A fine day along the Byrd Glacier…

Byrd Glacier. The fjord here is ~25 km wide. Difficult to comprehend without a scale

With a break in the weather, we made a dash for another site within the Lonewolf Nunataks along the upper Byrd Glacier. These impressive perched nunataks are situated in the middle of a fast-flowing portion upper Byrd Glacier…similar to a large boulder in a middle of a river. This massive glacier drains an area over 1 million square km! That’s roughly the size of:

  • Spain + France or
  • State of South Australia or
  • 5x New Zealands
  • and way bigger than Texas…sorry not sorry Texas!

Amazingly all this ice is funneled from the South Pole through the Byrd Fjord. This fjord is over 25 km wide at its minimum and the bedrock below is over 2600 meters below sea level. Ultimately, the glacier dominates the western Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating chunk of ice. All of this nearly impossible to comprehend as we fly over it.

The day was unusual in many ways. First, the forecasted winds were 5 knots…we joked as clearly someone had left off the 3 or 0 as this area is historically very windy. Of course, the skilled meteorologist down here got it right. Our pilots could tell by their faster airspeed that we certainly had low winds. Once landed, we hopped out to a blissfully calm day on the edge of the East Antarctic plateau. While still a little chilly, we were very happy with the prospect of a calm day given our site was higher elevation than we’d experienced thus far.

The second unusual aspect of the day was the true pleasure associated with finding the site completely blanketed with glacial erratics. A cornucopia of lithologies from the East Antarctic bedrock was on display. Granites, gneisses, sandstones, remnants of forests and even ancient glacial deposits. As a glacial geologist, it simply can’t get any better. We quickly moved as a team to the tippity top of the site and got to work, having only 5-6 hours of ground time. We typically prefer to camp at a location to allow for extended discussion and a relaxed pace, but this seasons work was a late season reaction to a slight shift in logistics. Regardless, we are very happy with our support and outcomes thus far.

Perched glacial erratic found at the tippity top. This one is simply too beautiful to sample but it is probably going to win “Perchie of the year”

On the day, we sampled more than 20 glacial erratics over nearly 300 meters of elevation. These samples, when combined with erratics from another local nunatak, should give us the material we need to reconstruct the glacier through time. For now, sit back and enjoy some pictures and video from the day (along with some corny tunes). We feel very lucky to share this field work with you and look forward to a few more site visits before we head north for the year.

A quick note on place names: geographic sites around Antarctica (and the world) carry names which sometimes can honour those who discovered them, funded research or have contributed greatly to understanding of the area. Names can be controversial but there is close attention paid to appropriate naming conventions between all the countries that operate in Antarctica. Often we encounter sites during our field work that is not currently named and in that case, we offer an informal name. In the case of “Otway Nunatak” we allude to Peter Otway who, in the early 1960’s completed the first survey of a large section of the Transantarctic Mountains aided by a pack of keen sledge dogs. An impressive feat!

In fact, it was Peter who named the site Lonewolf Nunataks with the 5 prominent peaks in the group named after pups of his (Zaza, Erina, Grae, Tiger and Quet). It is international convention not to name sites after dogs but New Zealand has honoured their contribution by accepting these as official names in 2003. While we informally refer to this site as ‘Otway Nunatak’, it is primarily used here as a common name to distinguish the site as we work with pilots and logistics support. The imagery of Peter being led by his dogs up glacier is very heartwarming.

Also, there is an Otway Massif in the area plus we’ve recently discovered the site does have some strange history and geopolitics which we intend to avoid. For now, we’ll skirt the issue by adding informal usage disclaimer here.

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