At the foot of a high and steep mountainside, biologist Harald Steen stands and looks at the pond, which got its name because of its color and content: “The Oil Pond”.
Black oil? In Antarctica?
He throws a stone into the water. Then we see it even better.
– It is full of rotten biomass.
We could clearly smell the stench when we got here. To the place called Svartgryta on the map. 20 minutes by tracked vehicle over the blue ice from the Norwegian research station Troll. The last part on foot.
– There aren’t that many people here, then. So just coming here is quite special, says Steen.
There are no tourists here. Very few have seen this space. No one has researched what we see around us.
Not until now.
Ewan Wakefield came here for the first time last year. It was completely random.
– I was in Antarctica in connection with another project that I am working on. I was advised that I should take a trip.
He stayed in the area for three or four hours. It made an impression.
– What I saw was completely incomprehensible to me. It was unreal, quite simply.
– What did you see?
– I first saw this black pond, which they said never freezes.
He was surprised by that, since the temperature is always below freezing here. Then he looked up the steep mountainside, towards the sharp peaks behind the dam.
– When I looked closer, I discovered that the mountainside was covered with the remains of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dead birds. Obviously from a very large seabird colony sometime in the past.
– I was really excited, but also a little confused. My head was full of questions.
“What happened here?” “Why are the birds gone?” “When did this happen?”
With samples of dead birds in his bag, he returned to the University of Durham. No laboratory has ever had such material under its microscope.
But Ewan Wakefield wanted to know more. After all, he had only brought with him the samples that he managed to collect during a very short visit.
So he wanted to go back. To this mysterious place on the huge ice continent in the south. Get more answers.
About birds and climate.
And this year he was in place again in “Dødens dal”. This time he had a colleague with him. They spent several days, carried out thorough investigations and mapped the area systematically.
They found that the bird colony must have extended over an area of at least three to four kilometres.
Many samples were taken. And the researchers have come a long way in analyzing the unique material. Wakefield has never heard of such a town before.
– It is fantastic just to see these birds, that they are so well preserved through all these years. It looks like they could have been 50 years old, not 50,000.
– Yes, we have found out that the birds were in the area between 43,000 and 53,000 years ago. We have used carbon dating, a method that helps us find out how old organic material is.
Wakefield enthusiastically talks about how important he thinks the discovery is.
– This was in the ice age. Back then there was more ice, and much colder in Antarctica. It is therefore very interesting to be able to establish that the birds were in the area at that time. These birds – Antarctic petrels – lay their eggs directly on the ground or on mountain slopes. So there couldn’t have been ice here then.
The petrels feed on krill and fish that they find in the Southern Ocean. From the mountain area in Dronning Maud Land, it is today around 20 miles out to the edge of the ice. Then the birds have to go further out over the sea, perhaps another 20 miles, to get to the “food dish”.
But that time there was more ice in the Southern Ocean, and therefore a longer journey out to the ice edge.
– How could the birds that nested in Antarctica at that time get out to the open sea to find food? This is probably a question that arises in the wake of the findings in “Death Valley”, says Wakefield.
He has taken samples that can give an answer as to whether the birds ate the same thing then, as now.
We ask him to summarize the status so far in the research work.
– I believe that the findings in “Death Valley” can become a very valuable archive with large amounts of information that will be useful not only in terms of biology, but for people who are trying to gain more knowledge about the climate in Antarctica. Something that will again be useful for understanding the climate throughout the world.
Biologist Harald Steen looks around. As director of research at the Norwegian Polar Institute, he has seen a lot, both in the north and south of the globe.
But this is not everyday. Carefully said.
– It’s quite incredible to walk here, that is. Tens of thousands of years ago there was a large birdlife right here. I see bone remains, I see feathers, here is a beak, a skull. It’s pretty amazing. It is absolutely amazing how this has been preserved through the ages.
He is happy that all this will now be thoroughly researched.
Ewan Wakefield is therefore the man who holds the key, who can help solve the mystery in “Death Valley”. Biologist and postdoctoral researcher at Durham University.
We have three more questions that we would like to ask him.
– When and why did the birds disappear?
– It is one of the things we are trying to find out, but it almost certainly has to do with climate change. Specifically, it is about something that is difficult to measure now – namely the amount of snow on the ground.
He says that the Antarctic petrel cannot lay its eggs on snow or ice. And that when there is far too much snow, it is disastrous for nesting success.
– We think that this place was abandoned because there was far too much snow there, and as the climate got warmer, the birds moved to mountainous areas further south.
– Why are there so many dead birds in the area?
– The short answer is that the birds probably died during many breeding seasons. It is common for a small percentage of adult birds, and a larger percentage of chicks, to die during the season. This may, among other things, be related to little access to food.
The Antarctic petrel also has a scary enemy in these mountain areas, namely the southern jay. Both adult birds and chicks may have to pay with their lives if that bird goes on a brutal attack.
– That there may also be other reasons, such as tougher weather conditions as a result of changes in the climate, but that will be pure speculation, says Wakefield.
He says that the bodies decompose very slowly due to the cold in Antarctica, and over the years there have only been more and more dead birds here.
And it’s cold. Antarctica is the coldest continent on earth. The temperature can drop to minus 40 in mid-winter (that is, when it is summer in Norway).
– You took a picture where we see oil seeping out of a rock fissure. Is this oil from the birds, after so many years?
– Yes, I think this comes from the birds. It is strange that the oil comes out of the crags, and I have never seen anything like it. I don’t have a good explanation for that.
– And this pond … which is like a tough mass …
– It is water, but mostly oil. Antarctic petrels are very fat, so that they can keep warm. When they died, oil began to seep out of their bodies and into the pond. If there are bacteria there, they break down the oil very slowly. It’s amazing to see.
Svartgryta is thus the name of this town. And it’s like a pot. The pond, the mountains rising towards the sky, the wall of ice on the opposite side. An endless glacier behind.
Mile after mile through Dronning Maud Land, which is almost seven times larger than Norway and makes up one sixth of Antarctica.
We turn back one last time.
There is not a sound to be heard in the “Valley of Death”.
Tags: Discoveries Death Valley Antarctica understanding climate world Urix-