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We received more questions from Ms. Chamberlain’s class! Apparently, due to some very very cold weather in Michigan, some of them are ready to come down here and be research scientists, just to get a break from the cold!

1. How do you spend your time if you cannot go out and do research? – Amy

Amy, we had this problem a lot this year, with all the bad weather. We have a LOT of work to do, so when we can’t go out to the field, there is plenty for us to do in the lab. If we run out of things to do in the lab, well, then we get to explore McMurdo! There are plenty of things to do, such as climb Observation Hill – so named because that’s where men from the Terra Nova expedition hiked every day to look for Robert Falcon Scott and his team. It’s really high, so there is a good view of the Ross Sea, and Scott’s men were expecting him back after he reached the South Pole. Unfortunately, he never made it back. You can read more about Scott and his Antarctic expeditions here; it’s a fascinating but sad story.

If you prefer skiing, there are plenty of marked trails near McMurdo to explore. We can also take a short walk to Hut Point, where Scott built a hut during the Discovery Expedition (1901-1904). If you get permission and a guide, you can even take a tour of the hut, preserved as Scott left it! The sea ice tends to break up right there, so it’s one of the best places to spot a seal, whale or penguin close to McMurdo! Below are some photos of our tour of Scott’s Hut. Click on the picture below to go to more pictures from our tour of Scott’s Hut.

Scott's Hut

2. How long was the flight from the U.S. to New Zealand? – Kevin

Kevin, the flight from LAX to Aukland takes about 14 hours, although it’s faster on the way back (here is some info on why that happens). Because the flight is so long, they feed us dinner, turn off the lights to let us sleep, and then feed us breakfast the next morning before we land. There is a television for each seat, with movies and television and even video games. We try to sleep for as much of it as we can, which helps prevent jet lag once we get there.

3. How long do you stay in Antarctica? – Ryan

That all depends on how much we have to do, Ryan. We study soil animals, so we wait for them to become active before heading down. When the water in the soil is frozen, so are the animals. Typically the soil is warm enough by early to mid December for the animals to start becoming active. At the end of the season, the people who run McMurdo Station want us off the ice so they can begin to prepare for winter (typically the end of February), so we are racing against their deadline to get done. It’s a short season, but we get a lot accomplished.

4. What is your favorite item to test? – Taylor

I think that depends on which one of us you ask! Diana and Breana really like to look at live nematodes, so they like to do experiments that involve a lot of microscope work, such as counting and identifying nematodes, or making cultures of nematodes to use in experiments. They are biologists and are interested in how nematodes respond to environmental pressure, such as an increase in temperature, moisture, nutrients, or other animals. Byron is our resident DNA expert, so he likes to squash the critters and see what makes them tick, genetically speaking. He studies the evolution of soil animals, and asks questions like, “Where did these nematodes come from? How long have they been here? What is in their DNA that allows them to freeze over the winter?” You can read all about Byron’s research on his website, BYU Nematode Evolution Lab. Ed probably likes to measure soil CO2 the most, because there is a fancy gadget for it. But his favorite experiment is probably the one we started last year, when he sterilized the soil and is waiting to see which animals will colonize the sterile soil first. You can read more about that experiment here.

There is also a running joke in McMurdo, “Who can create the most awesome dessert using soft serve ice-cream (aka Frosty Boy)?” We do this test every evening, and so far, Byron is winning.

5. We just learned about the Antarctic Treaty. How do the provisions in the treaty affect your research? – Ann Marie

The treaty is important to us because it’s a pact between countries designating Antarctica a place of research, with freedom of investigation and scientific operation. There can be no military activity, and the continent runs without a government. This is possible because all the separate bases operate under the same principle of scientific discovery, and that means we can go anywhere we want and collaborate with anyone we want. Cooperation between treaty-states (those countries who signed the treaty) is incredibly important when working in such an extreme system. The Treaty also protects Antarctica from nuclear activity and radioactive waste, keeping it free of pollution for future research. Basically, the framework set in place by the countries who have agreed to the terms of the Treaty indirectly allow us to do exciting work in a pristine environment.

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Ms. Chamberlain’s class at Froebel School in Charlotte, Michigan have asked us some questions.

