Vital clues in Antarctica's Dry Valleys



"We have some fresh data that show microbial communities can respond to specific changes in physical conditions very rapidly and drastically..."

Dr Charles Lee

Antarctica's Dry Valleys may hold vital clues for scientists trying to understand the effects of climate change – not just in Antarctica but in more temperate areas of the globe.

Dr Charles Lee, Research Fellow at the University of Waikato's International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research, is one of a team of scientists studying the ecology of extreme environments through funding from the Royal Society of New Zealand's Marsden Fund and the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute. He is investigating microscopic life in the McMurdo Dry Valleys to try and understand the polar region's long-term glacial history, which in turn will provide new and valuable biological perspectives to assess current and future environmental change in the Antarctic. 

Antarctica's soils were once thought to be sterile but scientists now know that they are actually teeming with microorganisms. Because the Dry Valley ecosystem is relatively simple – higher plants and animals find it difficult to survive – Antarctica's microbial ecosystems therefore provide a unique view into how biodiversity is influenced by physicochemical factors such as surface temperature, soil geochemistry, water availability, and soil texture and composition.

"We have some fresh data that show microbial communities can respond to specific changes in physical conditions very rapidly and drastically, which can have catastrophic consequences for the ecosystem," Dr Lee says. "The question is, given the slow metabolism of life forms in such a cold area, how quickly in general will Dry Valley biota respond to climate change?"

Identifying the connection between microbial ecology and glacial geomorphology has potentially significant benefits including efforts to protect or manage this unique environment or to forecast the effects of climate change.

"If we can understand how and why these sensitive microbial ecosystems respond to change, it will certainly increase our understanding of how climate change may affect other ecosystems and environments," Dr Lee says.