Friday, December 26, 2014

Welcome to the 2014-2015 field season!

Hi folks,

I'm at the airport and ready to make a rather long and winding journey, via Sydney, to Christchurch, New Zealand, and eventually on to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. I'm looking forward to getting this travel over with and getting the field season started. We're doing some really exciting science this year, which I will write about in more detail later.

I look forward to hearing from you. Please post questions and comments over in the "Questions" tab (CLICK HERE). Then I will post answers on the main page.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Answers for Jacob Madonna

Dear Dr. Sokol
I'm an AP Biology student from Maplewood New Jersey. I'm in the same class as Jonah, Chris, Emma, Sarah, and Tim . I've been following your blog for the past month and i have a couple questions to ask you
1) You've been going to Antarctica for a couple years now. How do you set yourself goals regarding your research?
Hi Jacob,
Great questions! Setting goals for research in Antarctica is generally pretty easy because we have to have a fairly specific research plan outlined to get funded to do research down there in the first place.

It seems that for our research group, we have a wish-list of goals and a realistic-list of goals. Usually the wish-list involves collecting many more samples from many more sites than is practical.

For my first project, our goal was to conduct a fairly extensive survey of soil biodiversity across an 800 km stretch of the Transantarctic Mountians. This involved planning travel by helicopter to a bunch of different field sites. We had a pretty simple, but specific soil sampling field protocol that we followed at all every site, so that made field work pretty simple. The tricky part was getting to all the sites. We prioritized a list of sites that we really really wanted to go to, and a list of sites that we would like to go to if weather allowed and we had enough time. I think we ended up getting a variety of samples that represent the soil bacterial diversity in the Transantarctic Mountains pretty well.

For the past three years, I have been working with the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) group. The main goal of this group is to maintain a long-term record of the ecology of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, and also conduct long-term field experiments so that we can understand ecological responses that occur over fairly long time scales (e.g., decades). The McMurdo LTER has been running for a long time (20+ years), so a lot of the work I do with the LTER is continuing to collect samples to continue the long term record of the geochemistry and biodiversity of soils in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.
2) How does climate change directly affect your research with microscopic organisms? 
This is a question that we are currently trying to answer, but probably won't have an answer for a while. We think that in the coming decades climate change will increase glacial melt, and thus increase the presence of liquid water in the Dry Valleys during the austral summer. We think this will affect the ecology of the Dry Valleys, but we're not exactly sure how. One of the broad hypotheses of the McMurdo LTER project is that there will be increased "connectivity among landscape units." For example, we think increased melt from the glaciers will increase the amount of water that percolates though the soil, mobilizing nutrients and micro-organisms in the soils.

The frequency of melt events and amount of melt water will have consequences for the types of organisms that dominate the stream channels and adjacent soils in the wetted margins. For example, past studies have shown that a shift in water availability in a stream channel can lead to a shift in the species composition of the diatom community. There tend to be more endemic, cold-adapted diatom species in cold, dry stream channels that only see liquid water periodically (not every year). We think these types of streams may be very sensitive to the anticipated increase in glacial melt.
3) Have you ever had to change the way you approached an experiment or research topic because of Antarctica's extreme climate
We try to keep our field work simple to avoid complications due to the extreme climate. Most of the field work I'm involved in just requires collecting ecological samples. We normally store samples by freezing them, so Antarctica is actually quite helpful in that we don't always need to worry about bringing coolers and ice out in the field with us.

The extreme climate does affect our access to field sites or ability to collect samples. That is, sometimes we have to sit and wait for winds to die down or fog to clear before we can get a helicopter ride to or from a field site. Sometimes it is too cold to collect water, or sometimes we can't collect a soil sample at a particular location because it is frozen solid in ice.

This season, extreme weather has prevented us from being able to ship our science samples from McMurdo back to the US. There is a large cargo vessel that visits McMurdo each year at the end of the season. At the end of each season most of our science samples are loaded onto this vessel and they are shipped back to the US. However, an extreme windstorm hit McMurdo as they were loading the vessel this year, and the boat had to leave before all of our science samples were loaded onto it. These types of situations happen when you work in an extreme place. Luckily for us, I think most of the our samples will be fine in a freezer for a year... we'll just have to wait.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Answers for Jonah Williams

