McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER


The McMurdo Dry Valleys are located on the western coast of McMurdo Sound and form the largest relatively ice-free area on the Antarctic continent.

About the Site

The McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER project (MCM) is an interdisciplinary study of the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in a cold desert region of Antarctica. This area was selected as a study site within the National Science Foundation’s Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) Program in 1992.

Arts/Humanities Programs and Activities

As part of the site’s current grant, they are writing a monograph called An Environmental History of the McMurdo Dry Valleys. This environmental history project seeks to document changing environmental perceptions of the McMurdo Dry Valleys alongside material changes to the Dry Valleys’ ecosystems from the first human sighting of the region in 1903 up to the present. These changes will be traced through international archival research, collaboration between scientists and historians, oral history interviews, and environmental history fieldwork techniques such as repeat photography. The historical records will include “artistic” as well as scientific responses to the Dry Valleys environment. For example, in 1988 the nature writer Barry Lopez wrote an essay on the Dry Valleys titled “Informed by Indifference”; the photographer Craig Potton has produced a book of photographs of the Dry Valleys entitled Improbable Eden: The Dry Valleys of Antarctica (2003); and Diane McKnight of the MCM team has written The Lost Seal (2006) as a contribution to the Schoolyard LTER series.

Research for this environmental history project began in 2011. The location of the MCM site clearly adds certain constraints to any research projects taking place in the region. Historically, relatively few people have visited the Dry Valleys. But as the environmental history proposal stresses, the relative simplicity of the region’s human history can be turned into an advantage for thinking about human-nature-culture interactions over time. The environmental history book will be published with an academic press and historical information will be available on the site’s website. 

The environmental history project is a core component of the MCM IV renewal proposal, and significant collaboration with the core science will take place. There will be a close relationship between the environmental history project and the existing MCM LTER education outreach program. This outreach program already has a significant artistic component, which has been ongoing for several years. The Publication in 2006 of Diane McKnight’s The Lost Seal has been a focal point of this activity. The book contains original artwork from children in grades 2-4 from 19 different elementary schools throughout the world. In addition, The Lost Seal website currently contains 490 pieces of original artwork submitted by students participating in the project, as well as photos of the dry valleys, and real-life video of the lost seal. The Lost Seal has a wide distribution through a trade market, for example being sold at Barnes and Noble under children’s fiction, and therefore reaches a diverse audience. The site is expanding these artistic outreach activities, with a particular focus on Spanish-speaking students in the United States and Latin America.

In addition to the site’s work on the environmental history of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, they frequently collaborate with participants in the National Science Foundation Artists and Writers program in Antarctica. Participants in the artists and writers program have various approaches for sharing arts/humanities outcomes.

The remote location of the McMurdo Dry Valleys creates certain constraints for artistic activities in the region. For example, Schoolchildren participating in The Lost Seal project have done so from outside the Dry Valleys. A good website with pictures, blogs, and stories is an effective way to overcome these difficulties, and we are working on ways to make the web-experience of the Dry Valleys even more fulfilling. In recent years we have also taken high school teachers to the Dry Valleys, so that they can share their experiences directly with students.

It is hoped that the MCM environmental history project will lay the foundations for further arts/humanities and social science integration at the MCM LTER site. The project will also lead to increased opportunities for collaboration with other LTER sites.

Learn more on the McMurdo Dry Valleys History website.