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Antarctica: Teachings of “The Ice”

By Dave Risk

What scientific trip would be complete without some new insights into natural ecosystems, and oneself?  I learned that:

1. My bladder can, on occasion, hold more than a litre of urine. One may wonder how I learned such a thing, but it should be obvious when one considers the environmental sensitivity of the Dry Valleys. Absolutely nothing may remain behind during field work – our waste included. During our time in the field, we captured everything, including our pee, which was decanted from our personal 1L jugs (carried with us as required) into larger containers. Mine was labeled both with a “P” and a handwritten “Gravy”, which is how I distinguished it from that of others. As a team, were were able to monitor our collective urine production volume, and hydration status, and said topic occasionally became a discussion item in morning meetings. We did a lot of sharing. Anyways, I learned that sometimes a 1L container unfortunately just isn’t enough on some mornings! For those wanting to know about #2 (not item 2 below), you can ask me directly.

2. Patience. Remote field travel involves extensive waiting. My travels from Nova Scotia to the Dry Valleys took about 8 days of “Hurry up and Wait” travel, involving multiple itinerary adjustments, lost bags, etc. In the field, our chopper often couldn’t get to us because of weather over the Ice Shelf. So, one must be patient, and after all that, the success of a field campaign is still in the end determined by weather. Certainly some of our field movements in the Dry Valleys were restricted in this year’s weather, and some things didn’t perhaps get done as thoroughly as was hoped for. So, one must be lucky. I thought often about the massive waits endured by early Antarctic explorers like Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen. Over-wintering in coastal Antarctic huts (I visited Scott’s) would be a test of boredom to the extreme. Overall, my excursions this year to 70N and 80S emphasized that remote travel is not an adrenaline activity. Even in our age of modern transport, endurance and patience are the requisite skills. Having good people around really helps.  Though we like to think of early explorers as thrill-seekers, the reality would have been exactly the opposite. They were conservative, calculating, and most of all patient – in ways that I would probably never even understand.

3. Time travel. For several years, we’ve been running this project to document biological activity in Antarctic Dry Valley soils. We have done so by measuring emissions of gases (mainly CO2) breathed out by living microbes. The biological emissions in this amazingly near-sterile environment have proven to be scanty at best, and clouded by competing variations in CO2 from several processes including 1) geology, 2) soil water CO2 solubility, 3) wind, and 4) freeze/thaw. This year added to our understanding of these processes, and will contribute to a larger paper on teasing apart emissions from each of these sources. But, this year we also tried something new, which was to deploy one of Forerunner Research’s new waterproof GP CO2 sensors (http://www.forerunnerresearch.ca/GP.php) in a pond.  Continuous measurements in the water showed that photosynthetic algae organisms would ramp up quickly in response to available sunlight, even in ultra-cold ice-covered waters. Decomposer microbes would ramp up closely on their heels. Despite the fact that their temperatures were similar, the variations in CO2 that we observed in the pond were several times higher than in adjacent soils. One can’t help but draw comparisons to early life on earth, where water bodies were teeming with life, but the land surface was devoid of biological activity, and dominated by geochemical processes. I wasn’t just transported in my imagination to that earlier time in the earth’s evolution, but I was observing these patterns and processes in real time, almost exactly as they might have manifested themselves over a billion years ago. It makes sense that the searches for life, and water, on other planets should be closely intertwined. More on this as we write up the results.

Admittedly, my all-time highlight of my winter vacation may have been my last minute ski trip on the Ross Ice shelf, which I squeezed in during the last night on base after hurriedly packing. Maggie and I had gone for a ski a couple of weeks earlier when we arrived on base, but conditions were less than optimal as the warm Christmas weather made for corn snow conditions. But, at the end of my trip, the Ice Shelf roads to the airfield (8 km) were well frozen and freshly groomed, like a 50 m wide ski skating track. It was sunny, windless, and FAST. Mount Erebus and Castle Rock were looming above. The drivers of the occasional balloon-tired US Antarctic Program trucks were giving me huge waves. I was in a long sleeve shirt, without gloves.  For a fairly rabid XC skier, it’s hard to imagine a better bucket-filling evening. My life is now complete.

This is the end of my Antarctic 2015 blogging. Aside from the photos that appear in these posts, I’ll dump my images to http://basil.stfx.ca/photo in a folder called “Antarctica 2015” or similar. I also have about an hour of video footage, which I’ll mix down at some point in collaboration with anyone who would like to help. Monitor my @drisk_eh twitter handle the @FluxLabX handle (also visible on the http://www.fluxlab.ca webpage scroller) for updates on the progress of these forthcoming media posts.

Thanks for reading!

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