McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER

Melting a dive hole at Lake Hoare for benthic sample collection. (Maciej Obryk)

Key Research Findings:

MCM scientists showed that the rapid growth of algae in small glacial pools can cause dramatic increases in pH and oxygen levels, altering their environment. These changes show how microbes can create their own habitat even in ice.
MCM scientists discovered that algae in Antarctic lakes remain active and retain their photosynthetic pigments in spite of the absence of light. This winter activity allows them to begin to photosynthesize as soon as the sunlight returns in the spring.
MCM scientists documented how even small variations in climate can drive major changes in polar ecosystems: seemingly slight changes in temperature can set off a cascade of magnified responses that affect stream flow, nutrient cycling, and biodiversity.


The McMurdo Dry Valleys are located on the western coast of McMurdo Sound (77°00'S 162°52'E) and form the largest relatively ice-free area (approximately 4800 square kilometers) on the Antarctic continent. These ice-free areas of Antarctica display a sharp contrast to most other ecosystems in the world, which exist under far more moderate environmental conditions. The perennially ice-covered lakes, ephemeral streams and extensive areas of exposed soil within the McMurdo Dry Valleys are subject to low temperatures, limited precipitation and salt accumulation. Thus, the dry valleys represent a region where life approaches its environmental limits, and is an "end-member" in the spectrum of environments included in the LTER Network.

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The McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER project is an interdisciplinary study of the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in a cold desert region of Antarctica. In 1992 this area was selected as a study site within the National Science Foundation's Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) Program. Details about the research can be reviewed through the original 1992 research proposal to the National Science Foundation, or the more recent 1998 proposal, resulting in funding for another 6 years.

Research Topics:

Microbial ecosystem dynamics in arid soils, ephemeral streams, and closed basin lakes; resource and environmental controls on terrestrial, stream and lake ecosystems; material transport between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems; ecosystem response to greater hydrologic flux driven by warming climate.

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