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Breana and Ed went to Howard Glacier to collect some collembolans for Angela McGaughrin, a PhD student in New Zealand who is studying their genetics. The Collembola live under flat pebbles in damp areas of the Dry Valleys near streams and lakes. They can be quite abundant in these areas, with tens of individuals under a single hand-sized rock.

Breana and Ed collected about 200 Collembola and placed them in a container with soil and rocks to keep them happy. The container was sent over to Scott Base, the New Zealand base in Antarctica, once they got back to McMurdo.

The glacier is made of ice and about 40-50 meters high at its face. Here you can just make out Breana in front of the glacier.
Breana in front of Howard Glacier

Breana in front of Howard Glacier
Breana at Howard Glacier

Along the front of the glacier there were several chunks of insulating foam that probably came from a survival cache that exploded two years ago in a big storm. Breana was not impressed…
Rubbish is bad!


Each year McMurdo hosts a marathon. This year, Byron Adams ran the 1/2 marathon, and Ed Ayres ran the full marathon. The route for the full marathon starts on the ice shelf near Scott Base, goes past Willy Field airport, and on to Pegasus airport, where you turn around and head back the same way. The half marathon uses the same route going from Pegasus towards Scott Base.

The weather was perfect by Antarctic standards – barely any wind, blue skies, but cold enough to keep the ice we were running on frozen (nobody likes running through slushy snow!)

On your marks…
On your marks

After 4 hours 38 minutes Ed crossed the finished line.
Ed's finish

Byron finished the 1/2 marathon in 2 hours and 16 minutes. Way to go guys!!
Byron's finish

Cape Royds is a very special place, both historically and ecologically. Discovered by Robert Falcon Scott during the British Antarctic Expedition (1901-1904) and used by Shackleton during the Nimrod Expedition (1908-1909) this bit of land also contains an Adelie Penguin rookery.

We were hunting Panagralaimus davidi, a species of nematode known to inhabit penguin rookeries. We applied for a special permit to enter the rookery to take samples, and were met at the helicopter pad by David Ainley, an expert in these birds. He welcomed us to the rookery and told us where he thought we might have some luck with our sampling.

It was very exciting on two counts: one, we were in a penguin rookery! and two, we were hunting Panagraliamus, a species of nematode that neither Ed nor Breana had ever seen before. Nematodes being microscopic, we have a lot of pictures of penguins, but none of the nematodes.

Adult Adelie penguins with their chicks
Adults and chicks

The rookery is home to several thousand penguins
Cape Royds

Several penguins were eating snow to get water
Penguin eating snow

The penguins aren’t scared of people and this one came close to Ed, Diana, and Breana
Ed, Diana, and Breana

Small icebergs by the rookery
Sea ice

Click on any picture to see more photos of us and our field season!

One of the great things about working on such a large, collaborative LTER is that sometimes we get a chance to do something we wouldn’t normally do. Today, Breana went out to a reactivated stream channel with the Stream Team to collect data on the effect of this reactivation on the algae and soils in the stream channel. Diane McKnight, Lee Stanish, Diana Wall and Breana Simmons had been talking about this experiment for quite some time, and everyone was really excited to get it done. Unfortunately, Diana could not come with us. This has happened to her a lot this season. Poor Diana!

Getting started, Diane explained the history of the stream experiment. Here you can see the sandbag wall that was used to redirect the flow of water from the glacier.
At the Top of the Relict Channel

In the original experiment, 9 transects were sampled along the stream. Logistically it was impossible for us to sample in the same places, because the channel has changed a lot since 1995, but we still decided to choose 9 sites along the stream, focusing on the orange algae that is common in flowing streams here in Taylor Valley.

Orange Algal Mat
Algal Mat

Lee collected algae for molecular and morphological identification. This will give us an indication of algal biomass, diversity and production in the stream.

Breana collected algae and soil for molecular and morphological identification of soil organisms. This will tell us what the soil fauna biodiversity is in the stream, and should correlate nicely with the algal data. Andrew and Nate measured the width of the wet margin, the depth to permafrost across that margin, and stream flow, and collected water samples for nutrient analysis and dissolved organic matter (DOM). These kinds of measures will help us to understand the stream channel, how it’s flowing, where the flow is coming from, etc.
Diane and Andrew

Diane supervised. She is very good at this. Plus, she was the only one who was here the last time it was sampled, so she had to find all the plots!

All this data means we will have LOTS to do when we get home. Breana has to analyze the nematode data and send the molecular samples to Byron Adams at BYU. Lee has to process her molecular samples and spend many hours at the microscope identifying diatoms. When all the data is in, we will write a really nice paper about how the stream reactivation project affected the biodiversity of the stream. And it only took us one day to get all the samples!

This year, Ross and Diana were determined to find life in their eponymous valleys. We talked a bit about these areas last year. Ross and Diana sampled the soils in these two valleys but unfortunately didn’t find anything living in the soil! Talk about a bummer!

This season we had information from a Kiwi colleague that there were nematodes in those areas, so Diana and Ross decided to try again. They flew on a Bell 212 with Byron and Ed out to Virginia and Wall Valleys. They took a TON of samples.

Diana and Ross get excited about visiting “their” soils.
Diana and Ross

From left: Ross, Ed, Diana, Jena (Helo-tech) and Barry (Pilot) after sampling.
Ross, Ed, Diana, Gina, Berry

Diana Wall in Wall Valley

Wall Valley
Wall Valley

Endoliths are organisms that live inside rocks in harsh conditions. Both Wall and Virginia Valleys contain endolithic communities. People who study Mars are really into endoliths, which is why people who study Mars also study in the Dry Valleys.

