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As we have recently highlighted, plans in Antarctica often change due to the vagaries of the weather. Last week, after taking samples and treating experimental plots near Lake Bonney and South Side Lake Hoare, we were supposed to spend just one night in Lake Hoare camp – the main field camp in the Dry Valleys and one of our favourite places. But the next day all helicopter flights were cancelled due to poor weather, so we had to postpone our trip to sample an experiment and stay at the camp for at least another night. This gave us the chance to go on a hike to one of the most scenic places in the Dry Valleys. Along the way we encountered some remarkable signs of life – and death.

Walking along the Seuss Glacier in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

Walking along the Seuss Glacier in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

  • A mummified seal on the lakeshore
    Every now and then, seals and penguins stray from the vicinity of the ice shelf into the Dry Valleys. It usually doesn’t end well for them. There are many seal remains in the valleys, some well preserved due to the cold and dry conditions. Some are centuries old; some may be as old as the human-made mummies from ancient Egypt. One dead seal we saw close to our path during the hike, however, struck us as special for an altogether different reason: on the lake sediment behind its tail, we saw a trail of green and red. The decay of the unfortunate seal fertilized the sediment around it, allowing living algae and cyanobacteria to flourish and become visible to the naked eye. The fuel of this freshwater hotspot (the seal’s remains) came from the ocean, an example of what we ecologists call a resource subsidy.
A partly decayed, mummified seal from Lake Hoare. Photo by Walter Andriuzzi

A partly decayed, mummified seal from Lake Hoare. Photo by :Walter Andriuzzi

Life out of death - the bloom of life near the mummified seal. Photo by: Josh Heward

Life out of death – a dead seal provided a supply of much-needed nutrients to the microorganisms in Lake Hoare. Photo by: Josh Heward

  • A dead penguin and a hungry skua
    Near the Seuss Glacier, we saw another unfortunate marine animal – a rather fresh dead penguin lying on the shore. To our surprise, on our way back we found it a few meters away from its original position. A few scattered feathers all around, different from those of the penguin, gave away the culprit: a young skua which we had seen flying over our heads not long before. Skuas are large predatory seagulls with a particular taste for penguin entrails, but this seasoned penguin proved unpalatable even for the skua. The young bird will not find anything to its liking in Taylor Valley – unless scientists drop their guard long enough for the skua to steal their snacks, as sometimes happens at McMurdo base.
Mummified penguin on Lake Hoare shore near the Seuss Glacier. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

Dead penguin on Lake Hoare shore near the Seuss Glacier. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

  • The thousand-year old lichen
    Not far from the seal we found one of the largest lichens we have seen out there, at over 10 cm across. Since lichens in Taylor Valley have been found to grow less than one millimeter per century, this one must have started its growth at least one thousand years ago. This makes it older than most living organisms you will ever see, including some of the biggest trees.
A thousand-year old lichen in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

A thousand-year old lichen in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

It took us a couple of hours to get from Lake Hoare camp to the Seuss Glacier, one of several alpine glaciers in Taylor Valley. Courtesy of the cloudy sky, we could admire its jagged, rugged shapes without being dazzled by the albedo. But as impressive as its stalactites and column of ice were, the glacier was not our real destination today.

A large ventifact in Taylor Valley. Photo by Walter Andriuzzi.

A large ventifact in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

After a rather demanding trek over loose, sandy surface on a steep hillside, we reached our destination. In an expanse of sand incessantly swept by cold wind, overlooking the frozen cascade of the Seuss Glacier coming down from the mountain, we saw boulders standing out against the bleak sky. Instead of the curved or angular boulders typical of glacial landscapes, these come in shapes that would befit a sci-fi movie. This martian landscape is near Andrew’s Ridge in Taylor Valley and is a great place to see ventifacts, rocks wrought into peculiar shapes by the abrasive action of the wind-transported sand.

It took us almost four hours of walk to reach this place, and almost three hours to get back. On our return to Lake Hoare camp, after enjoying a wonderful meal prepared by camp manager Rae Spain and Renee Noffke, we were understandably tired, and eager to crawl into our sleeping bags! The next day there will be work to be done.

