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Holidays in McMurdo are pretty similar to holidays anywhere else, but with a certain Antarctic twist. The galley – where we eat every day – was decorated and festive, and it made it easier for us to celebrate away from home.

Karen, Tracy and Breana in front of the Christmas tree in the galley.
Karen, Tracy and Breana

The penguin menorah in the galley.
Penguin Menorah

Several members of our team decided to hike/ski to Castle Rock. It’s a 7 mile hike from McMurdo to Castle Rock and back again, partially over soil and partially over snow and ice. If you want to hike it, you have to check out with the Firehouse and tell them when you expect to be back. If you don’t get back on time, they send a Search and Rescue party after you! It might be wonderful weather, but this is Antarctica, and certain precautions must be taken to ensure the safety of everyone living and working in McMurdo.

Here you can see Bishwo and Nick hiking back home.
Nick and Bishwo

Nick tries to do a bit of skiing…
Nick Skis to Castle Rock

…it’s harder than it looks!
To Castle Rock

Bishwo is from Nepal, and we tried to convince him that “Decorating The Bishwo” was an important American Christmas tradition. He did not believe us.
Decorating Bishwo

Which of your favorite holiday traditions do you think would be fun in McMurdo?

We shared a wonderful dinner, listened to carols, and after dinner we exchanged gifts (some of OUR favorite holiday traditions). Perhaps the most popular gifts were the wind-up toys. We were happy and thankful for spending it with friends in McMurdo. We hope you all had a great holiday season, too!

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The next Wormherder field trip was to sample another one of our core experiments, the elevational transect in Taylor Valley, on the south side of Lake Hoare. The purpose of this experiment is to determine if elevation affects soil biota and/or soil chemistry. The experimental design involves 3 different sampling sites, each at a different elevation; one low, one middle, and one high. A 3 by 3 meter grid has been established at each elevation site, and soil samples are taken within this grid for analysis back at the lab. The picture below shows the low elevation plots; if you look closely you can see the stakes that outline the sampling grid. This ensures we sample in the appropriate location from year to year.

Elevational Transect plots

One sample is taken within every 1 by 1 meter subplot in the large plot. The surface soil is removed to a vial for analysis of soil productivity. Then, soil is removed to a depth of 10cm with a scoop and placed in a sterile plastic bag. Below, Bishwo shows his soil sampling skills at the low elevation plot. Lake Hoare and Canada Glacier are visible in the background.

Bishwo sampling

For ease of sampling in the field (often in cold conditions), sampling kits are pre-assembled in the lab. For each sample, a fresh scoop, vial and bag are labeled and organized into larger bags. This helps to ensure that each sample gets taken and is identified properly. Why is this so important from a scientific standpoint?
Below, Bishwo displays a sampling kit for one of the elevation blocks.

Bishwo models sampling kit

The low elevation plot is located at approximately 272 feet above sea level, and from there it is an uphill climb to about 400 feet elevation to the mid-level study site. In following photo, Breana and Bishwo make the hike which offers a great look at Canada Glacier’s plunge into frozen Lake Hoare.

Bishwo and Bre to mid-ET

Soil samples are taken at the mid and high elevation sites, just as at the low elevation site so comparisons can be made between the three areas. What types of characters might vary between sites due to their elevation? Why might elevation be responsible for these differences? Below, two happy hikers, Breana and Karen, get ready to sample the mid-elevation block.

Breana and Karen, ready to sample

The high elevation site is located at around 615 feet above sea level and is the farthest from Lake Hoare. This plot lies beneath Andrews Ridge, which runs from east to west and is pictured below. The distance from the lake is one of the main physical variables that differs between the three elevation sites. Soil moisture properties may also vary between the study areas. Both of these factors, among others, may affect the distribution and abundance of nematodes and other soil organisms.

Andrews ridge, Taylor Valley

With sampling complete, the helo returned for pickup and whisked the Wormherders back toward McMurdo in order to process the fresh soil samples. Timing is critical since we characterize the proportion of live and dead nematodes of the different species, and survival can be affected the longer the samples remain outside a temperature-controlled incubator. On the way back, Canada Glacier revealed its full, spectacular self.

Canada glacier from air

After getting the lab all set up and prepared to run our soil samples, the whole group set off for our first trip out to the Dry Valleys. We split up and boarded two different helicopters- this is the first group heading out to cross the McMurdo Sound into Taylor Valley.

Group 1 taking off

Our first sight from the air is our home away from home, McMurdo Station. Everything we need is located here, from our lab, dorms and cafeteria, to exercise gyms and libraries. It feels sort of like a very small college town, but looks very different.