Wall Valley is adjacent to The Labyrinth, a geological formation that looks like a maze!

They also flew over the Onyx River, the longest river in Antarctica.
Onyx River

After returning home they were able to extract rotifers and tardigrades, but didn’t find a single nematode. This is getting very irritating! Can you imagine being famous for studying nematodes and not finding any nematodes in the valley that is NAMED after you?

Sometimes, when we think of a new experiment, we have to test it out first, to see how well it will work here in Antarctica. This year, we wanted to try an experiment involving permafrost. Specifically, we want to melt it to see what happens to the soils. This is the expected outcome of global warming, and is currently happening in the Arctic. It’s only a matter of time before Antarctic permafrost starts melting, and the sooner we can gather information, the better. What do YOU think will happen if the permafrost melts?

We decided to put out a black cloth to trap heat and warm the soil underneath. Then we will take soil samples for microbial and animal response and measure changes in temperature, moisture and carbon dioxide flux. But before we could do this, we had to test it out in a place that isn’t as fragile as Taylor Valley. We chose a spot near Arrival Heights, a protected area used for research by the United States Antarctic Program and Antarctica New Zealand.


First we traced the shape of the cloth and dug a trench all the way around.

Breana digging permafrost

Ed digging permafrost


We staked the cloth into the trench, hoping it would hold up through the winter. Then we backfilled the trench, covering the edges of the cloth. For even more protection, we put heavy rocks on the corners. Hopefully we will be able to see a response from this experiment, and be able to put it out near F6 camp. Another good thing about a “test run” is that you get some practice setting up the experiment. Ed and Breana learned some very important lessons about digging, hammering stakes, and moving rocks that will benefit them in the future. Especially if they quit science and take up trench-digging.

We will be back next year to see how well it held up over winter, and whether or not it warmed up the soil underneath it.

This year, the McMurdo LTER is being reviewed by the National Science Foundation. This happens to every LTER during its funding cycle. Unlike other grants, Long Term Ecological Research grants are for six years (hence long term), so at three years a team is sent to review the science and give recommendations based on their findings. It’s a good thing, but a bit stressful for us.

In all, the site review team consisted of five researchers in various fields and three NSF program officers.

Site review team

Our LTER currently consists of 7 Principle Investigators (PIs), from left, Dr. Berry Lyons (Ohio State University), Dr. Diana Wall (Colorado State University), Dr. Andrew Fountain (Portland State University), Dr. Peter Doran (University of Illinois – Chicago), Dr. Diane McKnight (University of Colorado – Boulder) and Dr. Ross Virginia (Dartmouth College). Not pictured: Dr. John Priscu(Montana State University).


The site review team was given a whirlwind tour of our research in the valleys, which is an integrated program connecting the landscape units in the dry valleys, from glaciers to streams to lakes to soils. We work really hard to make sure that all our research is connected, not just to each other, but to the scientific community at large.

Andrew talking to the site review team

Site review at F6

After interviewing everyone and visiting all the sites, the review team, “gave us an A!” and some great feedback. We hope they all enjoyed themselves, and maybe learned a little something, too.

The bad weather knocked us out for a few days, but we’re back on, thank goodness! We have a very short amount of time to work down here, so we have to make the most of it.

Today Ed and Breana flew out to the south side of Lake Hoare to treat the BEE plots and change the chambers. BEE stands for Biotic Effects Experiment, where we are warming (ITEX chambers) and wetting (5.6 L millipure water) the soil, simulating climate change. See, we expect that with global warming, water will become more available in the Dry Valleys.

Worm Farms

We have evidence of this from the austral summer of 2001-2002, when warmer summer temperatures caused massive melting of snow packs, glaciers, permafrost, etc. This water all came tumbling down into the lakes, in fact, even washing out some of our BEE plots at Lake Bonney!

A famous exchange from that season:
Berry Lyons, Geochemist, “Diana, why did you put your plots in a stream?”
Diana Wall, Head Wormherder, “I DIDN’T!!”

At any rate, this year we had to apply the water and change all the chambers. The katabatic winds in the valleys sandblast our chambers, and every few years we have to put out new ones, because the old ones become very scratched and brittle. Because of the wind, we use bungee cords and strong wire harnesses to hold the chambers down. These have to be replaced too. It’s not a tough job, so Ed and I volunteered to do it and spent a few hours across from the Lake Hoare camp, working peacefully in the sun and periodically calling Lake Hoare on the radio.

Then we flew to F6 to do the same thing. By this point, we were very fast at changing chambers, so we had lots of time to sit in the hut and drink tea. It’s a tough life!

We’ve just been informed of the passing of Sir Edmund Hillary.

Last year many of us were fortunate enough to meet Sir Ed when he was here celebrating the 50th anniversary of Scott Base. Hillary was a member of the team that founded and built Scott Base in 1957, and he was first to drive to the South Pole as part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. He was an incredible adventurer, and a very nice man.

Diana Wall and Sir Edmund Hillary

We’ve had a nasty storm here the last few days. It started Wednesday, with blowing snow. Soon we had a LOT of snow, and all flights have been canceled. Ross, Diana, Byron, Breana and Ed are stuck in McMurdo, while Becky, Poage, and Elizabeth are stuck out at various camps in Taylor Valley.

It’s very frustrating, because we’re getting behind more and more every day. We’re only here for a short amount of time, and sitting around McMurdo is not our idea of fun. We decided to take a team picture in the snow, looking rugged and very “Antarctic.”

Rugged Wormherders

Cheers from McMurdo Station!

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