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.