Arriving in Antarctica is overwhelming. To be in such an incredibly remote place, surrounded by all of the icy beauty that constant daylight can illuminate, and to be here in the name of science – it’s both an honor and a huge responsibility.

View of McMurdo Station from Observation Hill. Photo: Ashley Shaw

View of McMurdo Station from Observation Hill. Photo: Ashley Shaw

To add to the weight of that responsibility – there is great science taking place all around us. I’ve met scientists who are working on glaciers to try to understand how they move and flow across the continent. Others are taking enormous ice cores to discover what the climate was like many thousands to many millions of years ago. One group is drilling into the icesheet to sample a subglacial lake nearly a kilometer below its surface – and they have found life down there! Some are studying the deep sea, and others are studying deep space. It’s truly incredible just to be here, but it’s even more incredible to be surrounded by this wealth of great minds, thinkers, explorers, scientists… giants in their field of research.

From the top of Observation Hill, Ruth photographs McMurdo Station. Scott's Memorial Cross is in the background. The cross was erected in 1913 in memory of the Scott party who perished while on expedition to the South Pole. Photo: Ashley Shaw

From the top of Observation Hill, Ruth photographs McMurdo Station. Scott’s Memorial Cross is in the background. The cross was erected in 1913 in memory of the Scott party who perished while on expedition to the South Pole. Photo: Ashley Shaw

We work with the Soils Team for Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. The McMurdo LTER project also has groups that study the valleys’ streams, glaciers, lakes, geology, and climate. Together these teams work to understand the ecosystem in the coldest, windiest and driest desert on the planet. In the soils, we find nematodes, tardigrades, rotifers, protists, bacteria, yeasts, and algae. They rule the valleys. To study these organisms and their ecosystem, we take helicopters from McMurdo Station into the Dry Valleys. This is about a 30 to 45 minute helicopter ride. We collect our samples, monitor and treat our experiments, and return to station to analyze our samples in the lab. The results of our studies are important for understanding how these ecosystems function and respond to change. We contribute to a long-term record that is astounding for it’s breadth of data and its value for ecosystem science.

Sampling soil in the dry valleys. Photo: Ashley Shaw

Sampling soil in the dry valleys. Photo: Ashley Shaw

Of course there are limitations to working in this extreme environment – I’m constantly asked what it’s like to be here. But, if there’s one thing I could tell my friends and family back home – besides the weather (yes, it’s cold!), the living conditions (yes, there are bathrooms and electricity!), and the daily penguin updates (No, I haven’t seen any yet) – it would be that this is a place of great science. And it’s an honor to be here amongst the giants.

Written by: Ashley Shaw

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