Though we spend a good amount of time in the field, a lot of our time is also spent in the lab, analyzing the invertebrates in the soil samples for each field experiment. We do this by processing and counting nematodes and the other microorganisms we see down here.

Processing essentially just means extracting the nematodes from the soil matrix, so we can easily see them under the microscope. It’s a fairly simple process that involves three members of the team working together in an assembly line. First, each sample is weighed inside a laminar flow hood then divided for extraction for nematodes and soil moisture analysis. To measure the amount of water in the soil, a small amount of soil is weighed, placed in an oven, dried, then weighed again. Soil moisture is an important indicator of life in this ecosystem, and is very useful for interpreting the results of our experiments later on.

The other portion of soil goes off to a second person to be filtered: we mix the soil in water and then apply the muddy mixture to two sieves of different sizes, stacked on top of each other. The top sieve has holes large enough to let nematodes through, but too small for most of the dirt and rocks. The bottom sieve uses a mesh fine enough to catch nematodes and similarly sized dirt particles, but allows really fine grains to fall out of the sample.

Next, the third person in the line takes four filtered samples and centrifuges them all at once: the centrifuge pulls all the soil and the nematodes down to the bottom of the container so that we can pour out any leftover water. When that’s done, we add a sugar solution that is key to the whole process. The sugar separates the nematodes from the dirt and sand, pulling them up into a supernatant that can be selectively removed, leaving behind the unwanted soil. This is possible because of density: the nematodes are as dense as the sugar and float, while the rocks and the dirt are denser and sink. Once the sugar is added, the samples are passed back to the person doing the sieving, who removes sugar by filtering them in running water through a very fine sieve and placing the final solution (containing both water and nematodes)into tubes that are immediately refrigerated. The entire extraction process can be very stressful on the organisms in the samples, and so we try and do everything we can to get them through as quick as possible and back into a more natural environment (the fridge).

After processing, each sample is analyzed under the microscope and every animal is identified to species and life stage (male, female and juvenile) and living or dead and counted. This can take only a few minutes (if the sample is completely empty) or nearly an hour. There are three main species of nematode here in the Dry Valleys that we deal with in the lab: Scottnema lindsayae, Eudorylaimus antarcticus, and Plectus murrayi. Scottnema is by far the most common because most of the soils are very dry; the other two species need more moisture and thus show up much more rarely. Sometimes, w e also see rotifers and tardigrades, as well as tiny single-celled eukaryotes like ciliates and amoeba.

When we compare the species that are present in each sample to the moisture content of the sample, we begin to see patterns of how the physical factors of the soil affect species composition (which species are present in a given location). When we take these patterns from year to year and compare them to records of weather and climate we begin to see long-term patterns of how climate shifts and extreme events (like hot summers and subsequent valley “flooding” events) influence the ecology of the organisms living in these valleys. This is one of the main tools, and objectives, of the McMurdo Dry Valley LTER.



This is a species of Eudorylaimus; they are usually much longer than Scottnema or Plectus nematodes.




This is Scottnema lindsayae; these are only found in Antarctica and like the other nematodes there (Plectus, Eudorylaimus) are capable of surviving due to anyhydrobiosis, which allows them to expel the water in their body and roll into a tight ball and reduce their surface exposure to wind and cold. Tardigrades and rotifers can also enter anhydrobiosis.



This is a species of rotifer; compared to the nematodes in these valleys, very little is known about Rotifers. They get their name because the cilia on their mouths move in a way that it looks like they have rotors on their heads.


This is the front half of a tardigrade. Tardigrades have 8 legs and are related to nematodes and arthropods (like insects and spiders). They are also known as Water Bears and can be found in mosses almost anywhere in the world.




This is protist found in the Dry Valleys. Protists are single-celled eukaryotes (meaning they have a nucleus), and are even less understood than rotifers in these valleys. Unlike the other pictures, I took this photo this season, with just my phone camera and a microscope. I have no idea what species it is! It could even be new to science, which would make it an exciting discovery.


