Trash or Treasure?

As humans have explored the Antarctic wilderness further, their impact on it has become more problematic. For instance, in 1974 I traveled to a Lake Vanda in Wright Valley across McMurdo Sound—a very beautiful place. My party had been stuck at McMurdo Station for five weeks waiting to be put into the deep field, and I had an acute case of cabin fever. So, I ginned up a day trip by helicopter to Lake Vanda, which I had always wanted to see because of its unique, ice-free landscape. I was able to convince the National Science Foundation rep that we should examine the lake because one of the members of the party was a sedimentologist with an interest in the effects of algae in sedimentary environments, and we had heard that algae grew profusely in its frigid waters. In late summer Lake Vanda is rimmed by a wide moat of meltwater, but when we flew there in November the moat was frozen solid. The ice around the lake was magnificently clear, becoming an ever-deepening field of blue and shot through with lacy white fractures. In the shallows, the clear ice revealed a blanket of algae wrinkled across the bottom.

Lake Vanda, in January 1983 with its moat of meltwater. Note Vanda Station at right end of the lake.

As we hiked along the shore, marveling at the patterns in the clear ice and the great walls of Wright Valley that rose more that 5,000 feet above us, we stumbled onto a collection of cans, rusting in a neat pile at the edge of the lake. “How cool,” I thought, “Who would have left these? Which year were they here?” I wondered if I knew them personally or perhaps by reputation. I thought of taking one as a souvenir. Then, about a hundred yards down the shore we came upon another pile. And then a couple hundred yards more, a third. By now I was disgusted. Images came to mind of the heaps of oxygen bottles at Everest base camp, or the calling cards of climbers under every rock on the path to the summit of the Matterhorn. Lake Vanda was trashed. So where is the dividing line? To an archeologist, the dump at the mouth of a Paleolithic cave is a treasure trove of goodies, whether they be superbly crafted artifacts or the scraps of last week’s big meal. The litter along Highway 61 has no less meaning about our current culture, but we find it rude and repulsive. Since my visit to Lake Vanda in the 1970s, the U. S. and New Zealand programs have established a new policy: nothing is to be left in the Dry Valleys. Every ounce of waste must be bagged and flown back to McMurdo Station or Scott Base by helicopter. Furthermore, the two countries sent litter crews in to pick up the trash of the preceding decades. Today, there are encampments in the Dry Valleys at various spots of scientific research, but when the research is completed, the researchers fold up their tents and depart without a trace. For me, the dividing line between trash and treasure is the line between recent events and history. Tin cans in the Dry Valleys disgust me. But were I to find a sardine can dropped by Amundsen, a torn mitten worn by Scott, a broken ice axe left by Blackburn, or some of the debris scuttled by Byrd as he flew over “The Hump” on his way to the Pole, such finds I would behold with awe and treasure as if a relic from the Holy Land.

Gallery – Vanda Ice Cracks 2.0