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Cryoconite Holes of the Antarctic Glaciers Allow to Study How and Why Microbes Live Together

The Project: Cryconite holes are water-filled pockets with a sediment layer at the bottom. They form when wind-blown soil/sediment particles settle on the surface of a glacier. Because the particles are darker and absorb more solar radiation than the surrounding ice, they melt into the ice. An average hole will grow to a size of 20 cm in diameter and 30 cm in depth. Along with particles come microbes and as soon as cryoconite holes form, microbes start living their lives. Together with 5 other scientists, we venture to the McMurdo Dry Valleys’ glaciers in Antarctica to finalize a 3-year NSF-funded project that investigates why microbial communities in these cryoconite holes are the way they are. To test the drivers and mechanisms, we study microbes not only in their natural holes but also make artificial holes where potential drivers (e.g., diversity or abundance of the seeding material) are varied.

Natural cryoconite holes instrumented with temperature probes.
Photo credit – DL Porazinska

Meet the Team: So here we are, on “the  ice”, as we like to call it. This year, the 1st of November departure was an early one and this means that some of us will have a long field season. For now, the team is made of just three members: Pacifica Sommers (Post-doctoral Associate), Adam Solon (PhD student), both from the University of Colorado, and I (Faculty) from the University of Florida. Just enough heads and hands to check on over-the-winter developments and start the early season’s work. There will be three more members: Julian Cross (PhD student) from the Portland State University will arrive on the 3rd of December 2018. And finally Lara Vimercati (PhD Student) from CU and Kaelin Cawley (Stuff Scientist) from NEON will join the team on the 3rd of January 2019. We predict the season will end by mid February 2019. 

The Journey: Going to Antarctica is easier said than done. Before we get to set our eyes on cryoconite holes for the first time this season, it may take two weeks (at the earliest) from the start of the trip. The flight from Denver to Christchurch, New Zealand, is not all that trivial, about 26 hours with the longest leg between Los Angeles and Auckland, NZ  of 12 hours. If the weather in McMurdo, Antarctica is good, it takes 2 days in Christchurch to sort gear, clothes, and IT and flu requirements before we can take off for the ice. If the weather is not good, well…. we have to wait till it becomes good. Weather gods granted us an express pass this time around which was in contrast to an earlier wave of travelers that had to hang in Christchurch for 16 days! Fortunately, Christchurch is a lovely town and I have not yet met anyone who has ever complained about being “stuck” in town. 

Checking-in for a flight to McMurdo on C17.
Photo credit – DL Porazinska

For a 9:00 am flight on Monday (04 Nov 2018), the report time at the Antarctic Center was scheduled for 6 am. Once there, everyone changed into the issued ECW gear (extreme cold weather clothing), checked-in, watched instructional videos, and went for breakfast. We were finally loaded onto a bus that dropped us at the steps of the most amazing plane:C17. C17 is a giant, I am awed and thrilled every time I see it. Just like the greatest Olympic champion, it transpires the fitness and power that can break any world record.

Yay, we have arrived!
Photo credit – DL Porazinska

Without a disappointment, it touched the ice in less than 5 hours.

Before the Field Work: Seven days have already passed since we left our homes and a few more will pass before we reach the Dry Valleys. Because Antarctic environment is extremely harsh and unforgiving, we need to learn and practice how to remain safe, healthy, and productive by attending training courses covering anything from field safety to waste management to environmental conduct. But once through the course work, we will start organizing our Crary lab space and field trips that have been carefully planned back at home in April. We are keeping our fingers crossed that by Monday (4 days from today) we can be flown by a helicopter to the Taylor Valley and resume our field work with cryoconite holes and their microbes. So stay tuned! Cheers!  More information about the project can be found here and here