Scientist returns to the Adirondacks after researching ecosystems in McMurdo Dry Valleys
By Chloe Bennett
Trudging through snowy woods at age 7, Lija Treibergs listened carefully to her father’s story about the rescue of a crew of explorers in Antarctica in 1916. Their ship named Endurance became lodged in ice and eventually sank below the surface, leaving 28 men without shelter. Four months after finding a temporary refuge on Elephant Island, Ernest Shackleton and five others sailed a wooden lifeboat 800 miles to South Georgia Island to find help, rescuing each crew member.
That story ignited a strong sense of adventure for young Treibergs, who traveled to Antarctica almost 20 years later and again in 2022 at age 33. She arrived back home in Saranac Lake in March after spending three months researching ecosystems in the McMurdo Dry Valley Lakes. The research station is run by the National Science Foundation.
Part of her time was spent at the station living among other scientists in a college-dorm-style environment while the rest of her work took place in the dry valleys where she and other researchers lived in tents. Their days began around 3 a.m., Treibergs said, and would end between 9 p.m. and midnight.
The research was part of a broader mission by the Long Term Ecological Research Network to study ecosystems across time. Keeping records and analyzing data over long periods helps scientists advance their understanding of climate change, Treibergs said, especially in the dry valleys’ unique environments.
“This ecosystem is one that fits into this very narrow temperature regime, and so it is likely to feel the effects of climate change pretty acutely,” Treibergs said.
Treibergs, a full-time researcher with the Adirondack Watershed Institute, experiences the effects of climate change on personal and professional levels. Part of her move to the Adirondacks was inspired by her love of winter, which has shortened with earlier ice-outs on lakes, she said. But being in Antarctica during its summer months only deepened her appreciation for the park’s winter.
“People think of winter as very harsh, but I find that there’s this softness to it,” Treibergs said. “The way that the world can get covered in snow, and every time that happens, it’s like this fresh blanket.”
Although she was fulfilling lifelong dreams of researching in Antarctica, Treibergs missed some comforts. During the season she stayed at McMurdo Station, fresh fruits and vegetables became scarce and researchers relied mainly on packaged goods.
“It’s really amazing what the galley staff can do with all of that, but I think your body is like, all right, I just need like some leaves,” Treibergs said.
A typical day of field work
Seeing how another research team operated was enlightening for Treibergs, who started with the Adirondack Watershed Institute in March 2020. She said researchers with McMurdo Station faced similar challenges with data collection as those tackled at AWI.
“It just strikes me again, how much work it takes to have a long-term monitoring program, which is something that we are doing here and trying to develop and strengthen,” Treibergs said.
Zoe Smith, executive director of AWI, said The Long-Term Ecological Research Network in Antarctica and AWI share the same goal of assessing threats such as climate change. “We are fortunate that Lija was able to gain valuable experience working with a diverse research team while participating in this world-wide research network,” she said in an email.
Being immersed in her research and having little contact with her friends and family was another challenge. Treibergs used email to connect with people back home for most of the trip, though a trial of SpaceX’s satellite internet, Starlink, allowed her to message others and check social media. But by the time she was done with her work, it was evening in the Adirondacks and Massachusetts, where her friends and family live. Living untethered to her cell phone had its perks, though.
“We’re all connected to our phones more than we think,” Treibergs said. “And so yeah, it did feel good to just not even have my phone with me.”
Organic smells are rare in Antarctica. Treibergs, who stopped in New Zealand before returning to New York, said she was struck by an array of senses when her first plane landed in Christchurch. It was dark and rainy and Treibergs could smell the Earth again. Her hands felt different, too.
“Your skin is no longer cracked and bleeding from the dryness,” she said.
Although the Adirondacks and the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica are distinctly different, Treibergs said both places are fascinating. As a child, the vision of Shackleton’s rescue sparked her imagination. As an adult, the wilderness of the Adirondack Park called her home.
“There’s something about these vast, remote, incredibly wild places that I’m very drawn to,” Treibergs said.
The water researcher said going back to Antarctica may be unlikely, but she wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to conduct research at McMurdo Station again.
“I think part of me will always want to go back,” Treibergs said.
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