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.

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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.

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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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7 Dec. 2017:  Here’s the first look at Antarctica (Victorialand) for the 2017-2018 field season.  This is the view from a port side window of a Hercules C-130 aircraft from the Royal New Zealand Air Force.  Big thanks to the Kiwis for a smooth 7 1/2 hour flight to McMurdo Station.

Welcome to the 2017-2018 Wormherder Field Season!  We have two projects this year, B-458 on the Shackleton Glacier and C-507-M in the Dry Valleys, scheduled back to back.  The B-458 project will be collecting soil samples trying to discover how soil ecosystems reassembled as they emerged from the last ice age.  The C-507-M project as part of the Long Term Ecological Research group is continuing to look at how terrestrial ecosystems respond to climate variability.  This makes for a longer field season than usual, but we are excited to get started.

The team at work extracting nematodes from the soil samples. Left to right: Josh Heward, Andy Thompson, Scott George, Byron Adams. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

The team at work extracting nematodes from the soil samples. Left to right: Josh Heward, Andy Thompson, Scott George, Byron Adams. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

With our short field season in McMurdo already drawing to a close, the team is having a busy time in the Crary Lab in McMurdo. Collecting the samples from the Dry Valleys is only the first step of our job. Down here, most of our working time – actually, most of our time awake – is spent in the lab. Our main tasks after the field missions consist in extracting* and identifying the invertebrates from the soil samples, and running analyses on the physical and chemical properties of the soil. Then, after entering and proofing all the data we have collected into electronic format, we prepare the biological and soil samples for storage and shipping to our labs in the States. Finally, after all work is done, we store our equipment and unused disposables for next year, do a thorough inventory for both our own and the Crary Lab staff’s records, and clear the lab.

With this busy agenda it is easy sometimes to forget the broader picture, but almost daily we have a meeting to keep track of the season’s objectives, and update each other on the progress with the specific tasks. We also find the time to talk about the science – many a fertile idea for a new study has sprung from conversations during mealtime or at the coffee bar.

Scottnema lindsayae left) and Eudorylaimus sp. right) extracted from Dry Valleys soil. Can you identify the sex of this Scottnema? Photo by: Byron Adams.

Adult Scottnema lindsayae left) and juvenile Eudorylaimus sp. right) extracted from Dry Valleys soil. Can you identify the sex of this Scottnema? Photo by: Byron Adams.

Some of our team members may have never seen a live nematode under the microscope before coming here, but by the end of the first or second week all of us are able to identify the nematodes from the Dry Valleys. By the end of the season, some of us will have counted several thousands of nematodes, plus a few rotifers and tardigrades. It is not at all an unpleasant or dull task – to some of us it’s the best part of the whole process (after the field trips). Not only is there life in the soils of the Dry Valleys, but there is also beauty – or at least, interesting action. Check out these two short videos that Josh, our PolarTrec associate, has taken of a rotifer and a tardigrade.

And here is a time-lapse photography video of the team extracting animals from the soil, also by Josh.

 

As we have recently highlighted, plans in Antarctica often change due to the vagaries of the weather. Last week, after taking samples and treating experimental plots near Lake Bonney and South Side Lake Hoare, we were supposed to spend just one night in Lake Hoare camp – the main field camp in the Dry Valleys and one of our favourite places. But the next day all helicopter flights were cancelled due to poor weather, so we had to postpone our trip to sample an experiment and stay at the camp for at least another night. This gave us the chance to go on a hike to one of the most scenic places in the Dry Valleys. Along the way we encountered some remarkable signs of life – and death.

Walking along the Seuss Glacier in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

Walking along the Seuss Glacier in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

  • A mummified seal on the lakeshore
    Every now and then, seals and penguins stray from the vicinity of the ice shelf into the Dry Valleys. It usually doesn’t end well for them. There are many seal remains in the valleys, some well preserved due to the cold and dry conditions. Some are centuries old; some may be as old as the human-made mummies from ancient Egypt. One dead seal we saw close to our path during the hike, however, struck us as special for an altogether different reason: on the lake sediment behind its tail, we saw a trail of green and red. The decay of the unfortunate seal fertilized the sediment around it, allowing living algae and cyanobacteria to flourish and become visible to the naked eye. The fuel of this freshwater hotspot (the seal’s remains) came from the ocean, an example of what we ecologists call a resource subsidy.
A partly decayed, mummified seal from Lake Hoare. Photo by Walter Andriuzzi

A partly decayed, mummified seal from Lake Hoare. Photo by :Walter Andriuzzi

Life out of death - the bloom of life near the mummified seal. Photo by: Josh Heward

Life out of death – a dead seal provided a supply of much-needed nutrients to the microorganisms in Lake Hoare. Photo by: Josh Heward

