A hundred of us are squashed in the belly of a military jet destined for Antarctica. Wearing government-issued extreme cold-weather gear, each of us weighs fifteen extra pounds and occupies about 70 percent more space than usual. For four claustrophobic hours we sit immobilized on mesh webbing and stare at pipes, electrical wires, and other jet-plane innards. The roar of the engines makes conversation impossible; instead, people read books or daydream, occasionally grinning at each other like little kids with a shared secret. Suddenly, the cabin loudspeaker crackles, “Attention folks, we’ve got an announcement to make…” This is it! We are about to land! “…Unfortunately, Antarctica is experiencing some rough weather right now, so we’re boomeranging back to New Zealand.”

So began my journey to the far south. Antarctica is not a destination easily achieved; you don’t just arrive there, you make it. The frozen continent at the bottom of the world is indifferent to modern technology and human schedules. Since pilots must rely on visual cues to land on runways of ice, even slightly overcast skies make safe landings impossible. In my case, a blizzard was the culprit. I found myself back in Christchurch, New Zealand, and stranded in civilization, exiled from the ice. A week passed before a window of clear weather finally opened. We reboarded the jet, flew past the point of safe return hours later, and eventually glided smoothly onto the runway. Really, truly, this was it. I stepped off the plane into the blinding white of Antarctica.

By most measures and standards, Antarctica is an alien planet. For months at a time, the sun never sets on an elemental landscape of snow, stone, and sky. The rest of the year, Antarctica slumbers through a long night. Human explorers first left footprints on the continent just over a century ago, and even today no nation owns the place. Instead, the Antarctic Treaty preserves the entire continent as a zone for the peaceful conduct of science. Antarctica is famously the coldest, highest, driest, windiest, emptiest, and most inaccessible place on Earth. Despite its forbidding reputation, there is no place on this planet I find more alluring.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Kate Harris.

I have always been drawn to the alien and extreme. As a starry-eyed kid inspired by science fiction, I used to dream about the possibilities for life on worlds beyond our own. Those dreams persist, but my love for science fiction has evolved into a passion for science fact. In the future, I hope to be active in the search for life on Mars. For now, Antarctica is the best possible substitute. The McMurdo Dry Valleys, which comprise the largest ice-free region on the continent, are particularly evocative of Mars. Both the Dry Valleys and our neighboring planet share year-round freezing temperatures, negligible precipitation, desiccating winds, relatively high solar-radiation, and relatively low magnetic-fields. Mars, however, has a carbon-dioxide atmosphere with an extremely low surface-pressure, so Antarctica as a terrestrial analog is still a stretch. But all things considered, the Dry Valleys qualify as the most Mars-like place on Earth.

The search for life on Mars begins with the search for liquid water. A few years ago, scientists discovered geologically young gullies on Martian hillsides. They interpreted these features as possible evidence for recent water flow. When he learned of the Martian gullies, Berry Lyons, director of the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University, realized similar features existed in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Like the Martian gullies, the Antarctic examples looked like they were shaped by water of subsurface origin. In other words, with no glaciers or snow patches nearby to supply water, the gullies on the Dry Valleys appeared to have formed through reservoirs of subsurface ice melting and seeping above the ground.

The goal of my field project in Antarctica was to test the seepage hypothesis. With Lyons as my mentor and advisor, I was to survey the entire length of Taylor Valley for water seeps, collect samples where possible, and later analyze the geochemistry of the samples. The idea is that the water chemistry reveals the water source. If the water is coming from glaciers, it should be markedly different from water coming from melting subsurface ice.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Kate Harris.

After stepping off the plane, our research team spent a few days getting oriented at McMurdo Station, the main American base in Antarctica. During the austral winter, fewer than two hundred people live in McMurdo, but in the summer the population swells to over a thousand. An industrial clutter of boxy buildings, dirt roads, and heavy machinery, McMurdo is a hybrid of a mining town and a college campus. Beneath its frontier-town facade, the station is surprisingly civilized. There are dorms with hot showers, an exercise gym, a library, a few coffee shops and bars, and a laundry room that seconds as a classroom for belly-dancing lessons. Workers in a bustling galley feed the entire population, and a well-stocked store sells snacks, toiletries, and the inevitable Antarctic T-shirts. If it weren’t for the mind-boggling view outside, you could easily forget you’re living in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.

