antarctica, Expedition

A narrative on Mount Erebus based on a NatGeo documentary (2002)

The southernmost active volcano on planet earth

In the icy seclusion of Antarctica, the hibernating continent, lies a portentous volcano, MOUNT EREBUS, most unpredictable by nature, bursting into ceaseless eruptions now and then, one of the most active volcanoes on earth. From the very first day, it was discovered by a group of New Zealand explorers, this volcano is the cynosure of many archaeological expeditions, but with all its vile, it made them a failure partial or total. Nevertheless, time will come when the science will prevail over this fierce monster, to unfurl an unknown world of Antarctica’s treasures and its history from the day of its formation. Probably this could lead us to know how this world was formed.

The location of Mount Erebus is to the southeast of Antarctica, almost near the International Date Line and about the latitude of 84oS. It is situated on the shore of the ROSS SEA, on ROSS ISLAND of the ROSS DEPENDENCY. Whereat the other side of the Ross Sea starts the Victoria Land, there stands the summit of Mount Erebus, known to be the southernmost active volcano in the world. It has drawn explorers from all over the world due to its uniqueness that of being active in the most sedate atmosphere. Along with this bizarre fact, it also assumed to hold the key to the history of this earth from the moment of genesis, or at least from the first ice age, when this vast continent was presumed to be formed. To uncover the theories of earth’s formation which, amongst a few, is a question that science couldn’t find an answer yet, a group of British scientists, archaeologists and volcanologists flocked to the Ross Island in the winter of 1992. Their primary objective was to watch Mount Erebus and collect the important data about the atmosphere inside the crater and other readings. At the beginning of winter every season, seawater starts to cool down; pure water crystallises as the temperature goes several degrees below zero and the water crystals gather together to solidify the surface of the sea. The temperature drops further below, crystals start to grow downwards from the outward layer over the seawater, same way as stalactites are formed in caves, and in the end of June, when temperature reaches –90oC, there lies a seven feet thick snow over the sea, increasing the area of the continent about 2/3 of its actual size. However, as the summer progresses, the sea-ice heats up and melts. During this cycle of crystallisation and melting, the only non-microscopic organism that survives the absolute inimical atmosphere is the WEDDEL SEAL – an animal that leads most of its life both above the ground and underwater as well. During winter times, when the surface is covered with a very heavy layer of ice, it bores a hole or rather does not allow to solidify the water around a small diameter by scraping the gathering ice by its long sabre-like canine teeth.

However, the journey of the explorers begins from the bottom of the seawaters, where the base of the Mount Erebus lies. At about 250m from the base (at the snow level), a hole of 1.5m diameter is dug to be able to reach the base of the volcano. As it was obvious that no living human being can go down as far as 400ft below sea level even if he puts his full gears on, an underwater automatic vessel made of light plastic is drowned in water. The vessel contained a high power underwater searchlight, a camera and sound recorders. Its motion is controlled from above, which is done through a 1” thick optical fibre cable. As the machine approaches 200ft mark the number of living organisms became lesser, but a Weddel seal accompanies the vessel through its path. In such a gloomy surrounding, where sunlight is prohibited to enter by dark forces of nature, storage of energy becomes a necessity, and this theory is exemplified by almost all the living organisms found below 300/400ft level. A sea spider of bright orange colour was caught by the camera, such a flamboyant thing, but what we are accustomed to seeing that a spider run very scurried, it barely moved its arms, when they are touched by the limbs of the vessel. Further down, the base is found, which is full of complicated silicate crystals. Plants are normally rare and most of them are of fern type plants. In a corner of stone was found an ice fish, an ash-coloured and striped fish, which made the scientists astonished before for its wondering features. This is the only vertebrate, whose colour of blood is not red. It has not been found yet, how it synthesises oxygen without the presence of some oxygen carrier like iron in its blood. The living organisms below this depth do not feed on the organisms that have high mobility; most of them live by consuming planktons, the microbial organism that feeds most of the sea animals elsewhere too. Most of the plants are of fern type, in contrary to the plants found in the normal seafloor, those colourful sorts. However, there is one plant of CRETINYDE type, which moves in water like hyacinths, but very fast and in a swirling motion. In this region, water and seabed are very rich in silica. As a result, the plants living there have a very high content of glass in their leaves and as a result, the moment light is focussed on the leaves they start to shine uncannily. Those leaves shimmering in the guttural darkness gives a creepy feeling. As the vessel approaches nearer to the base of the volcano, a world of amazing things unveils under the searchlight of the vehicle. At the bottom of the seafloor, it found much shining and very intricate designs of silicates made of nature’s caprices. If these designs were not fragile, they could fetch a very high price, almost as high as any other precious metal craftwork. These are formed primarily due to excess of silica in the soil at the seabed. Now since the base is found the vessel starts its ascent toward the layer of sea-ice. As the depth becomes smaller, living organisms start to appear just as they dwindled during the descent. Many ice fish were found because of the little warmth of this place than in the seawater. The landscapes there seemed as in any other sea level when it encounters a sharp ascent. Caves were formed and under the pressure of the waves, the approach towards the upper ridge looked like an undulating area. These landscapes are known as pressure waves. Within the hollow of the caves down the sea-ice stalactites were formed, principally made of ice crystals. These caves are more or less horizontally orientated, moving deep inside the base of the volcano. Within the niches of the pressure waves and the sea-ice, another astonishing wonder was discovered, the ANCHOR ICE. They are small flakes of normal ice, but to one’s amazement, instead of floating above the water it lays submerged in seawater. Experiments are being done to achieve this phenomenon artificially. When disturbed by a simple stir, they are not precipitated at the bottom but rather go up and join the crystals of sea-ice to form a larger icicle. After the exploration across the base of the Mount Erebus is completed, the vessel is drawn up and what it found will arguably enhance the oceanologists’ desire to come to Antarctica and unearth the hidden treasures.

