History of Research at Lake Vida

Lake Vida was first discovered by Victoria University's (New Zealand) Antarctic Expeditions (VUWAE; 1958-59). The lake was then named after Vida, a sled dog on Robert Falcon Scott’s second (and fatal) expedition to reach the South Pole. Lake Vida is the largest lake of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, and yet remains one of the least studied.  For years it was presumed frozen solid. Scientists from New Zealand drilled into Lake Vida in the 1960’s and could not find liquid water.

During the 1990’s, Peter Doran, while doing Ph.D. research in the area as part of the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long term Ecological Research site, became curious about this result and decided to use ground-pentrating radar (GPR) across the lake to help confirm or deny the presence of liquid water beneath. Those results clearly showed a body of very salty water under about 60 feet of ice in the center of the lake. The New Zealand scientists had drilled near the edge of the lake where indeed the lake is frozen to the bottom. A year after the GPR survey, Peter Doran led a small research effort at Lake Vida in collaboration with Chris Fritsen and John Priscu, who were working under a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study life in extreme environments. Ice cores were collected down to a depth of 14 m. the cores showed a beautiful and diverse array of frozen microbial mats, sediment and gas bubbles. Some of the organic matter in the ice core was dated and suggests that the ice cover has a history spanning about 3000 years. At 14 m depth, the ice was wet and salty and a bit of the water pooled in the very bottom of the hole. Problems with our hole melting equipment prevented us from drilling deeper without risking contamination of the lake.

In 2005, a project supported by the NASA program Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets and led by Peter Doran had two objectives (i) develop a new ice drilling technology suitable for unmanned spaceflight and (ii) sample the saline waters of Lake Vida with the goal of assessing the chemical qualities of the waters and potential for life. Though the body of liquid water was not penetrated, we sampled brine entrained in the lower layers of the ice (16.5 m) that filled our borehole. From the information obtained from initial brine characterization, we have now a much clearer picture of how interesting this system is. [link to technical science summary

Historical Recap from Peter Webb, Geologist on the First Expedition to Victoria Valley


The VUWAE-01 party was a subset of the New Zealand Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Edmund Hillary. The Victoria Valley party comprised Dr Ronald Balham (Biologist), Richard Barwick (Biologist), Andrew Packard (Biologist), and Peter Webb (Geologist).  The first two were faculty members from the Department of Zoology at VUW, Packard was a guest scientist from the United Kingdom, Webb was an undergraduate student in geology from the Department of Geology at VUW. This was the first party to operate in the area.

During the summer season of 1956-57 the New Zealand Royal Air Force flight wing flew their Beaver an Auster aircraft over what later became known as Wright and Victoria Valleys and took low level reconnaissance photos. The large lake in the mid section of Victoria Valley was designated as the location for the four man party camp  the following season. In the 1957-58 season the camp site was  established at the western end of what was later named Lake Vida (Vida was a Scott Expedition 1910-13 husky).

The party flew into Lake Vanda in the US Navy Sikorsky helicopter “King Pin” as one very heavy load, also taking in a small rowing boat. The helicopter was so heavily laden that it couldn’t make enough elevation to get through Bull Pass and went back down Wright Valley and entered Victoria Valley over Clark Glacier. Open water existed only at the eastern end of the lake close to the camp site. The boat proved useful in this location. The remainder of the lake was ice covered as it is today.

The weather was mostly excellent for fieldwork. There was no snowfall but we did experience very high valley floor winds at times. Streams entering the eastern end of the lake were in flood for several hours a day. On his traverse to Lower Victoria Valley Peter Webb encountered a severe sand storm (in the region of the dunes on the northern side of Lake Vanda) and for a while enjoyed zero visibility and a good sandblasting. The party ranged all over the valley system on foot. This included visits to Lake Vashka, Upper Victoria Glacier, Sponsors Peak, Insel, and the peaks to the north and south (St Johns Range, eastern Olympus Range,etc). Panorama photos (360 degrees)) were taken from all peaks climbed; and the full length of Lake Vida was measured by step counts. Triangulation based on the panorama photos and length of the lake, which appeared in many pans, were later used to create a basic field map. These data and those from the TAE northern party were used when the first 250,000 scale topo maps were prepared by the NZ Lands and Survey and US Geological Survey.

The biologists concentrated on sampling lake water for micro-organisms, taking soil samples, algae and lichen samples. All members contributed to discovery, mapping and later carbon dating of numerous mummified seals and penguins. Much of this was later published in NZ. Peter Webb conducted the geological sampling and mapping program, used the data in his M.S, thesis, and published it in the NZ Journal of Geology and Geophysics in 1959.

Work in the Victoria and Wright Valleys area was continued by the VUWAE-2 (1958-59) and VUWAE-3 (1959-60) parties. Results from these three seasons of work was published in Nature, Journal of Glaciology, and the NZ Journal of Geology and Geophysics. Further information on these early days can be found in Colin Bull’s (2009) recent book “Innocents in the Dry Valleys” (Victoria University Press).