New Discoveries About Antartica’s Bizarre Environment

Researchers traveled to Antartica to study The Shackleton Glacier which has been moving and greatly affecting the surrounding environment. Somehow creatures, that are descendants of animals that were around millions of years ago, have managed to survive and these researchers want to know how.

Melisa Antonia Diaz, a postdoctoral scholar from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has spent three seasons in Antartica studying the geochemistry of ice-free areas in the Transantarctic Mountains. This research study focused on the ecosystem and how large changes in climate have affected the Shackleton glacier by looking deeply into the soil’s salt concentration.

Melissa A. Diaz, at her research site in the Transantartic Mountains. Photo by Byron Adams

Diaz explained her experience and findings on these trips on Tuesday, for Colorado State University’s School of Environmental Sustainability over Zoom.

Antarctica is a polar desert, meaning it receives little precipitation, very cold temperatures year-round, and is considered a treeless tundra. This kind of area is a habitat to some organisms, but these organisms are very small. Diaz gives a few examples and said these creatures could all be found in your backyard.

“What’s interesting about Antartica is that these organisms are usually top of the food chain,” Diaz Said.

Over the years the Shackleton Glacier has been moving along the Transantarctic Mountains, exposing more ice-free areas which has been affecting the living environment for these organisms. These creatures have been able to survive, and Diaz and her team wanted to know how. In order to figure this out they had to look into the rock and soil’s salt concentration.

Some of the knowledge Diaz and her team used to help with their study

To look at salt concentration Diaz and her team collected rock and soil samples from all different regions along the Shackleton Glacier. They would get to each of these locations by helicopter. Diaz said the helicopter pilots were great and very helpful.

Diaz said it was very difficult to collect these rock samples because the ground was completely frozen once you reach a certain layer.

Even though it was difficult she said, “I can’t complain because the work was beautiful.”

Melisa Diaz collecting soil samples with help from Geoff Shellens on top of a hill in the Transantarctic Mountains. Photo by Byron Adams

After analyzing these samples and further research the team found that areas with very high levels of salt concentration were not suitable for these organisms. These creatures need lower salt concentration, so they survived closer to the glacier because soil closer to the glacier had lower salt concentrations. The areas farthest away from the glacier had the highest salt concentrations because they have been exposed to the sun for the longest period of time.

From this Diaz was able to conclude that soil chemistry varies throughout the regions by looking at salt concentration and how it increases based elevation, distance from the coast, and distance from the glacier.

“Hopefully I have convinced you that this is a crazy environment, that these soils are so salty and the glaciers have been churning up this environment, and yet these organisms have been able to find a suitable environment to survive,” Diaz said.


Published by avakj

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