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Sound Recording Adventures in Antarctica (2): Sounds of Antarctic Glaciers and Rock
by Douglas Quin

(Editor's note: NSS member Doug Quin returned from a recording trip to Antarctica earlier this year. The following article is the second in a series of sound recording adventures from the frozen continent down under.)

November 28, 1996

Paul Langevin, from Jasper, Alberta, is a biologist who studied at the University of Calgary. With a background in mountaineering, Paul had been with the Park Service, but somehow had found his way to Antarctica to work on the LTER Glacier Project. Rather than dealing with tourists and bureaucracy, Paul now dealt with glacier mass, glacial melt, and energy balance at the earth's frozen southern edge. Paul has a wonderful, offbeat sense of humor, and a generous spirit. When he invited me to accompany him on his study rounds to Taylor Glacier, therefore, I jumped at the opportunity. Paul arranged for us to fly out to Taylor, and intimated that I just might run into some extraordinary sounds on our trip. He mentioned a place he called "Singing Rocks," at the terminus of nearby Hughes Glacier, above Lake Bonney. He showed me black and white photos of "ventifacts," large boulders sculpted by the wind into fantastical shapes. In a good wind, I reasoned, such rocks might, indeed, produce nice edge tones. It certainly was worth a visit to see, and to possibly hear, the "Singing Rocks."

On our appointed morning, Paul and I packed, ate a leisurely breakfast, and met up with Rich, our helo pilot. Climbing aboard, we soon were airborne, and Rich whisked us up the frozen valley. It was clearing, and Rich was happy to be flying again, after losing a couple of days to inclement weather.

We flew over a route I had hiked just the day before, passed along the far side of Suess Glacier, over Mummy Pond, past the Matterhorn, Matterhorn Glacier, Lacroix Glacier, and over Lake Bonney, where limnologists had set up camp. Banking around the Bonney Riegel, a promontory at the head of the lake, we could see the tip of a huge icy expanse -- Taylor Glacier! Soon Blood Falls appeared, an iron-rich deposit at the glacier's terminus. The red and orange facade of Blood Falls stood in striking contrast to the monochrome grey and white of surrounding landscape. We touched down near a cairn at Blood Falls. After helping unload gear, Rich quickly was in the air again. He had errands to run, and would return in several hours to pick us up. Now on our own, Paul and I assembled backpacks, crampons, ice auger drill, and survival bag as Rich's helo faded in the distance. Paul was preparing to plant stakes, bamboo poles with green flags, and to take photographs which could document the glacier's movement. For my part, I wanted to submerge a hydrophone and record the sounds of a frozen glacial pond. So Paul and I started off in the direction of an ice-covered tarn, about halfway up the glacier front, behind the ridge of a moraine. I found myself in an otherworldly corner of the universe, with eroded ice all around. To do this, Paul tested the ice, helped me set up, but soon was off, disappearing around the terminus with his green-flagged poles. I settled in to record. I placed my hydrophone six inches below the ice (just half an inch thick where we had broken through), adjusted my headphones, and activated my recorder.

Above the pond's surface, before starting to record, everything had been tranquil. Below the ice, I thought, conditions would be similar. I had anticipated an afternoon of hearing sparse, singular events: an errant piece of ice breaking off or, if I were lucky, the explosion of calving ice. I was stunned by the sounds which emerged from the icy pond. The quotidian drama of glacial movement is not measured in big bangs. It is a display of discrete choruses; a squeaking, popping, and whistling that occurs over all the glacier. It is a series of intertwined ostinati that play continuously as tension builds and is released. The crackle of the pond's expanding and contracting surface ice came through to me, as did the rumble of meltwater coursing underneath, pushing stones, pebbles and sand along the pond bottom. From time to time, a low, tympanum boom echoed from the deep recesses of the glacier itself. Only occasionally did I hear "overtures" in this symphony of ice and water. But the music from my glacial pond never ceased.

Time flew by, and I immersed myself in a surreal aural world. Eventually, however, Paul's footsteps became a louder and louder component of the glacier's symphony. His work completed, Paul had descended to the pond with his equipment. Placing my phones on his head, I watched the amazement on Paul's face as I played back, for him, the voices of the glacier; a glacier Paul often had measured, but never before had heard.

Paul and I packed and returned to Blood Falls, just in time to meet Rich's helo. Having a few hours to kill, Rich was happy to set down at Hughes Glacier terminus, and to explore, with us, the "Singing Rocks." When faced with something new and unfamiliar, one often models, and seeks analogies. But nothing quite prepared me for the sculptured stones nature had rolled, pushed, and finally dropped halfway up the valley walls. These ventifacts were aeolian-shaped wonders, randomly distributed on a slight incline at the end of the Hughes. For me they conjured up a sculpture garden, with works by Moore and Naguchi, or a architectonic phantasmagoria by Gaudi. It was as if nature, not to be outdone, had created her own Easter Island.

As a gentle breeze wafted by, I realized that these rocks, indeed, could "sing." The wind would have to be much stronger, however, if I were to record a chorus. As we ambled among the wind sculptures, Paul noted some stones had been worn to less than a quarter inch thickness. When hit, these wafer-thin rocks produced indeterminant pitches that resonated through their entire structures. I attached some contact microphones, and, with delicate finger taps, we created a symphony in stone. We were drumming at the edge of the Earth!

Following our impromptu "rock concert," Paul, Rich, and I viewed Mount J. J. Thompson at a distance across the valley. We explored a bit, Paul and Rich hammed it up for the camera, and close to 4:00 pm we boarded Rich's helo and made for Lake Hoare camp.

Both the scientific and the domestic side of antarctic life were flourishing at Camp Hoare. Ray, Emily and Nate had returned from a successful field trip to Lake Fryxell, and were storing samples in field laboratory huts. Dale, Peter, Ian and Rob finally had a dive hole set up for next-day exploration. By way of contrast, Paula was on a roll with her cooking, and surprised everyone with a delicious scallop and shrimp pasta dish, saturated with garlic and white wine sauce. Nate, whose mother was getting remarried that weekend, was attempting an outside telephone link to the U.S. With incipient wedding plans of his own, Nate also wanted to talk with his fiancee, Denise. Usually wondrous phone connections are possible from Lake Hoare. That evening - no luck! The gods of intercontinental communication were not smiling upon us.

Later that evening the sky cleared, and sunlight streamed down the valley and onto Canada Glacier. I made my way to ice edge, and set my hydrophone three feet deep into an ice boring on the apron of the glacier terminus. I was seeking an auditory perspective different from that of Taylor Glacier. It was warm by Antarctic standards, somewhere in the mid 20°'s F. The sun had been blazing for a couple of hours, and sounds of melting and cracking pervaded my headphones. I found a sandy spot on the moraine, sat back, listened, and recorded in the fading light. I climbed into my tent at 11:30 pm, just as the camp generator was cutting off. In an instant I was falling asleep, exhausted, but content, after a day of recording the mystical sounds of Antarctic glacier and rock.

Articles from Winter 1997

  Letter From The Chair

Editor's Note: The NSS Website

Sound Recording Adventures in Antarctica (2): Sounds of Antarctic Glaciers & Rock

Earprints on the Air: New Radio Show Gives Air Time to Nature Sounds

Spring Tech Talk & the Sounds Of Antarctica

Lucky 13! - 13th Annual Field Recording Workshop Review

The Niche Hypothesis: Creature Vocalizations and the Relationship Between Natural Sound and Music

Long Live Analog! Great Deals in Used Nagras

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