After a couple of days on hold due to the unpredictable Antarctic weather, today we made it to the field. We split into two teams: Diana, Byron, Josh, and Andy went to Miers Valley, while Ross, Ashley, Walter, Scott, and Matt went to Garwood Valley. The main objective was the same: collect soil samples from elevation transects above the glacial lakes at the bottom of both valleys. This will allow us to find out, firstly, how soil organisms vary in their abundance and diversity as the soil gets farther from the lakes and therefore drier; and secondly, by comparing this year’s data with those we collected in the previous years, to find out how the soil organisms vary in time. Ultimately the aim is to understand how some life forms can make a living in the very challenging conditions of the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

We are often asked how tough fieldwork in Antarctica is. The answer is that working out there can indeed be pretty tough – the cold wind, the UV-packed sunrays, having to hike on fickle terrain –but the rewards are enormous, and not only for the science. Very few places anywhere on the planet can rival the Dry Valleys in terms of grandeur of the scenery. Mountains as tall as the Rockies of Colorado stand behind glaciers taller than the Great Wall of China, and yet they are both made small by the sheer vastness of the place. To the naked eye the place looks barren, but this is one of the key ingredients of its beauty. And as often is the case with nature, this appearance of lifelessness is deceiving.

Ross, Ashley, Matt, and Scott wait for the return helicopter in Garwood Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

Ross, Ashley, Matt, and Scott wait for the return helicopter in Garwood Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

Garwood Valley, pictured above, is one of the very first sites in the Antarctic Dry Valleys that Ross and Diana went to in 1989, even before the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research project was started. Back then, the soils of the Dry Valleys were thought to be sterile, like an enclave of Mars right here on Earth. Well, they are not: as Diana and Ross first found out, and as amply documented by their team in the following 27 years of research, the soils of the McMurdo Dry Valleys host a small yet surprisingly diverse array of very tough critters. Microscopic animals such as nematode worms, rotifers, tardigrades, and in few places springtails (close relative of insects), can and do survive in this ecosystem, and even contribute to the cycling of carbon and nutrients.

Scottnema lindsayae, the most abundant animal in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. Photo by: Byron Adams

Scottnema lindsayae, the most abundant animal in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. Photo by: Byron Adams

In the next couple of weeks we are going to collect samples and maintain experiments in several locations in the Dry Valleys. We’ll experience some intense cold, we may get sunburnt or wind-burnt, and afterwards we’ll work late into the evening in the laboratory – but it will all be worth it.

Written by: Walter Andriuzzi

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