The soils team and friends at Lake Hoare Camp. Left to right, top row: Jeb Barrett, Ashley Shaw, Diana Wall, Walter Andriuzzi, Byron Adams, Matt Hedin, Josh Heward, Kelli Feeser; bottom row: Scott George, Andy Thompson, Ross Virginia, Kathy Welch, Renee Noffke, Melisa Diaz, Rae Spain. Photo by: Scott George

Soils team and friends at Lake Hoare Camp. Left to right, top row: Jeb Barrett, Ashley Shaw, Diana Wall, Walter Andriuzzi, Byron Adams, Matt Hedin, Josh Heward, Kelli Feeser; bottom row: Scott George, Andy Thompson, Ross Virginia, Kathy Welch, Renee Noffke, Melisa Diaz, Rae Spain. Photo by: Scott George

Written by: Walter Andriuzzi

Ice is an artist generous with its sculptures. Beyond audience or applause, it creates in profusion for only one reason – that it has need to create.
Jay Griffiths, British writer

Some of nature’s most spectacular works of art are made by ice. What better place to see them than Antarctica, the frozen continent? Below are some highlights of icy art that we were lucky enough to see in and nearby the Dry Valleys.

 

A rare 360° sun halo above Garwood Valley. Picture by: Walter Andriuzzi

A rare full sun halo above Garwood Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

The first piece in our gallery was made by the collective effort of millions, billions of tiny artists: ice crystals in the atmosphere refract the sunlight and create a faint rainbow ring around the sun.

 

Blue and white ice in the McMurdo Sound. Picture by: Walter Andriuzzi

Mazes of blue and white ice in the McMurdo Sound. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

Most of the ice we see in Antarctica is white (duh!), but as we go to our field sites we often fly over mazes of blue ice in the McMurdo Sound. Blue ice is formed when snow falls on the ice, gets compressed under its own weight, and loses air bubbles, and the ice crystals then expand.

 

Lake Bonney, beautifully frozen. Photo by: Andy Thompson

Lake Bonney, beautifully frozen. Photo by: Andy Thompson

Blue ice can sometimes be seen also in the lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, as in Lake Bonney in the picture above, taken in November 2014. Here you can see the air bubbles, and even the ripples on the water surface, perfectly frozen.

 

Ice stalagmites stalactites on the edge of Canada Glacier, in Taylor Valley. Italian scientist for scale. Picture by: Summer Xue

Ice stalagmites stalactites on the edge of Canada Glacier, in Taylor Valley. Italian scientist for scale. Photo by: Summer Xue

The glaciers in the Dry Valleys are huge monsters of ice, and their fangs are fittingly impressive, easily taller than a person. If you prefer a more peaceful analogy, you may think of them as meditative giants, whose thoughts emerge as music – the dripping and cracking of melting ice.

 

Freeze-dried cyanobacterial mats on a frozen lake surface. Photo by: Andy Thompson

Freeze-dried cyanobacterial mats on a frozen lake surface. Photo by: Andy Thompson

Our last piece is courtesy of a collaboration between ice and life: freeze-dried cyanobacterial mats on the surface of a frozen lake. These formations of microbial and algal biofilms (plus entrapped sediment) are only active for a few weeks per year in the Dry Valleys, when it’s warm enough for liquid water. During the long Antarctic winter, when it’s too cold and dark for photosynthesis, they enter a freeze-dried state to survive. How long can they keep it up? Nobody knows, but at the very least for two decades. And once water comes back, they can reactivate within mere hours.

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The beauty of ice is one of the big attractions of Antarctica. However, beauty may conceal danger. Last week, scientists working elsewhere in Antarctica found that an immense iceberg, as big as the US state of Delaware, is almost ready to break away from western Antarctica. Events such as this will become ever more frequent under climate change, and their cumulative consequences will reach far beyond Antarctica, contributing to the global sea level rise that we are already witnessing.

Written by: Walter Andriuzzi

Today we divided up into two teams: one to go to Beacon and Wright Valleys to collect soil samples and another to go to F6 near Lake Fryxell in Taylor Valley to maintain experiments and apply treatments. Sometimes things go as planned, and sometimes they just don’t.

