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.