At the Mountains of Madness, concept art by Mcrassusart.
The Miskatonic University Expedition to Antarctica was lead by Professor William Dyer of the Geology Department at Miskatonic. Thus, is it not surprising that a large component of the Expedition was dedicated to “…securing deep-level specimens of rock and soil from various parts of the Antarctic continent…” Such exploratory investigations of Antarctica were certainly warranted in Lovecraft’s day. Only 0.4% of the entire continent is covered by exposed rock with the rest it being under ice. In order to obtain some rock and fossil specimens the expedition’s engineer, Professor Frank H. Pabodie, designed and built a durable yet light weight drill that could bore through rock but also have the capacity of melting ice through the use of copper electrodes.
I could find no reference of the use of copper electrodes in ice drill systems as a means of melting ice; however, more than likely Lovecraft gave rise to this idea through his general knowledge of chemistry. The thermal conductivity (the rate at which heat passes through a specific material, typically described as the amount of heat that flows per unit time) of copper is higher than zinc, brass, aluminum and steel so it melts ice the fastest among these metals.
When the Dyer – Pabodie Expedition reached Antarctica one of the first large-scale geologic formations they encountered were the Admiralty Range, which is a large group of high mountains located in Victoria Land. Other impressive landmarks were Mt. Erebus and Mt. Terror on Ross Island.
Mt. Erebus is the second highest volcano in Antarctica, being 12,448 feet high; Lovecraft estimated its height to be 12,700 ft high. Mt. Erebus has been an active volcano for at least 1.3 million years and is described as being a polygenetic (erupts repeatedly) stratovolcano (a conical volcano built by many layers of hardened lava, tephra, pumice and volcanic ash). Thus, in At the Mountains of Madness, when one of the graduate assistants Danforth notes the intermittent puffs of smoke and the lava flows along Mt. Erebus’s snowy slopes, Lovecraft is recognizing that this mountain is indeed an active volcano. Finally, Lovecraft describes the peak of Mt. Erebus as being scoriac; both S.T. Joshi and Leslie S. Klinger in their annotated analyses of Lovecraft’s text indicate that this word describes the dense chunks or jagged blocks of lava that are filled with holes due to gases forming bubbles. Again, this is another reference to the active state of Mt. Erebus.
A large portion of the initial drilling and geologic activity of the Dyer – Pabodie Expedition occurred at Mt. Erebus. Dyer briefly mentions how the expedition conducted several mineral borings on the slopes of Mt. Erebus and how Pabodie’s drill was successful at boring through solid rock as well as melting ice layers. In addition to observing the scoria lava structures, the expedition may have also noted fumaroles on the slopes of Mt. Erebus. These structures are openings in the Earth’s crust, typically associated with volcanoes. They release steam and gases that can include several sulfur-based gases. In contrast, the fumaroles found around Mt. Erebus form ice towers that produce very little methane or hydrogen sulfide. In fact, the ecosystems that exist in these fumaroles may be some of the most alien on Earth.
Ice Fumaroles near the slopes of Mount Erebus (www.ngssphenomena.com)
While the Antarctic fumaroles may be on a dry and cold continent, the air inside these structures may have 80 to 100% humidity. In addition, while the surface temperature at Mt. Erebus can commonly be -22oF, within the fumaroles the temperature can be between 32 and 48oF. These warm, moist conditions harbor communities of chemolithoautotrophic bacteria. Such organisms are not dependent on light to produce energy through photosynthesis like almost all ecosystems on Earth. Instead, these microbes utilize chemicals from the bedrock as a source of energy. These are the same types of bacteria that serve as the base of the food web for the deep sea hydrothermal vents; again, another ecosystem where photosynthesis cannot occur.
Various types of chemolithoautotrophic bacteria.
While ice fumaroles are not long-lasting structures, typically they are in existence for a few decades, one can imagine shoggoths using them to move through the Antarctic continent. With humid, warmer conditions, coupled with a possible source of energy (the chemolithoautotrophic bacteria), the shoggoths may have used the fumaroles as a sort of underground network for communication and travel. The fumaroles may have also been used as refuge against the Elder Thing masters; maybe the shoggoths also used the fumaroles as a means of plotting and spreading word about their developing rebellions.
The scoria rock produced by the volcanic activity of Mt. Erebus may have been some of the building material used by the Elder Things to build their great cities in the Mountains of Madness. This volcanic rock has been frequently used as a building material by humans, including the residents of Easter Island. Indeed, some of the statues on Easter Island are composed of scoria rock but most are composed of a soft volcanic rock called tuff.
Scoria rock found on Easter Island (www.natgeo.org)
In sharp contrast to Mt. Erebus, Mt. Terror is an extinct volcano and Lovecraft identified it as such in the story. He also describes it as “…white, ghost-like…” and that it has an altitude of 10,900 feet. Mt. Terror is a large shield volcano located on the eastern part of Ross Island and has numerous cinder cones and domes on its flanks, mostly covered under snow and ice. Based on Dyer, no geologic exploratory investigations were conducted at Mt. Terror.
At the Mountains of Madness by Earl Graey (www.deviantart.com)
Next time we will discuss the fossil findings of the Miskatonic University Expedition to Antarctica. Thank you – Fred.