First, the Plan A that didn’t happen.

Working in Antarctica comes with many challenges. One of the top unpredictable hazards that we deal with daily is weather. Since we travel from McMurdo Station by helicopter, and pilots fly by line of sight, unclear weather conditions keep us grounded. If there is too much wind or fog or clouds, we often cannot get to our field sites. But, we have spent much time carefully planning and then crafting backup plans for our plans. We are also prepared to be flexible and to keep our expectations in check.

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We were not able to go to field sites in Beacon and Wright Valleys today due to weather, but we were able to substitute Hjorth Hill and Many Glaciers Pond in Taylor Valley.

Today was a great example of plans going awry and then a backup plan coming into play. We were scheduled to fly to some of the more remote dry valleys at high elevation (including Beacon Valley and Wright Valley) to collect soil samples. However, we got word early this morning that low clouds had moved in, making flying there impossible. We quickly implemented a backup plan, trading tomorrow’s plans for today’s plans. So instead of flying to the high elevation valleys, we traveled to our nearby field sites: Hjorth Hill and Many Glaciers Pond in Taylor Valley. There, we collected moss and soil samples and checked on some experimental plots.

 

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Andy Thompson collecting samples at Hjorth Hill. He’s standing on a snow pack that is covering up a stream bed. Photo by: Ashley Shaw

It wasn’t what we’d planned to do today, but it was still a successful day of Antarctic fieldwork!

And the Plan A that did happen.

Meanwhile, the rest of our team went to F6, in Taylor Valley, to maintain the Stoichiometry experiment, one of our main experiments in the Dry Valleys. Cold is only one of the challenges that soil organisms in this ecosystem face, another big one being the limited amounts of carbon and nutrients. With the Stoichiometry experiment we seek to find out which elements are most limiting to the soil organisms of the Dry Valleys. To do this we add carbon, water, nutrients, or combinations to the soil, which requires hand-carrying relatively heavy carboys from the nearby camp to the experimental plots, and applying them to their respective plots. The soils team at F6 carried out the task well – despite one of them still having stiff legs from the marathon!

Written by Ashley Shaw and Walter Andriuzzi

From the time we arrive in Antarctica to the time we depart, we hurry around working to obtain our samples, get them processed, collect good data, and get the samples prepared for shipping home. Then it’s packing, cleaning, and rushing to get on a plane. The whole month is a whirlwind of science. It’s a blast, but it’s also exhausting.

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The C507 Soil Team in front of the Crary Lab. From left to right: Jessica Trout-Haney (Dartmouth), Dan Bransford (Virginia Tech), Summer Xue (Brigham Young), Tandra Fraser (Colorado State), Diana Wall (Colorado State), Walter Andriuzzi (Colorado State), Ashley Shaw (Colorado State), Jeb Barrett (Virginia Tech), Ruth Heindel (Dartmouth), and Byron Adams (Brigham Young).

I’ll give you the overview of what we did this season: In summary, we sampled five core studies at six different sites, applied treatments to two core studies at three sites, completed lab work on 420 soil samples, serviced meteorological stations, collected samples from aeolian (wind-blown) sediment collectors, and collected additional soil samples from multiple locations for our work in labs back home. Mixed in with this work are repairs to equipment, weather delays, establishing proper communications at field sites, and ensuring work is done in a safe way that preserves the Antarctic environment.

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Diana Wall takes a soil sample near Marr Pond in Taylor Valley. Photo by: Ashley Shaw

The first priority for work is sampling core studies, which are critical to the NSF Long Term Ecological Research program’s mission. So, on nine different trips (both overnight and day trips), we went to the McMurdo Dry Valleys via helicopter to sample our core experiments and long-term study sites. These included the Stoichiometry Experiment, the P3, the Elevational Transects (read about these here or here), the LTM, and the controls from the BEE plots. We bring these soil samples (each one weighs about 500 grams) back to the lab for processing (you can read about our soil extraction process here). Once the nematodes and other critters have been extracted, we use a microscope to help us identify and count every individual animal from each sample. Not only do we study which species are present, but also details about their life history, including their sex and whether they are alive or dead. This gives us information about community trends. At the same time, we are performing soil chemistry measurements to evaluate soil carbon, pH, salinity, phosphorus, and nitrogen. These chemistry data help to indicate which environmental conditions are most (or least!) suitable for life. We also extract and measure chlorophyll-a as a proxy for primary productivity.

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Jess weighing soil for soil chemistry analyses. Photo by: Ruth Heindel

Besides sampling these experiments, we also have to apply treatments to some of the core experiments. This year, we applied treatments to the P3 and the Stoichiometry Experiment. The P3 treatment took place over a couple days, and required Byron, Jeb, and Dan to stay at F6 camp and walk to the experimental plots. You can read about the treatments (here), but in short, this treatment involves pumping water up from Many Glaciers Pond, sterilizing the water, and pumping the water down slope at the subsurface to simulate melt flowing over the permafrost. The Stoichiometry Experiment requires nutrient treatments to be prepared in the lab (you can read about that here), this then requires hauling ~30 carboys filled with nutrient solutions (about 5.6 liters in each carboy) out to our experimental plots and applying those solutions.

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Byron carries carboys full of nutrient solutions to the Stoichiometry Experiment plots in Taylor Valley. F6 camp in the background at right. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

We went out on a few more day trips to put in new batteries and check on our meterological stations, take samples from and repair aeolian sediment collectors, and to collect some more samples to take back to our labs at home (for individual projects such as PhD or Masters projects).

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Summer and Byron are happy that the meteorological station in Miers Valley is now fixed and working! Photo by: Ashley Shaw

We are happy scientists –we had great weather with very few delays, our samples are ready to ship home, and all of the data has been collected for this season.

Mission complete!

Written by: Ashley Shaw

This is a story about living in McMurdo, told in 3 separate parts. This third and final installment of “A day in the life” will focus on another common question I get about Antarctica: What’s it like where you live?

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A line of dorm buildings in McMurdo Station. Photo by: Ashley Shaw

We live in dormitories in McMurdo and have anywhere from 1 to 3 roommates depending on the building arrangement. Luckily, I am sharing a room with another wormherder, Tandra, which is great because we work on the same project and share the same schedule. Others aren’t so lucky and share their rooms with roommates who work in different departments, keeping much different hours and schedules. When you have a roommate who has a totally different schedule from you, this is very tough because you both end up interrupting each other’s sleep – making for a very tired season.

There are 16 buildings that are considered dormitories, but most of us end up in 203, 206, 207, 208, or 209. Each of these buildings has a lounge area with a TV and sometimes a pool table or an area to play games and hang out. Sometimes we go there after working to watch a movie or hang out, but most of the time we go straight to bed, exhausted from a long day of working. There is a 24-hour quiet policy in the dorms to allow for rest, so the lounges are a good place to chat so as to not disturb others who may be working different shifts or are on different sleep schedules. There are also laundry facilities in some buildings, shared bathrooms, and sometimes even a sauna. One dorm has a library where you can check out books.

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A typical dorm room in McMurdo has 2 twin beds, 2 wardrobes, 2 small chest of drawers, and a desk. Photo by: Ashley Shaw

The dorms are not hotels and there are no maids in McMurdo, so each of us has to contribute to keeping our dormitories clean. We perform weekly duties called our “House mouse” chores. This could be anything from taking out the trash, tidying up a lounge, vacuuming the lounge, cleaning the laundry room, or vaccuming the halls. Last week, Tandra and I swept, vacuumed and mopped the front entryway and stairs of our dorm building for our House Mouse duties.

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Ashley doing her ‘house mouse’ chore for the week. Photo by: Tandra Fraser

If you forgot something from home or you want to buy some souvenirs, the station store is open for a few hours on most days. They sell snacks, toiletries, t-shirts, hats, stickers, and other goodies. You can also check out movies to watch and they have a pretty big selection. Overall, many of the comforts of home are available on station, but of course, it takes place in a community setting that leaves many of us feeling like we’re back in college.