McMurdo after takeoff

We fly across the Ross Ice Shelf in helicopters in order to reach our study site, the McMurdo Dry Valleys. The distance traveled averages around 50 miles and takes approximately 40 minutes. We wear protective helmets, and of course always wear our seat belts! Below is Nick, happy to be on his first helicopter ride.

Whose chopper is this?

Our flight takes us over frozen McMurdo Sound and the largest sea ice shelf in Antarctica, the Ross ice shelf. Below, you can see that the mountains rise directly from the icy ocean. Why are the mountains only partially snow covered, even though Antarctica is so cold?

Ross Ice Sheet

Cracks in the sea ice begin to develop as the water and ice are heated by the relatively warm rays of the summer sun. You can see a few of these cracks below as we approach the continent.

Flying toward the Dry Valleys

Soon enough, we enter Taylor Valley and immediately white ice gives way to rocky soil. These ecosystems are the coldest and driest on Earth, and no higher plants are capable of surviving here. The picture below reveals the stark Dry Valley landscape.

Entering the Dry Valleys

We touch down on the helicopter or “helo” pad and unload our gear for the day’s fieldwork, which includes our backpacks, soil sampling equipment, personal items such as food and also survival bags which include emergency supplies should be become detained in the field. Then, the helo departs and we go about our experiments until they return to transport us to McMurdo.

Our ride

Upon our arrival on the south side of Lake Hoare, our leader, Dr. Diana Wall, gave us an introduction to the various long term experiments that have been going on in this area. Dr. Wall (below, at left) has been studying soil ecology in the Dry Valleys for decades, as this year marks her 19th season on the Ice. Her dedication and scientific achievement have been acknowledged by the naming of a Dry Valley in her honor!

Diana gives a lesson

After some planning, we broke up into groups in order to take soil samples and apply experimental treatments to certain plots of soil. Below are soil warming chambers that are part of an investigation into the biotic effects of increased soil temperature, water and carbon addition. Why would we choose these particular treatments and be interested in their effects on soil biota (living things in the soil)?

Lake Hoare BEE plots

The Dry Valley soil ecosystems are extremely fragile, and great care must be taken when we are in the field. We walk single file on established paths so that we minimize our effects on the belowground communities. Here, our team travels down a Taylor Valley trail.

Dry Valley abbey road

As we walk around, we notice that the scale here is quite astonishing and humbling. We humans seem so small compared to the daunting mountains and glaciers. It is fascinating that microscopic nematodes are capable of thriving in such a place!

Taylor Valley

In order to evaluate the effects of climate change on soil biota, long term monitoring projects are in place that track the nematode abundance and distribution from year to year. The picture below shows four members of our team taking soil samples from one of these long term experimental sites. Lake Hoare and Canada Glacier are in the background.

Sampling soils

When our fieldwork is done for the day, the helicopters arrive again and we are treated to more spectacular views on the return trip. Here you can see an iceberg in the distance, one of many that we flew past on our way back to McMurdo. What a day!

Approaching the Iceberg

As part of the orientation for all first-timers in Antarctica, it is a requirement that all attend the Field Safety Training Program, better known as “Happy Camper School”. This two-day, overnight course teaches general survival skills such as building snow shelters, snow camping as well as cooking and living outdoors. One of our first challenges was working together to build a snow cave, or Quinzee, which is constructed by forming a deep pile of snow, letting it set in the sun for a few hours, and then hollowing out the inside. Below, the team shovels snow until a large mound is formed; in the background is Mt. Erebus.

PC180141

After a few hours for the snow to bond together, we spent the next several hours digging an entry and hollowing out the center. Once finished, the Quinzee was large enough to sleep four people!

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Along with the snow cave, we pitched tents of various styles and learned how to construct snow anchors. Why might these anchors be so necessary?
Below, you get a sense of the variety of shelters for our night out on the Ice.

DSC00711

In order to block the wind and further secure our tents, we then used saws to cut snow blocks, which were then towed by sleds and constructed into snow brick walls on the windward side of the tents. This greatly helped reduce the amount of wind stress on the tent anchors and keeps the residents much warmer.

PC180148

Finally, it was time for dinner, which involved digging an “Ice kitchen” with a windbreaker for the stove. Here, Tracy and David get to work assembling the camping stoves and preparing dinner for hungry shovelers.