McMurdo’s population is comprised of scientists, who are here to study Antarctica, and support workers, who keep the station running. The support workers are probably the most highly educated and accomplished group of janitors, cooks, and toilet scrubbers on the planet. I met published creative writers sorting trash, astrophysicists dishing out oatmeal, and computer scientists hammering away in the carpentry shop­ — all working these jobs for the chance to live in Antarctica. But the real Antarctica exists just beyond the comfortable confines of McMurdo Station and, to learn how to handle it, our research team enrolled in Happy Camper School.

Happy Camper School is an Antarctic institution. Anyone traveling outside McMurdo must take part in this two-day field-safety training course, which essentially teaches you how to avoid freezing to death if you happen to become stranded outdoors. Huddled in a drafty hut on the Ross Ice Shelf, we were apprenticed in the rugged art of polar living. “You can’t live like a lion if you eat like a bird!” yelled our instructor, a mountaineering guide when he’s not stationed in Antarctica. “Fuel is your furnace! Eat!” he commanded, while passing out fistfuls of chocolate bars. We obliged, eating an exorbitant amount of chocolate as we learned how to avoid hypothermia and to radio the South Pole station in case of an emergency.

The next phase of the course took place outdoors. Our instructor challenged us to spend the night on the barren ice-scape in a shelter of our own making. He abandoned us with shovels, tarps, tents, and junk food. We built an Antarctic version of a snow cave, a shelter known as a Quincy. We heaped all our backpacks on the ice, threw a tarp over the pile, and shoveled snow onto the tarp until the snow layer was as deep as the length of an ice ax. After the snow had settled and consolidated, we dug a tunnel below and then into the heap and excavated our gear. This created a cozy cave with enough room for a few people to sleep comfortably. After spending the night beneath Antarctic ice, we happy campers were declared ready for the rigors of Antarctic field work. The next day, we piled into a helicopter and took off for Taylor Valley.

When we landed in the valley and the helicopter whirred to a stop, I was immediately struck by the quiet. Not a bird chirping, tree rustling, airplane roaring, person hollering — a stillness beyond frozen. In that sublime silence, you imagine you can feel the pulse of the planet. Imposing mountains stand sentinel above lakes fringed by turquoise ice moats. Glaciers squeezed between the peaks and poured into the valley. The Transantarctic Mountains framing the Dry Valleys acted as a dam for the East Antarctic ice sheet, making this region an oasis of exposed rock in a seemingly infinite expanse of ice.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Kate Harris.

At first glance, the alien landscape is empty of all obvious signs of life. Nothing moves, nothing breathes, and you can’t help but think you’re the last human being — the last anything being — left on Earth. When ill-fated explorer Robert Falcon Scott first discovered Taylor Valley, he unflatteringly dubbed it “the valley of the dead.” Scott was disturbed by the mummified seal corpses that littered the valley floor, freeze-dried over centuries by bitterly cold, sere winds. Some of the seals died relatively recently, others are thousands of years old. All are well preserved, many with whiskers and fur still intact. It remains a mystery why seals occasionally launch themselves on lunatic pilgrimages up the valley, only to die miles from their sea-ice habitat. No one has ever reported witnessing a seal in the act of suicide, and so it is believed the fatal journeys take place during the long Antarctic night.

Despite the graveyard effect, closer inspection of the valley reveals life to be rampant. Algal mats cling tenuously to the bottom of perennially ice-covered lakes, deriving energy from the diffuse rays of sunlight that filter through the frozen lid. Endolithic microorganisms seek refuge from the desolate environs by colonizing the interiors of porous rocks. At the top of the Dry Valleys’ food chain are nematodes, microscopic soil-dwelling worms that enter a desiccated state of suspended animation when living conditions are unfavorable.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Kate Harris.

Life in the frozen wasteland of the Dry Valleys is fierce, robust, and tenacious. I’ve spent months exploring the tropics, where living things burst forth in all imaginable colors and proportions. But while the biodiversity of temperate regions is dazzling, I’ve always been more taken with desert places, where living isn’t so easy. To me, a single rare lump of algae floating in the subfreezing, briny waters of a pond in Antarctica is many times more poignant, dignified, and wondrous than an entire rainforest.