Written by: Ashley Shaw

This is a story about living in McMurdo, told in 3 separate parts. This first installment of “A day in the life” will focus on staying healthy in McMurdo and the things we do to maintain our health while on the harshest continent in the world. Safety is our number 1 concern of anything we do here – whether that’s fieldwork, lab work, or just walking around station.

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Ashley (left) and Diana (right) wash their hands before dinner at the Galley hand washing station. Photo by: Tandra Fraser

The first step for maintaining health in McMurdo is washing hands. It sounds simple, but keeping germs from spreading is a real concern here. Think about this: around 1000 people sharing living spaces, eating together, working in close spaces together every day. The station isn’t that big – we’re all contained in about 85 buildings on 618 acres. It sounds large, but the majority of activity is concentrated around the station’s center (Galley, Labs, and Dorms). While on station, we spend much time indoors near other people. If someone gets a common cold, those germs fly through the community at speeds approaching the sound barrier. By lunch time, half the station is reaching for Kleenex and hoping the Galley is serving chicken noodle soup.

It’s important to keep clean as possible, so wash hands we must. Before eating every meal, after using the restroom, in between lab work and coffee breaks. Over and over we wash our hands. As you might imagine – after all this washing, lotion is a hot commodity.

There are some other things we do to stay healthy in McMurdo – drink plenty of water, try to eat healthy, and take safety precautions in the lab and in the field. But, the one thing that we can easily control and continue to do out of respect for others and ourselves is to continually wash our hands!

Written by: Ashley Shaw

The community in McMurdo is pretty excited about science. After all, we’re all here to get science done in one way or another – either by supporting science activities or performing actual data collection. The McMurdo community loves to know what scientists are working on and what they are finding out. So, each week there is an organized Sunday Science Lecture. It’s held in the Galley and the whole station is invited to attend. This event is well loved and draws a big crowd.

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Jeb Barrett (left) and Byron Adams (right) answer questions during the Sunday Science Lecture. This event is held weekly in the Galley. Photo by: Ashley Shaw

 

This past Sunday was a special Science Lecture, because it was given by some of our own teammates, Jeb Barrett and Byron Adams. Together, they gave a great talk about the major findings of the McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER, the ecology of the Dry Valleys and how this ecology has been changing over the past 25 years. The crowd was excited to learn about the nematodes, tardigrades, and rotifers that live in the valleys. Plus Jeb and Byron showed some cool videos of these awesome animals.

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A female Eudorylaimus – one of the nematodes that lives in the Dry Valleys. Byron explained how certain nematodes (including this one), prefer wetter habitats. Photo by: Ashley Shaw

Jeb explained that due to increasing solar radiation and warmer temperatures, there has been increased melt from the glaciers, which has caused lake levels in the valley to rise. This increased melt affects the soil chemistry, moving salts and fine sediments across the landscape and altering soil nutrients. The increased melt and rising lake levels also has had an impact on science logistics. Structures from the permanent Fryxell camp have had to be moved away from the lake to avoid being engulfed by the rising waters of Lake Fryxell!

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Increased melt water from glaciers flows through streams into the lake. Photo by: Ashley Shaw

Did you know that plants and animals (even dinosaurs!) used to live on the land that is now Antarctica? After the Pleistocene, the only animals that survived and still live in terrestrial Antarctica today are the very small ones: nematodes, tardigrades, rotifers, collembola, and mites. It’s pretty amazing that these animals survive the harsh conditions of Antarctica – cold, dry, dark (for half of the year), UV radiation (thanks, ozone hole), and salt. Byron told us about how the LTER is finding that the soil community is affected by increased moisture caused by melt from glaciers and permafrost.

 

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Byron explains soil ecology of the dry valleys. Photo by: Ashley Shaw

After the talk, the crowd had lots of questions for Jeb and Byron. People wanted to know more about how nematodes and other animals survive in Antarctica (they go into a dormant state called anhydrobiosis when times get tough) and how long they live for (we aren’t sure, but at least decades!). They also were curious about how salty the soils are (pretty salty!) and where the carbon that fuels the foodweb comes from (lake and stream algae, cyanobacteria, and other maybe unknown sources). Overall, the talk was informative, entertaining, and really got people jazzed up about the McMurdo LTER science! Way to go, Jeb and Byron!

