Earth Institute Research Projects

Collaborative Research: Landscape Evolution in the McMurdo Dry Valleys: Erosion Rates and Real-time Monitoring of Rock Breakdown in a Hyperarid, Subzero Environment

Lead PI: Jennifer Lynn Lamp , Dr. Joerg Michael Schaefer

Unit Affiliation: Geochemistry, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

May 2018 - April 2022
Antarctica ; McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica
Project Type: Research

DESCRIPTION: This research seeks to (1) characterize the primary drivers of rock breakdown, (2) better quantify erosion rates, and (3) determine the lithological and environmental factors that influence weathering and erosion in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Rock breakdown (cracking) will be recorded in real-time on in situ boulders using a custom acoustic emission monitoring system. By coupling acoustic emission data with micrometeorological measurements at and near rock surfaces, this study will directly test hypotheses relating to the environmental drivers of rock breakdown under this unique polar desert climate over short (minute to monthly) timescales. Cosmogenic nuclide techniques including a novel combination of 6 isotopes (Be-10, Al-26, He-3, Ne-21, Cl-36, C-14) together with rock property measurements (e.g., strength, elastic moduli, thermal properties) will be used to elucidate the complex relationship between long-term (kyr to Myr) boulder erosion rates, lithology, rock properties, and subaerial exposure duration. By synthesizing these measurements with short-term cracking data from the acoustic emission system, the proposed work will thoroughly examine which lithological and environmental factors and grain-scale processes are driving geomorphic evolution in the Dry Valleys. By constraining boulder erosion rates and determining their sensitivity to rock properties and age, the results will be directly applicable to cosmogenic nuclide exposure age studies in this region.

OUTCOMES: Article: Listening to Rock Music, The Antarctic Sun


National Science Foundation (NSF)




Missy Eppes, Kate Swanger


University of North Carolina - Charlotte, University of Massachusetts - Lowell



weathering erosion acoustic emissions


Earth fundamentals


Apr 18, 2019

Field Work Ends … For Now

Despite some unpredictable Antarctic weather, the final G-055 team member makes it off the ice.

Apr 09, 2019

Back in McMurdo Station

The Antarctic field team returns to humanity, showers, and hot breakfasts.

Apr 05, 2019

Snow Tornadoes, Wind Storms, and More

A team of scientists working in Antarctica faces a host of new challenges.

Feb 12, 2019

Dressing Boulders for Science

Attaching the sensors that will help us study erosion rates required vacuum grease, patience, and a lot of masking tape.

Feb 11, 2019

Camp Life in Antarctica and the Importance of Epoxy

From cooking to going to the bathroom, here’s what daily life is like in a remote Antarctic camp.

Feb 08, 2019

The Journey to Antarctica and a Week in McMurdo Station

After bad weather and a busy week of packing and preparation, the team is finally ready to strike out on its own in the coldest, driest, and windiest place on the planet.

Feb 06, 2019

Listening to Rocks Crack

The team is using two techniques to study weathering and erosion in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys.

Feb 05, 2019

Studying Erosion and Weathering in One of the Most Extreme Places on Earth

A team of scientists is measuring rock breakdown in the coldest, driest, and windiest place on the planet.