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Two people stand in ice cave.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek/Antarctic Photo Library
Scientists William McIntosh, left, and Aaron Curtis explore Hut Cave, one of more than 100 subterranean systems formed by Mount Erebus' geothermal processes. Increased interest in the ice caves by biologists has necessitated a code of conduct to protect their scientific values. 

Clean conduct

New rules proposed for entering ice caves on Mount Erebus

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There are few places in Antarctica that have been studied as long as Mount Erebus External Non-U.S. government site, with continuous research atop of the active volcano stretching across four decades. But one of its most mysterious phenomena — ice caves created by the volcano’s steam, like giant blue-white irregular baubles of blown glass — is only recently drawing attention by scientists.

That interest has necessitated the creation of a “code of conduct” to ensure that the scientific values represented by the ice caves, from biological to geological, are protected, according to officials with the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs External U.S. government site (NSF OPP).

“They’re one of the more vulnerable areas because they have warmer soil temperatures, which means they can be more easily harmed by more temperate plants and microbes,” explained Adrian Dahood, environmental policy specialist at NSF OPP, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site.

Research on the 3,794-meter-high volcano near McMurdo Station External U.S. government site has naturally focused on volcanology and related disciplines since the discovery in 1972 of Erebus’ active lava lake. Led by Phil Kyle External Non-U.S. government site, a professor at New Mexico Tech External Non-U.S. government site, scientists have studied everything from the explosive phonolite lava to the noxious cocktail of gases that the volcano continuously spews, as part of the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory External Non-U.S. government site.

Person climbing into ice cave.
Photo Credit: Nial Peters
Scientist Aaron Curtis enters an ice cave on Mount Erebus.

Gas and steam also escape from the flanks of the volcano through fissures called fumaroles. PhD student Aaron Curtis at NMT, who has made the ice caves the focus of his thesis work, has found that the steam-carved structures play an important role in how gas and heat escape from Erebus. [See related article — Subterranean survey: Ice cave research finds connection between heat, gas and pressure.]

“The caves are really controlled by these discrete gas vents. That really changes the model for how the caves are developed and how they relate to the volcano and the plumbing system of the volcano,” he explained.

The microclimates within the caves are far different from what’s generally found around Erebus, where surface conditions average nearly minus 33 degrees Celsius with little humidity. Inside the caves, temperatures are typically around 0C with relative humidities up to 100 percent. Levels of carbon dioxide are also unusually high, leading Curtis and colleagues to believe that the degassing of CO2 occurs mainly at the cave vents.

It’s in these dark and wet environments where Hubert Staudigel External Non-U.S. government site hopes to learn more about how microorganisms exist in such extreme conditions to understand how early life evolved inside volcanoes and in the early Earth. [See related article — It was a dark and cold ... : Scientists seek extremophiles in Antarctica's harshest environments.]

“We can practically go inside a volcano through these ice caves, into the dark environment where life has to survive in the absence of light,” said Staudigel, a research geologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography External Non-U.S. government site and principal investigator on a five-year project to study extremophiles in Antarctica. “We’re in a pristine environment, and that’s where we want to explore extreme life.”

Except some of the caves aren’t that pristine, as Laurie Connell External Non-U.S. government site from the University of Maine External Non-U.S. government site in Orono found out by studying the genetic fingerprints of microbial communities from some of the caves.

Volcano crater amid plain of ice.
Photo Credit: Nick Powell/Antarctic Photo Library
The crater of Mount Erebus.

Research and visits by mountaineers has naturally led to human contamination, particularly around caves closest to the field camp known as Lower Erebus Hut. Something as seemingly innocuous as food crumbs accidentally dropped in a cave or smoking in the protection of an ice cave may have an impact, according to Dahood.

“People have just been doing research and doing whatever they wanted to do, so now we’re restricting activity until we can put in place a formal code of conduct,” she said.

The United States presented a white paper to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) External Non-U.S. government site held earlier this year in Hobart, Australia, that urged that a code of conduct be developed to help manage human impact to the cave system on Erebus.

In the interim, the NSF recently approved a temporary moratorium on visits to all ice caves unless for scientific research, and is temporarily restricting access to pristine caves except for purposes of collecting data on microbial communities. In those cases, scientists must use clean-access protocols, such as wearing Tyvek suits inside the ice caves.

“I think it’s great we’re finally having this conversation. It’s something that should have happened 30 years ago when the caves were first entered, and is especially important now with all of the attention the caves are getting,” Curtis said, referring to a series of high-profile media stories, including a feature this summer in National Geographic magazine about Mount Erebus External Non-U.S. government site.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs