8th Hydrological Wonder of the World: Onxy River, Antarctica

Puffed chest, I knowledgably looked at the map and in my, ‘I’m so at home in the mountains’ voice proclaimed,

“it’s on the true left”

I then stuttered, paused, looked utterly confused and stuttered,

“which bloody side IS the true left”

The orientation of the valley from high ice plateau to ocean would pronounce the north side of the valley as the true left, but the river wasn’t flowing out to sea. Therefore by using the river as the reference, the south side of the valley is the true left.

“What the blimen heck is that river up to? It’s flowing the wrong way – where does it think it is going? Into Lake Vanda? But where does the lake flow out? Nowhere!”

Intriguing. I love maps and geomorphology, and this is a fantastic quirk.

Onxy River, Wright Valley

Onxy River, Wright Valley

I finally got there, the mystical Dry Valleys. It was a bit like my first time to Antarctica. Before my first trip south, my mind became a creative but uncontrollable pessimistic monster. I couldn’t foresee past the crazy things that WOULD prevent me from getting to Antarctica. Maybe I would be the victim of a “you’ve been punked” episode on the flight down, arriving back on the tarmac in Christchurch, movie cameras focusing on my beetroot face as I exited the airplane. Of course this didn’t happen, but it was touch and go for a long period. Getting to the Dry Valleys were much simpler, I got in the helicopter on a beautiful calm day, and 45 minutes later I was at Lake Vanda, Wright Valley.

Arriving by Helo - James Bond Style

Arriving by Helo – James Bond Style

Lyrics in my head….

Let’s have bizarre celebrations, let’s forget who forget what forget where.

Let’s pretend we don’t exist, let’s pretend we’re in Antarctica.    Of Montreal

Nothing remains of the old Vanda Station, although stories and nostalgia roll through my mind. In fact the old site is almost completely under the lake, which I suppose isn’t surprising seeing there is no lake outlet. It must be a sensitive hydrological system – certainly not prime lakeside real estate. Beside the newer hut is the old tinny, an overturned memory of lakeside summers from days gone by.

For me, there was the novelty of natural noise after 3 months of almost none!  A noise so homely and soothing, the cascading Onxy River. On the river bank I set up my Trango tent, a 4m3 cocoon of warm, glowing space. My own space (the only all season, having shared a room at Scott Base).  Time out! Bliss!

Camp at Lake Vanda

Camp at Lake Vanda

The Onxy River is the largest and longest river in Antarctica (40km). It was flowing at approximately 1 cumec, which with a little problem solving was just rock hopable. According to the stream gauging crew who helicoptered in to gauge the river, it can reach around 10 cumecs. In 1984 back in Vanda Station days, the Onxy River was rafted. Bloody good year 1984. First raft descent of the Onxy River (up valley???), Poi Eh was written by the Patea Maori Club, and I was born!

After a hard days scientific research, while the sun circled overhead, we ate our packet curry dinner and listened to the crackly news bulletin broadcasted from Scott Base. The bulletin was finished with a flourish – a static infused rendition of Poi E! Beaming out of the wee handheld radio, Lake Vanda’s links to NZ were a million miles away but as strong as steel.

Onxy River, liquid for a few weeks of the year

Onxy River, liquid for a few weeks of the year

Rere atu taku poi ti ta’ taha ra

WHAKARUNGA WHAKA RARO TAKE POI E!   Patea Maori Club

 

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Doing the Dobson Dance: Arrival Heights Lab

IPod + Arrival Heights Lab + 1930’s Ozone instrument = a RAD moment. A Random Act of Dancing (RAD). Actually, many RAD moments were had, and mostly on the lab roof.

Arrival Heights is a location on the hill above McMurdo Station, with a 360degree panoramic view of Mt Erebus, Mt Discovery and the Royal Society Range. In late summer it is the best vantage point to watch the sea ice fragment and disperse forming open ocean. Its windy, wild and exposed, but restricted.

The Kiwi operated lab sits prominently within the restricted zone like a fat green elephant, painted Chelsea Cucumber Green. Inside, it is full of obscure, technical instruments, some state of the art and some simply but reliably ancient. Each instrument measures important aspects of the atmosphere. Smoke and mirrors to most, but essential pieces of the puzzle in order to understand the impacts we are having on our atmosphere.

Kiwi Lab for Atmospheric Research

Kiwi Lab for Atmospheric Research

Each day I would bounce the truck up the 4WD track from Scott Base to Arrival Heights to operate these instruments. My favorite being the mighty but ancient Ozone instrument, The Dobson. Favorite, because you get a quantifiable value at the end of each measurement. Favorite, because it involves mechanically moved mirrors. But most importantly, favorite, because it allows me to dance. Dance, while moving the encoder wheel to take a measurement. Dance, while waiting between measurements. And dance, while attaching the sun director onto the roof. The sun director looks like a submarine periscope, but directs the suns rays into the instrument. Two wavelengths of light in the UV range are measured, one absorbed by Ozone, and one not. This gives a ratio, which is converted into a Dobson unit, which is the relative measurement of atmospheric Ozone.

Opening the hatch

Opening the hatch

Along with smoke and mirror instruments, comes magician like scientists. Passionately, they come for short stints to service, calibrate and upgrade their instruments. Behind them trails the media and distinguished visitors for their tour of the new, impressive lab. This involves a little stress on my behalf as tour guide for these complex instruments. But the Dobson never fails to be the star of the show, like a wizened but quirky old man. We can see the mechanical cogs of his brain turning. He was revolutionary in his youth but steadfast in his old age. He, is one that has done a bit of dancing in his day.

Operating the Dobson. Photo by Jana Newman

Operating the Dobson. Photo by Jana Newman

Operating The Dobson. Measuring the Ozone in the Atmosphere. Photo by Jana Newman

Operating The Dobson. Measuring the Ozone in the Atmosphere. Photo by Jana Newman