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12 Dec. 2017:  Check out this link for a time lapse movie of sleep kit construction:  one foam pad, one Thermarest pad, one mountain tent, one fleece bag liner, one pillow, and one sleeping bag stuffed into another bag barely big enough to hold everything.  This kit is deployed with each individual for overnight stays at any established field camp away from the main station.

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8 Dec. 2017:  After a short sleep recovery period, the Advance Team opens up the empty lab and will spend the next few days gathering equipment, gear, and chemicals to construct a nematode worm extraction assembly line.  We have high hopes for extractions from more than 800 soil samples.

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7 Dec. 2017:  The Advance Team of Wormherders consisting of Diana Wall, Byron Adams, and Marci Shaver-Adams just landed at Phoenix Airfield at 11:30am, getting ready to load onto Ivan the Terra Bus for a short 50 minute ride across the ice to McMurdo Station.  We arrived on station at 12:25am with a few wispy clouds covering the sun.

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7 Dec. 2017:  Here’s the first look at Antarctica (Victorialand) for the 2017-2018 field season.  This is the view from a port side window of a Hercules C-130 aircraft from the Royal New Zealand Air Force.  Big thanks to the Kiwis for a smooth 7 1/2 hour flight to McMurdo Station.

Welcome to the 2017-2018 Wormherder Field Season!  We have two projects this year, B-458 on the Shackleton Glacier and C-507-M in the Dry Valleys, scheduled back to back.  The B-458 project will be collecting soil samples trying to discover how soil ecosystems reassembled as they emerged from the last ice age.  The C-507-M project as part of the Long Term Ecological Research group is continuing to look at how terrestrial ecosystems respond to climate variability.  This makes for a longer field season than usual, but we are excited to get started.

The team at work extracting nematodes from the soil samples. Left to right: Josh Heward, Andy Thompson, Scott George, Byron Adams. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

The team at work extracting nematodes from the soil samples. Left to right: Josh Heward, Andy Thompson, Scott George, Byron Adams. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

With our short field season in McMurdo already drawing to a close, the team is having a busy time in the Crary Lab in McMurdo. Collecting the samples from the Dry Valleys is only the first step of our job. Down here, most of our working time – actually, most of our time awake – is spent in the lab. Our main tasks after the field missions consist in extracting* and identifying the invertebrates from the soil samples, and running analyses on the physical and chemical properties of the soil. Then, after entering and proofing all the data we have collected into electronic format, we prepare the biological and soil samples for storage and shipping to our labs in the States. Finally, after all work is done, we store our equipment and unused disposables for next year, do a thorough inventory for both our own and the Crary Lab staff’s records, and clear the lab.

With this busy agenda it is easy sometimes to forget the broader picture, but almost daily we have a meeting to keep track of the season’s objectives, and update each other on the progress with the specific tasks. We also find the time to talk about the science – many a fertile idea for a new study has sprung from conversations during mealtime or at the coffee bar.

Scottnema lindsayae left) and Eudorylaimus sp. right) extracted from Dry Valleys soil. Can you identify the sex of this Scottnema? Photo by: Byron Adams.

Adult Scottnema lindsayae left) and juvenile Eudorylaimus sp. right) extracted from Dry Valleys soil. Can you identify the sex of this Scottnema? Photo by: Byron Adams.

Some of our team members may have never seen a live nematode under the microscope before coming here, but by the end of the first or second week all of us are able to identify the nematodes from the Dry Valleys. By the end of the season, some of us will have counted several thousands of nematodes, plus a few rotifers and tardigrades. It is not at all an unpleasant or dull task – to some of us it’s the best part of the whole process (after the field trips). Not only is there life in the soils of the Dry Valleys, but there is also beauty – or at least, interesting action. Check out these two short videos that Josh, our PolarTrec associate, has taken of a rotifer and a tardigrade.

And here is a time-lapse photography video of the team extracting animals from the soil, also by Josh.

 

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

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

This season in Antarctica we will be writing blog posts to share our experiences with you. We will be talking about our science, lab & field work, showing what life is like in Antarctica, and answering questions.

View of the helo pad and sea ice from the NSF Chalet at McMurdo Station. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

View of the helo pad and sea ice from the NSF Chalet at McMurdo Station. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

But, before we dive in to all that, let’s get introduced!

