Ecological research in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica during the 1960s
In 1903 the British polar explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott stumbled upon a curious ice free valley on his way back to the coast from a sledging expedition to the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. “It is worthy of record… that we have seen no living thing, not even a moss or a lichen,” he noted in his diary, “… it is certainly a valley of the dead.” Following two more early twentieth century “heroic era” expeditions into what would become known as the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the next people to enter the region would not do so until the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58. Over the course of the 1960s, a number of biologists began working in the region. Rather than encountering a valley of the dead, these scientists discovered fascinating microscopic ecosystems that were adapted to the conditions of this polar desert and which offered an excellent place for developing and testing ecological theory. Utilizing archival research and oral history interviews, this paper will examine the early history of ecological research in the McMurdo Dry Valleys during the 1960s, with a particular focus on the transition from seeing the landscape as a “valley of the dead,” to seeing it as place for doing ecological research.
The paper suggests that the 1960s were an important transitional decade in the history of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, and that the work done during this period laid many of the foundations for the contemporary ecological research that is taking place in the region. Not only is this an interesting history in its own right, but it can also contribute information about environmental change that is directly relevant for contemporary ecological research in the McMurdo Dry Valleys in collaboration with the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site.