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The Antarctic Treaty reserves Antarctica as a protected place for scientific investigation. Because of this special designation and all the important work that happens at the bottom of the world, the research stations are often visited by politicians who are responsible for writing environmental legislation or influencing environmental policy.
This year a PRINCE visited the station! Albert Grimaldi (better known as Albert II, Sovereign Prince of Monaco) visited Antarctica to meet with scientists studying climate change. He is very curious about global warming and wants to understand how it is impacting the southernmost continent, and how this might affect the rest of the planet.
Byron and Diana answered his questions about the ecology of the Dry Valleys, and they took the opportunity to stress the importance of our Antarctic research in understanding not only climate change, but complex interactions between soil animals and their environment that cannot be done anywhere else. He seemed very interested in our research and complimented us on all our hard work.
People often expect that working in the Antarctic means that when we’re not out in freezing temperatures, we’re huddled inside to keep warm. However, we are here in the austral summer, when Antarctica is warmest, so there are plenty of opportunities to get outside and have some fun.
This year Byron, Diana, Bishwo, Katie (Dartmouth Polar Soils Team), Nick and Breana participated in the Scott’s Hut Race, a 5.2 mile race around McMurdo. Here we are before the race (Breana is behind the camera, and no, she could not get Nick to stop making faces).
The race starts out at the Chapel of the Snows, where runners head up the hill and around the Discovery Hut. Here we are starting out. If you look very very closely (you might just have to trust us!), you can see Byron, Bishwo, Katie and Nick in this pack of runners.
After returning from the hut, the runners head up the hill to Scott Base, where the New Zealand Antarctic program is based. Then it’s back down, through town, back to the hut, and back to the chapel. Here is Nick keeping pace with the race leaders!
Breana and Barry (a helicopter pilot) walk toward the finish line. In fact, they walked most of the race together, and only ran on the downhill parts. They came in last but it didn’t matter, they had fun!
Another popular fitness event in McMurdo is the annual marathon. This year Byron ran the 26.2 mile race out to the airfield and back. This is NOT an easy race – it’s cold, it’s windy, and it’s all run on packed snow, which gets slushier as the race progresses. This didn’t get Byron down, he’s tough!
The most unpredictable part of working in the Antarctic is the weather. Sometimes it’s warm and sunny. Sometimes it’s cold and snowing. Sometimes both happen in the same day! When the weather turns ugly, the helicopters will not fly in or out of McMurdo, so if you are at a field camp and are scheduled to come back to town, you have to wait until the weather clears. Most of us secretly love it when this happens!
This kind of uncertainty means that we have to be flexible. We didn’t want to sit around in the hut all day. First, we would be bored. Second, we had plenty of supplies and equipment to do more sampling. Third, the hut is very small. There’s not a lot of room to hang out in there! There are only two rooms: a kitchen and a lab. Here, Judit, Nick and Biswho have a cup of tea after a hard day.
Across from the kitchen you can see members of the Stream Team working in the lab (you can just see Corey through the door, he was discussing an experiment with Ana who is sitting behind the door) and at the computer (Peter was uploading data). That’s all there is to it. It’s not a big hut! You’ve had a full tour!
As a result, we often have to use whatever space we can find to do our work. Below, Breana sorts algae samples among the dirty supper dishes. Mmmm…. pasta with a side of preserved algal samples. Doesn’t THAT sound good?
To take advantage of our time at F6 camp, our team put together another experiment to sample the algal mats (just like we did with the relict channel) over a period of 24 hours. You see, the flow of water in the stream channel changes throughout the day, so sometimes algal mats are exposed to the air, like these black algal mats next to Karen,
but sometimes they are underwater. Breana wanted to know if the animals living in the algal mats and the sediment below are affected by this drastic change. Can you imagine what that would be like? Can you think of other places where this might happen?