It’s time for an update on our recent activities at Many Glaciers Pond, the site where we are running the Pulse and Press Project (P3). To recap, this experiment was designed to simulate permafrost (subsurface) melt and subsequent transport of water across the landscape. We will measure what happens to soil chemistry (moisture, salinity etc.) and how the resident animal communities respond to these changes. The soil sampling went smoothly, adding to two previous years of pre treatment data, and while we were extracting and counting nematodes in the lab the final preparations for the watering were being made in the field. 



Trenches were dug above the experimental plots to contain the water treatment. A 500 gallon tank was sling-loaded beneath a helicopter and transported to the site, along with other plumbing apparatus and equipment. After 3 years of planning, discussion, debate and speculation it was time to see if this would actually work…

Would the water just sit there, contained in the trench and freeze in place?

Would it erode the trench banks and flow over the surface?

Or would it flow down the hill, over the permafrost layer but beneath the surface, altering moisture content and transporting solutes?

All of this was going through our heads as the first water was pumped into the trenches. 


At first the water disappeared quickly, and aside from some minor breaches of the trench walls, the experiment appeared to be working as expected. As more and more water was applied, the draining rate slowed, but still continued through the day. Thermal imaging and sensors for the soils were used to track the movement of water throughout the landscape. More details on this to follow! After two days, 200 gallons had been applied to the experimental plots and we “Wormherders” were a happy group of scientists. 

I left my house in Fort Collins on Christmas Eve, 2013, heading south all the way to Antarctica. A few delays later I finally arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand at 1am – 8 hours before my flight to the ice was scheduled – to join the other researchers on the soils team from Virginia Tech, Brigham Young University and Dartmouth College. After a short sleep and a stop to get my field clothing at the United States Antarctic Program Clothing Distribution Center I was able to make the flight to the ice as planned on the 28 Dec. It was a beautiful clear day and through the small windows on the C-130 Hercules airplane flown by the US National Air Guard from NY, we were treated to some great views of the continent as we flew in. Ice sheets, mountains chains and snowy valleys stretch out to the horizon in every direction and it’s so white you need sunglasses to avoid getting bedazzled. When we finally landed at around 9pm, it had been 82 hours (about 3.5 days) since I had left Fort Collins.

First view of Antarctica from C-130 window

First view of Antarctica from C-130 window

The days following arrival at McMurdo Station have been very busy with arrival briefings, training sessions and preparing the lab for our research work. We (soil biologists, soil biogeochemists including students, post docs and Principal Investigators) are the first of the Soils Team (also known as Wormherders, but more on that later) of the McMurdo LTER to arrive. The Soils team has a lot of research planned for the coming weeks and need to hit the ground running. The weather has been fantastic so far, but things can change quickly, so we plan to make hay while the sun shines! Our first field trip will be to Many Glaciers Pond in Taylor Valley, the site of the P3 (pulse press project) experiment. In this experiment our group will pump water from a nearby pond to a holding tank and release it above a hill slope, mimicking a subsurface melt event. Projections of climate change include the possibility that the Dry Valleys will experience an increase in the frequency and magnitude of warming events in the future. The P3 experiment consists of three treatments; one plot that will receive water every year; one that will only receive water every 3 years; and one un-watered (control). But before applying any water, we will sample the plots to add to two previous seasons of baseline data on soil properties and soil invertebrate diversity, abundance and composition. Nematodes are the dominant soil invertebrates in the Dry Valleys, and changes in their populations over time will indicate how increases in moisture may alter their biogeography with future melting of permafrost and glaciers.

Stepping off the C130 after a 7 hour flight from Christchurch

Touchdown: stepping off the C130 after a 7 hour flight from Christchurch

After 3 days of work stocking a lab from scratch and planning for the next week’s research, it was time for a break. We were lucky to be able to celebrate New Year’s Even in McMurdo – because it is the best place to be on New Years Eve in Antarctica is Ice Stock. Entertainment kicked off at 6pm and featured a chili cook off and an outdoor concert with great line up of bands with something for almost everyone. The New Zealand base is not far from McMurdo so most researchers come along too. It was a little surreal to have brilliant sunshine streaming down during the New Years countdown and it was definitely the coldest New Years I’ve ever had, but also one of the best!