Written by: Ashley Shaw

 

 

 

Many researchers working in Antarctica study large things. The ice lakes and glaciers are so massive that the glaciologists who study them may find it easier to use airplanes rather than tons as unit of measure. Oceanographers and climatologists track down icebergs larger than some countries. Volcanologists are checking the vital signs of that formidable giant that is Mount Erebus (3794 m above sea level, more than 12 thousand feet). Astronomers look out of the clear Antarctic skies to stars and galaxies.

Many biologists study large and easily recognized creatures such as seals, penguins, and whales. But where we “Wormherders” are conducting research there are no living things that the naked eye can see. We are focusing on much smaller creatures, such as nematode worms. Virtually all soils on Earth host nematodes, but in the Dry Valleys very few species occur, and they are specially adapted to this extreme environment. The same goes for the microscopic algae and the bacteria living in lakes and soils that other teams in McMurdo are studying. Some of the most exciting ecological questions in Antarctica are about very small things indeed.

(Admittedly, even nematodes and microbes may be described as very large by the particle physicists working on “AMANDA”, the Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detecting Array. There truly is science for all sizes at McMurdo.)

The McMurdo Dry Valleys seem as desolate and lifeless a place as one could conceive. But take a scoop of soil from almost anywhere in the valleys, subject it to an appropriate extraction process, put the resulting water solution under a microscope, and there you go: living creatures, more abundant and active than you might suspect.

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Scottnema lindsayae, one of the most abundant residents of the McMurdo Dry Valleys. A female and a male caught in the act of mating. Photo by Jessica Trout-Haney

Some of us have been busy all day identifying and counting specimens from samples we collected last week. It’s not at all boring as some might suspect, partly because of the beauty of the organisms we look at. Nematodes bend, coil and stretch elegantly on the microscope plate. Scottnema lindsayae, the most abundant, performs what may look like some contemporary dance. Less common but hard to miss, the much larger Eudorylaimus antarcticus flexes slowly, like a microscopic python waking from sleep. A Plectus sp. with its head inside a dead rotifer, busy scavenging on bacteria inside the decomposing body, looks like it has put on a mask to scare the others around it.

Nematodes dominate this playground, but there is more. Rotifers scurry, hop and cartwheel across the plate like pesky children, sometimes playing tug-of-war with nematodes over lumps of organic matter. Even faster than rotifers, a ciliate slides effortlessly, in shape and motion somewhat similar to a flying saucer (or a swimming saucer). Tardigrades move clumsily on their short legs, but don’t be fooled by their cute appearance – they are some of the toughest creatures on Earth.

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Some team members load scientific equipment and supplies on the helicopter that will take them from Lake Hoare Camp to another location in the Dry Valleys. Photo by Walter Andriuzzi

It was not an easy job to collect these biological samples. The helicopter is the only means on transport to get from McMurdo to the Dry Valleys. Flights have to be planned days in advance with the crew, but often they need to be rescheduled due to the unpredictable weather. Once in the Valleys, the Wormherders have to move fast to finish sampling before the helicopter returns (but it also helps against freezing).

Sometimes daily trips aren’t enough. Thankfully for us, there are a handful of well-equipped camping sites in the Dry Valleys. Last week we spent a night at Lake Hoare Camp, managed by Rae Spain and Renee Noffke – a homely, warm place in a land of ice giants and sharp winds. The landscape around the camp is so spectacular that some of our team, despite being quite tired from the day’s work, couldn’t resist the temptation of an after-dinner hike. We walked along Canada Glacier, past mummified seals and ice stalactites, and on to the moraine on the side of the glacier, and eventually we stepped on the glacier (with the appropriate footwear!).

