Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lab Work

Now that we’ve collected soil samples, we need to extract and identify the organisms living in the soil. We also need to measure the chemistry of the soil to understand the organisms’ habitat. For the past few days, we’ve been working quite a lot in the lab.
We first preserve part of the soil to measure the bacteria and fungi back at home in the U.S. We separate some of the soil into a vial and add a solution that preserves the bacteria and fungi. These vials will be sent home and analyzed there. We will use microscopes to count the number of bacterial and fungal cells in each sample, and we will find out what species they are using their DNA.

From another portion of soil, we extract the nematodes that live in the water around the soil particles. This is done by wrapping the soil in a tissue and placing it on a rack that’s submerged in water. The nematodes float out of the soil into the water, then drop to the bottom of the dish. We’ll collect the nematodes from the bottom of the dish and look at them under a microscope to identify them. Other animals also live in the water around soil particles, such as Tardigrades and rotifers, which we may find in these samples.
We also extract larger invertebrates from the soil. These are removed from the soil using two methods. One of the methods uses heat created by a light bulb. We place soil or moss on a funnel and attach a light bulb. (You can buy official versions, but we made our own out of drink cans, gauze, and Christmas lights!) We gradually turn up the dimmer switch over a few days, which heats and dries the soil. The organisms try to move deeper in the soil to stay cool, which makes them fall down through the funnel into our vial. So far, we have found a lot of mites and springtails in these samples.
We also plan to measure the chemistry of the soil. We want to know how much nutrients are available in the soil (like nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon). We want to know the pH of the soil and how salty it is. All of these are important for the organisms living in the soil. If it’s too salty, too acidic, or if nutrients are too low, they may not be able to survive. We expect to find that the different types of growth on the soil (moss, lichen, algae, etc.) house different communities of organisms because they create different soil chemistry.

Monday, December 15, 2014

First Field Trip

We have returned from a 9-day trip out to a few different field camps. We were finally able to start collecting our soil samples!

The first place we went is called Mars Oasis. To get there, we flew on a Twin Otter airplane that landed on Utopia Glacier. We camped on the glacier for 6 days. Here’s a picture of the glacier that we landed and camped on. We set up our camp near the dark spots towards the back, where the plane had enough space to land and there were no known crevasses.
We skied from our campsite to Mars Oasis at the base of the glacier, which is an area of exposed soil under some cliffs. That’s the hunk of land sticking out at the left of the picture. This is where we collected our first set of samples!

Our goal is to collect soil from beneath different types of plant and fungal growth. We want to know how different above-ground organisms influence the microscopic organisms living in the soil. We collected soil from beneath moss, lichens, and algae. We also collected bare soil with no above-ground growth to compare these to. When we extract the bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates (like nematodes and mites), we will find out whether the soil community is more abundant or more diverse under particular types of growth.
An area of mixed lichen, algae, fungi, and moss growth
 We collect five soil samples from beneath each growth type, so we collected 20 samples total from Mars Oasis. Five samples gives us replication. That way, we know that we are measuring a real pattern. If we only took one sample from under moss and found a large amount of soil diversity, we wouldn’t know if it was because of the moss or if it just happened to be that way by accident. If we find a large amount of diversity under all five moss samples, we will be more certain that moss has a big influence over soil diversity.

We also traveled to a second field site at Sky Blu. This site is much farther south on the mainland of the continent, and is almost completely covered by ice. The only soil available is from the tops of large mountains that poke through the ice. These mountain tops are called nunataks. We sampled soil from the nunataks as well, so that we can compare how above-ground growth influences soil organisms at multiple sites.

Sky Blu has a permanent camp, so we were able to stay in shelters instead of camping in tents. It was -14°C while we were there. I’ve been traveling with a bear from Mrs. Metcalfe’s class in Phoenix, AZ. Here he is at Sky Blu camp with one of the nunataks in the background.
 Now that we have collected our first set of soil samples, we have a lot of work to do in the lab. We need to extract the organisms we are interested in measuring, and we need to measure the chemistry on the soils. I will tell you more about that in my next post. However, right now, I need to get back to work in the lab!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Seal Watch

We STILL can't get to our field sites. Mars Oasis is too cloudy for the plane to  land. Maybe tomorrow!

Instead, today I helped the marine biologists. There are many marine biologists at Rothera Station that study the invertebrates living on the bottom of the ocean. To do their research, they have to scuba dive in the bay that borders the research station. The cold water is their first danger, so they wear protective suits. There are a couple other dangers they must avoid, which are leopard seals and orcas (killer whales). Humans in dive suits underwater can easily be mistaken for a seal, penguin, or other tasty morsel that these animals eat. Because they have attacked humans before, the marine biologists can't dive if one is in the area

Safety rules require that someone be on what we call "seal watch". That person scans the area for leopard seals and orcas for 30 minutes before the diver gets in the water, and also while they're diving. If one is seen, the diver must immediately leave the water and cannot go back in for four hours after the animal was last seen. There's nothing we can do to remove the animal if one is seen, so the divers have to wait until they decide to leave, which could be days!
The pier at Rothera Station

So this morning I was on Seal Watch for the marine biologists. I stood at the end of the pier and watched the bay for wildlife with a pair of binoculars. It's pretty nice job, since it was sunny, with no wind, and relatively warm! I didn't see any seals or whales at all, so the marine biologist was able to complete her work.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Weather Delay

Well, our flight was delayed due to bad weather at the field site. Because the plane has to land on a glacier, rather than a proper runway, the weather needs to be perfect. Since we're hanging out around Rothera Station for yet another day, I have more time to tell you about where we're going.

