22 Dec. 2017:  We are stuck at McMurdo for an extra day as the weather has grounded our flight to Shackleton Glacier – the remote field camp where we’ll be working for the next 2 weeks. Hopefully one extra day doesn’t turn into multiple days. In Antarctica, weather always has the last word. So instead of passing the time with yet another viewing ofThe Big Lebowski – I’m writing this post to give a broad overview of what we are doing down on the Shackleton Glacier (or planning to do if we ever get there).

 Despite its reputation, Antarctica isn’t completely covered in ice. There are small pockets of exposed land – including ice-free peaks and ridges that poke out of the glacial ice. We will be studying the soils found on some of these peaks and ridges within the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. These soils, and the organisms living in them, are the sirens that have drawn us down here to the ice.

 The Trans-Antarctic Mountains put most other mountain ranges to shame. They extend 3,000 miles across the continent – a belt 100-300 km wide extending across the hefty girth of the continent. Some of the peaks are over 12,000 feet high and, despite currently being surrounded by glaciers more than a mile thick, the mountains are some of the best places in the world to find dinosaur fossils. It is a mountain range of superlatives and we are heading to Shackleton Glacier – right in the middle of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains – to hunt soils.

 Now – when I think of soil, I think of a tallgrass prairie soil in eastern Kansas – deep, dark-brown, loamy soils that smell beautiful (at least to soil scientists) and are incredibly fertile. These are not the types of soils we will find in Antarctica. Rather, the soils we will find do not sustain any vascular plant growth, they will have very low levels of organic matter, and they are often very salty. These soils will only be found on ice-free peaks and ridgelines – a cold (duh!), windy, and incredibly dry place – a convenient place to freeze dry any leftover sandwiches sitting in your pack. Despite the inhospitable conditions, there are many organisms that can survive in these soils – including bacteria, fungi, rotifers, nematodes, and some arthropods. We may consider Antarctic soils ‘extreme’ – they just call them home.

 Despite the logistical challenges of working in Antarctica, the organisms living in Antarctic soils have been studied by numerous researchers over the years. I am fortunate to be on a team with 3 of the most esteemed Antarctic soil biologists on the planet (Diana Wall, Ian Hogg, and Byron Adams). Collectively they have spent >65 field seasons studying Antarctic biodiversity. Their knowledge of Antarctic soils and ecosystems is unmatched. Why have they have spent so many holiday seasons on the ice instead of with their families back home? – it certainly isn’t the food at McMurdo station (though tuna casserole has its charms). Rather, what brings these biologists to Antarctica is the chance to study soils and ecosystems that are unlike those found anywhere else on Earth. The communities that live in these soils are not nearly as diverse as what we might find in a Kansas prairie, but there is beauty in their simplicity.

 So, if this lengthy preamble hasn’t put you to sleep yet, you may be wondering why we are doing this particular expedition to the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. Why are we trying to fly to a glacier near the south pole to collect soil (and try to avoid frostbite)? The simplest answer is that we want to satisfy our curiosity. What organisms are able to survive in this environment and are the soil biota found there distinct from those found elsewhere? What unique adaptations do these organisms have that allow them to persist in these inhospitable conditions? How do these organisms interact to form functioning communities? These basic questions, and many others, remain largely unanswered.

 Of course – just saying “There are some cool organisms there, let’s go check them out!” is not sufficient justification for launching an expedition (though it may be sufficient justification for cruising the Vegas strip on a Saturday night). We are going there to test hypotheses. Specifically, we want to test hypotheses related to how soil age might influence the assembly and functioning of these soil communities. About 20,000 years ago, the thickness of the glacier was even greater than it is today. During this period of time – called the Last Glacial Maximum, or ‘LGM’ if you are trying to impress geologists at a cocktail party (though geologists usually prefer beer over cocktails) – the Shackleton glacier extended roughly 1,500 feet higher up the slopes of the surrounding peaks. This means that 20,000 years ago, some of the lower slopes that are now ice-free, were under a glacier, and these slopes have had relatively little time to develop soil. In contrast, those soils higher up on the peaks were not under ice during the Last Glacial Maximum and these soils are older and may even have served as refugia (safe shelters where organisms can persist without being stuck under tons of ice). We are taking advantage of this gradient in soil ages (from young soils down low on the slope, to more mature soils higher up) to examine how Antarctic soil communities develop over time and what biotic and abiotic factors ultimately shape their composition.

 Of course, before we can start collecting the soils to address these, and a range of other questions, we first have to get there. Hopefully, the weather will clear up and we can fly tomorrow. Mysterious soils await.

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We are stuck at McMurdo for an extra day as the weather has grounded our flight to Shackleton Glacier – the remote field camp where we’ll be working for the next 2 weeks. Hopefully one extra day doesn’t turn into multiple days. In Antarctica, weather always has the last word. So, instead of passing the time with yet another viewing of The Big Lebowski – I’m writing this post to give a broad overview of what we are doing down on the Shackleton Glacier (or planning to do if we ever get there).