Dear Dr. Sokol,
It has been really fascinating to read about the research that you and your team are currently conducting in Antarctica. As a strong activist in the climate change world, I am very glad to see that you have been having success compiling all your work, and that your research will provide valuable information on climate change patterns in the antarctic. I recently finished some research on carbon sequestration in photoplankton and microalgae, and the quantification and change in biomass due to ocean warming patterns.
My question for you relates the the biotechnological procedures you are using to observe these microscopic organism you are studying.
1. What types of procedures are you using to manipulate the DNA in certain organisms you study to make it easier to view. (PCR? Plasmid vectors?)
Hi Jonah,
It sounds like you are doing some interesting work. I'm not a molecular or microbiologist, so in the projects that I have mainly been working on we are not manipulating DNA. Our objective has been to conduct a relatively broad survey of the diversity and types of microbes living in arid soils in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Some of our collaborators at the University of Waikato in New Zealand have worked with MoBio to develop a protocol to extract DNA from soil samples with very low microbial biomass. We then run PCRs on the environmental DNA using general primer sets that target broad groups. For example, we used a primer that targeted a conservative region of 16S rDNA, which targets bacteria generally. If you are interested, you can email me and I can send you some citations, or you can find our recent paper here. The published data set is just fingerprinting based off of tRFLP, so our most recent publication is about diversity patterns over very broad spatial scales. We have sequenced a subset of the fingerprinted samples using pyrosequencing and we are currently analyzing that data set to figure out the types of bacteria that are making up the diversity patterns. There are papers identifying bacterial taxonomic groups in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, but our recent paper is the first to look over a very broad spatial scale (~ 800 kms).  
2. How extensive is you laboratory in terms of equipment? I understand that you are in Antarctica, but do you have all the equipment that you might find back home at Virginia Tech?
Crary Laboratory in McMurdo is pretty extensive, but there is not a lot of equipment for doing molecular work. When we do our work, we collect our samples in the field aseptically and we add a preservative to the soil, like Sucrose Lysis Buffer. Then we freeze the samples and ship them back to New Zealand or the US for molecular work. We have tried to extract DNA from soils in the lab at McMurdo, and it is certainly possible, but it's much easier just to do that back at the University.

That said, Crary does have a lot of basic lab equipment. There are drying ovens, muffle furnaces, fume hoods, laminar flow hoods, centrifuges, etc., so there is plenty of equipment for us to do basic soil geochemical analyses. Some research groups have pretty sophisticated setups that they require on site for their work, but our setup is pretty simple.
3. What types of methods are you employing in population measurement of micro-organism species? How do you quantify the movement of certain populations in response to climate change? 
That's an interesting question. I have been focusing more on community level measures of diversity than assessing specific population level dynamics. Most of the work we have done thus far has focused on the link between microbial biodiversity and environmental variation. In that work, we use patterns of community similarity to infer how well microbial communities are connected among Dry Valleys.

Overall, we haven't done a very good job of actually directly quantifying the movement of micro-organisms, but that is something that we have been trying to get funding to do. One of our collaborators in New Zealand did a really interesting study where they set up a pump that pumped a large volume of air through a filter, and they then sequenced the bacterial DNA that was on the filter. They sampled air at a high elevation and at a low elevation to characterize the microbial communities that are entrained in the air at different elevations, and found differences, but we need more samples to be able to sufficiently answer questions about how well different groups of micro-organisms are dispersing throughout the Dry Valleys.

Another group of collaborators associated with the McMurdo LTER focuses on nematodes, and they set up sediment traps in the Dry Valleys. They found some viable nematodes in the sediment traps, so we know that the nematodes can be dispersed by wind, but we are trying to get a better handle on how extensively they are dispersed by wind. Dr. Byron Adams at BYU has done some work looking at population level genetics to infer levels of dispersal among Dry Valleys, but that is still an ongoing area of research.
Thank you for you time! I am looking forward to what you have to say, and keep up the good work!
Stay warm!
- Jonah
Thanks for writing Jonah!

Answers for Kristin Renda

Dear Dr. Sokol,
Reading your blog, as well as other questions students like me have asked you has been very interesting. Like other students have posted before me, I am from Maplewood, NJ and it was my AP Enviro teacher who got me interested in the work you are doing. I just have a couple of questions about what life is like for you in Antarctica and how your research is being used.
1. Does the intense weather conditions ever interfere with you research?
Hi Kristin,
Weather does often interfere with our research. The 8 and a half hour flights from New Zealand to McMurdo, Antarctica are often influenced by weather. There is no control tower for the ice runway at McMurdo, so planes can only land if the weather is clear. If there is ice fog or visibility is low, then flights often have to turn around and go back to New Zealand.
LC130 plane on Ross Ice Shelf near McMurdo Station.
Because the landscape is so extreme, and because we don't want to build roads everywhere, the only practical way to get from McMurdo to our field research sites is by helicopter. The helicopters can't fly if visibility is low or of if it is too windy. Wind storms originating over the polar plateau are not uncommon, so we can have very clear, very windy days.
Helicopter landing at one of our field sites in Taylor Valley, Antarctica
2. What do you do for leisure?
At McMurdo Station, there are hiking trails around the station. A fun, short hike is to follow a trail to the top of Ob Hill, where you can get a view of the Ross Ice Shelf and McMurdo Station. If it's cold outside, I like to stay in and play music. The are guitars and other stringed instruments available for us to borrow. We also play board games and watch movies.

In the field, we can hike or play board games for fun. All in all, we usually don't have very much down time, unless we get stranded because of bad weather.
3. How do you think your research will benefit science?
That's a good question! The goal of my research is to understand the ecological processes that determine biodiversity. Two of the major drivers are (1) how well organisms move about the landscape, and (2) whether local habitat conditions favor some species over others. My research in general is to create computer models to understand how these processes influence diversity for different types of organisms (e.g., bacteria, nematodes, diatoms, etc.). In the Dry Valleys, we are trying to understand exactly which soil chemical properties are linked to soil bacterial diversity, and if the same rules apply everywhere in the Dry Valleys. We are using the data we collect to validate computer models that predict biodiversity. If our models work, we will be able to use computer models to predict how biodiversity will change in the future as the Dry Valley habitat changes for bacteria and other organisms (e.g., nematodes, diatoms, etc.).

Specific to Antarctic ecology, I hope that this work will help us determine the best way to measure biodiversity so that we can have some confidence that we will actually detect changes in the ecosystem when those changes happen.

More generally, I am comparing our biodiversity models for Antarctica against models we use in other ecosystems (e.g., the Everglades, temperate forests, urban ponds in Baltimore, etc.). I think it will be really interesting to find ecological processes that work the same way in ecosystems in Antarctica and Baltimore.
4. You said in your blog that ten years ago the glaciers were at a level that they melted to in just weeks. Do you think the lake levels will return to what they were before this recent melt, or do you think they can freeze back just as quickly as they melted?
In that post I was referring to the lakes. The lake levels in Taylor Valley dropped during a period of cooling in the 1990s. Then in one season (2001-2002), there was a lot of glacial melt. In that one season, the lake levels rose back to their previous level (recovered all the water that was lost over the previous 10 years). I think the lakes are dynamic, and rise and fall periodically. There is evidence that over the past century, the lakes have been rising. There are pictures from historic expeditions that show the lake levels were much lower in the 1910s. So the lake level decrease observed in the 1990s was an anomaly for the past century. The lake levels have been rising since I've been going to Antarctica (the past 4 years).
5. Will this recent melt affect your research in any way?
Yes. It will affect the logistics because we have semi-permanent field camps near the lakes that will need to be moved as the lakes rise. The US Antarctic Program has already had to move some huts and helicopter landing pads to uphill sites as the lakes have risen.

The lake level rise may affect some of our soil research plots, but most of the plots are quite far from the lake edge, for now. However, we anticipate that more water in the landscape will affect the Dry Valley ecosystem in general. We anticipate that with increased melt, streams will become wider, and there may be new or larger water tracks in the landscape. More wet soil will probably mean more active microbial life in the soils.

Thanks for the questions!

Answers for Chris Kearns-McCoy

Hi Chris, sorry I'm taking so long to respond. My schedule has been pretty hectic lately...
1. How do you relate to other scientists doing research elsewhere in Antarctica? For instance, are there techniques and methods that you can benefit from that come from say, the research being done in places like Lake Vostok? Even though dry valleys and submerged lakes are clearly different, they are both undisturbed environments requiring great caution, and I was wondering if some of the concerns are the same?
Great question. I'll answer this as best I can, but I am not involved in any of the subglacial lake projects. You may have read about WISSARD, which is a project where researchers are studying subglacial Lake Whillans. One of the really innovative aspects of the WISSARD project is their sterile drilling method. By avoiding contamination of the subglacial lake, with microbes and chemicals from above, they can be sure that the samples they collect represent subglacial life and the subglacial environment. Some of the scientists involved in this project consult with research groups from other countries, like Russia and South Korea, so that those countries may also develop sterile drilling methods. This is about the extent of my knowledge on that topic.

In our studies of Dry Valley soils, we work closely with microbiologists at the University of Waikato, New Zealand to understand how environmental factors, such as extreme soil chemistry, temperatures, and dispersal by wind, influence microbial diversity in arid soils.
2. As the climate warms and glacial melts in the Dry Valleys become more frequent, how do you expect the organisms you are studying to respond? Will more and more become active, or are there some that are suited to this cold that will die out?
This is a great question! This is the central question for the McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research Program! Based on observations we have made over the past few decades, and general climate projections, we anticipate increased glacial melt over the coming decades. Glacial melt water is the main source of water in the Dry Valleys, so an increase in glacial melt will be the main driver of ecological change in the Dry Valley ecosystem. We are just beginning to understand how different types life will respond to an increased presence of melt water. Overall, we hypothesize that the increased flow of water will increase the connectivity of the ecosystem. In other words, there will be more liquid water flowing through Dry Valley soils, which will be moving and mixing nutrients and microorganisms. This can be over very small scales, for example, microbes may not be able to access nutrients that are only micrometers away in dry soils, but saturating soil with water can give microbes access to nearby nutrients. At larger scales, water may mobilize nutrients and microbes and move them down stream channels over distances of 100s of meters to a few kilometers, or from stream channels into lakes. Some previous studies suggest that species that are adapted to the cold and dry antarctic climate, such as diatoms that are native to the Dry Valleys,  may lose out to more generalist species, but we're not entirely sure if this is true for all the types of organisms in the Dry Valleys.
3. What kind of infrastructure exists in Antarctica. If someone had a serious medical problem while doing research, are there sufficient resources nearby? If not, how would they be evacuated? I would imagine there are procedures in place, but I was curious as to what they are.
The infrastructure at McMurdo Station is quite extensive. There are dorms and a science lab and many buildings for support staff, equipment, and resources. There is a medical building with limited resources, but people are medevaced on the first available flight to New Zealand if a real emergency occurs.
View of McMurdo Station, Antarctica from the top of Ob Hill
McMurdo - the blue building is the cafeteria, the brown buildings at the top right are dorms, and the building with the red roof in the lower left is the medical building.
Crary Lab in McMurdo
Our lab space in Crary Lab at McMurdo Station

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

More answers to come...

Thanks for all the questions this season! I will answer all of them eventually, so keep an eye out for more posts here on the main page.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Letters from Mrs. Radner's 4th Grade Class at Hillel Day School in Michigan!

I received some mail! Thanks to Mrs. Radner's 4th Graders at Hillel Day School for the letters! They arrived on January 25. I got them yesterday when I checked my mail (January 29).

The letters from Mrs. Radner's 4th Grade made it to McMurdo, Antarctica! Thanks for the mail! That's the Polar Star docked behind me. It is an icebreaker that is operated by the U. S. Coast Guard.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Anwers for Emma Olender

Dear Dr. Sokol,
Your blog is awesome! Really compelling and interesting and leaves me with a lot of questions about your current research. I am from a biology class in Maplewood NJ, in which my teacher told me to check out this blog and I am glad I did. I was hoping that you could answer a few questions for me.
1. Throughout your research, have you been able to find any significant differences or noticeable traits in the organisms you are studying, that allow them to survive in this harsh weather?
Hi Emma! Thanks so much for writing. This question about traits is a really good one, and people are studying the traits of bacteria and nematodes in the Dry Valleys. I, personally, haven't not done any of this research. I do know that nematodes such as Scottenema lindsayae have special adaptations to handle freezing. Scottenema lindsayae can undergo anhydrobiosis, where it basically expels all water from its cells prior to freezing. Otherwise the expanding water would cause its cells to burst.

Kevin, a graduate student at Virginia Tech, is studying the types of enzymes that different soil bacteria use to break down carbon. That's another important question centering on the functional traits of microbes. We think that soil microbes in the Dry Valleys might not be very good at processing the type or organic matter you would find in temperate regions. Down here, microbes and mosses and lichens are the only organisms that use photosynthesis to grow and add biomass to the Dry Valley ecosystems. In most other parts of the world, vascular plants like trees and grasses are the main sources of carbon. Thus, we think the microbes down here have different traits for processing ecosystem organic carbon, compared to other parts of the world.

I think there are lots of interesting discoveries yet to be made about traits organisms have evolved, or lost over evolutionary time, to survive in this harsh and unique ecosystem.
2. What types of climate changes typically occur in Antarctica? Are they always very drastic changes?
I have only experienced the summer. Most of the sudden weather changes revolve around changing winds. When I was at the Beardmore Glacier, we experienced a wind storm that came on quite suddenly and lasted for two days. The weather went from sunny and "warm" (probably in the 20s F) to cold and very windy and very poor visibility with a wind chill of near -80 F. In the Dry Valleys, we can get similar wind storms, but they tend to raise the temperature because as the cold air falls into the valleys it expands and warms up. Sometimes we get ice fog and/or snow, but I haven't seen a blizzard.
3. How do you guys organize you data? Do you base it off of the specific climate changes in each region?
Thank you so much, and I am excited to continue reading about your research and time in Antarctica!
We are part of a Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program ( Many people are involved in the LTER research group, and we collect data on the streams and glaciers and lakes and soil every year with the goal of developing a long-term record of what this ecosystem is like, so that we can understand the changes we see in the future. We have some data sets, like the flow records for the Onyx River (measurements started in the late 1960s), that go back decades and have already helped us understand climate trends through the 1990s and early 2000s.