1. What is the coldest it has been since you have been down there? – Tony A

Tony, the temperatures have been pretty mild, actually, maybe even warmer than in Michigan! The coldest temperature we saw was 15F, or about -9C. Because it’s summer here right now, the temperatures tend to hover around 29F, which is just below freezing. One day we got all the way up to 42F! It was downright tropical! The biggest problem we’ve had has been wind and snow. There has been an unusual amount of precipitation in McMurdo, with gusting winds, and we can’t fly on those days, so it sets our schedule back.

2. What is the warmest it has been since you have been down there? – Kevin

Kevin, we made it to 42F one day! I checked the weather for January in Charlotte, MI (you can do it too, on Weather Underground!) and compared it to the weather in McMurdo. I discovered that the average temperature where you live was 26F, which is colder than it was in McMurdo for the same time period!

3. What exactly are nematode and are there different species of nematodes? – Dan

Dan, nematodes are also called roundworms, and are one of the most abundant animals on earth. There are over 80,000 described species of nematode so far. They live in all sorts of environments: soils, water, plants and even other animals! For more information on nematodes click here.

4. What are the nematodes being tested for and what are the results used for? – Alexa

Alexa, we study the nematodes in order to understand their biology (morphology, physiology, adaptive strategies, reproduction, etc.) and ecology (interactions with biotic and abiotic factors such as climate, microbial resources, etc). That’s the short answer, but it contains a lot of confusing terminology, so let’s break it down. We study nematode biology, which can be very simple or very complex. We ask questions like, “How many species do we have? How long do they live? How big are they? How do they survive the winter? What do they eat? How often do they reproduce? How many eggs do they make at one time? Are there more males than females? Which genes control their ability to tolerate freezing temperatures? Are the species changing, and if so, are they becoming genetically more similar or more different to one another?” These questions contribute to our fundamental knowledge of one of the most abundant and important animal groups on earth.

We also study nematode ecology, which tends to be more complicated because it’s all about interactions. We ask questions like, “From where did the current populations originate? How are they dispersing? What is the effect of increased temperature on populations? What is the relationship between microbes and nematodes? What is the relationship between nematodes and other soil animals? Which abiotic (non-living) variables most affect nematode distribution? Which nematodes are most resistant to disturbance?” Like studying nematode biology, finding the answers to these questions help us to understand basic ecological principles that can be applied to other ecosystems.

We have a very special system in Antarctica. We have very few species of soil animals, no vascular plants (plants with root systems), and no macrofauna (large animals). Imagine how hard it is to ask these same questions in the tropical rain forests, where there are so many species of plants and animals that you need several dozen experts just to identify them!

These are great questions, and we look forward to hearing from you more!

Also, we posed a question to all of you a couple of weeks ago, “What do YOU think will happen if the permafrost melts?” We got answers from two students in Ms. Chamberlain’s class!

Michael F says, “I believe that it will greatly effect the nematode population as well as raise water levels world wide. If there isn’t any small bacteria for the fish to eat, then they will out causing the penguins to die out.”

Stephanie says, “If the permafrost melts, I believe that eventually the creatures that depend on the cold may migrate or die off. Also, when all the glaciers melt, they could possibly flood over part of the dry land in Antarctica and cause an under water world like Atlantis. The melted permafrost could soften the dirt and cause the edges to be unstable.”

These are great answers! We agree, Michael F, that melting permafrost will affect nematode populations, we’re just not exactly sure HOW yet. We have some evidence that it will increase soil moisture and water flow in the region, causing flooding. We know from current experiments that at least one nematode species, Scottnema lindsayae, does NOT like wet soil. So, if we’re right, and the valleys get significantly wetter, that might be the end of our poor Scottnema! Like Stephanie says, they will either die out, have to move to dry ground or quickly adapt to wet soils.

Stephanie also raises an interesting point, if the permafrost melts, it could make the soil unstable. Because the permafrost is below the soil surface, any significant melt would cause the soil to become saturated, and potentially even cave in! We recently had a discussion with another LTER scientist, Diane McKnight, who is currently studying a stream in another valley that runs UNDERGROUND. The stream starts aboveground, then dives into the soil where the some of the permafrost has melted. It has always been thought that the banks of the streams are formed by the flow of the water, but now Diane speculates that for some streams in cold climates, as the permafrost melts, the soil above it collapses, causing high flow streams with steep banks. How cool is that?

We must admit we don’t know very much about penguins, or the effect melting permafrost would have on them, but you could check out a fellow scientist, David Ainley, to see what he thinks the future of the penguins looks like! For more info on penguins in the Antarctic, click here.

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