Now it’s volcanologists’ turn has come to move up to the summit and carry on the main expedition. Mount Erebus stands a staggering 2000m high over the sea-ice and is continually erupting to a violent outburst of fumes. But the point of their interest lies about 200m down from the crater, the LAVA LAKE. Therefore, after climbing to the peak of the volcano, the team has to get down a further 200m down along a very steep slope, almost 70 degrees inclined. The first hurdle that the climber will face is the shortage of oxygen up there, and they need to be acclimatised before the actual move. Moreover, they have to climb the peak with full of their winter gears on. Therefore, that makes it tougher for them. The feasibility of good days compared to bad ones are about one after five or six bad days. So they did not bother to wait for the weather to better and made their journey start. On the day of the expedition, the team searched the rocky inclines towards the peak for a sign of life. It was obvious that no plants will be found there, except algae and fern, but even they are not found either. Instead, LICHENS are found, some of them as old as 10000 years. It’s being perceived that these LICHENS are the soul herald to the biographical changes that took place here in those times. The ascent of the first few hundred metres was easy as the path was covered by a motored sledge. Then it became harder and harder, as they had to climb their way to the top. On reaching the summit, some crews of the team put on the fire protection gears and prepared to climb down to the lava lake. The time of the expedition was chosen to be the winter because it was assumed that the eruptions would be a bit less sporadic. But as soon as they begin to descent, it burst to a cloud of volcanic ash and smoke as if to give them a hint what kind of a menace they are messing with. The inside of the crater is different on two sides. On one side the path is lesser steep to a 150m down and then take a steeper slope to the lava lake; another is a very steep wall of 200m down to the lake. The scientists decided to go through the first path but all on a sudden after getting down to about 100m from the crater, the volcano again burst into fumes. The SO2 gas suffocating, the rope turning mellow because of heat and foremost the intolerable heat made the mission fail for that day. When they climbed their way to the top some had their clothes burnt and torn, and were thought to have a narrow escape. A similar expedition was made in 1989 by a group of New Zealand government-endorsed scientists that have encountered the same bit of luck and came back empty-handed. However, humankind is endowed with a providence that makes them learn from their earlier failures and rectify it. Therefore, this time the team came with much more sophisticated machinery; they came with a machine that can traverse steeply terrains as well. The next day as the sun casts its gloomy light on the blank icy desert, the team made a new beginning with that machine, it went down as near as 50m from the lake but them the same fate reiterated and Mount Erebus erupted. As a result, due to the heat of the volcanic fumes, the electronic devices inside the machine failed, and the camera stopped to send the pictures. However, before its failure, it sent some photos taken from nearer distances than reached by the team members. They were later processed to give a view of the molten lava, almost immobile. But the geologists have something to cheer about and the whole world to gape in amazement when they had taken the atmospheric sample inside the crater. They have found in the fumes ejecting from the volcano some trace of gold, the element most sought after in the civilised world, and the composition was not very little. That might make fortune hunters jump on their feet, but the extraction would be so expensive that there is zero possibility of success. The surrounding air is full of SO2 and consequently, the rocky inclines are full of sulphates, sulphides, sulphites and other complex sulphur salts. The scientists, especially volcanologists, were disheartened, for their failure to have an insight of the volcano but it became clear that no other expedition teams could not succeed the hostile and vitriolic whims of Mount Erebus. A high speed i.e. fast-forwarding motion camera connected at the top of the crater for next few days was just going the substantiate that. After staying calm for only 7-8 hours it bursts into ashes and fumes. This event took place incessantly for the next few days.

Therefore, keeping the nights apart, the contingency of carrying out an expedition near the lava lake is very less. Only when science invents some fast-moving machines that can traverse the downslope in 2-3 hours and heat resistant up to the range of 1500oC and most important, when a whole gamut of intricate electronic gadgets or instruments will be made that operate without much aberration, then only will Mount Erebus untie its mysteries. Those hidden treasures that a clan of knowledge-thirsty people had been eyeing from time immemorial to capture. The group may not achieve the prospective target they had set, but they have opened the new vistas of knowledge that lay closed for years and inevitably show a new horizon to the world.


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