Despite its reputation, Antarctica isn’t completely covered in ice. There are small pockets of exposed land – including ice-free peaks and ridges that poke out of the glacial ice. We will be studying the soils found on some of these peaks and ridges within the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. These soils, and the organisms living in them, are the sirens that have drawn us down here to the ice.

The Trans-Antarctic Mountains put most other mountain ranges to shame. They extend 3,000 miles across the continent – a belt 100-300 km wide extending across the hefty girth of the continent. Some of the peaks are over 12,000 feet high and, despite currently being surrounded by glaciers more than a mile thick, the mountains are some of the best places in the world to find dinosaur fossils. It is a mountain range of superlatives and we are heading to Shackleton Glacier – right in the middle of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains – to hunt soils.

Now – when I think of soil, I think of a tallgrass prairie soil in eastern Kansas – deep, dark-brown, loamy soils that smell beautiful (at least to soil scientists) and are incredibly fertile. These are not the types of soils we will find in Antarctica. Rather, the soils we will find do not sustain any vascular plant growth, they will have very low levels of organic matter, and they are often very salty. These soils will only be found on ice-free peaks and ridgelines – a cold (duh!), windy, and incredibly dry place – a convenient place to freeze dry any leftover sandwiches sitting in your pack. Despite the inhospitable conditions, there are many organisms that can survive in these soils – including bacteria, fungi, rotifers, nematodes, and some arthropods. We may consider Antarctic soils ‘extreme’ – they just call them home.

Despite the logistical challenges of working in Antarctica, the organisms living in Antarctic soils have been studied by numerous researchers over the years. I am fortunate to be on a team with 3 of the most esteemed Antarctic soil biologists on the planet (Diana Wall, Ian Hogg, and Byron Adams). Collectively they have spent >65 field seasons studying Antarctic biodiversity. Their knowledge of Antarctic soils and ecosystems is unmatched. Why have they have spent so many holiday seasons on the ice instead of with their families back home? – it certainly isn’t the food at McMurdo station (though tuna casserole has its charms). Rather, what brings these biologists to Antarctica is the chance to study soils and ecosystems that are unlike those found anywhere else on Earth. The communities that live in these soils are not nearly as diverse as what we might find in a Kansas prairie, but there is beauty in their simplicity.

So, if this lengthy preamble hasn’t put you to sleep yet, you may be wondering why we are doing this particular expedition to the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. Why are we trying to fly to a glacier near the south pole to collect soil (and try to avoid frostbite)? The simplest answer is that we want to satisfy our curiosity. What organisms are able to survive in this environment and are the soil biota found there distinct from those found elsewhere? What unique adaptations do these organisms have that allow them to persist in these inhospitable conditions? How do these organisms interact to form functioning communities? These basic questions, and many others, remain largely unanswered.

Of course – just saying “There are some cool organisms there, let’s go check them out!” is not sufficient justification for launching an expedition (though it may be sufficient justification for cruising the Vegas strip on a Saturday night). We are going there to test hypotheses. Specifically, we want to test hypotheses related to how soil age might influence the assembly and functioning of these soil communities. About 20,000 years ago, the thickness of the glacier was even greater than it is today. During this period of time – called the Last Glacial Maximum, or ‘LGM’ if you are trying to impress geologists at a cocktail party (though geologists usually prefer beer over cocktails) – the Shackleton glacier extended roughly 1,500 feet higher up the slopes of the surrounding peaks. This means that 20,000 years ago, some of the lower slopes that are now ice-free, were under a glacier, and these slopes have had relatively little time to develop soil. In contrast, those soils higher up on the peaks were not under ice during the Last Glacial Maximum and these soils are older and may even have served as refugia (safe shelters where organisms can persist without being stuck under tons of ice). We are taking advantage of this gradient in soil ages (from young soils down low on the slope, to more mature soils higher up) to examine how Antarctic soil communities develop over time and what biotic and abiotic factors ultimately shape their composition.

Of course, before we can start collecting the soils to address these, and a range of other questions, we first have to get there. Hopefully, the weather will clear up and we can fly tomorrow. Mysterious soils await.

I’m very fortunate to be on the ‘wormherders’ expedition to the Shackleton Glacier camp this year. Although I have an appreciation for nematodes and other soil animals (who doesn’t?) – I’m not a ‘wormherder’ per se. Instead, I’m a microbial ecologist who will be studying the Bacteria and Archaea in the soil samples we’ll be collecting. Although soil animals may be cute – the microbes are far more charismatic (ha!). The miscellaneous comments below are mine alone – I do not necessarily speak for the rest of the team (nor do they want me to speak on their behalf).

