The real mystery of the Gamburtsev Mountains is their origin. Their presence in East Antarctica does not fit into our existing understanding of the geologic history of Antarctica. The Soviets' identification of these mountains was equivalent to an archeologist finding a fully suited astronaut inside a pyramid. Our current understanding of the sequence of geologic events in East Antarctica indicates the last evidence of large-scale tectonics was over 500 million years ago. Since then, East Antarctica has been basically a pretty boring place geologically. A 500-million-year-old mountain range old should have been worn away by now. Either the tectonic history of the Antarctic continent is wrong or something special about these mountain ranges has kept them from being eroded flat as a pancake.
It intriguing to think that the ice sheet has protected these mountains, but the ice sheet is only 35 million years old—the blink of an eye geologically. Maybe these mountains are much younger than we think or perhaps there is something about East Antarctica we do not know. A mantle plume producing vast outpourings of lava like Hawaii or Iceland or maybe something new in the sliding about of the global plates. We should have a much better idea soon.
Our equipment is waiting in large aluminum boxes at McMurdo Station, the U.S. base perched on the flanks of a large active volcano. The Twin Otter aircraft will arrive tomorrow and the process of turning this rugged little commuter aircraft into an airborne imaging system on skis will begin. The British are awaiting the arrival of their aircraft, now slowly moving down the coast of South America. Soon we will be able to begin to answer questions about the roots of these mysterious mountains. While Lovecraft's team was terrified of alien beings, we must now worry about weather across an entire continent, equipment failures and altitude sickness.
Looking For a Lake
When you walk through the woods toward a lake, first you will often see ducks, loons, mergansers or other waterfowl flying intently towards the water. Soon you may notice marshy wetlands. Getting closer, you will hear the harsh rattling call of the kingfisher waiting to skewer a fish from the lake. As the trees thin, the horizon will open and the waters of the lake will stretch before you.
Walking toward a subglacial lake, there are far fewer clues. There are no trees to obscure your vision, only white snow and blue sky in every direction. The only hint of the lake will be when your colleague walking a quarter of a mile ahead suddenly disappears into a 15-foot- (4.6-meter-) deep moat. This 2.5-mile- (four-kilometer-) wide moat is the result of the ice sheet "sagging" as it goes afloat over the lake. There will be few other clues of the lake beneath your feet. The two miles (3.2 kilometers) of ice effectively hides the underlying terrain and the winged waterfowl have long ago fled these Antarctic lakes.
Appreciating a subglacial lake requires a little more distance to get perspective on the vast, apparently featureless ice surface. The first person to get a little distance was a Russian pilot, who transported scientists and engineers between the Soviet camps in East Antarctica in the 1950s. Staring out the window when the sun was low, he began to notice that there were large, extraordinarily flat places in the ice sheet. He catalogued these sites on the aviation maps with the hopes of writing a thesis on the phenomena upon his return to Moscow. Unfortunately, he was killed in a crash and subglacial lakes were relegated to myth status in the polar community.