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Lake Hoare Camp, an important logistics base for researchers working in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Photo by Walter Andriuzzi

There might seem to be a paradox – on one hand the size and majesty of the Dry Valleys, and on the other hand the minuscule beauty of the fauna that inhabits those soils. But such is the greatness of ecology, a science that connects the small and the large, the hidden and the obvious. With a bit of assistance from the weather, we’ll be collecting more samples from the Dry Valleys in the next few days, and who knows what surprises we might find under a microscope. In the meantime, some team members are camping near Lake Fryxell in Taylor Valley, taking care of one of the most exciting ecological experiments undergoing in Antarctica.

by Walter Andriuzzi

On 5 January 2016, two helicopters landed a team of researchers in a place that, at least geographically, is at the frontier of ecological science: the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica, the most remote of the Long-Term Ecological Research sites funded by the US National Science Foundation. The team, led by Dr. Diana Wall, Colorado State University (third from the left in the picture below), Dr. Byron Adams, Brigham Young University (fourth from the left), Dr. Ross Virginia, Dartmouth College and Dr. John Barrett, Virginia Tech, is studying the soil biological communities of a place unlike any other in the world.

 

C-507 team group picture at MGPPart of the 2015-2016 Soils Team near Many Glaciers Pond in Taylor Valley. (Top row (Left to right): Jess Trout-Haney, Ruth Heindel, Diana Wall, Byron Adams, Tandra Fraser, Dan Bransford; Front row (left to right): Xia Xue, Walter Andriuzzi).

Imagine you are in a huge valley surrounded by glaciers and ice-capped mountains. The silence is surreal, and the cold fierce. You are more than 10° further South than the Antarctic polar circle, a distance similar to that between England and Iceland. Summer time here means that the daylight is almost permanent – and so is the cold, relentless wind. Ahead of you there is a small lake that stubbornly refuses to freeze. Turn around, and you will see the mouth of a huge glacier, a wall of ice that puts any human fortress to shame. At first the glacier looks small and just a short walk away, but don’t be fooled, you may not reach it and come back in time for the helicopter to pick you up if the weather turns bad. Distances are deceiving in such an empty space.

There is no green for the eyes to rest upon, not even a patch of mosses or lichens. No bird songs, no buzz of insects. And yet – or perhaps because of it – everywhere the elements conjure up the illusion of noisy, visible life. A sudden ripple in the pond makes you think of a surfacing fish, but it was just the wind. Long lines of compacted terrain help you walk across the sandy surface, but they are the results of cracks made by the freezing and thawing of the permafrost, neither human nor animal feet had a role in making them. The wind carved some rocks in shapes of horns and turtles, but nothing moves except sand and dust.

The place seems utterly lifeless. But it’s not.

Minuscule animals live in the dry, saline soil spared from the grip of the ice that covers most of this strange continent. The nematode Scottnema lindsayae, a worm usually less than 1 millimeter long, is in many places the largest organism to be found. It can be surprisingly abundant, feeding on the even sturdier microbes and of whatever organic matter it can find (some of the latter perhaps thousands of years old). Invisible cyanobacteria on the surface manage to get enough energy from the UV-packed light of the ephemeral Antarctic summer to set a miniature food web in motion. Deep in the ice-covered lakes, communities of phytoplankton and bacteria thrive undisturbed.

 

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The team at work in Many Glaciers Pond in Taylor Valley. Photo by Walter Andriuzzi

All these organisms are tough, superbly adapted to these hostile conditions. They can inactivate when it gets too cold, tolerate high salinity, cycle carbon and nutrients in a soil that has less organic matter than most deserts. But even these survivors are facing hard times. Human-induced climate change is making environmental conditions increasingly unpredictable. More freeze-thaw cycles impose physiological stress, and may lead to mismatches in the organisms’ responses to seasonal temperature fluctuations. Increasing ice-melting events and lake level rise across the valleys could be spreading some species at the expense of the dominant, dry-specialist ones. Lessons learnt from the McMurdo Dry Valleys may give hints on the fate of other, more complex ecosystems that are also shaped by an unforgiving environment and a changing climate.