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The next day, we simulated the conditions of an extreme storm by donning buckets on our heads. This seems, and certainly looks, rather silly, but it was a great way to learn how to get your bearings and work together even without the use of your eyes or voice. The Bucketheads worked together to find and retrieve a “lost” team member and practiced walking in a straight line. Try it- it’s harder than it sounds but lots of fun!

PC190190

This year, the flight from New Zealand to Antarctica was especially unique and memorable. Instead of the usual crowded military plane without windows, we were treated to a ride on an Airbus, a large and comfortable airplane much like the ones that fly from place to place in the US. Below, our team boards the plane in Christchurch, at center is Dr. Diana Wall.

All aboard!

Since there were only about 20 passengers, most were able to sit in the business class cabin- a thrilling first for many of us! It was really fun to play with our plush, fully reclining seats; but even though quite comfortable it was hard to sleep from all the excitement.

Flying in style

There were more perks of this unique flight, including visits to the cockpit to chat with the pilot and officers. Below, Dr. Uffe Nielsen checks out the control panels up front.

Uffe in Cockpit

Also, we were treated to cabin service by a friendly crew that traded their professional attire for snow gear as we approached Antarctica. Here, Dr. Breana Simmons orders a beverage from the passing cart.

Cabin service

The views from the plane windows were hard to believe. As we approached the continent, the blue water of the Southern Ocean gave way to frozen sea ice.

Ice and water

Soon, the glacier and snow covered mountains of Antarctica came into view.

Plane views

After a scenic five hour trip, our plane landed on the sea ice runway close to McMurdo Station which is located on Ross Island in Antarctica.
Why do we land on ice instead of the ground?
Here we take in our first impressions of the White Continent; in the background
you can see Mt. Discovery and the Royal Society mountain range.

Arrival in Antarctica

From the runway, we boarded a large shuttle vehicle bound for McMurdo Station, the home base for the United States Antarctic Program and our home for the next month and a half. Below is a view of McMurdo Station from the air. For more information and photos of McMurdo follow this link:
McMurdo Station.

McMurdo from the air

Our last full day in Christchurch was busy with final preparations before our flight to Antarctica. We headed to the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) in order to be outfitted with our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) clothing aimed at protecting us against Antarctica’s often rapidly changing weather conditions. Why do you think the weather can change so fast down there?

At the CDC, we were greeted by a wall of ECW clothing that would be available to us for packing in our issued orange duffel bags. In the picture below, you can see the variety of clothing items needed for cold and windy weather. What types of clothing would be best at protecting us from the weather?

ECW wall of fashion

Insulation against the cold involves many different clothing layers provided by the CDC. First, on goes the long underwear followed by a layer of fleece on both top and bottom. Next, an outer layer of wind-resistant material in the form of snow pants and a jacket.
Why might it be so important to shield ourselves from the cold wind?
We are issued two different jackets, one filled with goose down and one made of lighter wind-stop fabric so that we can choose one based on the current weather conditions. For our feet, we are issued large white insulated boots, known as “bunny boots”, which make our feet look big but are very warm and go a long way toward preventing cold toes! A hat, balaclava, goggles and gloves complete our outfit and ensure that our entire body is protected. At the CDC, we try on all our issued clothing to make sure everything fits and then begin to pack our bags for the flight to the Ice. Here, Bishwo wears his heavy jacket, known as “Big Red” and other ECW gear, on our first outing in Antarctica.

Against the Wind

And below, Karen shows just how cozy “big red” can be, even on a really cold day in the field. The ECW gear must be carried at all times while in the field because temperature and other weather conditions can change within minutes due to heavy winds and storms.
Sunglasses or goggles that shield our eyes are especially important in Antarctica- why is this the case?
Swallowed by parka

Each country’s team in Antarctica wears ECW gear with different colors or designs, but the basic layers remain the same. Those people a part of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) wear red jackets, while those associated with the New Zealand program sport black and orange coats. Below, Uffe of the USAP and Nick of the New Zealand program show their colors while checking out a map of the Ross Island region of Antarctica.

Handsome boy modeling school

We’re in Christchurch, New Zealand, getting ready to head to McMurdo tomorrow. It’s summer here, so we’re nice and warm, but we just learned that Fort Collins (home to Diana, Breana, Uffe, Karen and Tracy) has frozen over! We decided to compare Fort Collins, CO with McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Can you guess which weather forecast is for Colorado and which is for Antarctica?

