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The last frontier

'Buried Ice' at 186 Carpenter
By GREG COOK  |  April 2, 2014

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"AN EXTREME PLACE" One of Heyward's panoramas.

They say that temperatures in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica haven’t been above freezing in millennia.

“This is the most constant environment in the world,” Keith Heyward tells me.

They’re eerie and epic landscapes, vast fields of rust brown rocks ringed by serrated mountain peaks frosted with snow, like a cross between Yosemite National Park and a snowy Monument Valley (where they shot many Hollywood Westerns), or something you might imagine from The Lord of the Rings. The rocks were left by the tops of ancient glaciers, which have in effect evaporated away, leaving expanses of stones.

“If you do just dig, you then find ice that has bubbles in it which is the atmosphere from 15 million years ago. Which is a big reason why they’re studying it,” Heyward says. “It’s the oldest ice in the world.”

That’s where the Providence photographer traveled last year with Boston University Antarctic Research Group. They lived in tents for 10 weeks, often just two or four people at a time in the barren wastes. What Heyward found is documented in “Buried Ice,” accompanied by drawings by Julia Liu of Providence, on view at 186 Carpenter (186 Carpenter St, Providence, through April 18).

“This is the last frontier,” Heyward says. “It’s the least visited place on earth. It’s the most extreme.

“The average temperature was like -5 Fahrenheit without wind chill,” he says. “The sun never sets, but at night if you’re in a place near a headwall you get in a shadow for a while and you can feet a drop of like 10 degrees.

“The valleys keep the clouds and precipitation from coming in,” Heyward adds. “It’s extremely dry. You can’t wash your hands with water because your hands will crack and get bloody.”

Heyward shot thousands of photos of the landscapes using cameras mounted on machines akin to the motorized telescopes used to follow distant stars. Then he ran all the pictures through software that digitally assembled the images into single panoramas or virtual spaces that you will be able to interact with much like Google Street View on a website he’s creating.

“The idea is to fascinate people with what it looks like, to give them an experience, but also give them all the information that the scientists have,” Heyward says.

At 186 Carpenter, some of Heyward’s super-high-resolution panoramas show the tents they stayed in, which appear terribly fragile against such elemental forces. Liu has made black-and-white comic book-style drawings of some of the landscapes. They feel like they’re traced — accomplished technically, but not big on feeling.

A couple of cylinders suspended from the ceiling have Liu’s drawings on the outside matching Heyward’s photos on the inside. Put your head inside for a 360-degree view. Samples of ferrar dolerite, orthoquartzite, and siltstone — some looking as much rock as metal — are displayed atop wood shipping crates.

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