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People in a icy tunnel
Photo Credit: MEVO
Scientists set up an experiment near an entrance to Hut Cave on Mount Erebus. An interim code of conduct for accessing the caves will restrict activities like eating and drinking to the cave entrances to protect the fragile ecosystem.

Research activities in ice caves to be restricted during 2012-13 field season 

The paper submitted to the nations that oversee management of the southern continent through the Antarctic Treaty System External Non-U.S. government site also recommended generating an inventory of the ice caves, something Curtis has already undertaken.

A database External Non-U.S. government site that he is developing contains information on about 120 ice caves, compiled from his own explorations and those of colleagues like Nelia Dunbar and William McIntosh External Non-U.S. government site, both of NMT, who have worked on Erebus for decades. Curtis’ research involves understanding how the ice caves and towers form, and mapping out their structure, a task he has worked on for the last three Antarctic seasons.

He estimates there are probably another 100 ice caves that no one has yet visited or mapped. An inventory should include a record of every visit and the activities that took place, according to Curtis.

Ice towers on snow field.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek/Antarctic Photo Library
Ice towers on the flank of Mount Erebus.

“In order to do good science, you need to know what happened before in the caves,” he said. “Having a really good shared dataset is the most important thing.”

A small area on the northwest slope of the main crater called Tramway Ridge Link to PDF file is already safeguarded as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) External Non-U.S. government site under the Antarctic Treaty System. A permit is required to enter an ASPA, which provides guidelines on what activities are allowed where in the protected area.

In the case of Tramway Ridge, located at about 3,400 meters elevation, the area has significant gas emission and its soil has the highest surface temperatures on Mount Erebus. The micro-ecosystem includes an unidentified moss species, as well as a wide variety of thermally tolerant bacteria.

A six-square kilometer area on Mount Melbourne Link to PDF file, about 400 kilometers north of Mount Erebus, is also designated as an ASPA. The warmest areas of ground on Mount Melbourne created by fumaroles support patches of moss, liverwort and algae, along with one species of invertebrate protozoan, or complex single-celled organisms. A third similar site on Mount Rittman, even farther north, is not yet protected.

Dahood said the United States is working with New Zealand to develop a new ASPA that would fold all three high-altitude geothermal areas into a single, more comprehensive management plan. Particular concern exists because the warmer soils in these areas are inviting to temperate microorganisms that could hitch a ride with a visitor to the area.

“They’re not really well represented in the ASPA system,” Dahood said of the geothermal areas.

Ice Cave
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
The "blue lobe" of Hut Cave on Mount Erebus.

Staudigel said he believes it may not be necessary to formally incorporate the ice caves into an ASPA. He and Curtis will work together this season on Mount Erebus to continue an inventory of the caves and discuss a permanent access and code of contact solution that will be satisfactory for all involved.

“Such a code of conduct will have to address issues of access to the caves, the biological cleanliness of equipment and scientists, as well as the minimal impact of activities in these caves,” Staudigel said. “Points of discussions include the cleanliness of instruments, special protection of high temperature zones within the caves and activities such as eating and drinking.

“Biologists and geologists need to be on the same page for the conduct of research in such fragile environments,” he added.

Curtis agreed, though he added that it is important for people working in caves of such a high-altitude environment to remain fueled with food and to stay hydrated.

“We need to protect the caves; we also need to protect the cavers,” he said.

The interim code of conduct approved by NSF for the 2012-13 field season restricts activities such as eating and drinking to the cave entrances. It also requires sterilization of instruments that are used in the vents or warm soils, and it prohibits leaving any gear or equipment inside the caves.

“Ultimately, all parties involved are working toward a compromise code of conduct that maintains the microbial integrity of these fascinating ecological settings while also allowing for the important measurements that need to be made to understand the outgassing of Mount Erebus,” Staudigel said.

NSF-funded research in this story: Phil Kyle and Clive Oppenheimer, New Mexico Tech, Award No. 1142083 External U.S. government site; and Hubert Staudigel, University of California-San Diego Scripps Instution of Oceanography, Award No. 0739712 External U.S. government site.Back   1 2