An austral summer sun — above the horizon 24 hours a day from late October until late February in this region of the continent — glints off the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. Together with the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, it blankets an area roughly the size of Mexico and the United States combined. In some places it is nearly three miles thick.
A helicopter refuels near Taylor Glacier in the Dry Valleys as a field station team helps to dig out stored barrels of fuel. Helicopters are the only means of transportation between the Dry Valleys’ remote, seasonal field camps and McMurdo Station, the hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program, on Ross Island some 60 miles away.
Photojournalist Keith Heyward uses a dolly to film above a formation in the Dry Valleys known as the Labyrinth, a series of deep troughs and ridges that researchers believe was carved out in a massive subglacial flood roughly 12 million years ago.
A rare snow dusts Upper Beacon Valley. With humidity lower than the Sahara, Antarctica is a desert, and snowfall, particularly in the Dry Valleys, quickly evaporates. The yellow Scott tents of the field camp are based on a design that has changed little since its namesake, explorer Robert F. Scott, first set foot on the continent more than a century ago.
Geology graduate student Sean Mackay exposes ancient ice buried beneath rubble in Beacon Valley. He models the standard-issue parka of the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program, affectionately known as “Big Red.”
Writer Jennifer Berglund poses above the Labyrinth wearing the cumbersome white “bunny boots” that are standard issue to most researchers passing through Christchurch, New Zealand, and on to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station. The clown-like boots have several layers of insulation and valves that restrict airflow to keep feet warm in subzero conditions, but are notorious for a lack of traction.
Dramatic skies shadow an equally dramatic story in the valley below: a massive subglacial flood roughly 12 million years ago carved deep trenches in the bedrock, leaving behind a formation known as the Labyrinth.
In Central Beacon Valley, rocks that may have lain in situ for millions of years fit together like the paving stones of a Roman road — but, thanks to Antarctica’s extreme climate, they have gathered no moss.
A large sandstone boulder sits on the floor of Central Beacon Valley. Like most of the Dry Valleys, Beacon is lined by craggy layers of reddish-brown bedrock and lighter-colored sandstone. It’s a palette that might be mistaken for the balmy American Southwest, though the temperatures here rarely make it above freezing for more than a day or two.
Protected from development or resource extraction by the International Antarctic Treaty, the Dry Valleys — including Upper Beacon Valley, shown here — are considered one of the most pristine landscapes on the planet.
Geologist David Marchant of Boston University has spent more than 20 research seasons in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, discovering not only how the region formed and evolved over time, but possible analogs to the geology of Mars.
The rock formation known as the Dias rises in the distance above Upper Wright Valley, part of Antarctica’s Dry Valleys region, in which most of the glaciers are buried beneath thousands of years of accumulated rubble. Little surface ice is visible, unlike the other 98 percent of the continent.
Photojournalist Keith Heyward sets up a shot on the rock formation known as the Dias in Upper Wright Valley. Photography is a special challenge in Antarctica, where subzero temperatures and vicious winds can wreak havoc on equipment and exposed skin.
Traveling by helicopter from the main American base of McMurdo Station on Ross Island to the Dry Valleys, researchers fly over a portion of the Ross Ice Shelf and then a corner of the mesmerizing white spread of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is the largest in the world.
Ice falls above the geological formation called the Labyrinth can create a false sense of movement among the Dry Valley glaciers. Due to consistently below-freezing temperatures, ice that appears to be flowing can actually remain in place for thousands of years. Ice hidden beneath rubble can remain virtually unchanged for millions of years.
On the return helicopter ride from the Dry Valleys to her first shower in weeks at McMurdo Station, Berglund snapped this image of Blood Falls, a spot where saltwater — colored rusty-red by iron oxide — flows from the tongue of Taylor Glacier.
The tents and outbuildings of a remote field camp on the shores of Lake Bonney in the Dry Valleys, in the shadow of Taylor Glacier, provide a sense of scale often difficult to convey in photos of Antarctica, where distances are vast and typical human landmarks such as power lines are absent.
See more stories and multimedia from the Dry Valleys in this special report.
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