Answers for Sarah Backstrand

Hi Dr. Sokol,
Fascinating blog! I've always wondered what it would be like to live, or just spend time in a place like Antarctica, so I'm glad my teacher suggested that we check this out. I'm also in Tim Grey's class from Maplewood, N.J. and had some questions as well.
1 . Has Kevin found that polar deserts and hot deserts similarly reflect the detrimental effects of climate change... or perhaps one more than the other? If so, which? I think many would presume that polar deserts would have more obvious effects, but it that necessarily the case? 
Hi Sarah. Thanks for writing. Very good questions. As far as I know, Kevin has not been comparing hot deserts with the Dry Valley ecosystems, so I don't have a good answer to this question. His work is testing the hypothesis that microbial diversity is higher in soils that have higher productivity. In ecology, productivity refers the rate at which autotrophic organisms grow and accumulate biomass. Autotrophs include plants, trees, cyanobacteria, algae, and anything that can fix carbon (turn inorganic carbon into biomass). Kevin is comparing "high productivity" areas in the Dry Valleys, such as Canada Stream where there are lots of moss and cyanobacteria mats, to more arid soils. He is also doing some very interesting work trying to figure out if microbes from low and high productivity soils have similar abilities (i.e., ecological functions) to break down different types of organic matter. These questions do not directly address climate change, but the answers will tell us a lot about the characteristics of the bacteria that live in the soils in low and high productivity ecosystems in the Dry Valleys, and how they influence the carbon cycle in this ecosystem. That way, we will have a better understanding of how the carbon cycle in the Dry Valleys will change as the ecosystem becomes wetter and more productive as we see more melt water in the coming decades.

Polar ecosystems in general have been more sensitive to the changing climate. So far in the Antarctic, marine habitats near Palmer peninsula have seen the most change. These ecosystems are very strongly influenced by changes in sea water temperatures. I'll write more about the Dry Valleys in another post because things are a bit more complicated here. But we anticipate warming and more melt water in the summers over the coming decades.
Cyanobacteria mats in Canada Stream represent one of the most productive areas in the Dry Valleys.

Canada Stream is fed by melt water coming off of Canada Glacier in Taylor Valley.
2. If everyone in the United States were to do one thing to help the environment, what would you suggest they do? Start driving fuel efficient cars? Be more careful about water usage? Get solar panels? Switch to all organics? Something else? 
I think conservation, in general, is something that will have an immediate impact. For example, instead of spending billions on developing a better car 10 years from now, we can just be more conservative with fuel by car pooling or using public transportation or driving less today. I think in most cases, conservation has many more benefits than just helping the environment (which is important to me, but not everyone). Living near work, I can walk to work every day and get exercise, time to think, and save money on gas. None of those things have anything to do with helping the environment.
3. Are serious storms a concern? Are they common? And can they come in really quickly while out researching?
We don't really have storms here in the summer. We do have foehn and/or katabatic wind events where cold air comes off of the high elevation polar plateau from the south and falls into the valleys expanding and heating up on its way down causing very windy conditions for us in the valleys. Other than that, I haven't really seen any storms. There is very little precipitation where we are.

Thanks for the great questions!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Here are my responses to questions from Mr. Novemsky's environmental science class. Thanks for reading the blog and posting questions!
Hello Dr. Sokol,
This is Mr. Novemsky's environmental science class at Columbia High School. We have a few questions to ask. My students want to know:
1. What is the most interesting thing that you have discovered?
On a personal note, the most interesting thing for me is really seeing what a landscape without vascular plants is like. Sure, I've read about it and seen pictures, but being in a desert with only sand and gravel and "soil" and enormous glaciers and mountains has really changed my perspective. It's amazing to see a landscape so barren, but then see life under a microscope.

I think it has been interesting following the progression of discovery of cryptic life in this very harsh landscape. The great explorer, Robert Falcon Scott, wrote in his diary over 100 years ago
“It is worthy of record, too, that we have seen no living thing, not even a moss or a lichen; all that we did find, far inland amongst the moraine heaps, was the skeleton of a Weddell seal, and how that came there is beyond guessing.  It is certainly a valley of the dead…”
Even as recent as 1969 the soils were considered sterile. Only recently have biologists begun to learn that there are organisms that have adapted unique strategies to handle extreme cold and desiccation.