  • A dead penguin and a hungry skua
    Near the Seuss Glacier, we saw another unfortunate marine animal – a rather fresh dead penguin lying on the shore. To our surprise, on our way back we found it a few meters away from its original position. A few scattered feathers all around, different from those of the penguin, gave away the culprit: a young skua which we had seen flying over our heads not long before. Skuas are large predatory seagulls with a particular taste for penguin entrails, but this seasoned penguin proved unpalatable even for the skua. The young bird will not find anything to its liking in Taylor Valley – unless scientists drop their guard long enough for the skua to steal their snacks, as sometimes happens at McMurdo base.
Mummified penguin on Lake Hoare shore near the Seuss Glacier. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

Dead penguin on Lake Hoare shore near the Seuss Glacier. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

  • The thousand-year old lichen
    Not far from the seal we found one of the largest lichens we have seen out there, at over 10 cm across. Since lichens in Taylor Valley have been found to grow less than one millimeter per century, this one must have started its growth at least one thousand years ago. This makes it older than most living organisms you will ever see, including some of the biggest trees.
A thousand-year old lichen in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

A thousand-year old lichen in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

It took us a couple of hours to get from Lake Hoare camp to the Seuss Glacier, one of several alpine glaciers in Taylor Valley. Courtesy of the cloudy sky, we could admire its jagged, rugged shapes without being dazzled by the albedo. But as impressive as its stalactites and column of ice were, the glacier was not our real destination today.

A large ventifact in Taylor Valley. Photo by Walter Andriuzzi.

A large ventifact in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

After a rather demanding trek over loose, sandy surface on a steep hillside, we reached our destination. In an expanse of sand incessantly swept by cold wind, overlooking the frozen cascade of the Seuss Glacier coming down from the mountain, we saw boulders standing out against the bleak sky. Instead of the curved or angular boulders typical of glacial landscapes, these come in shapes that would befit a sci-fi movie. This martian landscape is near Andrew’s Ridge in Taylor Valley and is a great place to see ventifacts, rocks wrought into peculiar shapes by the abrasive action of the wind-transported sand.

It took us almost four hours of walk to reach this place, and almost three hours to get back. On our return to Lake Hoare camp, after enjoying a wonderful meal prepared by camp manager Rae Spain and Renee Noffke, we were understandably tired, and eager to crawl into our sleeping bags! The next day there will be work to be done.

The soils team and friends at Lake Hoare Camp. Left to right, top row: Jeb Barrett, Ashley Shaw, Diana Wall, Walter Andriuzzi, Byron Adams, Matt Hedin, Josh Heward, Kelli Feeser; bottom row: Scott George, Andy Thompson, Ross Virginia, Kathy Welch, Renee Noffke, Melisa Diaz, Rae Spain. Photo by: Scott George

Soils team and friends at Lake Hoare Camp. Left to right, top row: Jeb Barrett, Ashley Shaw, Diana Wall, Walter Andriuzzi, Byron Adams, Matt Hedin, Josh Heward, Kelli Feeser; bottom row: Scott George, Andy Thompson, Ross Virginia, Kathy Welch, Renee Noffke, Melisa Diaz, Rae Spain. Photo by: Scott George

Written by: Walter Andriuzzi

Ice is an artist generous with its sculptures. Beyond audience or applause, it creates in profusion for only one reason – that it has need to create.
Jay Griffiths, British writer

Some of nature’s most spectacular works of art are made by ice. What better place to see them than Antarctica, the frozen continent? Below are some highlights of icy art that we were lucky enough to see in and nearby the Dry Valleys.

 

A rare 360° sun halo above Garwood Valley. Picture by: Walter Andriuzzi

A rare full sun halo above Garwood Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

The first piece in our gallery was made by the collective effort of millions, billions of tiny artists: ice crystals in the atmosphere refract the sunlight and create a faint rainbow ring around the sun.

 

Blue and white ice in the McMurdo Sound. Picture by: Walter Andriuzzi

Mazes of blue and white ice in the McMurdo Sound. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

Most of the ice we see in Antarctica is white (duh!), but as we go to our field sites we often fly over mazes of blue ice in the McMurdo Sound. Blue ice is formed when snow falls on the ice, gets compressed under its own weight, and loses air bubbles, and the ice crystals then expand.

 

Lake Bonney, beautifully frozen. Photo by: Andy Thompson

Lake Bonney, beautifully frozen. Photo by: Andy Thompson

Blue ice can sometimes be seen also in the lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, as in Lake Bonney in the picture above, taken in November 2014. Here you can see the air bubbles, and even the ripples on the water surface, perfectly frozen.

 

Ice stalagmites stalactites on the edge of Canada Glacier, in Taylor Valley. Italian scientist for scale. Picture by: Summer Xue

Ice stalagmites stalactites on the edge of Canada Glacier, in Taylor Valley. Italian scientist for scale. Photo by: Summer Xue

The glaciers in the Dry Valleys are huge monsters of ice, and their fangs are fittingly impressive, easily taller than a person. If you prefer a more peaceful analogy, you may think of them as meditative giants, whose thoughts emerge as music – the dripping and cracking of melting ice.

