McMurdo Dry Valleys: Visit Mars Without Leaving Earth

Taylor Dry Valley, Taylor Glacier, McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica

What it was like to visit the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

Do you guys remember back in early 2017 when I went to Antarctica with Oceanwide Expeditions? Well, you all know how I have a penchant for visiting far-flung, extremely remote, and simply the most difficult locations in the world. Oceanwide definitely delivered on this one. We made a landing at one of the more difficult places on Earth to get to: The McMurdo Dry Valleys.

*Disclaimer: I visited The Ross Sea region of Antarctica on a semi-circumnavigation of the southern-most continent in partnership with Oceanwide Expeditions. Of course all opinions are my own.

The McMurdo Dry Valleys which sit between the Transantarctic Mountains and the Ross Sea, are among the most hostile, inhospitable, and driest places on earth.

Meet the three McMurdo Dry Valleys:

There are three major valleys that carve out of the Transantarctic Mountains and toward the Ross Sea. The three McMurdo Dry Valleys are:

-Taylor Valley: The furthest south of the three valleys and home-sweet-home to Taylor Glacier and the infamous “Blood Waterfall”. Iron-oxide is what’s actually spewing out of the side of Taylor Glacier, although its resemblance to blood.

-Wright Valley: The middle of the three valleys and home to the Onyx River, the largest river in all of Antarctica.

-Victoria Valley: The northernmost valley of the McMurdo Dry Valleys and the location of Lake Vida, the largest lake of the three valleys.

-Meet the others: There are more valleys that comprise the McMurdo Dry Valleys than the three giants. They are: McKelvey, Belham, Barwick, Alanta, Stuiver, Wall, Virginia, Priscu, Pearse, Miers, Garwood, and Marshall.

Taylor Dry Valley, McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica

Life in a place it shouldn’t exist.

In 1903 Scott and his party of explorers arrived in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Upon arrival it was quickly believed that life did not exist here, it just could not exist here. Between the extreme, cold, harsh winds and extreme lack of humidity it only made sense. Since then scientists have proved otherwise. Researchers have found Endolithic photosynthetic bacteria within rocks found in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. These anaerobic bacteria survive by metabolizing sulfur and iron found beneath Taylor Glacier inside Taylor Dry Valley. These findings are what give the glimmer of possibility of life on Mars.

So how did the McMurdo Dry Valleys get so dry?

Antarctica is almost completely covered in a mile or more of ice. And then there’s the Dry Valleys, sitting there nearly snow-free. Strange isn’t it? What causes this, you may wonder: Katabatic winds paired with the natural barricade formed by the Transantarctic Mountains preventing ice from the East Antarctic Shelf from entering the dry valleys and continuing on down into the Ross Sea, making the extreme climate of the McMurdo Dry Valleys unique and oh-so-extreme.

Transantarctic Mountains meet katabatic Winds.

Crash course real quick here: Katabatic Winds are caused when dense and cold air are being pushed downward. The wild and extreme katabatic Winds of the dry valleys partnered up with the mountainous Transantarctic barricade make McMurdo Dry Valleys into one of the driest places on Earth. These katabatic winds can reach 200 miles per hour (320 KPH). When the high speed katabatic winds descend, the wind heats up and will evaporate any snow, ice or water in their path. With all that said, the valleys are typically windy and can see temperatures hover around a balmy -67ºF (-55ºC).

Landing in McMurdo Dry Valleys.

McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica
Flying high above the frozen Ross Sea en route to McMurdo Dry Valleys.

This has got to be what a Mars landing would look like. Okay, minus the part where we flew up over the iced over Ross Sea. Once you reach the coast it quickly becomes a brown and tan universe. Am I in Antarctica anymore?

Hiking on Mars on Earth.

All I could do was stand in the wind-whipped silence, surrounded by the barren floor of the Taylor Dry Valley as the helicopter disappeared into the dry thin air. Then a quick turn and a short jaunt lead me to the face of Taylor Glacier, a glacier in a valley that seems impossible for an ice-pack of that mass to exist. How can a glacier exist in such a dry environment?

