The McMurdo Dry Valleys - Life in the Cold & Dark
International Polar Year 2007-2008
The McMurdo Dry Valleys are one of the strangest places on Earth: surrounded by more than 90% of ice on the planet, they are drier than the Gobi Desert. Rocks here are sculpted into strange shapes, almost like Henry Moore statues. Some of the stones "sing" in the strong winds blowing down from the polar plateau. You can see a few mummified seals who - perhaps decades ago - wandered far inland, dying in a place where dessication leaves them identifiable long after they would have dissolved to nothingness in the ocean. The largest lifeforms here are nematodes, tiny ringworms, studied by POLAR-PALOOZA Advisor and presenter Diana Harrison Wall. Two more PPZA presenters are John Priscu and Christine Foreman, both of who study the strange, ice-covered lakes: once thought lifeless, rich algal mats were discovered (by PPZA participants Dale Andersen, Chris McKay and colleagues) thriving in dark and highly-salty waters.
The last two scientist/adventurer/explorers are both supported by NASA, the space agency: they're not out of place in the DVs. These are some of the most Mars-like places on Earth, and you can test ideas and technologies to search for ET life here in some of the most alien landscapes on our own world. It's to study life in extremes that John Priscu's team stayed on at camps in the Taylor Valley right through April 2008, a "first" for the US Antarctic program. This unique late season work offers exotic twilight scenes, good for science and good for dramatic science video captured by intrepid HDvCC photographers.
Here's John's description of his project: "Data collected on the permanently ice-covered lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys during the late 1950's as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) showed that they were the only year-round liquid water environments on the continent, and implied that the organisms in the lakes must possess novel physiological strategies that allow them to survive at low temperature and under extended darkness. Subsequent research has now shown that most organisms in the lakes are not just "surviving the extremes" but are actively feeding, growing and reproducing. Unfortunately, almost all research on the MCM lakes is restricted to the austral spring and summer when logistics and 24 hours of sunlight allow ready access to the area. Although studies during this short period have yielded a quantum increase in our understanding of the lakes, the unique aspects of physiological adaptation, biodiversity and ecosystem functioning during the permanently cold and prolonged darkness of the Antarctic winter will never be understood without extended season research. The U.S. component of "International Polar Year 2007-2008" (IPY), through the research initiative "Adaptations to life in extreme cold and prolonged darkness", now provides an important framework in which to study biological adaptation / acclimation by plankton to extreme cold and prolonged darkness at the cellular, genomic and ecosystem level. We (Priscu and colleagues) propose to study lakes within the Taylor Valley during the transition to polar night to test the overarching hypothesis that the onset of darkness induces a cascade of physiological changes that alters the functional role of and microplankton within the lakes." You can read more by clicking the above link.
All images © and courtesy Priscu Research Group
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POLAR-PALOOZA and the materials on this website are based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0632262. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of PASSPORT TO KNOWLEDGE/Geoff Haines-Stiles Productions, Inc., and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Science Foundation.