New rules for Erebus living ice caves

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 16:05 06/11/2012

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Discovery of dozens of unexplored caves on Mount Erebus, towering over New Zealand’s Antarctic Scott Base, has led to tight new rules being imposed on those who want to explore them.

The Antarctic Sun (antarcticsun.usap.gov ), published by the US Antarctic Programme, said about 250 caves may exist on 3794 metre high Mount Erebus, and some of them, warm and dark, contain life.

It described them as one of Antarctica’s most mysterious phenomena with the caves created by the volcano’s steam, like giant blue-white irregular baubles of blown glass.

The US National Science Foundation, which operated out of McMurdo Base near Scott Base, said they were creating a code of conduct to ensure that the scientific values represented by the ice caves, from biological to geological, were protected.

“They’re one of the more vulnerable areas because they have warmer soil temperatures, which means they can be more easily harmed by more temperate plants and microbes,” said the foundation’s environmental policy specialist Adrian Dahood.

New Mexico Tech PhD candidate Aaron Curtis has discovered that gas and steam escaping from the flanks of the Erebus through fissures called fumaroles.

The steam carves structures through the ice and play an important role in how gas and heat escape from Erebus.

Outside Erebus the surface temperature is about minus 33 degrees Celsius with almost no humidity.

Inside the caves the temperature is about zero and humidity up to 100 per cent.

Antarctic Sun said microorganisms existed inside the caves despite the lack of light.

A Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist, Hubert Staudigel said they would find “a pristine environment” in the caves and they contained extreme life.

Some research and visits by mountaineers had already contaminated some caves.

Crumbs, or smoking, had caused damage, and Dahood said they now wanted to restrict activity until they have a code of practice.

NSF want a moratorium on all visits unless for scientific research and when scientists go inside they have to wear special anti-contamination suits.

Dahood said the US was also working with New Zealand to develop Antarctic Specially Protected Areas on Erebus and on Mt Melbourne, to the north, to protect three high-altitude geothermal areas into a single, more comprehensive management plan.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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