Wednesday, January 8, 2014

So why are we here?

Taylor Valley Via Wikimedia Commons
Being here is exciting and amazing, but I’m not here to have an adventure (that’s just a bonus).  We’re here to study the microbiology in the Dry Valleys, a region in Coastal Antarctica.  The Dry Valleys are a network of valleys in coastal Antarctica, about 50 miles from my current location in McMurdo Station.

Like most of Antarctica, the Dry Valleys are a desert, although unlike the vast majority of the continent, they are not covered in ice.  In fact they are the largest region not iced over, covering about 1,900 square miles or 0.03 percent of the landmass.  Cold, dry air blows down from the mountains, and prevents precipitation.  Any snow that does fall sublimates into water vapor before there is time for it to accumulate.

Landsat 7 satellite image Via Wikimedia Commons
The only water sources to the Valleys are streams.  During the summer, the glaciers surrounding the region melt a bit, and the meltwater flows through the valley floors.  These rivers support a unique micro-ecology.  The major vegetation in the dry valleys is microbial mats. Primarily composed of the prokaryotic algae Nostoc commune, they go dormant during the dry winter and burst to life as soon as the water begins to flow. 
Nostoc commune forms, via Wikimedia Commons
left - multicellular thallus (simple plant body)
right - microscopic trichomes (filaments)

Nostoc is photosynthetic and can convert nitrogen from the air into ammonium, an important nutrient.  Therefore, the algae supports a diverse ecosystem, composed mostly of bacteria, along with some protists, like nematodes and tardigrades.  The organisms have some interesting physiologies, and are well suited to the extreme conditions.  Enzymes found in these organisms may be commercially useful, to do things like catalyzing polymerase chain reactions (PCR) at low temperatures.

There's a much cooler rationale for our research here.  The valleys are similar in climate and geology to what we may find on Mars, and the organisms living there may be similar to what once lived on the red planet.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014


After a few delays, we’ve made it to Antarctica, aka “The Ice”.  After the breakdown of our first plane, our hopes were subdued on Tuesday.  We got to the terminal, passed through security, and loaded onto a bus.  The bus took us to a different airplane this time, so things were looking up.

Then the bus turned around.  I think it was long delayed karmic revenge on tempting my brother with cake and then snatching it away, when I was a kid.  After a couple of gloomy hours waiting in the terminal, we loaded back into the bus and were taken to the first plane (the one with the broken engine 24 hours previous).  As we loaded, I was positive that we would soon be herded back off.  Sometimes I love being wrong.

The plane was noisy, hot, and bounced around a lot, but I got a bit more legroom than I’m used to, and the view was second to none.  We were free to roam the plane, and the sights from the cockpit were astounding!  We first reached the ice shelf, breaking up in the summer warmth.  Next we reached the mountains, absolutely gorgeous and shrouded in snow.  This was soon forgotten as the crew had one more a treat for us. 

There’s a volcano near
McMurdo station, Mount Erebus, around which the pilot flew a low, slow circle(I took a video of it, I will post it upon my return to civilization).  The volcano was smoking, and we flew at about the height of the peak.  It was amazing, and only slightly terrifying (which is fitting, as Mount Erebus shares Ross Island with the inactive volcano Mount Terror. 

We soon landed and disembarked, but I  hadn’t touched the continent just yet.  The runway is built on the ice shelf, and the plane uses skis to land.  It as a remarkably smooth landing, and we were soon blinking in the bright sun at 11:00pm.  We were bussed up to the station, got our first of many safety briefings, grabbed a bite to eat, and finally fell asleep.


Monday, December 30, 2013

So close - but still too far!

Today we had planned to fly to the the ice from New Zealand.  Along with 19 other researchers and support staff, we piled our gear and ourselves into a cargo plane for the trip to McMurdo station.  We sat in our jump seats, stowed our baggage and held onto our little bag lunches.
As the began to taxi, I began to get excited, but alas, it was not to be.  One engine was underpowered, and despite the valiant efforts of the flight crew, they couldn't get it working.  After waiting in the airport for a few hours, the we received word that the flight would be delayed.
We returned to our hotel disappointed, but we'll enjoy the New Year's celebration in New Zealand as best as we can.


Friday, December 20, 2013

The Night Before Fieldwork

Notice that my entire carry
on is filled with supplies
and no tunimportant things,
like clothes
Twas the night before fieldwork, in the laboratory
The instruments were silent, and the cabinets were empty
The boat was all full of our vials and bottles
In to hope that soon they’d be filled with some samples

The postdocs were nestled all snug in their beds
While Science and Nature dreams danced in their heads
The grad students tossed and turned full of fear
Worries of protocols, reagents and gear

When from my computer arose a small “ding”
Pulled me out from the bed to check the damn thing
Straight to my laptop I flew in a beat
And opened my emails, still groggy with sleep

The light from the screen casting glare in my eyes
I squinted to read the new subject lines
When what, to my sleep deprived mind should I read
A new CC:all from the investigative lead

With a few paragraphs so short and precise
I knew that I’d get no more sleep on this night
The plan has all changed and the currents have twisted
The cruise track is going to need to be shifted

The chlorophyll, the nutrients and the phytoplankton
Still need to be taken, no matter the stations
My work won’t change much, but I still read the replies
The debates by PIs on what plan to go by

Finally the chief scientist decides on her plans
The researchers show up, with bags in their hands
The boat will depart soon, the science will start
We’ll produce new data, graphs, and some charts

But now my procrastinating must end
The packing for my own trip has got to begin
I have all the tools, and know their appliance
It’s time to get going, I need to do science!

-Modified from "The Night Before Christmas", Clement Clark Moore, 1822

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Next Up: Antarctica!

The Antarctic Dry Valleys, via Google Earth
It's time for more fieldwork, although this time I'm a bit farther from my comfort zone.  Two days after Christmas, I'll be flying to New Zealand, and then off to the Antarctic Dry Valleys, where I will be part of a team taking data on the role of algae in the regional ecology.

The dry valleys are the largest region of Antarctica that are free of ice year round.  Although they're right on the coast of the continent, they are an extreme desert.  They get occasional snow squalls, but rather than melting, the snow sublimates directly to vapor.  The only water sources are ephemeral streams, which begin to flow during the summer when glaciers are melting.

We will camp out in the valleys for about 2 week, sampling Nostoc commune, a hardy algae that thrives on the meager nutrients from the streams.  I will update this site when I can for the next couple of months, to share my experiences (and photos!) in Antarctica.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Here we are, Neptune!

We have officially become shellbacks! In other words, we have crossed the equator by boat. Tonight we stopped at the equator to throw coins over (an offering to King Neptune!) and have dinner. For most of the scientists (all but 3) this is their first time crossing the equator, and we are all excited!
We had a plume station this morning and this evening we will be doing another station closer to the edge of the plume. We are seeing some pretty interesting things!

More updates to come. All hail king Neptune!!!