In previous blogs, I’ve hinted at the goals of my research, but have left a lot of questions unanswered. Why study phosphorus cycling in the first place? Where does this phosphorus come from? What guides my soil sampling when I’m in the field? I’ll try to answer many of these questions below, but please post if you’re still wondering!
All life on Earth (that we know of) depends on phosphorus and other essential nutrients. Even life in the Dry Valleys, adapted to extreme conditions and limited resources, couldn’t survive without it. Everywhere on Earth, the available phosphorus organisms can use ultimately comes from igneous rocks. Getting the phosphorus out of those igneous rocks (where it’s mostly locked up in a mineral called apatite) and into the ecosystem is a long process. Soil scientists are interested in understanding how quickly new phosphorus can enter the system. As you might expect, there are a lot of factors at play: the amount of apatite in the igneous rock, the speed at which that rock can break apart physically and chemically, the presence or absence of organisms that might help in dissolving the apatite…and we could go on.
In the Dry Valleys, we are in a unique position to answer questions about phosphorus cycling because of the relative simplicity of the ecosystem and some interesting differences in parent material (or type of igneous rock) and landscape age. Let’s consider parent material first. Here on Ross Island (where McMurdo Station is located), we are close to the source of some extremely unusual volcanic rocks, including kenyte. Not only is kenyte very distinct in its appearance, but it is also distinct in its composition, containing way more apatite (and thus more phosphorus) than other igneous rocks.
Although the source of kenyte is Mt. Erebus and other nearby volcanoes, past glacial activity has scattered kenyte (and other phosphorus-rich volcanic rocks) all over the Dry Valleys in very interesting patterns. Since there is no vegetation, and kenyte is a very dark rock, these patterns are clearly visible both on the ground and from the air. Dark soils containing lots of kenyte are noticeable in Taylor, Garwood, and Miers Valleys, just to name a few.
Do these dark soils contain lots of phosphorus that organisms can use? Or is all that phosphorus still locked up in the rocks, unavailable to life? This season, I’m trying to answer these questions by collecting samples from the dark kenyte-rich soils to compare their phosphorus content with the amount found in the lighter kenyte-poor soils.
But parent material isn’t the only factor that could influence phosphorus availability. The more time a soil has to develop, the more time phosphorus has to be carried away by water or wind, or taken up by an organism. Older landscapes generally have less total phosphorus than younger landscapes. Or what about the organisms living in the soils? Some microorganisms will excrete enzymes that help to break down apatite, releasing phosphorus into the ecosystem in a form that they can use. What if there are more of these organisms in one soil compared to another? This season I’m also trying to address some of these other factors. I’m collecting samples on landscapes of different ages to look at the influence of time on phosphorus availability. And I’m collecting samples for a colleague who will take a look at the apatite-dissolving enzymes in the soils to consider the influence of organisms on phosphorus availability.
Even in a relatively simple ecosystem like the Dry Valleys, teasing apart all of these soil forming factors is extremely complicated. While I don’t expect to solve every riddle this season, I am hoping that the boxes of samples I’ve collected so far will contain some clues into phosphorus cycling in the Dry Valleys!