Mummified to the core.

McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica, mummified seal, Taylor Dry Valley

One of the interesting relics of the McMurdo Dry Valleys are the mummified crab eater seal carcasses strewn throughout the valleys. Life has existed here, big life. Radiocarbon dating performed by zoologists at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand and the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia have estimated that these mummified seals found in the area are approximately 560-780 years old. What I’d really like to know is how? How on Earth did they get out here?

Say hi to one of Earth’s only cold-based glaciers.

Taylor Dry Valley, McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica

Taylor Glacier is one of the very few cold-based glaciers on Earth. What is a cold-based glacier, you ask? Cold-based glaciers are frozen to the ground underneath them. The ice is slowly pushed forward over the course of years by their own immense weight. This explains the glacier’s movement as it spills down from the Victoria Land Plateau and into Taylor Valley. Cold-based glaciers are somewhat unusual in appearance to their wet-based counterparts as they appear free of those deep, Tide-detergent-blue crevasses. In comparison, most glaciers the world over are wet-based and as they move they scrape over bedrock beneath, creating major erosion and picking up debris along the way.

The strangest Waterfall and good ol’ Antarctic disappointment: The Blood Waterfall.

I’ll get the bad news out of the way first: I didn’t reach the Blood Waterfall. With lowering clouds coming in quite rapidly, we could not get up close to the strangest waterfall on Earth. And trust me, I am not complaining (This would have to top the list of first world problems). If Antartica, and particularly, the most remote regions such as the Ross Sea territories are in your crosshairs, you should expect that you will not make every landing on your itinerary. Everything can change in an instant out here, and even being able to step foot in Taylor Valley is a privilege that very few people get to experience.

So why exactly is Taylor Glacier Bleeding?

Shortly after the discovery of the Blood Waterfall, red algae was thought to be the original culprit. Upon further research it was found that Taylor Glacier’s knicked artery is due to iron oxide from an ancient saline lake trapped under the glacier, somewhere around two million years ago.

On leaving the McMurdo Dry Valleys: the world’s most remote desert.

The time was all too short, but every minute there on the ground was definitely unforgettable. Walking where only a few hundred humans have ever stepped foot out out of the seven-billion plus of out there makes you realize how lucky you are (except for the one miserable, sniveling asshole passenger who will remain unnamed). Crazy to think the harshest desert, with the loneliest glacier in the most unlikely location would be so hard to leave.

Taylor Dry Valley, McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica

Want more on Antarctica?

Check out these posts:

10 Reasons to Visit Antarctica.

Antarctica Travel Guide.

6 thoughts on “McMurdo Dry Valleys: Visit Mars Without Leaving Earth

  • Shweta November 8, 2017 at 10:32 pm Reply

    What a cool adventure! Antarctica…sigh…I got to make it happen in this lifetime.

    • Nicole November 13, 2017 at 9:40 am Reply

      It’s definitely well worth it when you can do it! Beautiful place.

  • Adam at Road Unraveled November 10, 2017 at 12:23 pm Reply

    This looks incredible- what an amazing experience. We’re heading to Antarctica next month but I don’t think our tour is taking us here. We would love to make a return trip someday to see these valleys!

    • Nicole November 13, 2017 at 9:42 am Reply

      If I recall correctly Oceanwide said it’ll be 2019 or so before they offer another cruise to the Ross Sea, but I think there’s some NZ based companies that head down into the Ross and McMurdo Sound every year. Where does your tour take you to? Hope you have an amazing time!

      • Adam at Road Unraveled November 16, 2017 at 5:01 am Reply

        We’re taking a boat from Ushuaia so I don’t think we’ll be heading in that direction, but I hope we can make it there someday. The dry valleys are high on our bucket list- and after reading your post I think we’re putting it even higher on the list! Looks amazing.

        • Nicole November 16, 2017 at 8:37 am Reply

          You’ll have an amazing time on the peninsula (in my opinion the prettier part!) hope you get to the Dry Valleys one day, nothing else like it!

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