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Archive for the ‘Ross Virginia’ Category

Southern migration.


After four days of bouncing through airport terminals, Ruth, myself, and the members of the LTER soils team (http://www.mcmlter.org/) have come to our southernmost Antarctic destination at last!

Now, truly seasoned travelers (i.e., polar scientists…and Arctic terns) have come to find such a commute pretty standard fare. Yet for an Antarctic newbie like myself, this level of perpetual motion left me feeling as though we had traveled to the bottom of the earth. Fittingly, we’ve ended up just there. A mere 30+ hours in the air has landed us at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Route Boston to McMurdo

But let’s backup for a moment.

Up until leaving New Zealand, our travels had all been standard commercial airlines. But for NSF funded projects such as the McMurdo LTER in which we’re participating, travel to the field happens on Air National Guard LC-130 cargo planes. So in preparation for this we all spend a day in Christchurch, NZ at the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center), where we are briefed with orientation videos, our computers are security checked, and we are outfitted with our polar gear.

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When we arrive at the CDC, we step into a large changing room where two orange duffle bags sit waiting for each person.

Gradually we pull out piece after piece of cold weather clothing. This ranges from giant puffy jackets and white rubber “bunny boots”, to silky long underwear and wool socks. The warehouse here is impressive and fully stocked.

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After all of our gear preparation is finished, Ruth and I take to the streets of Christchurch. Walking downtown it’s immediately evident that the city is still in recovery, even three years after their devastating earthquake. Piles of rubble are fenced off on city blocks, and large open spaces are left where hotels, restaurants, and apartment complexes used to stand.

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We walk through the city’s new “shipping container-chic” shopping centers, where fallen buildings have bee replaced by funky colored shipping containers selling street food, clothing, books, and jewelry.

In the evening, we walked to nearby Hagley Park to bring in the New Year. Crowds of people sat in the grass swaying to the sounds of local cover-bands singing Jonny Cash in Kiwi accents. Finally, per New Zealand tradition, we were all enchanted by the Arch Wizard of Canterbury as he casts an explosive (fireworks were involved…) spell on the crowd for coming year.

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The Arch Wizard is projected onto a giant screen as he casts his spell.

 

The next day, we go back to the CDC to don our polar gear, check our bags, and get briefed by the ANG on flight to the ice. It’s a toasty ride for those 8 hours to McMurdo, as we have to wear our big red jackets, snow pants, and bunny boots on the plane.20150101_112747

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Soon enough, we feel the plane glide onto the ice and we step out into a blindingly white world. The team has officially arrived in Antarctica.

Photo credit: Ruth Heindel

Stay tuned for updates on the science we are now preparing to do!

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The McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research project has been running for more than 20 years and is a huge operation, with 12 principal investigators (lead scientists) and dozens of collaborators and graduate students from institutions across the Unites States and beyond. As I’m sure you can imagine, it can be hard to keep such a large group of people organized and focused. Just think about trying to do group projects with only 3 or 4 classmates!

Even just three lead scientists in the field can lead to a long decision-making process.

Even just three lead scientists in the field can lead to a long decision-making process.

One thing that keeps the project focused is the fact that every six years, the team submits a proposal to the National Science Foundation. In order to get money to fund the project, the lead scientists must show that they have a plan for the next six years. And one of the most important aspects of this plan is an overarching guiding question that the scientists hope to answer. This question is what keeps all the lead scientists on track – it’s their group project assignment. Right now, the big question has to do with climate warming: How will climate warming alter the McMurdo Dry Valley ecosystem? Based on more than 20 years of experience, the lead scientists have some ideas about what will happen. But rather than just give away their predictions, I want you to make your own. In order to do that, you need a little more information about the Dry Valleys.

What would this picture look like in a warmer world?

What would this picture look like in a warmer world?

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the McMurdo Dry Valleys make up the largest area of ice-free land on the Antarctic continent. But the Dry Valley system isn’t just bare rock. There are numerous mountain glaciers flowing down into the valleys, ending abruptly in tall cliffs of ice. These glaciers are critical components of the Dry Valley system because they provide the majority of the liquid water that flows during the brief Antarctic summer. Streams, which flow for only two months out of the year, carry this glacier melt-water across the bare soils into lakes. As the water runs over rocks and soils, it picks up minerals and nutrients, carrying them into the lakes as well.

Glaciers flow down into the Dry Valleys, ending in cliffs of ice. How will the glaciers change in a warming world?

Glaciers flow down into the Dry Valleys, ending in cliffs of ice. How will the glaciers change in a warming world?

