Paleolimnology of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica

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The McMurdo Dry Valleys presently contain more than 20 permanent lakes and ponds, which vary markedly in character. All, with the exception of a hypersaline pond, have a perennial ice-cover. The dry valley lakes, and lakes in other ice-free regions of continental Antarctica, are unique on this planet in that they consistently maintain a thick year-round ice cover (2.8-6.0 m) over liquid water. The persistent ice covers minimize wind-generated currents and reduce light penetration, as well as restricting sediment deposition into a lake and the exchange of atmospheric gases between the water column and the atmosphere. From a paleolimnological perspective, the dry valley lakes offer an important record of catchment and environmental changes. These lakes are also modern-day equivalents of periglacial lakes that were common during glacial periods at temperature latitudes. The present lakes are mostly remnants of larger glacial lakes that occupied the valleys in the past, perhaps up to 4.6 Ma ago. Two of the valleys contain evidence of being filled with large glacial lakes within the last 10000 years. Repeated drying and filling events since then have left a characteristic impression on the salt profiles of some lakes creating a unique paleo-indicator within the water column. These events are also marked in the sediments by the concentration and dilution of certain chemical constituents, particularly salts, and are also corroborated by carbonate speciation and oxygen isotope analysis. Stratigraphic analysis of dry valley lake sediments is made difficult by the occurrence of an 'old carbon' reservoir creating spurious radiocarbon dates, and by the high degree of spatial variability in lake sedimentation. From a biological perspective, the lakes are relatively simple, containing various taxa of planktonic and benthic microorganisms, but no higher forms of life, which is an advantage to paleolimnologists because there is no bioturbation in the sediments. Useful biological paleo-indicators found in the sediments include cyanobacterial filament sheaths, diatom frustules and other eukaryotic algal cells, protozoan cysts, photosynthetic pigments, and minerals (e.g. carbonates) associated with microbial activity. Future work will benefit from fully characterizing the connection between the ice covers, environmental conditions, and paleo-indicators, thereby allowing refinement of inferences made concerning the paleoenvironment. New dating techniques need to be tested in this environment to overcome the problems associated with radiocarbon dating. The establishment of a detailed and focused paleolimnological campaign is proposed. © 1994 Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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Journal of Paleolimnology

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