Over the two years of the project, we will be sampling along a "latitudinal gradient". That means that we'll be taking soil samples at sites at regular distances along the length of the entire Antarctic Peninsula. It gets colder as you move farther south in latitude, so we'll be able to look at how the change in temperature influences the microbes and invertebrates living in the soil. This week's trip will take us to the most southern sites along the gradient.

Right now we're at Rothera Station. That's the northern-most yellow star on this map, farthest to the left. (Remember that in Antarctica, every direction away from the South Pole is north, so moving to the left is still moving north, not west!) Tomorrow, we are heading to some sites much farther south of Rothera. Our first stop will be at the middle star to a place called Mars Oasis on Alexander Island. Mars Oasis is an area that is not covered by ice, so we will be able to take samples from an extensive landscape of bare soil. Many species of moss and lichen grow there, which is where we'll be targeting our sampling.
From there, we'll fly to Fossil Bluff, which is just a bit north of Mars Oasis on the same island. (So, pretty much under the same yellow star as Mars Oasis.) Fossil Bluff is a bit of a transfer station for the British Antarctic Survey, and there's a permanent camp there. (You can see a picture of it here.) We'll stop there to switch to the plane that will take us to our southern site. (It would be silly to fly us all the way back to Rothera just to turn around and come back south again.) Of course while we're there, we'll collect soil samples, because we always make the most of our time on the ground, no matter where we are!

From Fossil Bluff, we'll be off to a Sky Blu, marked by the southern yellow star. Sky Blu is on the mainland of the Peninsula and covered by the ice sheet. (You can see a picture of it here.) It's is also mainly a transfer station for getting planes further into the continent, but there are nunataks there that we will sample. (Nunataks are where mountain tops poke out above the ice sheet.) These nunataks at Sky Blu will serve as our southern-most sampling point for the whole project. It's much further south than Rothera, so it will be much colder. I hear from people returning from Sky Blu that it's about -15°C there right now, in the middle of summer!

Hopefully we'll be leaving for this journey tomorrow, but it all depends on the weather at Mars Oasis.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Antarctica Day

Happy Antarctica Day!

Antarctica Day is celebrated in honor of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty on December 1, 1959. Today is the 55th anniversary of its signing!

The 50 countries that have signed the Antarctic Treaty agree that Antarctica should be preserved for peaceful and scientific purposes. The Treaty specifies that there be no military presence (except in helping transport people and supplies), no nuclear activity (so no nuclear energy or weapons), and that the continent be open for international scientific exploration and cooperation. It's the reason that so much great science can take place in Antarctica, which allows me to be here!

Here is how we celebrated its 55th anniversary at Rothera Station:
I'm holding the left "5"

We are scheduled to leave for the field tomorrow, and we'll be spending about a week in remote field camps to collect soil samples. I won't have any internet over that period, so it'll be a while before you hear from me again (assuming the weather cooperates and we get to leave on schedule).

Saturday, November 29, 2014

We finally made it into the field today! The winds from the storm we had over the past couple of days blew the sea ice away from the docking area, so we could get a boat out to one of the islands we want to sample.

The islands we want to sample are just south of Rothera Station in Marguerite Bay. The boat gets loaded up with our gear, and then lowered into the water with a crane. Water this cold is dangerous, so we wear “boat suits” that are waterproof and well-insulated, with built-in flotation (in case we fall out). We wear self-inflating life jackets over top of that. It keeps us safe, but it is definitely very bulky!

We got to Anchorage Island, but as we suspected, the storm had dropped too much snow on the ground to find the soil we want to sample! We thought this would be the case, but the boat was already going to Anchorage, so we tagged along to use the opportunity to scope out potential sites. We were able to find some sites with soil, moss, and grass that we will be able to revisit later in the season once the snow has melted more. Here’s what it looks like on snow-covered Anchorage Island. That’s Uffe in front of me, and to the left you can see our boat way down below tied to anchors in the ice. (If you look VERY closely, you can just barely see the red “apple” hut that serves as an emergency shelter, above Uffe’s head and to the left, between the hills.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

I am at a British research station, so Thanksgiving is not a celebrated holiday. I hope you had a wonderful time with family and/or friends. Here’s what I was greeted with this fine Thanksgiving morning: A gale blowing snow around in 30-40 knot winds!
The bad news is that it was a very unpleasant day for walking between my dorm, the cafeteria, and the lab.
The good news is that it hopefully pushed out that sea ice that was blocking our way to the islands, so once the weather clears, we should hopefully be able to finally get out and sample!