For my work, I have taken advantage of the opportunity to collaborate with some really innovative people who have figured out how to find very small, cryptic organisms, including nematodes, tardigrades, collembola, bacteria, diatoms, and cyanobacteria. I have been focusing on trying to understand the biodiversity patterns of these organisms. That is, I'm trying to understand if we can find these organisms everywhere if we look in the right places, or if some of them are restricted to specific valleys. An organism that only occurs in one valley would be considered endemic, or unique to that valley. Some organisms, like the nematode Scottenema lindsayae, seem to be wide spread throughout dry antarctic soils. This nematode is survivor! I am working to use mathematical models to understand the distributions of these different types of organisms in the Dry Valleys. We're finding that some types of organisms, like diatoms in streams, may be more likely to be influenced by climate change than some of the other more widespread organisms, but we still need to do a lot of work to really understand what will happen.
2. Could the features that allow those organisms that you study to survive the cold help humans in cold climates?
Probably. Some researchers do what is called "bioprospecting" where they look at the types of proteins and enzymes in organisms that have unique abilities to survive in strange places. For example, Scottenema lindsayae probably makes some really interesting enzymes and proteins for anhydrobiosis -- which means gets rid of all water from its cells and go dormant, which is important here because the reason freezing kills you is because the water expands when it freezes and makes cells burst. That's not my area of expertise though.
3. If ice keeps melting, could McMurdo station be submerged?
The station won't, unless sea levels rise substantially. The station is on a volcanic island. However, the runway that the planes land on is on the Ross Ice Shelf, so if that melts there will be no way in or out except on boats!
4.Could you tell us a bit more about your daily routine, including what you do in your spare time?
Good question. I'm going to make a separate blog post about this with pictures as soon as I have time. Right now I don't seem to have spare time, but there is a lot going on. They had an art show on station last night and there is a marathon tomorrow! I'm not going to have time to participate though.
5. Who sponsors and supports your research?
The National Science Foundation pays for our research. We have to write a proposal to do research and it is reviewed by other scientists who are very very critical of our work. I believe that in this past year, only 2.5% of proposals to NSF to do ecology were funded.
6. If someone wants to go do this research, how would we go about that?
Do undergraduate research when you go to college! I can't stress this enough. It is really important to get involved as an undergraduate, and most institutions will have work-study jobs where you can work in a lab and get paid while you also get your foot in the door in an interesting field. I worked in a few different labs when I was an undergraduate and it helped me discover the types of science I liked, but also it helped me discover what I didn't like.

Thanks so much for the questions!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Answers for Tim Gray

Dear Dr. Sokol,
My name is Tim Gray and Im writing form Maplewood New Jersey. My biology class was encouraged to check out your blog and it is very helpful in explaining what you and your colleagues are doing. If you dont mind I have a few questions for you:
1. It seems like and your colleagues all have different interests in what to be studying in Anartica. How do all of your research fields overlap?
2. Does the climate change have a huge effect on the glaciers, and if so how does it effect your research?
What about the McCurdo Dry Valley make it so ideal for your research.
Thank you for your time
Hi Tim,
Great questions! These are questions we are grappling with right now because the National Science Foundation, which is the government agency that pays for our science, is going to be reviewing our work this season. Jeb and I work with many colleagues at a Long Term Ecological Research site in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, so a common thread among all of us is our effort understand how the biota and the environment are connected, and how they will change as the climate changes. Some scientists focus on nutrients in the soil or water, others study glaciers, and many study the biota that live in the soils, streams, and lakes, others study geology.

It is important for the ecologists to know about the geology because the microscopic life that we study now is very strongly linked to the history of the valley. In Taylor Valley, where we do a lot of our work, there used to be an ancient lake (20,000 years ago) called Lake Washburn. You can still see the "bathtub" rings up high on the mountains from where the lake surface used to be. Because the Dry Valleys are so well preserved, the ancient lake sediment and the remains from diatoms and cyanobacteria that used to live in this ancient lake are still influencing the chemistry and biology of the soil to this day!

So what happened to ancient Lake Washburn? To understand why the lake was there, and why it's now gone, we need to understand the glaciers. A huge wall of ice (the West Antarctic Ice Sheet) from the other side of the continent used to block the mouth of Taylor Valley. Yes, Antarctica used to have more ice than it does now! When the ice sheet receded out of Taylor Valley, the lake levels dropped. We still have lakes in the Valleys, but they are much smaller now.

Historical (natural) climate change has had an enormous influence over the landscape, and I think we have a pretty good grasp of the natural processes that have shaped the landscape in the Dry Valleys. One of the major hypotheses that we are working on now is that everything will become more connected as we see increased melt water running through the landscape as the climate changes in response to humans (i.e., releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere).

This is an important place to do research for a number of reasons. First, the poles of the planet tend to have the most pristine and most sensitive ecosystems. The arctic has already demonstrated this, and we think when the Antarctic changes it will change fast. Because the system is so pristine and well preserved, we have a better record here about the history of the climate and geology. Also, the system relatively simple, so we may be able to more directly associate changes in ecology with changes in climate. Lastly, the Dry Valleys ecosystem is really interesting! The Lakes are link no lakes found anywhere else on earth! They are covered in ice year round. The soils are shaped by thousands to millions of years of wind (no water at all!), and the top of the food web is a nematode! This is just a really unique and interesting place for an ecologist.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Answers for Mrs. Radner's fourth grade class

