Antarctic Science

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Antarctic Science (2009), 21:89-94 Cambridge University Press
Copyright © Antarctic Science Ltd 2009

Physical Science

Snow recurrence sets the depth of dry permafrost at high elevations in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica

Christopher P. McKaya1 c1

a1 Space Science Division, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA 94035, USA
Article author query
mckay cp [PubMed]  [Google Scholar]


Dry permafrost on Earth is unique to the Antarctic and is found in the upper elevations of the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Despite its widespread presence in the Dry Valleys, the factors that control the distribution of dry permafrost and the ice-cemented ground below it are poorly understood. Here I show, by a combination of theoretical analysis and field observations, that the recurrence of snow can explain the depth of dry permafrost and the location of ice-cemented ground in Antarctica. For data from Linnaeus Terrace at 1600–1650 m elevation in Upper Wright Valley a recurrence intervals of about two years explains the presence of ground ice at 25 cm depth, under 12.5 cm of dry permafrost. Snow recurrence periods longer than 10 years would create only dry permafrost at this site. The snow gradient in University Valley resulting from the windblown snow from the polar plateau creates a corresponding gradient in the depth to ice-cemented ground. On the floor of Beacon Valley, the presence of dry permafrost without underlying ice-cemented ground indicates snow recurrence intervals of more than 10 years and implies that the ancient massive ice in this valley is not stable. Snow recurrence may also set the depth to ground ice on Mars.

(Received February 20 2008)

(Accepted May 22 2008)

Key wordsBeacon Valley; ice-cemented ground; Mars; snow; University Valley