Thursday, April 14, 2011

Antarctica: Stromatolites and Rompehielos

Over on Wired today you can catch a quick report on some fascinating conical mounds in Lake Untersee, Antarctica.  Evidently, stringy cyanobacteria accumulate on the bottom of the lake floor over thousands of years, forming meter high mounds known as stromatolites.  Stromatolites are layered accretionary structures formed in shallow water by the trapping, binding and cementation of calcium carbonate and sedimentary grains by the biofilm of cyanobacteria colonies.  Obviously.  This film continues to grow upward through the accumulated layer, continuing the process. 
[alternative reef structure:  stromatolites in Shark Bay in Western Australia]

[Antarctica from space- the Untersee is under there somewhere]

This is awesome, but the question arises:  who cares, other than the supernerds at wired?  Stromatolites actively form in a few far-flung places such as volcanic Andean lakes, under-ice Antarctic lakes, and Shark Bay in Western Australia, and are evidently some of the oldest fossils around; the earliest examples date back a solid 3 billion years to the Archean Period.  In addition, they formed the first reefs which likely enabled foundational ecologies critical to life as we know it.  Understandably then, scientists like to study these current stromatolites for clues about the beginning of life on Earth. 

We love that the concept of “incredibly beautiful microbial landscapes” and are drawn in by the prospect of imagining what else might be underneath the frozen ice sheets of Antarctica, just awaiting a good thaw.  Given our interest in the southern cone, we’ve kept an eye on the Antarctic Peninsula in recent years.  The Peninsula is a continuation of the Andean "magmatic and deformation belt" and its close proximity to the city of Ushuaia, Argentina means that it shelters a cluster of scientific and tourist stations.  The Peninsula is also one of the areas in the world most affected by global warming


[the mean surface temperature of the Antarctic Peninsula has increase about 2 degrees Celsius since the period from 1940-1980; almost as drastic as the north pole] 
[the construction of the Argentine Belgrano Base on western Antarctica, in 1955; image source from the excellent histarmar.com.ar]

Given this, we can’t help but wondering what a future settlement might look like on Antarctica.  It could be a futuristic sci-fi terrestrial dystopia straight out of Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 classic Last and First Men:  A Story of the Near and Far Future, or a more post-apocalyptic dune-scape excerpted from a Cormac McCarthy novel.  Given recent patterns of settlement and colonization, it will likely be a strange brew of historical temperate colonization culture smashed together and cooked up with a 6 months light/6 months dark solar cycle.

Whatever the result, we can be sure that the rompehielos will play a fairly important role.  Rompehielos, or “icebreakers”, are ships designed to smash through the great ice sheets that ring Antarctica, maintaining Napolean-like lines of communication to the scientific bases as well as guiding tourist ships.  Rather than plowing a furrough directly into the ice sheet, the hulls are shaped and weighted to climb up on the ice and then use the weight of the boat to smash down through it like an overweight walrus humping its way across the beach.  You laugh, but the ability to cross the wicked currents of the Drake passage, smash through thousands of kilometers of ice, and overwinter while frozen into the Larson Ice Shelf and still supporting a crew yet not being crushed by the expanding ice is impressive.  The bases of Antarctica deserve their own praise, but the rompehielos are what catch our fancy.
[it's a cold and lonely life as a rompehielo.  also an awesome one with it double hull and ice horn and diesel powered engines]

[lord shackelton's Endurance expedition to Antarctica was not able to withstand the extremes; the Endurance froze into the see and was eventually busted by the winter ice]

[the Argentine rompehielo Almirante Irizar, moored in Buenos Aires for repairs]

In the Antarctic continent, and other extreme locations, it is easy to be fascinated by the microbial life forms, but we hold that landscape architects should consider microscopic agents in everyday field situations as well.  As we scurry around looking for methods and advantages in combatting environmental degradation or regenerating biological and social processes, we might look to the fungus and the bacteria, leaning on the mycologist and the brewmaster just as much as the planner and the engineer.
[future landscape architects, looking for some rad microbes to cultivate]

2 comments:

  1. Upon sharing this post, Fred Scharmen pointed me to Charles Stoss's "A Colder War", which looks like a really entertaining bit of contemporary Cold War military infrastructure porn set around Lake Vostok (after skimming rather than reading it). Have to love a line like "Behind the tanks sprawl a formation of four low-loaders: huge tractors towing low-sling trailers, their load beds strapped down under olive-drab tarpaulins".

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  2. nice. thanks for that, rob. that line is lyrical like john donne's "as virtuous men pass mildly away..."

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