New Years Eve 2013 at McMurdo

IceStock New Years Eve 2013 at McMurdo

With less than a week before leaving the US, preparations at Colorado State University for our field season in Antarctica (or, as we call it, ‘the ice’) are mostly completed. The “Research Support Package” (RSP) that is part of our required preparation has been thoroughly checked and updated before we leave, to make sure that we receive all of the equipment, supplies and support that we requested earlier in the year. Everything that we will use in the field and laboratory while in Antarctica, or that we would think we might need to use, has to be listed in the RSP. What we need is based on a number of PIs from several institutions examining our results from last season, and then developing an updated, detailed plan for field work and experiments for the 2013-2014 season. We have several field plan options (-in case of bad weather) with estimated days of helicopter trips, and the equipment we will need at each field experiment. We do lots of planning ahead of the trip, so we can hit the ‘bottom of the earth’ and get our samples and measurements. There are many items that are essential to the successful completion of the field season, some of which are specialized and cannot be found at McMurdo Station and have to be brought in from outside. Thus, it is vital that EVERYTHING is accounted for in the RSP – so, no pressure, right?

As well as the usual preparations to consider, this season we also have an NSF site review this season. The McMurdo Dry Valley (MCM) NSF Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program is funded in cycles of 6 years and has been running since 1993. Site reviews involve a visit by NSF representatives and other scientists to research site to evaluate recent findings of each LTER group in relation to the original science objectives we had in our proposal. Our MCM team has been preparing for the site review by compiling short summaries of recent findings in each of our areas of expertise (in CSU’s case – soil biodiversity and ecosystem processes), to be collated in one document and distributed to the site reviewers. We are well prepared, but I still feel a little nervous coming into this!

This will be my 4th season on the ice and every one has been different. Previously, I have travelled from New Zealand with Kiwis to the NZ base – Scott Base (2007), to the Ross Sea on board a research vessel (2008) and with Americans to McMurdo Station (2012). This season I’m preparing for a long haul flight from the USA, which most USA people have to go through every time they travel to McMurdo, so I guess I’ve been lucky so far… I am leaving from Denver to Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, fortunately in the afternoon. This is fortunate because it means I will get to Skype my family on their Christmas morning in New Zealand – yippee! My wife and two kids have been in New Zealand since Thanksgiving – part of our deal (they don’t like winters).

When I arrive in Los Angeles, I will meet up with four other B507M (a designation we are assigned so everyone knows the different groups within the LTER) members from all over the US (Brigham Young University, Virginia Tech and Dartmouth College), and we will continue our journey together. Christmas in my time zone will take place quickly as we pass the International Date Line forwards, somewhere over the Pacific on the flight from Los Angeles to Sydney. We arrive there on the morning of Dec 26th (just in time for the Boxing day test – cricket to the uninitiated). Finally, after the layover in Sydney we will fly to Christchurch, New Zealand. I’ve been in the US since May this year and am looking forward to the brief stay in New Zealand, my homeland! Here we will all rest up for a couple of nights, get issued with our USA extreme cold weather gear, and I will have one final opportunity to wear the classic Kiwi summer attire – stubbies and jandals! Then, off to the ice! The next wave of CSU researchers (Wall, Gooseff, Wlostowski) will leave Fort Collins on Dec 27, 2013 and hopefully join us on the ice on New Year’s Eve!


Where did Christmas go?

taylor valley, antarctica

Taylor Valley, Antarctica

Diana, Ross, Martijn, Ashley, Ruth, and Sabrina traveled to Taylor Valley to apply scheduled treatments to the Biotic Effects Experiment (BEE) plots. The  BEE plots are located at 3 places in Taylor Valley: near Lake Fryxell at F6, near Lake Bonney, and near Lake Hoare. All of the BEE plots were established during the 1999-2000 season, and are sampled every few years. We are not sampling these plots this year, as that sampling was just completed last field season (to read about sampling the BEE plots click here).

2013-01-08 18.05.18

Helicopter leaving after dropping our team off at F6 camp, Taylor Valley, Antarctica.


Lake Fryxell in the foreground, with the Commonwealth Glacier behind in Taylor Valley, Antarctica.

There are four different treatments at the BEE plots:

  1. Control (no treatment)
  2. Soil warming with chamber
  3. Water added
  4. Soil warming and water added

Martijn carries the supplies that we’ll need to the field site near Lake Bonney!