So Breana, Karen, Nick and Bishwo decided to sample the stream every 4 hours, starting just before peak flow. They split into teams to tackle the five sites Breana had selected earlier in the day. Karen and Breana already had a lot of practice sampling algae, but Nick and Bishwo had to learn how to do it. Being scientists means listening very carefully and asking questions when you are confused. It’s okay to be confused, science is about finding answers!
We had to assemble 70 bags for sampling algae and 70 bags for sampling sediment. And they had to be arranged by site and by time of day. Whenever we design an experiment we have to make sure that we stay very organized, otherwise you could end up doing a lot of work for nothing. Data is useless if it doesn’t make any sense! So, Bishwo found an empty chair in the hut and started labeling bags. Lots of bags.
And Karen wrote out a schedule for us, so we would all know who was doing what and when they were doing it. This way we knew who had to get out of their nice warm sleeping bag to trudge through the cold stream and get the algae!
We stored the samples under the hut to keep them cold until we got back to the lab several days later. These samples have already been very exciting. There are several species of tardigrade we have not seen before, as well as some unusual nematode specimens. Uffe will upload some pictures and video soon of the tardigrades he has found in these samples!
And to think, we were just stuck out there!
Last year, Breana joined the stream team to sample a reactivated stream channel, called the Relict Channel. If you missed it, you can read about the experience here. We wanted to sample again this year in order to get a second year of data for the project.
Last year was a cold summer, and the streams were not flowing very fast. This year is very warm, and the melt from the glaciers has increased and caused high flow in the streams. We were excited to collect data from two very different summer seasons to compare what the system is doing under drastically different environmental conditions.
Wormherders Karen, Nick, Bishwo and Breana, along with Ana from the Stream Team and Judit, an artist visiting Antarctica, hiked up to the top of the Relict Channel. Our intent was to sample the algae and sediments along the entire length of the stream, stopping in nine specific places along the way.
The algae in the stream can be found in large mats like this:
or in small patches, like this:
and it acts as a habitat and food source for nematodes, rotifers, tardigrades, and other even smaller organisms. Breana is especially interested in these animals, and how they respond to changes in the stream itself.
Karen’s job was to collect bits of algae and the sediment directly beneath them so that we could extract and count all the animals living in them. Breana’s job was to preserve algal samples in preservative (4% formaldehyde) for identification of diatoms.
This has to be done very carefully. Here you can see Karen sampling a large algal mat. The algae is fragile, and must be picked up carefully with tweezers and placed in plastic bags of water or preservative. You can see that she is wearing gloves and not touching the mat with her hands. She doesn’t want to disturb it too much!
Nick and Ana were in charge of collecting information on the stream: how wide is the stream? how far below the surface is the permafrost? what is the pH of the water? which nutrients can be found in this part of the stream? Here Ana tests the pH of the water, while Nick measures the depth to permafrost using a metal t-bar.
Bishwo’s job was to sample the dry soil near the stream for Uffe, who was hoping to use the soils for a later experiment. We do a lot of experiments back at home in Colorado using soil we collect from Antarctica.
Judit’s job was to keep detailed field notes. Writing down exactly what happens while sampling is very important, because our memories are unreliable when we try to remember the details of an experiment. She also took lots of photographs of our sampling efforts – she IS an artist, after all! Most of the pictures in this entry were taken by Judit.
Another important thing to notice about the picture above is how Nick is perched very carefully on the rock while he waits for Ana to read the permafrost measurement to him. That’s because he is trying to minimize his impact on the soil environment. When we walk in the Dry Valleys we crush the soil animals living under our feet, and our tracks are evidence of this disturbance.
Antarctica is so special we try not to leave too many footprints! If there are rocks, we hop from rock to rock. We also try to walk in the polygon cracks (large cracks left in the soil by natural processes) because we know that soil animals don’t like living there, so walking in the cracks is not as harmful to the soils. Some areas are unfortunately already heavily disturbed, but those places make an excellent spot for a nap after a long day of sampling!
