Dear Dr. SokolHi Jacob,
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?
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 climateWe 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.