This experiment allows us to explore the Antarctic soil ecosystem’s response to environmental change. We expect that soil temperature and moisture will increase in the future due to climate change. With the BEE, we can study the effect of these changes on the soil animals in the dry valleys and our experiment will help predict how the soil animals will respond to warmer and wetter soil in the future. The design of the BEE also shows how each of these climate variables may affect the soil animals alone, without the influence of the other variable. This means we can determine what proportion of the change may be due to the effects of the increased temperature by itself, or the extra water.

2013-01-08 17.26.04

Ashley (left) and Martijn (right) add water to the water addition plots at the BEE site. The chambers in the picture warm the soil by trapping solar heat and blocking wind. They’re made of nearly-clear fiberglass that helps to trap heat from the sun in the area beneath the cone, and in this way we can leave the cones tightly strapped down to stakes on the plots year-round and let the sun do all of the work for us.

For the treatments, the soil warming is continuous (with the use of the soil warming chamber, see photo above) during the austral summer;  however, we need to apply water to the ‘water added’ plots each year to maintain increased soil moisture for those treatments. Adding water is pretty straightforward. We added 5.6 liters of water to each ‘water added’ plot. We did this using jugs (pre-marked for measuring the appropriate amount of water) and watering spouts to help distribute the water softly and evenly. As Diana described to us, it feels much like “watering your garden.”

2013-01-08 17.26.28

Ross explains the Biotic Effects Experiment to Ruth near Lake Fryxell.


Coming up next: sampling the new P3 experiment, and working in the lab to extract, identify, and count nematodes!

Can’t wait for more? Here’s a beautiful, female Scottnema lindsayae to hold you over until next time!!

Female Scottnema

Once in Antarctica, there are some necessary training procedures to ensure everyone’s safety while working in and studying this extreme continent. Ashley, Sabrina, and Ruth had never been to Antarctica before and were required to attend “Happy Camper”, AKA “Snow School”. This training is essential for everyone new to McMurdo who will go off-station for any reason (field work, collecting samples, tending experiments). Anyone who has already been to McMurdo and participated in Snow School previously also gets a shorter, “Refresher” course upon arrival.


Ashley is ready for Happy Camper (Snow School)!

Snow School teaches about cold weather and outdoor skills, hazards, and what to do in case of certain emergencies (such as getting stuck in the field during bad weather). This training lasts for 2 days and covers: how to use high frequency radios, send emergency signals, set up tents, cut snow blocks to build walls for wind protection, dig a snow trench to sleep in if you need shelter, and how to maintain body warmth in frigid temperatures. Our Snow School session had 10 participants, and together, we learned and practiced these techniques, built a camp, cooked meals, and practiced rescue/emergency scenarios. First our group set up tents for the camp. We learned how to set up the Scott tent, which was designed for and used by the R.F. Scott expeditions in Antarctica in the early 1900s. We still use these tents today because the design is perfect for standing up to the tough Antarctic weather (plus, you can cook inside of it!!).


Our group sets up the Scott tent!

Next, the happy campers built the snow wall to protect the camp from wind and blowing snow. Even though the temperature was just a little below freezing, cutting snow blocks is hard work and warms you right up! Ruth and Sabrina took off their parkas while working to avoid getting too warm and sweating too much.


Ruth (Left) and Sabrina (Right) cut snow blocks to help build the camp’s wall. The wall will help protect the campers from wind and blowing snow.

After the wall was in place, the group learned how to make shelters if the tents were lost (such as in a storm). To do this, they learned how to dig into the snow and then hollow out trenches to sleep in. The trench protects from the wind and harsh weather and provides a cozy place to snuggle into a sleeping bag. Ruth and Ashley slept in the trenches that they dug, while Sabrina opted for one of the tents – all three got a good, solid, and warm night’s rest.


Sleeping trench with the finished camp (completed snow wall, tents, and snow kitchen) in the background!

Snow Camp

Completed Snow Camp!

We also learned about communications while in the field, we discussed VHF radios, HF radios, Iridium phones, and signal mirrors. We practiced using the VHF radios and HF radio. We set up the HF radio and called South Pole station (they were expecting our call!) to run through the whole radio process.


Our Snow School group learning about the HF radio!

After 2 days of Snow School, we headed back to McMurdo Station. We are all ready for a safe and productive field season in Antarctica!!