Getting to Antarctica requires a lot of sitting. To get from Colorado to McMurdo Base involved a 2.5 h flight to Los Angeles, followed by a 12+ h flight to Auckland, and a 1.5 h flight to Christchurch, NZ. After a few days in Christchurch (where we do some training and get outfitted with our cold weather gear) – there is a 7 h flight on a C-130 cargo plane to McMurdo Base. This flight was as comfortable as a cargo plane can get (at least there was ample leg room) – but it is loud. Hearing protection is required during the entire flight unless you want to end up as deaf as a drummer in a metal band. We also have to be wearing our cold weather gear (gumby boots, heavy parkas, insulated Carhartt overalls, etc.) – we looked like we are tailgating at a Packers game in early December (only without the bratwurst).

Five hours into the flight from Christchurch to McMurdo – we were greeted with a spectacular view of Antarctica – peaks, glaciers, snow, and more snow – potential ski lines as far as the eye can see. I’ve done a bit of traveling around the globe, and that first glimpse of the Antarctic continent is easily one of the most impressive views I’ve ever seen and one I’ll never forget. A horizon-spanning view of a continent nearly untouched by humans and nearly untouchable.

We are spending a few days here in McMurdo station before we fly 500 miles south of here to the remote field camp on Shackleton Glacier in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains (85 degrees south, 177 degrees west). The plan is to fly out on Dec. 22nd, but plans in Antarctica are mere suggestions – it all depends on weather and delays of multiple days are par for the course. Anyone who frequently travels in Antarctica has had to spend weeks waiting for flights due to bad weather – it makes that 2-hour flight delay in O’Hare seem trivial.

While we are here in McMurdo, we’ve been packing our camp supplies, sorting out logistics, and taking our required training. This training has covered topics ranging from glacier travel and crevasse rescue to fire prevention to helicopter safety to deployment of your survival kit to the appropriate use of your pee bottle (anyone working in Antarctica must abide by the ‘leave no trace’ ethic). Even folks who have worked in Antarctica for decades need to re-take all these training courses every year – ‘death by powerpoint’ is unavoidable.

No logistics here are left to chance. The folks working for the US Antarctic Program (USAP) clearly do not trust absent-minded professors (and for good reason). Even before I left the cozy confines of Boulder, CO – I was deluged with ‘must read’ emails. In McMurdo, these points were repeated ad nauseum. We are told where to be at exactly what time and what to do if anything goes awry (and they often do). The USAP staff are clearly on the top of their game and their organizational skills would put a wedding planner in Long Island to shame.

I’ll post again when we get back from Shackleton Glacier (no internet there). I’ll include more details on the scientific questions we’ll be asking and why we are asking them. Hopefully the post will also include some beautiful photos of the team sampling soils under sunny skies with smiles on our faces (but no guarantees).

Geoffmountaineer

18 Dec. 2017:  Thanks to our very knowledgeable mountaineer, Geoff Schellens, we will now be prepared to hike across glaciers safely and assist in the event of a crevasse fall.

Ianrescue

18 Dec. 2017:  Once we had the Z-rig raising system in place, we pulled Ian Hogg out of the simulated crevasse.  Mountaineer Geoff Schellens to right.

raisesystem

18 Dec.:  In order to retrieve someone from a crevasse we trained on constructing a raising system with picket anchors and a main and belay rope system.  We used ropes, prussiks, pulleys, carabiners, and ice axes.

snowanchors

18 Dec.:  Once the rest of the team arrived on station, we attended a field training for glacial travel and crevasse rescue.  As you can see, the day was sunny but the temperature was still a chilly 18 F with light winds.  The complete team consisting of (left to right) Melisa Diaz from Ohio State University, Ian Hogg from Polar Knowledge Canada, and Noah Fierer from University of Colorado, Boulder, along with Diana Wall from Colorado State University and Marci Shaver-Adams from Brigham Young University (not pictured Byron Adams from Brigham Young University).  We are constructing two types of snow anchors in order to retrieve someone from a crevasse.

12 Dec. 2017:  Check out this link for a time lapse movie of sleep kit construction:  one foam pad, one Thermarest pad, one mountain tent, one fleece bag liner, one pillow, and one sleeping bag stuffed into another bag barely big enough to hold everything.  This kit is deployed with each individual for overnight stays at any established field camp away from the main station.

https://byu-my.sharepoint.com/personal/bja43_byu_edu/_layouts/15/guestaccess.aspx?docid=1a49e11e749354d1ba0180fd7c80d054a&authkey=AaaEOQfI_OrQ-cfsjHPYpHs&e=4d74fe63d50f42d091a3e25128942449

IMG_4765

8 Dec. 2017:  After a short sleep recovery period, the Advance Team opens up the empty lab and will spend the next few days gathering equipment, gear, and chemicals to construct a nematode worm extraction assembly line.  We have high hopes for extractions from more than 800 soil samples.

AdvanceTeamAirfield

7 Dec. 2017:  The Advance Team of Wormherders consisting of Diana Wall, Byron Adams, and Marci Shaver-Adams just landed at Phoenix Airfield at 11:30am, getting ready to load onto Ivan the Terra Bus for a short 50 minute ride across the ice to McMurdo Station.  We arrived on station at 12:25am with a few wispy clouds covering the sun.

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