Who are you?  We work together with a group of scientists who study life on the edge of existence in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. On the ice we are known as the “Soil Team,” “C507,” (which is our science event number, like an ID number), or the “Wormherders” (we study nematode worms). The team this year includes: Dr. Diana Wall (CSU), Dr. Byron Adams (BYU), Dr. Ross Virginia (Dartmouth), Dr. Jeb Barrett (VT), Dr. Walter Andriuzzi (CSU), Ashley Shaw (CSU), Andy Thompson (BYU), Scott George (BYU), Josh Heward (PolarTrec), and Matt Hedin (VT).For the 2017 field season, both Walter Andriuzzi and Ashley Shaw will be writing these blog posts for our team. Walter is a post doc and Ashley is a PhD student in Diana Wall’s lab at Colorado State University. You can also find some very cool updates on Josh’s blog, Tough Tardigrades.

What are the McMurdo Dry Valleys? The McMurdo Dry Valleys are one of the coldest and windiest places on the planet. There are no vascular plants, no mammals, no birds, and no fish, who call this place home. There can be cyanobacteria mats or moss in moist places. The largest life forms are microscopic animals called nematodes, tardigrades, rotifers, mites, and collembolans. These animals inhabit soil, moss, and algae. But, we’ll talk more about all the life in the dry valleys later.

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View of the Commonwealth Glacier and Lake Fryxell (on left) from a helicopter in Taylor Valley, Antarctica. Photo by: Ashley Shaw

Who do you work with? We work with the McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research (MCM LTER) project to study the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem of this (very!) cold desert ecosystem. While our group specializes in soil, there are other teams who study streams, lakes, glaciers, climate, microbiology, environmental history, and geochemistry. The MCM LTER is part of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program. The LTER program is funded by the US National Science Foundation. The aim of this program is to gather long-term data and to study ecological processes that take place over long time scales (10s to 100s of years). Core research areas of this program include: 1) primary production, 2) population studies, 3) movement of organic matter (decomposition and transfer of materials), 4) movement of inorganic matter (e.g., nitrogen, phosphorus), and 5) disturbance patterns. The MCM LTER was begun in 1993 and is one of 26 LTER sites. These sites cover a variety of ecosystems including grasslands, forests, marine, and desert sites. While most of the ecosystems are in the continental U.S., there are two Arctic, several coastal and marine sites, and one other Antarctic site.

Diana Wall talking with Josh Heward, Scott George and Ashley Shaw about nematodes! Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

Diana Wall talking with Josh Heward, Scott George and Ashley Shaw about nematodes! Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

You study soil? I thought Antarctica was just a bunch of ice! The McMurdo Dry Valleys are the largest ice-free area in Antarctica. The mountains surrounding the valleys block the glacier ice, keeping the East Antarctic Ice Sheet from filling the valleys. Strong winds, called katabatic winds also contribute to this unique landscape.

Written by: Ashley Shaw

 

Leaving Antarctica is no small feat. We have to break down and store the contents of an entire laboratory (that we set up just weeks earlier). Some items are returned to the Crary Laboratory stockroom, others are put in boxes for “the line” (overwinter storage in big wooden boxes that are kept outside, so things inside must be okay to freeze), extra chemicals are stored in the LTER lab, and finally, the most fragile items are moved into the cage (small locker-like cage that is indoors, so microscope accessories and other fragile items are kept here).

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Example of a box “from the line.” These boxes are filled with our laboratory and sampling equipment and stored outside over the winter. Photo by: Matt Knox

Samples must be prepared for shipment, a process which includes packing, weighing, measuring and labelling boxes, and grappling with an electronic shipping system that is still based on the MS software Access. It’s not only the organisms that live long in Antarctica!

Once everything is packed away, we have to clean – lab space, office space, and our own dorm rooms. Then, these rooms must pass inspection or we have to clean again.

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Walter boarding “Ivan” the Terra Bus for transport. Photo by: Jessica Trout-Haney

Finally, the evening before leaving, we take our own bags to be checked in for our flight. This process is literally officially called “bag drag.” At this time, we find out our transport time for the next morning (it can take over an hour to just get to the plane, so we have to arrive at this time for transport to the airplane). For the last night in McMurdo, you only have your carry-on bag with you – better remember to keep your toothbrush!

Written by: Ashley Shaw

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