Mrs. Advani’s kindergarten class at McGraw World School in Fort Collins, Colorado asked us some questions about our work and what they have read on our blog.
What are the nematodes doing? – Brayden
When we look at the nematodes under the microscope, mostly it just looks like they wiggle. But here in Antarctica, nematodes have a very important job – they recycle! An ecosystem is not very different from a person who eats nutritious food, or a vehicle that uses expensive fuel; an ecosystem needs certain things in order to function properly. In a polar desert, a lot of things we might take for granted are in short supply, and the nematodes help the ecosystem get some of those important things that it needs, like carbon.
Why do the birds eat the trash? – Colin
The skua are very clever birds, Colin. They know that humans throw a lot of good food into the trash. They also know that it is much easier to get our food than to look for their own. Skua have very good eyesight, and they instantly recognize something that might have food in it, and they want it!
How do you discover the nematodes? – Abby
Nematodes are very small, and we cannot just look for them outside. First, we take a scoop of soil and bring it back to the lab. Here you can see Bishwa taking a soil sample.
Then we put some in a plastic dish, fill it with water, and stir it around to get the nematodes away from the particles of soil. We pour the liquid through a sieve which lets all the water go through but catches the nematodes – like draining really tiny pasta! Karen is very good at this part, because she is very careful when she works with the nematodes. Here she is pouring the nematodes onto the sieve and washing them into the tube.
Then we look through a microscope and count what we find! This part takes a long time, because we have to count them very carefully. Diana is the best and fastest at counting, but the rest of us are pretty good, too. Here, Uffe and Bishwo count the nematodes.
Why did you make a menorah out of penguins? – Stephanie
We didn’t make it, but we liked to look at it while we at our dinner! The folks that live here come from all different backgrounds, and they want to share a bit of their culture with their friends and coworkers. Because the penguin is symbolic of Antarctica they probably thought it would be a cute thing to do, and we all thought so too!
Why do you look at nematodes? – Sarah
That’s a really good question, Sarah! We’re curious about how the nematodes influence their environment. This is a really special place, where the BIGGEST land animal is only a millimeter in length. Do you know how small that is?? It’s teeny! Also, we don’t have any plants out here, except for moss, so the little animals that are in the soil down here do a lot of the work that would normally be done by bigger, more complex organisms in other soils. For example, the soil in your backyard will contain plant roots and worms and decomposing leaves and beetles and other assorted bits and pieces of organic matter (stuff that is or used to be alive). We just don’t have that! So we study the nematodes, rotifers and tardigrades to figure out how they do all the work themselves. This tells us a lot about how the ecosystem works, and we can use this information to help us understand other ecosystems.
What do you eat? – Gabi
When we are “in town” (McMurdo Station) we eat in the galley, and it is very similar to school cafeteria food – sloppy food in big trays that we serve to ourselves. In “the field” we eat dehydrated meals or, if we’re lucky, we stay at a field camp where someone will cook for us. Nick was VERY happy when Ana made spaghetti for us after a long day of hard work.
Also, we don’t get fresh food as often as you can at home, so we are happy when we see ANYTHING green, like lettuce. Karen is a vegetarian, and she is getting VERY tired of tofu stir-fry in peanut sauce. She says that when she gets home she’s only going to eat salad.
How do you get all the clothes on? – Francesca
The same way that you get all your winter clothes on – very carefully and in a particular order. First the thermal underwear and socks, then the fleece layer, then the windbreak layer, then the boots, hat, neck gaiter, mittens and parka.
Where do nematodes get food? – Mackenzie
The nematodes get their food from the soil. Believe it or not, nematodes are not the smallest things that live here! They eat tiny, single-celled organisms called microbes. Microbes are very abundant here, and contain a lot of nutrition, so when the nematodes eat them, they help the ecosystem to recycle some of that good stuff!
