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taylor valley, antarctica

Taylor Valley, Antarctica

Diana, Ross, Martijn, Ashley, Ruth, and Sabrina traveled to Taylor Valley to apply scheduled treatments to the Biotic Effects Experiment (BEE) plots. The  BEE plots are located at 3 places in Taylor Valley: near Lake Fryxell at F6, near Lake Bonney, and near Lake Hoare. All of the BEE plots were established during the 1999-2000 season, and are sampled every few years. We are not sampling these plots this year, as that sampling was just completed last field season (to read about sampling the BEE plots click here).

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Helicopter leaving after dropping our team off at F6 camp, Taylor Valley, Antarctica.


Lake Fryxell in the foreground, with the Commonwealth Glacier behind in Taylor Valley, Antarctica.

There are four different treatments at the BEE plots:

  1. Control (no treatment)
  2. Soil warming with chamber
  3. Water added
  4. Soil warming and water added

Martijn carries the supplies that we’ll need to the field site near Lake Bonney!

This experiment allows us to explore the Antarctic soil ecosystem’s response to environmental change. We expect that soil temperature and moisture will increase in the future due to climate change. With the BEE, we can study the effect of these changes on the soil animals in the dry valleys and our experiment will help predict how the soil animals will respond to warmer and wetter soil in the future. The design of the BEE also shows how each of these climate variables may affect the soil animals alone, without the influence of the other variable. This means we can determine what proportion of the change may be due to the effects of the increased temperature by itself, or the extra water.

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Ashley (left) and Martijn (right) add water to the water addition plots at the BEE site. The chambers in the picture warm the soil by trapping solar heat and blocking wind. They’re made of nearly-clear fiberglass that helps to trap heat from the sun in the area beneath the cone, and in this way we can leave the cones tightly strapped down to stakes on the plots year-round and let the sun do all of the work for us.

For the treatments, the soil warming is continuous (with the use of the soil warming chamber, see photo above) during the austral summer;  however, we need to apply water to the ‘water added’ plots each year to maintain increased soil moisture for those treatments. Adding water is pretty straightforward. We added 5.6 liters of water to each ‘water added’ plot. We did this using jugs (pre-marked for measuring the appropriate amount of water) and watering spouts to help distribute the water softly and evenly. As Diana described to us, it feels much like “watering your garden.”

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Ross explains the Biotic Effects Experiment to Ruth near Lake Fryxell.

Coming up next: sampling the new P3 experiment, and working in the lab to extract, identify, and count nematodes!

Can’t wait for more? Here’s a beautiful, female Scottnema lindsayae to hold you over until next time!!

Written by: Ashley Shaw

Female Scottnema


Once in Antarctica, there are some necessary training procedures to ensure everyone’s safety while working in and studying this extreme continent. Ashley, Sabrina, and Ruth had never been to Antarctica before and were required to attend “Happy Camper”, AKA “Snow School”. This training is essential for everyone new to McMurdo who will go off-station for any reason (field work, collecting samples, tending experiments). Anyone who has already been to McMurdo and participated in Snow School previously also gets a shorter, “Refresher” course upon arrival.


Ashley is ready for Happy Camper (Snow School)!

Snow School teaches about cold weather and outdoor skills, hazards, and what to do in case of certain emergencies (such as getting stuck in the field during bad weather). This training lasts for 2 days and covers: how to use high frequency radios, send emergency signals, set up tents, cut snow blocks to build walls for wind protection, dig a snow trench to sleep in if you need shelter, and how to maintain body warmth in frigid temperatures. Our Snow School session had 10 participants, and together, we learned and practiced these techniques, built a camp, cooked meals, and practiced rescue/emergency scenarios. First our group set up tents for the camp. We learned how to set up the Scott tent, which was designed for and used by the R.F. Scott expeditions in Antarctica in the early 1900s. We still use these tents today because the design is perfect for standing up to the tough Antarctic weather (plus, you can cook inside of it!!).


Our group sets up the Scott tent!

Next, the happy campers built the snow wall to protect the camp from wind and blowing snow. Even though the temperature was just a little below freezing, cutting snow blocks is hard work and warms you right up! Ruth and Sabrina took off their parkas while working to avoid getting too warm and sweating too much.


Ruth (Left) and Sabrina (Right) cut snow blocks to help build the camp’s wall. The wall will help protect the campers from wind and blowing snow.