Streams, which flow for only two months out of the year, carry this glacier melt-water across the bare soils into lakes. As the water runs over rocks and soils, it picks up minerals and nutrients, carrying them into the lakes as well. During the summer, only the very top layer of soil thaws – dig down less than a foot, and you’ll hit frozen soil, or permafrost. Lakes in the Dry Valleys are unlike any lakes we have in the Northeast – they are always covered in a thick layer of ice, even in the height of summer. Water underneath the ice remains liquid throughout the entire year, but it is separated from the rest of the world by a solid sheet of ice.

Lake Fryxell, covered in ice even in the height of summer. What will happen to the lakes in a warmer world?

Lake Fryxell, covered in ice even in the height of summer. What will happen to the lakes in a warmer world?

Glaciers, streams, soils, and lakes are the physical parts of the Dry Valleys – but there is life found everywhere. Moss and algae can be seen by the naked eye, but hundreds of other organisms, too small for us to see, live in the soils, streams, lakes, and glaciers of the Dry Valleys.

So, with this introduction to the Dry Valleys, think about how the system might change with a warming climate. It might be helpful to consider each component (glaciers, streams, soils, and lakes) separately, but remember that they are all linked. In my next blog, I’ll discuss one of the predictions that the lead scientists have. First though, you have to make your own predictions!

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Bombus!”  Kristin sounds the alarm, pointing toward the large buzzing bumblebee attracted to her white baseball cap.  Immediately, Christine, armed at all times with her insect net, springs into action.  I’ve never seen someone run so quickly across the tundra – Christine running after a Bombus is truly an amazing sight.

Christine poses with her ever-present net.

Christine poses with her ever-present net.

“Wham!” Christine’s net hits the ground.  Success again!  Trapped inside her net is a surprisingly large (at least the size of two Hershey kisses) bumblebee, buzzing in anger and confusion.  With no hesitation, Christine expertly slips a vial into the net, taps the bee into the vial, and there – another sample caught!

Ivalu holds one of captured bees while Kristin skeptically looks on.

Ivalu holds one of captured bees while Kristin skeptically looks on.

In Greenland, there are two bumblebee species: Bombus polaris and Bombus hyperboreusB. hyperboreus is a parasitic bee – that is, the queens will take over a B. polaris nest and trick the worker bees, who never realize they aren’t working for their own queen.  Not many people have studied bumblebees in the Arctic, so with each Bombus capture, Christine added valuable information to what we know.  A good reason to celebrate each new sample!

A bumblebee visits Niviarsiaq, the national flower of Greenland.

A bumblebee visits Niviarsiaq, the national flower of Greenland.

From our pollination experts Christine and Zak, we also learned that arctic plants are often pollen limited.  If the flowers are given additional pollen, they are able to produce more seeds.  In order to get more pollen, plants compete for pollinators, putting on showy displays and enticing insects with yummy nectar.  To test just how pollen limited arctic plants are, Christine had us set up a simple experiment using Niviarsiaq (the national flower of Greenland).  On some plants, we tied mesh bags around flowers to exclude pollinators.

Mesh bag placed around Niviarsiaq flowers to exclude pollinators.

Mesh bag placed around Niviarsiaq flowers to exclude pollinators.

On other plants, we added pollen by hand, mimicking the role of a bumblebee.   A third set of plants we identified as controls.  Later this summer, Christine will collect the seedpods from all of the plants and compare how many seeds each plant was able to produce.  If the hypothesis is correct, and the plants are pollen limited, the hand-pollinated plants should be the most successful!

Last year, after living in the tundra for six full weeks, I hadn’t given pollination a thought.  I vaguely remembered seeing what might have been a bumblebee.  This year, however, my perspective has completely changed.  Whenever I hear the frequent buzz of Bombus, my head immediately turns and I think, “Go, Christine, go get it!”  Many thanks, Christine and Zak, for teaching us the art of Bombus-ing!

The Bombus itch spreads -- Alden catches her first bumblebee!

The Bombus itch spreads — Alden catches her first bumblebee!

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Leaving behind days (weeks) of rain, members of Cohort 4 and friends head to the Air National Guard Base for another deployment to Greenland. See you in August!

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(Left to right) Alden Adolph (C4), Kristin Schild (C4), Ben Kopec (C2), Gifford Wong (C1), Leehi Yona, Julia Bradley-Cook (C1), Ross Virginia, and Mary Albert (in front). Thanks to expert packing by Gifford, the cargo all fit too!

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