Where do you sleep? – Emma
When we are in McMurdo we sleep in dormitories, similar to those found on college campuses. When we are in the dry valleys, we like to sleep in tents, but sometimes we have to sleep on the ground.
It gets cold at night, so we have nice warm sleeping bags to snuggle in, but we often have to sleep in all our clothes just to keep warm!
But no matter how cold it gets, you really can’t beat the view! Look at that!
Why did that guy have a bag on his head? (in the pictures on the blog) – Cloey
Bishwo is an outstanding young scientist who we think will someday be a famous researcher. He is also a really funny guy, and he let us put colored tape all over him, and give him a bag for a hat, and then take his picture. We were just being silly, because science is very hard work, and sometimes you just have to get a little silly. For example, one day we all decided to pretend we were in Hawaii. It was Aloha Saturday!
See? Scientists are fun, too!
January 2, 2009, we went to South Side Lake Bonney to treat one of our long term research project. We have three different sites, and at each site we add water to some plots to tell how a change in the climate may influence the nematodes. We had already visited the other two sites, and were surprised to find that the plots on this last site were under water.
Usually these plots are very dry and feels like a desert to the animals in the soil, but that is not the case right now. This is not the first time that the water levels have increased. The increase in water is caused by the warm weather we have had in December, and the change will have a great effect on the soil animals. Therefore, we decided to set up a new experiment together with the stream team to find out how all this water influence which species we find in the soil and where they are.
The preparations for the experiment took some time, and we were further delayed by bad weather, but on 8 January we went to the site to set up the experiment. We took some pictures of the stream, which has been named Wormherder Creek, from the helicopter, and as you can tell it is rather big.
One of the things we wanted to know was how the water moved down the hill and how fast. To do this we added some salty (not the regular type of salt we use for our food) water up stream using pumps. Here you see Mitch and Tracy with the pumps used, while they were trying to coordinate when the salt needed to be added to the water.
After some time setting everything up and trying to coordinate people (there were a lot of us) we were finally ready to add the salt to the water and begin to collect samples. Everybody were assigned to a spot along the stream, where they would be taking samples every 5 minutes for about 40 minutes, then a sample every 10 minutes for about 2 hours and finishing off with collecting samples every 5 minutes for about 40 minutes again. After this we begun to collect samples from the ground water in other part of the area and with all of these samples we can calculate how fast the water moves down the creek and where it flows.
After we had collected the main set of samples we still needed to collect a lot of other samples, both water samples and soil samples to look at the soil animals. At this point the sun had disappeared behind the mountains and it suddenly became much colder.
The last samples were collected at 10 am the next morning, and after that we packed all of our gear so we were ready to go home. Part of the team had to visit other sites during the day, while the people staying behind got to take a well deserved nap in the sunshine as they waited for the helicopter.
A couple of days before New Years eve we went on a field trip to sample some areas in the Dry Valleys, that we had not sampled for nematodes before. We did this because we had been told that these areas seemed promising for finding many nematode species together and potentially find some rare species.
It was very cloudy in the morning and we were not sure whether we could get into our field sites. We flew under the clouds across the McMurdo Sound, but when we came to the coast of the other side all the clouds disappeared, although the bottom of the valleys were still covered in fog.
As we were quite far away from our base, the helicopter shut down and stayed with us while we collected some soil samples. The pilots, Jack and Dave, were kind enough to pose for a picture. The helicopter is a Bell 212, and it is a very nice helicopter to fly in.
Dave, one of our pilots for the day came down to check on our sampling. He was very interested in how we collected our samples, and as the best way to learn is by trying it yourself, we made Dave an honorary Wormherder. As you can tell he enjoyed taking samples very much, and he did a really good job.
After we had spent about two hours at Mt. Suess, we got back into the helicopter and flew to Pegtop Mountain, which was only a couple of miles away. It was very foggy and therefore difficult to find a good spot to land the helicopter, but we got there in the end. The site was very rocky, and we were not sure we would find any soil to sample. However, we soon discovered some soil between the rocks, and after we returned to the base the soil turned out to have several species of nematodes.