Antarctica hosts one of the least diverse ecosystems on the planet. Our research team studies this rudimentary system to glean insight into ecological processes in general. In Taylor Valley, the subtle processes and structures fundamental to most ecosystems aren’t obscured by higher plants and animals. Because this polar-desert ecosystem is so simple, the ultimate goal is to understand and model it completely. If scientists succeed, the model could provide a framework for understanding the intricate web of life in more lush, complex environments.

During the perpetual day of the austral summer, a team of scientists and I — outfitted with curiosity, wonder, and backpacks full of sampling bottles — surveyed the valleys for the strange and unique. We commuted to work in the morning in a helicopter, which delivered us to points of interest in the valley. Then we hiked for five or six hours to our designated pick-up point and scoped out the land for surface seeps along the way.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Kate Harris.

Although Taylor Valley is by definition a polar desert, water is ubiquitous during the relatively warm summer months. On a sunny day, waterfalls cascade off the ends of glaciers, feeding streams that eventually pour into the lakes in the bottom of the valley. While the streams and lakes in the Dry Valleys have been thoroughly studied, subsurface water seeps have been largely ignored, mostly because their role in a polar-desert hydrological cycle was expected to be minimal. But the seeps tell a different story.

Over the course of our explorations, we uncover at least five ephemeral seeps in Taylor Valley. In all cases, water oozed directly out of the ground, and there weren’t obvious glacial sources feeding the flow. Based on the geochemistry of the water samples, the seeps are supplied by melting ice stored below ground. Subsurface melt is typically enriched in solutes such as sodium, calcium, chloride, nitrate, and sulfate due to its long residence in the soil. But glacial melt is relatively depleted in those same solutes. The seep water we sampled has elevated solute concentrations compared to glacial streams in the vicinity.

From these early results, subsurface ice-melting appears to be common during the warm season in Taylor Valley. While these seeps contribute a small volume of water to the valley floor, especially compared to the streams, their ecological contribution is not insignificant. The seeps deliver a rich pulse of inorganic solutes and nutrients to the lakes, the hotbeds of life in the Dry Valleys, and the flows themselves are transient abodes for mosses and algae.

Although there is risk in extending the Mars comparisons too far, the Dry Valleys’ groundwater seeps support the hypothesis that the Martian gullies formed through the melting of subsurface water ice during a period of high obliquity — when the planet was oriented so that solar intensity was maximized. With enough ice and sunlight, and with the planet perfectly positioned, water could potentially have seeped onto the surface of Mars. And who knows, the seeps on Mars could have made possible the existence of a Martian ecosystem that’s similar to Antarctica’s.

Exploring an alien world by day, sleeping in a tent pitched in the shadow of a glacier by night, life in Taylor Valley was a polar scientist’s paradise. No paradise endures forever though, and a polar paradise can turn fierce fast. After a month of exploring Antarctica, it was time to go home. The sun had begun its slow descent to the horizon in a sunset that spans weeks. All the scientists and support staff scurried away to balmier climates. Before long, the seeps would freeze over, the nematodes would retreat into stasis, and the photosynthetic machinery of the microbes would crank down. The lethal cold would set in, the stars would powder the night, and the winds would rise and whirl throughout the Dry Valleys, now abandoned for the long Antarctic winter.

Clear weather made my escape from Antarctica far smoother than my arrival. We packed into the jet and took off for civilization, passing the hours thinking about fresh vegetables, hot weather, and the strange continent we were leaving behind. Scientist and explorer Douglas Mawson got it right when he wrote, “We came to probe the Antarctic’s mystery, to reduce this land in terms of science, but there is always the indefinable which holds aloof yet which rivets our souls.” By now, the ice was in my blood, and I spent the flight plotting how to return to the wild, frozen south. Eventually the loudspeaker crackled on. With irrational hope I imagined us being forced to boomerang back to Antarctica. No such luck. “Attention everyone, we’re preparing to land in New Zealand. As for a weather update, it’s seventy degrees and dark.”

Kate Harris was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.

Kate Harris is a senior biology major and Morehead Scholar at Carolina. An aspiring astronaut and polar scientist, she took a semester off to do field research in Antarctica through an internship with Berry Lyons of the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University.