As the name of this blog implies, the purpose of this trip is look for life on Antarctica in order to understand what conditions support life here. In more temperate climates, we have trees, flowers, bees, animals and of course microbes that life in the soil. Here, where the conditions are much more harsh, the conditions are not very favourable for supporting life. It rarely gets above freezing here because we are living on a block of ice. That said, there are some unique places where life does flourish; it just might be a different type of life than we are used to seeing at home. Therefore, the main form of life here is microbial or small organisms that are not readily visible with the naked eye.
When there are rocks that protrude from the ice, such as where the station is built, the dark surface can absorb sunlight and become warm. Since arriving at the station, we have been measuring the temperature of various surfaces and have found that in some places the dirt can be up to 13 degrees Celsius even though the air temperature is well below zero. These warm temperatures provide favourable conditions for life to thrive. Along the ridge that is north of the station we have found evidence that life is thriving in these rocks. In places where the snow has retreated, we have found mats of thick black moss, microbes living in the rocks, mosses that are shaped like animal droppings, orange lichen and hairy black lichen. Because of all of these different types of organic matter, the sand between the rocks also appears to be starting to form soil.
Our goals here are not just to identify IF there is life here, but also to understand what organisms live here and how active they are. One way we described this to the multi-national, multi-lingual station population is that we are trying to figure out how many Belgians, French, Germans and Italians live at the station and who is moving the most. Are the microbes simple communities of just a few species or a cosmopolitan mixture of organisms that live together? Are the microbes cycling slowly on the timescale of decades, or more quickly, like their temperate counterparts?
The team here at the station has also become quite interested in our sampling. The team, who we will write about in another post, consist of IT people, mechanics, construction workers and other types of support staff. Before we arrived, they didn’t think much about if there other forms of living amongst them. However, after we gave a short presentation on our science they started asking more questions about microbes in rocks, microbes in soils and microbes in snow. On the first few days we sampled nearby the station, we brought hand samples for them what types of samples we were taking. And now when they go on hikes, they bring us back examples of where they found evidence of life. People here at the station seem to be really excited by their findings!
Since Antarctica is a place that captures most people’s attention, there has been the opportunity to do some science outreach. One afternoon last week we Skyped with sixty ten year olds from England.Neither Steffi or I spend much time around ten year olds, so the idea of Skyping with them may have make us a little afraid. Despite of initial hesitation, it was quite fun to chat with them. They asked us questions about life here in Antarctica, including the obvious question that you too likely have: have you seen any penguins? Sadly the answer is NO. We are 200 km inland from the coast, which makes penguin sightings quite hard!