After the wall was in place, the group learned how to make shelters if the tents were lost (such as in a storm). To do this, they learned how to dig into the snow and then hollow out trenches to sleep in. The trench protects from the wind and harsh weather and provides a cozy place to snuggle into a sleeping bag. Ruth and Ashley slept in the trenches that they dug, while Sabrina opted for one of the tents – all three got a good, solid, and warm night’s rest.


Sleeping trench with the finished camp (completed snow wall, tents, and snow kitchen) in the background!

Snow Camp

Completed Snow Camp!

We also learned about communications while in the field, we discussed VHF radios, HF radios, Iridium phones, and signal mirrors. We practiced using the VHF radios and HF radio. We set up the HF radio and called South Pole station (they were expecting our call!) to run through the whole radio process.


Our Snow School group learning about the HF radio!

After 2 days of Snow School, we headed back to McMurdo Station. We are all ready for a safe and productive field season in Antarctica!!

Mount Erebus

View of Mount Erebus from our Snow School camp!

Before flying to Antarctica, the Wormherders had a few days to prepare for our field season in Christchurch, New Zealand. Christchurch is the staging place for the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). From there, USAP participants deploy to McMurdo and South Pole stations.


USAP Building in Christchurch

While laying over in Christchurch, we went to the USAP’s clothing distribution center (CDC) where we were issued our customary ‘orange bags’ containing the necessary extreme cold weather (ECW) clothing and got prepared to go to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. We were each issued: parkas, windbreakers, snow pants, bunny boots, balaclavas, hats, mittens, gloves, socks, goggles, long underwear, and fleece pants, shirts, and jackets! We had to try everything on to check the fit of our gear (better to find out at the CDC if something does not fit or is not comfortable than in the field in Antarctica!). Then, we were ready to go to Antarctica!


Here’s Ruth trying on her big red parka! Looks good!


There’s so much gear to take – it gets all spread out in the changing rooms! We take everything out of our orange bags and try it all on! Here’s Diana trying on her bunny boots (Left), Ruth in the fleece pants and parka (Middle), and Sabrina in the windbreaker (Right).

The ECW gear will keep us warm, protecting our bodies from extreme cold and wind while we do our work in Antarctica. We even have to wear our ECW gear for our flight to Antarctica in case of an emergency and we need to stay warm.


Wormherders in the USAP terminal in Christchurch ready to board the plane! (L-R: Martijn, Diana, Ashley, Sabrina)


We caught our first views of the Antarctic continent from the plane!

With our ECW gear, we will be better able to stay warm and safe while collecting soil samples and performing experiments while in the field in Antarctica! Stay tuned: new blog coming soon about Snow School, which teaches newcomers about safety and survival in the harsh, cold conditions of Antarctica!

Happy New Year to you all!

The  McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Soils Team this year consists of Diana Wall, Martijn Vandegehuchte and Ashley Shaw from Colorado State University, John Barrett, Kevin Geyer and Eric Sokol from Virginia Tech and Ross Virginia and Ruth Heindel from Dartmouth College. The season started with a sequence of flights from Denver to Los Angeles to Sydney to Christchurch, where we had to wait a day to get our extra cold weather gear issued and fitted. So we visited the Canterbury Museum and the botanical gardens. The museum had a temporary exhibition about Scott’s last expedition, with great information about Scott’s expedition to the South Pole and some interesting pieces such as handwritten lecture notes by Scott. The next day we boarded a C-130 Hercules airplane for an eight hour flight, which was fitted with skis so that it could land on the ice runway which is in poor shape at the moment because some strong winds deposited sediment onto the runway which causes it to melt. We had just stepped out of the airplane and were greeted by an excited Adélie penguin. Our ride to McMurdo station, Ivan the Terrabus, actually had to drive onto a “magic carpet” that was then pulled by a tractor across the ice. The next day the new team members Ashley, Sabrina and Ruth went to Snow School, which you will read more about in the next post. In the meanwhile the others did a refresher survival course, a course on environmental safety and some other training. We spent the past few days planning the field work, setting up the lab at McMurdo and getting our field gear ready. Right now the snowy weather is keeping us from flying a helicopter to the field sites, but hopefully that will change soon and we can go out to the Dry Valleys!

Team B-507-M has landed on the ice.

Team B-507-M has landed on the ice.

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