Long-term Antarctica soil research uncovers climate-related changes

Posted: April 30th, 2018

Video by Ron Bend, Colorado State University.

In a nondescript room on Colorado State University’s Foothills Campus, a large freezer stores almost 30 years of soil samples from Antarctica.

University Distinguished Professor Diana Wall, director of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability (SoGES) and a professor in the Department of Biology, has traveled each research season since 1989 with a team of researchers to Antarctica. They do field work in the McMurdo Dry Valleys and, more recently, Shackleton Glacier, located on the eastern part of the continent.

When she first visited Antarctica, Wall said it felt like being on Mars.

“It was just this vast landscape, and you didn’t know where to sample,” she said. “Everything looked the same. It was just miles and miles and miles of soil. And then a few glaciers, and frozen lakes.”

Wall and her team, which includes Walter Andriuzzi, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biology and SoGES, put soil samples in plastic bags and bring them back to Fort Collins. The goal? To learn more about nematodes – microscopic roundworms – and other animals found in the soil.

To study the tiny creatures, researchers thaw the frozen soil samples and add a little water. The nematodes, described by Wall in their frozen state as “potato chips,” become quite active at the right temperature, with a bit of moisture.

“It’s really important that we keep these soils, because over time, we’ve had climate change,” she said. “So, we can compare what the soils and the animals were like then to what we see now.”

Wall is also a senior research scientist at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at CSU. In 2004, as recognition for her work on the continent, she had an Antarctic feature named after her: Wall Valley.

Learn more about research related to the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long-Term Ecological Research project, including a study led by CSU that found declining numbers of soil fauna, nematodes and other animal species in the valleys.