Fort Collins Weather

McMurdo Weather

If you guessed that Antarctica was going to be warmer and sunnier than Colorado this week, you’re right! It’s also summer in Antarctica, so while we are there, we get to enjoy the “tropical weather” on the southernmost continent. Hopefully this doesn’t ruin our reputations as rugged and brave explorers! The tricky thing about Antarctic weather is that it can change very quickly, and you don’t want to get caught unprepared.

After our long flight to the Southern Hemisphere and a night of wonderful sleep, the wormherders headed out to experience the sights and sounds of Christchurch, New Zealand. A beautiful city, Christchurch has a bustling city center filled with walking plazas and, yes indeed, many beautiful churches and colonial buildings. Here are Tracy, Uffe, Nick and Bishwo taking in one of them.

Happy in New Zealand

The lush River Avon winds its way throughout the city, and while on our walk along it we observed many ducks and other birds, along with groups of people enjoying the river by boat, powered by the muscle and poles of the gondoliers.

The river Avon

We found our way to the Botanical Gardens and enjoyed trees, plants and flowers from all over the world; from Australian Eucalyptus to California Redwoods. One of the trees, a giant cypress, was perfect for climbing, so Nick, Tracy, Uffe and Karen went up for a bird’s eye view of the last green place we would see for a while.

In our tree

This year the Wormherders will be VERY busy – we’re collaborating with a New Zealand Biocomplexity project and this is expected to triple our workload. For this reason, our team is twice as big as last year, with several people headed to the Antarctic for the very first time. Here is the new team, assembled from researchers at three universities in two countries!

Bishwo Adhikari
Bishwo Adhikari
“I am a PhD student in the Department of Biology, and Evolutionary Ecology Laboratories, at Brigham Young University working with Dr. Byron J Adams. I am interested in nematode stress response mechanisms and I am using different molecular techniques to study how nematodes respond to different stresses, identify the genes playing major role during stress survival. As a part of my graduate research I recently characterized the suite of Plectus murrayi genes differentially expressed as it goes into anhydrobiosis. I am now conducting similar investigations into freeze tolerance. I have been working with Antarctic nematodes (mainly Plectus murrayi) since 2006 and am looking forward to my first season on the ice.”

Nick Demetras
Nick Demetras
“I work in Dr. Ian D. Hogg’s lab at The University of Waikato in Hamilton, NZ, where I have just completed my first year of graduate school. My research is focused on the the population genetic structure of the Antarctic Springtail Gomphiocephalus hodgsoni in the Dry Valleys. I will also be looking at soil nematode occurrence, distribution, and diversity and how that fits into the overall biocomplexity of the Dry Valleys as well. I am totally stoked to embark on my first Antarctic adventure.”

Uffe Nielsen
Uffe Nielsen
“I am a new Postdoctoral Fellow in Dr. Diana H. Wall’s lab at CSU. My research will mainly focus on the relationship between soil biodiversity and ecosystem functioning using low diversity ecosystems, including the Dry Valleys in Antarctica, as model habitats. As this is my first year going to Antarctica I am very excited about this.”

Karen Seaver
Karen Seaver
“I work in Dr. Diana Wall’s lab at CSU, where I am in my second year of graduate school. My research uses genetic and molecular techniques to study the adaptations of nematodes to the extremely cold and arid soils of Antarctica’s Dry Valleys. Specifically, I study how nematodes survive periods of severe drought by entering a protective state known as anhydrobiosis. I am excited for my first Antarctic adventure!”

Tracy Smith
Tracy Smith
“I am a student working for Dr. Diana Wall at CSU and soon McMurdo Station, Antarctica. I am interested in studying how processes that take place within ecosystems are affected by human activity, and how changes in these processes can in turn affect human health and well-being. Antarctica is unique in that there is minimal direct human impact on these ecosystems, but we are seeing changes in how they function as a result of human impacts in other parts of the world and on global scales. I am excited to begin my research career in a place where you can ask these questions and uncover information that may help us to better protect our planet, and to have this rare opportunity to travel to the bottom of the earth!”

These researchers will join Old Antarctic Explorers Diana Wall, Byron Adams, and Breana Simmons in McMurdo this year. The 2008/2009 season is Diana’s 19th trip to the ice! This year, in addition to collaborating with the Kiwis (that’s what the folks from New Zealand are called) the Wormherders are looking forward to conducting new field research on Antarctic soil animals. We will continue to post information on our research and on Antarctic life in general from December 15th through February. We have asked several school groups to submit questions to our blog, and we will post answers from our lab in Antarctica!

If you are a public school teacher and would like for your students to participate, please contact Dr. Breana Simmons (breana@nrel.colostate.edu) for more information.

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