Once we had gotten through all of the training we needed to do, it was time to start setting up the lab. This involved unpacking all of the boxes of material we had put away for storage at the end of last year as well as picking up shiny new equipment for the lab for this year. All the things we had carefully washed last year were rinsed and dried before being put back on the shelves where they belong and we picked up things like our microscopes, soil cans (used to see how much water is in the soils we collect), lab computers and chemicals we’ll be using throughout the time we’re here. Now that the lab is all set up, you can see Bishwo hard at work!

Life here wasn’t all work while we get settled in, though! Even though we had to work during the weekend to get everything set up, there was still time to enjoy life in McMurdo. This past weekend featured two of McMurdo’s winter traditions: IceStock, an all-day concert featuring local bands and the Scott’s Hut 10k race.

First up was IceStock on Saturday. The bands started playing at noon on a big stage set up in the middle of town and kept playing until 7. You can see the stage here, all painted up for the festival this year–every year has different stage artwork made up special each year. We missed the first few bands performing, but did manage to hear bands like “Level Five”, “Unsorted Trash” (we have to sort our trash here into things like food waste, recyclables and things they can compress to ship back home to be taken care of) and “Safety Band”. As you may have guessed, Safety Band sang songs about how to avoid getting hurt or doing things that would injure other people–not something you’d hear anywhere else! Here you can see a picture of Bishwo, Diana, Zach, Ross and Uffe at IceStock:
Bishwo, Diana, Zach, Ross and Uffe enjoying IceStock
And here’s a picture of the stage artwork:
and one with the last band of the day playing:

There was a short break for dinner at 7, and then the concerts continued until late into the night in different buildings. Some bands played more relaxed, acoustic music and others were more of the loud rock and roll style–something for nearly everyone! Being the diligent scientists that we are, however, we went and made sure that everything was squared away in the lab after dinner and then took the rest of the night off.

Sunday morning, bright and early, was the Scott’s Hut race. The race started at 9 in the morning and was a bit less than 10 kilometers (that’s about 6 miles) from McMurdo Station over to Scott Base (run by the New Zealanders). After running through town, the participants had to race uphill with the wind blowing down on them–not easy–and then down the other side into Scott Base. Once they got there, it was time to turn around and run back. Not many people ran it this year because of the strong winds, but here’s a picture of Bishwo and Byron coming to the finish line!

The real reason we’re here, though, is for the ecology work that we do. Most of the time we’re here is spent getting the lab set up, running our experiments (or keeping them in running condition between years) or looking at all of the soil we collected to see what organisms are present and what effects the experiments might have. Weather has unfortunately kept us from getting into the field just yet–compare the image out our lab window here with the one from last week!

Once we can get into the field, however, we’re going to begin sampling and maintaining the experiments we run here. Our group might change year to year depending on who comes down to work each winter, but our experiments run for many years at a time in order to provide us with information about how the soil system down here works. This week we’re going to be working on the Stoichiometry experiments we have in place at our F6 site. It sounds really confusing, but it’s actually fairly straightforward.

In the Dry Valleys, one of the questions we’re interested in are how differences in nutrients (carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus) between the different sites we have around the lakes in the dry valleys affect the animals and other critters that live in soil. Secondly, we want to learn which of these three nutrients has the greatest effect on the organisms living in soil, so we’re looking for changes in the activity or number of living things in the soil when we add either carbon, nitrogen or phosphorus.

There’s very little plant life to provide carbon to soils (plants undergo photosynthesis and take carbon dioxide in the air and turn it into sugar or use it to grow bigger): you can see how empty these sites look below!

Because there’s so little plant growth in these sites there is very limited amounts of available nutrients in the soils and adding nutrients will therefore increase the number of organisms in the soil and how active they are – nutrients control how quickly organisms (including humans) grow and reproduce. One of the most important and often limiting nutrients is carbon, but sometimes other nutrients also influence growth rates. The field sites we chose for this study differ in the amounts and availability of nitrogen and phosphorus, with nitrogen being limited at Lake Fryxell and phosphorus being limited at Lake Bonney. In contrast, the sites are fairly similar in carbon levels, although carbon is also in short supply. So we predict that carbon additions will have a positive influence at both field sites but that nitrogen is limiting soil function and faunal populations at Lake Fryxell whereas phosphorus is in short supply at Lake Bonney, and a strong positive effect of carbon additions will only be observed if we also add nitrogen and phosphorus at the two sites, respectively.

To get all these nutrients added to the sites, we have to carry in a lot of water with the nutrients dissolved inside. You can see all the containers we have to bring with us below.

We add either carbon, nitrogen or phosphorus by themselves in order to see what happens when only one of the nutrients is added to a plot of soil, and we also add nitrogen or phosphorus with carbon in order to see what happens if two of them are combined–remember, sometimes the soil organisms can’t make use of the extra nitrogen or phosphorus if they don’t have enough carbon to grow. Sometimes we also add nothing, just so we know what the plots are like alone. And finally, because we’re adding all of those nutrients with water, we also add only water to some of the plots in order to make sure that any changes we see are due to the nutrients and not the water!