 

Freeze-dried cyanobacterial mats on a frozen lake surface. Photo by: Andy Thompson

Freeze-dried cyanobacterial mats on a frozen lake surface. Photo by: Andy Thompson

Our last piece is courtesy of a collaboration between ice and life: freeze-dried cyanobacterial mats on the surface of a frozen lake. These formations of microbial and algal biofilms (plus entrapped sediment) are only active for a few weeks per year in the Dry Valleys, when it’s warm enough for liquid water. During the long Antarctic winter, when it’s too cold and dark for photosynthesis, they enter a freeze-dried state to survive. How long can they keep it up? Nobody knows, but at the very least for two decades. And once water comes back, they can reactivate within mere hours.

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The beauty of ice is one of the big attractions of Antarctica. However, beauty may conceal danger. Last week, scientists working elsewhere in Antarctica found that an immense iceberg, as big as the US state of Delaware, is almost ready to break away from western Antarctica. Events such as this will become ever more frequent under climate change, and their cumulative consequences will reach far beyond Antarctica, contributing to the global sea level rise that we are already witnessing.

Written by: Walter Andriuzzi

Today we divided up into two teams: one to go to Beacon and Wright Valleys to collect soil samples and another to go to F6 near Lake Fryxell in Taylor Valley to maintain experiments and apply treatments. Sometimes things go as planned, and sometimes they just don’t.

First, the Plan A that didn’t happen.

Working in Antarctica comes with many challenges. One of the top unpredictable hazards that we deal with daily is weather. Since we travel from McMurdo Station by helicopter, and pilots fly by line of sight, unclear weather conditions keep us grounded. If there is too much wind or fog or clouds, we often cannot get to our field sites. But, we have spent much time carefully planning and then crafting backup plans for our plans. We are also prepared to be flexible and to keep our expectations in check.

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We were not able to go to field sites in Beacon and Wright Valleys today due to weather, but we were able to substitute Hjorth Hill and Many Glaciers Pond in Taylor Valley.

Today was a great example of plans going awry and then a backup plan coming into play. We were scheduled to fly to some of the more remote dry valleys at high elevation (including Beacon Valley and Wright Valley) to collect soil samples. However, we got word early this morning that low clouds had moved in, making flying there impossible. We quickly implemented a backup plan, trading tomorrow’s plans for today’s plans. So instead of flying to the high elevation valleys, we traveled to our nearby field sites: Hjorth Hill and Many Glaciers Pond in Taylor Valley. There, we collected moss and soil samples and checked on some experimental plots.

 

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Andy Thompson collecting samples at Hjorth Hill. He’s standing on a snow pack that is covering up a stream bed. Photo by: Ashley Shaw

It wasn’t what we’d planned to do today, but it was still a successful day of Antarctic fieldwork!

And the Plan A that did happen.

Meanwhile, the rest of our team went to F6, in Taylor Valley, to maintain the Stoichiometry experiment, one of our main experiments in the Dry Valleys. Cold is only one of the challenges that soil organisms in this ecosystem face, another big one being the limited amounts of carbon and nutrients. With the Stoichiometry experiment we seek to find out which elements are most limiting to the soil organisms of the Dry Valleys. To do this we add carbon, water, nutrients, or combinations to the soil, which requires hand-carrying relatively heavy carboys from the nearby camp to the experimental plots, and applying them to their respective plots. The soils team at F6 carried out the task well – despite one of them still having stiff legs from the marathon!

Written by Ashley Shaw and Walter Andriuzzi

Every January, McMurdo Station hosts the McMurdo Marathon (half and full). The race is run on the ice shelf near Ross Island. This is near the airfields where the LC-130 planes (the ones that brought us here) land.

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Josh Heward and Byron Adams in front of Ivan the Terrabus. They are ready to run! Photo by: Ashley Shaw

The McMurdo Marathon began in 1995 with just 2 participants. This year two of our team members, Ashley Shaw and Byron Adams, ran the half marathon, and Josh Heward ran the full marathon. On Sunday morning, we got up early and boarded Ivan the Terrabus, who transported us to the starting line. About 70 runners, bikers, and skiers were on board, ready to race to the finish line. The day was chilly, 24°F, and the wind was blowing hard.

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Ashley is ready to run. Runners lined up at starting line on the right. Photo by: Byron Adams

At the starting line, we had a few minutes to pull on extra layers of clothes and to stash our extra gear. Then, with the sounding of Ivan’s horn, we were off. The race course was out-and-back (or, in the case of the full marathon, out-and-back-and-out-and-back). We ran 6.55 miles on the snow road to a turn around point and then returned to the start line.

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An unusual participant… Photo by: Josh Heward

The first 6.55 miles we ran straight into the wind. The road was full of ruts, snow drifts, and ice patches. The day was cloudy, with a flat light, making it impossible to see details in the ice or anything but a flat white road. The returning 6.55 miles, the wind was at our backs.

After the race, we got into the dunk tank – a huge tank full of freezing cold seawater, fresh from the Ross Sea. This is supposed to help remove lactic acid from muscles. Wow, it was painful!

We were all pumped up after finishing the Antarctic race! It was a race day unlike any other!

Written by: Ashley Shaw

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