The ongoing long-term ecological studies in this ecosystem have therefore two aims: to understand and protect one of the few truly pristine ecosystems left on Earth, and to generate ecological knowledge that will feed into broader research issues.

by Walter Andriuzzi

Over the past few days, we have been in the field taking full advantage of the small windows of good weather to collect our data and take our samples. And we have had several successful days of fieldwork throughout the last week. Last Saturday, two groups were deployed to two sites in Taylor Valley. One group – Zach, Byron, and Nicoletta (our Italian colleague) – visited Hjorth Hill near the New Harbor site at the mouth of Taylor Valley to set up a moss and lichen study. They went there searching for mosses so that they could help Nicoletta establish some experimental plots. These plots are a continuation of a moss and lichen study that has been set up across Victoria Land, Antarctica. The group had 30 minutes of recon with the helicopter to help them find a good spot for the study. They spotted Hjorth Hill from the air and once on the ground they found that it was full of interesting mosses! Most of the time they were there, the weather was pretty bad, but, luckily, windows of good weather opened up when the helicopter dropped them off and when it came to pick them up.

Check out the video that Byron took of Zach blowing sediment off of the moss beds, revealing a vibrant green carpet underneath. Is the sediment insulating the moss?

Zach and Nicoletta at the Hjorth Hill site. Photo: Byron Adams

Zach and Nicoletta at the Hjorth Hill site. Photo: Byron Adams

The other group – Matt, Ashley, Tandra, and Andy, went to the South side of Lake Bonney to complete treatment of the stoichiometry experimental plots (which you can read about here) and brought back 6 BEE control plots at Bonney. They had a wonderful day in the field, but they are all happy to be finished lugging 25lb jugs of water around! It was snowing while they were there, adding to the chilly ambiance of Antarctic work!

We were surprised to see so much snow covering the valley floor on Saturday. It's a rare sight this late in the season. From this view, you can see Lake Fryxell as we fly up valley. Photo: Ashley Shaw

We were surprised to see so much snow covering the valley floor on Saturday. It’s a rare sight this late in the season. From this view, you can see Lake Fryxell as we fly up valley. Photo: Ashley Shaw

Tandra prepares treatments while Matt applies treatments at Lake Bonney. Photo: Ashley Shaw

Tandra prepares treatments while Matt applies treatments at Lake Bonney. Photo: Ashley Shaw

On Monday, Byron, Ashley, Tandra, and Matt went to the South side of Lake Hoare in Taylor Valley where several of our experiments and sampling plots are located. We took samples from the BEE plots (read about that experiment here) and from the elevational transect (ET) study while Byron serviced the meteorological station.

Life endures! Flipping over rocks at the high elevation site, Ashley finds cyanobacteria that are vibrant green. Growing underneath of the rocks provides some shelter and slightly warmer temperatures, even some light passes through the thin pieces of rock. Photo: Ashley Shaw

Life endures! Flipping over rocks at the high elevation site, Ashley finds cyanobacteria that are vibrant green. Growing underneath of the rocks provides some shelter and slightly warmer temperatures, even some light passes through the thin pieces of rock. Photo: Ashley Shaw

The elevational transect study began in 1993. The purpose of this study is to see how elevation and topography affects soil life and soil properties, and how this changes over time. The number of soil nematodes, rotifers and tardigrades has been measured at 3 elevations (83, 121, and 188m above sea level) every 2-4 years since 1993 along with soil chemistry, moisture, and primary production. This long-term record is very valuable and helps us to monitor how changes (such as increased temperature, solar radiation, and moisture) impact the ecosystem. Additional elevational transect studies were added in Garwood and Miers Valleys in 2012. But more on those newer transects later…

DCIM100GOPRO

View of the low elevation plot. Photo: Ashley Shaw

The elevational transect at the South side of Lake Hoare begins low on the slope near Lake Hoare and near the helo pad where we were dropped off. But to reach the higher elevation sites, one must hike up the steep slope to the south. It’s quite a climb, but the view from the top is a great reward!

View from the top elevation of the ET in Taylor Valley. You can't tell from this picture, but we are way high on the slope! What a hike! Whew! Photo: Ashley Shaw

View from the top elevation of the ET in Taylor Valley. You can’t tell from this picture, but we are way high on the slope! What a hike! Whew! Photo: Ashley Shaw

Written by: Ashley Shaw

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