Before we went home we visited one last site. This site found close to the McKelvey Valley, was very pretty, but it was very windy and it was very cold. So we collected our samples very quickly and got back into the warmer helicopter.
So we returned to our base at McMurdo after a good day in the field.
Every New Year’s in McMurdo they hold a music event called IceStock, where folks from MacTown get together and play music. Bands practice all season to perform in front of their friends and co-workers.
This year an ex-Wormherder performed with two bands. Here she is playing with Sunday Britches. Holly was a member of our team in 2004-2005 and is now a helo-tech. She’s the one in the pink wig playing the banjo!
The last band played at midnight and we all counted down to 2009. Happy New Year from the bottom of the world!!
On the last day of 2008, the next Wormherder trip to the Dry Valleys was to Lake Fryxell/F6 stream in order to treat soil plots with various solutions as part of the mulit-year biotic effects experiment. This study site is located in Taylor Valley, south of Lake Fryxell and east of the F6 stream. This experiment evaluates the belowground effects of adding either water, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous or a combination of these compounds to designated soil plots. These elements are important nutrients in biological systems and Antarctic soils are particularly limited in these factors. Our first stop upon landing in the valley was the F6 hut, a permanent structure that houses a kitchen, lab, and various other operations for working in the field. Here you can see the Wormherders gearing up for sampling by resting on the porch of the F6 hut.
Inside the hut are facilities for performing and preparing field experiments. The picture below shows some of the lab space including a small hood for work with sensitive materials.
Applying solutions to the soil plots first involves the transport of many liquid-filled jugs the 100 yards from the F6 hut to the experimental site. Here is a chain of Wormherders lugging the jugs to the plots. Science takes teamwork!
Once at the site, the solutions were moved from the jugs into different plastic carboys for ease of pouring. Each subplot received a different solution: either water, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon+nitrogen, carbon+phosphorous, or nitrogen+ phosphorous. Why do you think the experiment is designed in this way?
While some people transferred solutions between containers, others poured the appropriate solution on the soil plots. In order to ensure the solutions are added in a uniform way, a plastic cone is placed over the soil plot and the solution is poured within this guide. The picture below shows the pourers at work.
With the experimental treatments complete, time remained to have a look around this beautiful and unique area. Lake Fryxell is fed by various glacial meltwater and groundwater streams, and at this time of year was only partially frozen. The water is an interesting mix of clear blue around the edge and silty, cloudy water at the center.
One of the streams flowing into Lake Fryxell is F6 or Von Guerard stream and is the namesake for the field camp since it is located along its banks. It was flowing quite a bit on this day, and a relatively wide delta had formed where the stream met the lake.
The F6 hut is located a bit off the south side of Lake Fyxell, although many tents for the researchers housed here are scattered around the area. This photo was taken looking south from the lake back at the hut, some supplies and a tent.
A half mile hike upstream reveals that F6 meanders around rocky hillsides and is often just a trickle. But this moderate amount of moisture is an incredibly important source of water and nutrients for the biological community of Taylor Valley. Algae and mosses form mats around the edges of the stream, which provide habitat and food for many of the soil animals, including nematodes. Below, F6 winds its way through Taylor Valley.
From upstream, the F6 huts looks dwarfed by the massive, looming Commonwealth Glacier on the other side of Lake Fryxell. Scale continues to be mysterious in this landscape where life is cryptic and small, but landforms incredibly large.
There was enough time to rest up and enjoy one last cup of warm tea in the sun before returning to McMurdo. Here, Bishwo shows one of our favorite ways to recharge the batteries and nourish the mind and spirit.
An incredible end to a great year, soon our ride arrived and it was time to reload the helicopters and head for the station and lab. Best wishes to all in 2009!