Dear Dr. Sokol:
This is Mrs. Radner's new fourth grade class. Here are some of our questions this year:
1. How do you get your electricity?
Great question! This is something we are constantly grappling with because it takes a lot of power to run the research station. At McMurdo Station, we have diesel generators and wind turbines that provide the energy for a lot of our electricity. We do our best to conserve electricity, but apparently our bill is still pretty high!
McMurdo electric bill!
At the camps in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, we have solar panels. They provide plenty of electricity for our needs there. We only need electricity at the field camps to run computers and charge VHF radios and science equipment. Because it is light out 24 hours a day right now, we don't need to use lights. Also, we use diesel to heat the hut, and we use propane to cook our meals and run the refrigerator
2. How did going to Antarctica change your life?
I could write a book on this! Traveling and doing research here has changed my perspective on life, the type of science I do, and introduced me to many new friends! This place is very different and beautiful and it is amazing to be able to see gigantic deserts and even more gigantic ice sheets in person. It's amazing to me that we can live and work in such a remote and harsh place, and feel perfectly safe. It's amazing to me that I can post to this blog from my tent in the Dry Valleys (if my tent is close to the hut)! Folks here very frequently talk about the great explorers from a century ago (like Scott, Shakleton, and Amundsen) and how amazingly different it must be now from when they were exploring down here. They were struggling to survive. We have the luxury and privilege to focus on science in an amazing and wonderful place!

In addition to that, I have made some great friends in New Zealand that I would never have met otherwise. They taught me a lot about bacteria in Antarctic soils. I have previously worked in streams and wetlands, so studying bacterial diversity in soils is very different for me, and has broadened my perspective about ecology. What is most striking is how seasonal variation in the availability of water is so important in wetlands, streams, and deserts!
3. What sound does a penguin make?
"hhMMua hhmmmuaa hhMMMuuuaaaaahhhhhh"
4. Where do you sleep?
When we're at the McMurdo base we sleep in dorm rooms with beds and blankets and everything! When we're out at field camps we sleep in sleeping bags on two sleeping mats in tents. We need two sleeping mats to insulate us from the cold ground.
5. What animals have you seen and what animals have you seen the most?
A skua in Taylor Valley, Antarctica
We probably see skuas and Weddell seals the most. Skuas look like large seagulls. We saw an emperor penguin on the way to McMurdo from the ice runway when we first got here. The penguin was molting, so he was very still and didn't acknowledge us as we drove by.

There are quite a few mummified seals in the Dry Valleys. This is because the climate is very dry and cold. We saw a freshly dead leopard seal in the Dry Valleys near our camp! This is really cool because this will become a mummified seal over the coming decades. Also, leopard seals are quite rare around here, so it was strange to find a leopard seal in the Dry Valleys. Most of the seal mummies are crabeater seals.
Fresh leopard seal carcass in Taylor Valley near Lake Fryxell camp
6. What happens if there is a fire in Antarctica?
There's a fire department with fire trucks at McMurdo station. Fire is a real threat because it is so dry here. We try to be really careful about fire. Luckily I haven't seen down here. In the field camps, we have plenty of fire extinguishers around to take care of fire, but again, I haven't had to deal with that. Luckily, there aren't very many things that can burn out in the Dry Valley field camps, besides the huts. So our camps could go up in flames, but it's hard to imagine a fire spreading beyond that.
7. What happens if you get frostbite?
We do our best to avoid that. When we first get down here, we have to take safety classes on how to treat cold weather injuries if we get them. For frostbite, I think the best treatment is to get out of the cold, be gentle with the your frostbitten parts, and keep them from freezing again! Once you have recovered from frostbite, that area is more sensitive to the cold.
8. When you got there, what was the first thing you did?
I took lots and lots of pictures! Then hopped on Ivan the Terra Bus and got a ride to McMurdo station where we had an orientation meeting.
9. Is it fun being a scientist, especially in Antarctica?
I absolutely love being a scientist in Antarctica! I love ecology, in general, because I like being able to use math to understand the natural world. I also love traveling and hiking and being outside and camping in new and beautiful places. Antarctica is extremely strange and beautiful, so to me, it is the best place in the world to be an ecologist! I get to explore and puzzle over the ecosystem I am wandering through.
10. How long did it take you to get from Virginia to McMurdo Station?
I actually left from Detroit this year because I was visiting my family for the holiday. I think I left Detroit around 9AM on December 27, 2013. Then flew to Los Angeles, and then flew to Auckland, New Zealand. I arrived in New Zealand on December 29th at 6AM (New Zealand time, which is 18 hours ahead of you). Then I flew to Christchurch, NZ and arrived around noon. Then we spent a few days in Christchurch getting our field gear, and also our flight was delayed because the plane from New Zealand to Antarctica had mechanical issues. Once we finally took off for Antarctica, it was around an 8 hour flight. I think we left around 1 or 2PM and landed on the ice runway in McMurdo around 10PM. We then had a 45 minute ride on Ivan the Terra Bus to McMurdo Station from the ice runway. By this point I would have totally lost track of what day it was, except it was New Years Day, so I finally arrived around 11PM on January 1, 2014 (which would have been 5AM on January 1, 2014 in Michigan). So... about 4 days and 19 hours.
11. What is the hardest thing you experienced in Antarctica?
Probably traveling to Antarctica is the most difficult part. I was pretty exhausted and disoriented by the time I was done traveling.
12. We saw pictures of you building a wall of ice around your tents. How long did it take to build that wall, and how long did the wall last? Did you destroy the wall or did you leave it up?
It didn't take too long to build the ice wall. We had a group of people working to cut out snow blocks and a group of people who were stacking the blocks. The wall lasted through the night, which was the important part. We left it up because we had built it on a location on the ice shelf where they always do the field survival training class. The snow and ice is constantly changing and blowing around so they don't last too long.
13. What's the coldest the temperature has ever been when you were there, and what's the warmest the temperature has been?
The coldest I experienced was probably my first season in 2010 when I was at a deep field camp down by the Beardmore Glacier. We had a windstorm where the windchill was -80 F. Usually, the coldest temperatures I experience here during the austral summer are just below 0 F. The warmest are probably around 40 F.
14. You mentioned that when you were in the Dry Valleys, you did not have a chance to wash your clothes. How do you wash them in McMurdo?
We have normal laundry machines in the dorms at McMurdo station.
15. What kind of techonology works in Antarctica: cell phones? computers? laptops? tablets?
People have all of those types of devices down here, however, there are no cell towers so cell phones cannot receive calls normally. We do have an internet connection (obviously, since I'm posting to a blog), but our bandwidth is restricted because it is a satellite connection shared by everyone on base. So we have a normal internet connection, but it is pretty slow, like dial-up connections in the 1990s (ask your parents what that was like!). I do bring my phone down here because I can use it to take pictures and listen to music. It makes a great backup camera.
16. Why is the research that you are doing have to be done in Antarctica?
This is probably the most important question! There quite a few reasons we come to the McMurdo Dry Valleys to study ecology. First, ecosystems near the poles (the arctic in the north and the antarctic in the south) are the most sensitive to global climate change. So we anticipate that we will see changes here first. We already have seen some changes. When comparing lake levels to 100 years ago, they have gone up substantially.

