Discoveries from the Antarctic

Not only was this an expedition of rare life experiences, it was also a great opportunity for doing new and potentially significant research.

With each step across the study sites I kept reminding myself that no human or other species had probably walked on this land or seen these sights. Although some reconnaissance can be done from limited aerial photos and satellite imagery, one can never really be sure what to expect on the ground. I am pleased to say, however, that I managed to find some interesting samples and data for my research. This came from just two helicopter days due to the remoteness and inaccessibility of the sites, and productivity of the last day was compromised by 30-50 knot winds and a chill of -50 degrees C (as well as a bit of turbulence sickness).

View of unmapped and unnamed land, poking through ice 1km thick (courtesy of Andy Cole)

The helicopter provided both a novel viewpoint and transport to hard-to-reach areas, and with these came the discovery of new land – an as yet unnamed and unmapped nunatak, revealed by the melting and lowering of the ice surface. The time this land was uncovered and its significance in relation to the regional ice dynamics cannot be determined until I process the samples and data collected.

The newly discovered nunatak

I was not the only person conducting research on this trip. Other data collected by my team may indicate that ice did not fully cover the area (including all the mountains) at the peak of the last ice age, as previously hypothesised. In addition to this, some of the evidence suggests a completely different style of glacier (warmer and wet-based with more erosive power and melting) existed at an earlier period. In brief, little climatic change may have occurred in this region since the last ice age, but when the climate was in a different state the ice dynamics could have been more unstable. However the data needs to be analysed before conclusions can be drawn.

Also on our travels across this area of the Transantarctic Mountains, we stumbled upon sets of fossilised tracks. From our non-existent background in palaeontology, we originally guessed that they belong to a Lystrosaurus which roamed this land when it was part of the warmer Gondwana supercontinent and the first discovery of such fossils in the Transantarctic Mountains helped confirm the theory of plate tectonics. However subsequent reading has enlightened us to the possibility that these are the footprints of a giant sea scorpion (Eurypterid). This creature is then thought to have become extinct during the Permian-Triassic extinction event 251 million years ago, when nearly 90% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species died out. Other suggestions welcome!

Fossilised tracks found in the sandstone of the Transantarctic Mountains
Artist’s impression of a Lystrosaurus
The giant sea scorpion had several variations with the largest out-sizing a modern human

I’ll finish before I venture into new geeky frontiers. It’s time to take the data I’ve collected and evaluate it back in New Zealand, where I’ve now spent less of my life than Antarctica.

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