Revised Policies and Maps Ensure Environmental Protection of Antarctic Dry Valleys

A semi-permanent field camp in Taylor Valley. Photograph by: Peter Rejcek Larger view.

By Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Sun Editor - There are few places in Antarctica as heavily researched as the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the largest ice-free region on the continent. The area is home to unique ecosystems that range from the saltiest lake on Earth to a microhabitat of ancient microbes that live under a glacier.

The 15,000-square-kilometer area now boasts the most comprehensive environmental management plan under the Antarctic Treaty system to ensure all of its scientific values are safeguarded in the future, according to Nate Biletnikoff, Raytheon Polar Services Co. (RPSC) environmental engineering department manager.

"The primary purpose of a management plan is to protect the values that are specific to a particular area," Biletnikoff said. "There are many exceptional scientific values to protect in this area, not to mention the intrinsic value of this natural wilderness area. There is much to consider: our helo activities, our logistics activities, our field-camp management activities, and our science activities."

RPSC is the prime contractor to the National Science Foundation (NSF), which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP). The United States is one of 48 nations that is party to the Antarctic Treaty, an international agreement that went into effect 50 years ago to ensure the continent was reserved for peaceful purposes with an emphasis on scientific research.

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty -- signed nearly 20 years ago and entered into force in 1998 -- established various policies and procedures for preserving the continent's resources and minimizing human impact.

Scientists conduct research in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the largest ice-free region in Antarctica. The site receives environmental protection under the Antarctic Specially Managed Area designation. The ASMA plan was recently revised. Photograph by: Peter Rejcek

The McMurdo Dry Valleys, under the environmental protection system, was one of the first sites to become an Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA) in 2004. The designation comes with a detailed plan of how various activities within an ASMA should be conducted. The plans are reviewed every five years.

The revised management plan for the Dry Valleys ASMA was presented to a forum of the Antarctic Treaty members earlier this summer in Buenos Aires, an annual gathering known as the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM).

The revised management plan not only refines the various zones defined within the ASMA, but it includes a new set of maps made from high-resolution satellite imagery that serves to better protect the environment thanks to improved accuracy.

"The maps are highly accurate compared to the maps we had for the previous management plan," Biletnikoff said, referring to an older set of U.S. Geological Survey maps.

RPSC worked with subcontractor Environmental Research & Assessment (ERA) in the U.K. and Antarctica New Zealand to produce the revised Dry Valleys ASMA management booklet. RPSC surveyor Jeff Scanniello was particularly instrumental in providing coordinates for the ASMA facilities zones, which include areas that contain infrastructure such as semi-permanent field camps or helicopter landing pads, Biletnikoff said.

"We re-baselined exactly what our current environmental footprint is, so we can accurately assess potential changes to footprint in the future, as part of the decision-making process," he added.

The work was conducted in collaboration with Antarctica New Zealand, which jointly submitted the revised management plan for the Dry Valleys ASMA, one of seven ASMAs that have been established since 2004. New Zealand also took the lead in developing a new website for the Dry Valleys ASMA that includes the revised management plan, photos and updated news.

In addition, the Polar Geospatial Center (PGC), an NSF-funded center that provides geospatial services to support Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, has produced a Dry Valleys atlas covering the entire area in collaboration with ERA.

"I wholeheartedly believe that this is the most detailed plan to date [for an ASMA]," Biletnikoff said.

While the thrust of all that high-tech mapping and geospatial information system (GIS) data collection is on environmental protection, Biletnikoff noted that the work also has scientific applications. For example, the maps that PGC are producing are so accurate that researchers can monitor lake levels in the Dry Valleys from one year to the next.

"We have long-term ecological monitoring ability," he said. "PGC has the ability to pull images at any given time for almost any given place on the Antarctic continent."

The Taylor Valley is the site of a nearly 20-year study called the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research program that monitors the lakes and streams, soils and other parts of the polar desert ecosystem.

The revised management plan identifies scientific zones and restricted zones, which used to be grouped under the more general term of special features.

"There's ongoing scientific research in those particular zones that other people should be aware of, so when they're planning to go to those areas they don't interrupt or harm the types of data being collected out there," Biletnikoff said.

Restricted zones are sites of high scientific value that are particularly sensitive to human disturbance. For example, Don Juan Pond in Wright Valley boasts a salinity level of about 40 percent, making it the most saline natural body of water on the planet.

The management plan also lists previous activities at the site -- such as a borehole that was drilled adjacent to the pond -- and restrictions for helicopter operations in the area.

The USAP has additionally taken the lead on the ASMA management plans at two other locations -- the geographic South Pole and a marine area designated as Southwest Anvers Island and Palmer Basin -- where it maintains research facilities. Biletnikoff said his team would continue revising both of those plans next fiscal year.

One focus for the former will be on ensuring that the installation of new high-tech projects at the South Pole, which supports a number of astrophysics and atmospheric experiments, don't cause any disturbances to other scientific research, such as electromagnetic interference.

The Palmer ASMA plan revisions include an ambitious effort to collect detailed ground data on the location of seabird communities and other sensitive areas within the 2,700-square kilometers of the protected area.

"One particular aspect we are focusing on recently that is related to the ASMA management plan is oil spill contingency planning and response," Biletnikoff said.

The area has a high volume of vessel traffic from several other national Antarctic programs, as well as tour ships. The goal is to be able to determine the possible effects from an oil spill in the region based on data about prevailing ocean currents, islands in the vicinity and wildlife locations.

"In the event of a spill, this in turn will help prioritize which areas are likely to require response measures first and how best to manage available resources," he explained.

The coming year will also likely see the United States propose a new Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) to the ATCM in 2012. An ASPA protects outstanding environmental, scientific, historic, aesthetic or wilderness values, or a combination of those values, or ongoing or planned scientific research. A permit is required to enter an ASPA. Currently, there are 71 ASPAs around the Antarctic.

Blood Falls could become No. 72, if approved by the Antarctic Treaty nations.

Blood Falls is a waterfall-like feature that flows from Taylor Glacier over Lake Bonney, one of several ice-covered lakes in the Dry Valleys. The falls are red because they draw water from an iron-rich pool beneath the glacier, where scientists have discovered a unique microbial community.

Biletnikoff said discussions are still under way to define the boundary of the proposed ASPA. "We want to ensure that we're protecting this natural resource but at the same time we need to establish consensus on the extent of the area based on the best available scientific evidence."

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