Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Cape Evans

"For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton." - Raymond Priestley

The Terra Nova hut, at Cape Evans
Friends, when I quoted the above sentence to you before, I did not give you the whole thing. There is a third famous Antarctic explorer: Ernest Shackleton. Irish by birth, he served in the British Navy and lead several Antarctic expeditions. Like Scott, he saw hard times on the southern continent, but unlike Scott, Shackleton was renouned as an effective leader and strategic thinker. His famous Endurance expedition to cross Antarctica was plagued by a series of unfortunate events, but his entire expedition team survived (unlike Scott). In fact, when Shackleton's resupply team was stranded in McMurdo Sound, he returned personally to save them, despite having just finished a horrendous journey himself.

The Aurora anchor
Cyanobacterial mats at Cape Evans
Shackleton began his trans-Antarctic expedition from the Weddell Sea, on the Atlantic side of the continent, while his resupply team started from the Ross Sea, on the Pacific side. They were supposed to meet at the South Pole. The stranded members of the resupply team never made it, though, and actually lived for two years in McMurdo Sound, at a site called Cape Evans. The site has a hut that had been built by Scott years before, where the men were able to take shelter and await rescue. Before you go imagining an icebox of a house like Discovery Hut, I'll tell you that the Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans was meant to be lived in, and it is actually quite cozy. My fellow trainees and I got to tour the hut during a sampling trip to Cape Evans, and it is a place I would have gladly lived.

It's a wooden house with a gas heating stove, a kitchen, and cots. There was a stable just outside, where Scott kept his ponies. Despite its apparent comfort, the hut still bears the evidence of difficult times: the anchor to the the Aurora, Shackleton's resupply ship, tore away from the ship (that's how the men got stranded ashore) and still lays buried in the gravel outside the hut. Inside the hut are old piles of seal skin and penguin eggs - remnants of the marooned men's hunted food sources.

Barn Glacier
Besides the historical hut, Cape Evans is an interesting site for biologists to visit. Extensive areas of bare gravel serve as nesting sites for the Antarctic skua, a scavenging sea bird. The heterogenous terrain has depressions that fill with melting snow and host thick cyanobacterial mats. Also known as blue-green algae, cyanobacteria are single-celled microbes that photosynthesize. They're responsible for producing much of the oxygen you breathe. The mats were green and orange and yellow and floated on top of the melt ponds. It was very cool to see.

Me at Cape Evans. Photo by Tess Cole.
We spent several hours at Cape Evans, hiking to the melt ponds, touring the hut, and exploring the surrounding area. The nearby Barn Glacier dominates the northern horizon, and Inaccessible Island towers to the south. Mt. Erebus overlooks Cape Evans from the east, and the ice-covered McMurdo Sound stretches to the west. It is a gorgeous place.

The good news for me is that Cape Evans is also a common dive site for Antarctic research. I'm told it's a particularly good site to collect sea urchins. Note to self: design a project on Antarctic sea urchins. I hope I get to come back!

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