However, there is evidence that humans are influencing the polar climate in many conflicting ways, and this is what a lot of scientists are studying. The Dry Valley ecosystems are influenced by the hole in the ozone layer (a layer of gas in the atmosphere that protects us from UV radiation from the sun), changes in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, and we anticipate changes in the climate associated with a warmer planet, such as more snow and more melt-water from the glaciers. We are trying to understand how the ecosystem works now, so that we can predict how it will change. As we collect data over the coming years, we will find out if our scientific hypotheses are right. Inevitably, we will be wrong about things, but it is important to collect data to figure what we are wrong about. As we learn and collect data, we will have a better and better understanding about how this ecosystem works.

The Dry Valleys are an especially interesting place to study ecology because the ecosystems here are relatively simple, so when a change occurs, it is easier to interpret how the ecosystem changes. It turns out that plants make chemistry and biodiversity patterns really complicated to understand, and we don't have plants here! For example, we can see really interesting patterns in diatoms and cyanobacteria, and understand how changes in the growth of cyanobacteria and diatoms affects the Carbon cycle here in the Dry Valleys. In other ecosystems, plants would dominate the carbon cycle.

Lastly, the soils are very cold and dry, which is a really good environment for preserving DNA. A lot of our work revolves around extracting DNA from soils to understand the types of bacteria that live in the soil. Because there are no plants and very few animals here, we think that changes in bacterial diversity will reflect what is happening in the environment. Similar studies in places with lots of plants and animals are difficult because the plants and animals can have a really strong influence over bacterial biodiversity.

You can go to the McMurdo LTER page for more about the science we do here.
We will be reading more of your blogs and looking at more of your pictures. Thank you for spending your time answering our questions. Have a good time in Antarctica.Mrs. Radner's class 2013-2014
Thanks so much for all the great questions!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

First days of 2014

After some difficulty with aircraft, we were finally able to make it McMurdo Station in Antarctica. McMurdo is the main hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program. Here we have a science lab, dorms to sleep in, and a cafeteria with plenty of warm food. I'm looking forward to making it out to a field camp in the Dry Valleys. 

We flew on a LC130 which is fairly large military aircraft that has four turbo-prop engines. They are pretty loud. The flight from Christchurch to McMurdo Station was about 8 hours and we landed on the ice runway on the Ross Ice Shelf. Just before landing, we had a spectacular view of Mt. Erebus, which is an active volcano.

You can see some pictures from our trip down here:
(please let me know if you can't see the pictures when you visit the link)

We spent most of yesterday going to meetings and briefings about safety and environmental awareness. Today Jeb and some other folks from our team are flying out to the Taylor Valley to collect some soil samples and scout out a sight where we will be conducting a field experiment.