Mount Erebus

View of Mount Erebus from our Snow School camp!

Before flying to Antarctica, the Wormherders had a few days to prepare for our field season in Christchurch, New Zealand. Christchurch is the staging place for the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). From there, USAP participants deploy to McMurdo and South Pole stations.


USAP Building in Christchurch

While laying over in Christchurch, we went to the USAP’s clothing distribution center (CDC) where we were issued our customary ‘orange bags’ containing the necessary extreme cold weather (ECW) clothing and got prepared to go to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. We were each issued: parkas, windbreakers, snow pants, bunny boots, balaclavas, hats, mittens, gloves, socks, goggles, long underwear, and fleece pants, shirts, and jackets! We had to try everything on to check the fit of our gear (better to find out at the CDC if something does not fit or is not comfortable than in the field in Antarctica!). Then, we were ready to go to Antarctica!


Here’s Ruth trying on her big red parka! Looks good!


There’s so much gear to take – it gets all spread out in the changing rooms! We take everything out of our orange bags and try it all on! Here’s Diana trying on her bunny boots (Left), Ruth in the fleece pants and parka (Middle), and Sabrina in the windbreaker (Right).

The ECW gear will keep us warm, protecting our bodies from extreme cold and wind while we do our work in Antarctica. We even have to wear our ECW gear for our flight to Antarctica in case of an emergency and we need to stay warm.


Wormherders in the USAP terminal in Christchurch ready to board the plane! (L-R: Martijn, Diana, Ashley, Sabrina)


We caught our first views of the Antarctic continent from the plane!

With our ECW gear, we will be better able to stay warm and safe while collecting soil samples and performing experiments while in the field in Antarctica! Stay tuned: new blog coming soon about Snow School, which teaches newcomers about safety and survival in the harsh, cold conditions of Antarctica!

Happy New Year to you all!

The  McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Soils Team this year consists of Diana Wall, Martijn Vandegehuchte and Ashley Shaw from Colorado State University, John Barrett, Kevin Geyer and Eric Sokol from Virginia Tech and Ross Virginia and Ruth Heindel from Dartmouth College. The season started with a sequence of flights from Denver to Los Angeles to Sydney to Christchurch, where we had to wait a day to get our extra cold weather gear issued and fitted. So we visited the Canterbury Museum and the botanical gardens. The museum had a temporary exhibition about Scott’s last expedition, with great information about Scott’s expedition to the South Pole and some interesting pieces such as handwritten lecture notes by Scott. The next day we boarded a C-130 Hercules airplane for an eight hour flight, which was fitted with skis so that it could land on the ice runway which is in poor shape at the moment because some strong winds deposited sediment onto the runway which causes it to melt. We had just stepped out of the airplane and were greeted by an excited Adélie penguin. Our ride to McMurdo station, Ivan the Terrabus, actually had to drive onto a “magic carpet” that was then pulled by a tractor across the ice. The next day the new team members Ashley, Sabrina and Ruth went to Snow School, which you will read more about in the next post. In the meanwhile the others did a refresher survival course, a course on environmental safety and some other training. We spent the past few days planning the field work, setting up the lab at McMurdo and getting our field gear ready. Right now the snowy weather is keeping us from flying a helicopter to the field sites, but hopefully that will change soon and we can go out to the Dry Valleys!

Team B-507-M has landed on the ice.

Team B-507-M has landed on the ice.

Byron, Jeb, Eric and Martijn went out into the field recently to sample and treat the Stoichiometry Experiment. This experiment is replicated at two different sites within Taylor Valley; one near Lake Fryxell and one near Lake Bonney, at the Bonney Riegel. The purpose of the field experiment is to investigate which nutrients are most limiting to Antarctic Dry Valley soil communities and the ability of soil communities to respond to nutrient additions. You can read more about the sampling of this long-term experiment during the 2010-2011 season on Dr. Becky Ball’s blog

Because Dry Valley soils are generally carbon limited, we wanted to test if i) carbon additions will increase soil respiration (a measure of the level of activity of organisms) and biomass of soil communities, ii) the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus alone will not increase the activity of organisms and iii) elevated levels of nitrogen will increase nematode mortality. In addition, the soils of the Bonney Riegel have high nitrogen and ow carbon and phosphorus content and are expected to respond to the addition of carbon, or carbon and phosphorus, but not to nitrogen additions. Fryxell soils on the other hand have a high phosphorus content, and nematode communities are expected to respond most to carbon and possibly carbon and nitrogen additions, but not to carbon and phosphorus additions.

