National Geographic : 2012 Jul
• get completely dressed; when it's 40 below outside, you don't sally forth in pajamas. For convenience, therefore, you stay in your tent and pee into bottles. When these are full, you go to the toilet tent and empty them. If they freeze---you're stuck. Meanwhile, there's nothing to do at Fang but talk to your tentmate and melt snow. And so it was that Herbold and I came to be discussing the funky archaea. " ey're so strange," Herbold says. "I just can't gure them out." Archaea are one of the three main branch- es, or domains, of the tree of life. ( e others are bacteria, and eukaryotes---organisms with nuclei in their cells, like plants, fungi, and ani- mals.) And although archaea can and do live in "We found them on Tramway, right under- neath the cyanobacterial mats," Herbold says. "But we don't know anything about their life- style." He pauses, then adds, " e cyanobacte- rial mats are creepy. ey look like matted hair that's been splattered on the ground and par- tially digested." As we talk, the wind begins to pick up. Soon it's too loud to hear each other. For the next 15 hours the wind hurls ice crystals at the tent and makes the walls rattle and ap. e only thing to do is lie huddled in the sleeping bag, listening. It's a relief when two days later we are deemed acclimated, the skies are clear, and a helicopter thuds into view. to Lower Erebus Hut is brief. But you arrive in a di erent landscape. Above, the crater of Erebus, steaming gently. Two buildings, the hut and the shed. An array of solar panels. And a row of fantastically shaped ice towers. e largest looks like an astronaut, and the others look as if they're following in procession. I'm not alone in seeing gures in the ice towers. Shackleton's men took a photo- graph of themselves with one that they thought resembled a lion. And as they surmised, the ice towers mark the sites of fumaroles---vents where the volcano releases hot, moist gases. When the moisture hits the cold air, it freezes, building structures that can be more than 35 feet tall. Lower Erebus Hut is simple---one room plus an antechamber for frozen food---but compared with Fang, it's a luxury hotel. Here's a typical eve- ning. Above the heater, a row of gloves drying. Herbold is in one corner, sterilizing equipment to take into the eld the next day. McDonald is bringing in a vat of snow to make more water. Cary is talking about how Erebus is part of a larger study of volcanic hot soils: ey already have soils from other Antarctic volcanoes, they went to Yellowstone last summer, and they plan to go to Costa Rica soon. Jehle is cooking. Peter is worrying about his cameras. Arnold is making a radio call to Scott Base. Moore is outside xing one of the snowmobiles. And I'm washing up and thinking about the immensity of the landscape. Are the microbes on Erebus unique, and did they come up from deep within the Earth? mundane places such as the open ocean, they are also celebrated for being extremophiles---life- forms that thrive in the most extreme environ- ments this planet has to o er. Such as boiling acid---that sort of thing. So it's not surprising that they should be lurking in the hot soils of Mount Erebus. But these archaea are particularly mysteri- ous. Found in soils that the group collected on previous trips to Erebus, so far they're known only from their DNA sequences, which bear little resemblance to those of archaea that have been discovered elsewhere. is suggests, per- haps, that they have indeed long been charting their own evolutionary course. Are they from the deep subsurface? It's too soon to tell.