When Scott of the Antarctic ventured into the otherworldly Dry Valleys in 1903, he famously dubbed them “Valleys of the Dead”. Over 100 years later, modern science is proving Scott wrong, showing a surprising abundance and diversity of microbial life.
I am joining a group of scientists lead by Professor Craig Cary from the University of Waikato as part of the New Zealand Terrestrial Antarctic Biocomplexity Survey (nzTABS). We are heading to the Victoria Valley, which is a northern valley in the Southern Victoria Land, Dry Valleys for three weeks of field research. I am a freelance science communicator with a background in Antarctic glaciology and geomorphology. I am really looking forward to joining this group of primarily biologists in the wilds of Antarctica, and learning a thing or two about LIFE.
The nzTABS mission is focusing on examining the biocomplexity of terrestrial ecosystems living in the extreme environments of the Ross Dependency, Antarctica, and building a model to link biodiversity with landscape, and environmental factors. Antarctic terrestrial research is currently going through major changes. Original understanding of these extreme environments is that they are poor in nutrients with small and simple biology, which are ancient and slow growing. New modern research techniques are finding a different story! There are biological systems supposedly thousands of years old, now carbon dated to less than 100 years, and soils once thought lifeless are found to be supporting microbial life at levels approaching those of temperate areas.
The project’s first major field season was in the summer of 2008/09, when a team of 18 scientists completed one of the largest soil sampling surveys in Antarctica, in the Miers, Marshall and Garwood Valleys which are the southern most dry Valleys. The sampling area covered 200km2, from sea level to 1200m, including steep sided valleys covered in gravel, sand, boulders with glaciers, melt streams and lakes. Additional scientific projects were undertaken, improving the understanding of the landscape, climate and how organisms respond to environmental changes.
The last four seasons has seen a continuation of sampling in the Dry Valleys and the creation of a model predicting the diversity and abundance of life that is found in different environments. This season we are continuing to sample in order to validate the model.
I’m excited to be with such a diverse group of scientists from around the world, and from many areas of study, including biologists, geochemists, geomorphologists, climatologists and GIS specialists. We will meet them all and hear about their role to play in this multi year, multi discipline project.