The experimental design consists of different plots that are organized into replicate blocks within each site. Each plot is treated in one of the following ways:

1. An unamended control
2. Addition of water only as a control for the water that is required to add the nutrient elements
3. Addition of carbon in the form of mannitol, a compound found in algae
4. Addition of nitrogen
5. Addition of phosphorus
6. Addition of both carbon and nitrogen
7. Addition of both carbon and phosphorus

The helicopter leaves after dropping off the wormherders at F6 Camp near Lake Fryxell

Jeb carries a jug with nutrient solution from the landing pad next to F6 Camp to the experimental site.

The Von Guerard stream drains into Lake Fryxell with the Commonwealth Glacier in the background.

The team went to the Fryxell site on Wednesday, December 21 and then to the Bonney site on Friday, December 23. They first sampled all of the plots. The topmost layer of the soil was first collected for measurement of the chlorophyll a concentration, which helps provide an estimate of the photosynthetic productivity of the soils.  Soil samples from each plot were then collected to a depth of 10 cm, to be used in measuring soil chemistry, soil moisture and extractions of the soil animals present. The samples were brought back to the Crary Lab at McMurdo station where the soil invertebrates were extracted and counted. After sampling the soils, the nutrient treatments mentioned above were applied to the plots.

The weather on both days was very nice, and the landscapes were stunning as always. On Friday at Lake Bonney, the helicopter was a little late to pick the team up at Lake Bonney, so there was some time to explore the area. Martijn walked up to the edge of the Taylor Glacier, named after Griffith Taylor, geologist and leader of Scott’s Western Journey Party of the British Antarctic Expedition (1910-14). The glacier had been discovered by Scott during the British National Antarctic expedition (1901-1904) but Scott thought it was a part of the Ferrar Glacier at the time. Taylor, however, discovered that these were not parts of the same glacier, but two glaciers side-by-side.

Jeb and Martijn are using jugs with a pour cap and open top chambers to apply nutrient solutions to the soil plots.

The edge of Taylor Glacier.

While the rest of the LTER Soils team was busy setting up the new experiment near Many Glaciers Pond, Zach, Jeremy, and Martijn went to sample soil and apply scheduled treatments at the Biotic Effects Experiment (BEE) plot near Lake Fryxell at F6 in Taylor Valley, one of three locations where BEE plots have been established in the Taylor Valley. All of the BEE plots were established during the 1999-2000 season.

F6 is the name for a U.S. field camp situated near where Van Guerard Stream empties into Lake Fryxell. Field camps have been established at strategic locations throughout the Dry Valleys to support ongoing scientific work in the area. They serve as camping, staging, and emergency survival locations for scientists.

F6 field camp

Van Guerard Stream

The BEE plots (stakes and ITEX chambers seen) with Lake Fryxell and the Commonwealth Glacier in the background

There are four different treatments at the BEE plots:

  1. Control (no treatment)
  2. Soil warming with ITEX chamber
  3. Water added
  4. Soil warming and water added

The purpose of the experiment is to see how the soil ecosystem throughout Taylor Valley will respond to environmental change. As predicted by climate change models, it is expected that the soil temperature will increase and that more water will be present in the soil.

Zach holding a spare ITEX chamber used to add water to the water only plots. Permanent chambers are staked into the ground in the background.

The first step was to sample soil from the 24 plots. A few of the plots still had ice right underneath the surface from adding water last year! We had to get creative to chisel out enough soil to sample. Next, we needed to add 5.6 liters of water to the “water added” plots. Our final task was to perform maintenance on the ITEX chambers by making sure that they were all strapped down securely. Strong katabatic winds in the Dry Valleys can destroy experiments if they are not securely anchored.

Zach and Martijn filling up a portable watering can with water

Jeremy watering a temperature warming and water added plot

We were able to finish up our work quickly so the helicopter picked us up a little bit early.


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