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People trek in mountainous landscape.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek/Antarctic Photo Library
Scientists conduct research in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the largest ice-free region in Antarctica. The site receives environmental protection under the Antarctic Specially Managed Area designation. The ASMA plan was recently revised. 

Planning for the future

Revised policies and maps ensure environmental protection of Dry Valleys

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There are few places in Antarctica as heavily researched as the McMurdo Dry Valleys External U.S. government site, the largest ice-free region on the continent. The area is home to unique ecosystems that range from the saltiest lake on Earth to a microhabitat of ancient microbes that live under a glacier.

The 15,000-square-kilometer area now boasts the most comprehensive environmental management plan under the Antarctic Treaty External Non-U.S. government site system to ensure all of its scientific values are safeguarded in the future, according to Nate Biletnikoff, Raytheon Polar Services Co. (RPSC) External Non-U.S. government site environmental engineering department manager.

“The primary purpose of a management plan is to protect the values that are specific to a particular area,” Biletnikoff said. “There are many exceptional scientific values to protect in this area, not to mention the intrinsic value of this natural wilderness area. There is much to consider: our helo activities, our logistics activities, our field-camp management activities, and our science activities.”

Tents on beach near water.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek/Antarctic Photo Library
A semi-permanent field camp in Taylor Valley.

RPSC is the prime contractor to the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site. The United States is one of 48 nations that is party to the Antarctic Treaty, an international agreement that went into effect 50 years ago to ensure the continent was reserved for peaceful purposes with an emphasis on scientific research.

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty External Non-U.S. government site — signed nearly 20 years ago and entered into force in 1998 — established various policies and procedures for preserving the continent’s resources and minimizing human impact.

The McMurdo Dry Valleys, under the environmental protection system, was one of the first sites to become an Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA) External Non-U.S. government site in 2004. The designation comes with a detailed plan of how various activities within an ASMA should be conducted. The plans are reviewed every five years.

The revised management plan for the Dry Valleys ASMA was presented to a forum of the Antarctic Treaty members earlier this summer in Buenos Aires, an annual gathering known as the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) External Non-U.S. government site.

The revised management plan not only refines the various zones defined within the ASMA, but it includes a new set of maps made from high-resolution satellite imagery that serves to better protect the environment thanks to improved accuracy.

“The maps are highly accurate compared to the maps we had for the previous management plan,” Biletnikoff said, referring to an older set of U.S. Geological Survey maps.

Person takes GPS reading at rock.
Photo Credit: Nate Biletnikoff/Antarctic Photo Library
Surveyor Jeff Scanniello uses a high-precision GPS to help geo-reference a satellite map of the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

RPSC worked with subcontractor Environmental Research & Assessment (ERA) External Non-U.S. government site in the U.K. to produce the revised Dry Valleys ASMA management booklet. RPSC surveyor Jeff Scanniello was particularly instrumental in providing coordinates for the ASMA facilities zones, which include areas that contain infrastructure such as semi-permanent field camps or helicopter landing pads, Biletnikoff said. [See previous article: Drawing the line.]

“We re-baselined exactly what our current environmental footprint is, so we can accurately assess potential changes to footprint in the future, as part of the decision-making process,” he added.

The work was conducted in collaboration with Antarctica New Zealand External Non-U.S. government site, which jointly submitted the revised management plan for the Dry Valleys ASMA, one of seven ASMAs that have been established since 2004. New Zealand also took the lead in developing a new website for the Dry Valleys ASMA External Non-U.S. government site that includes the revised management plan, photos and updated news.

In addition, the Polar Geospatial Center (PGC) External Non-U.S. government site, an NSF-funded center based at the University of Minnesota External Non-U.S. government site that provides geospatial services to support Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, has produced a Dry Valleys atlas covering the entire area in collaboration with ERA.

“I wholeheartedly believe that this is the most detailed plan to date [for an ASMA],” Biletnikoff said.1 2   Next