on Ross Island where Scott’s last expedition was based. The rocks here are the same as at Cape Royds, black phonolites from Mount Erebus with large feldspar phenocrysts.
The hut still stands, its interior instantly recognisable from the famous photographs of the expedition photographer, Herbert Ponting. The table Scott sat at for his birthday and midsummer celebrations still occupies the centre of the room, and all around are supplies and equipment. There are still rocks on the floor beneath geologist Frank Debenham’s bunk.
I find it hard to believe that I am actually here. But it is a sense of tragedy that prevails, seeing the beds left by Scott and his companions almost exactly 100 years ago as they set out on their South Pole journey, and knowing that they froze on the Ross Ice Shelf in 1912. Outside, the weather shows what it can do just a month short of midsummer, with a windchill of -10oC and blowing snow and spindrift.