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Dartmouth Professor Wraps Up Nearly Three Decades of Climate Research in Antarctica

  • Professor Ross Virginia stands in Antarctica’s Virginia Valley, named in his honor to commemorate his decades of research on the ecosystems of the continent’s dry valleys, the coldest and driest place on Earth. (Photo courtesy of Ross Virginia)



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2017

Hanover — After the crew members tied the helicopter down to prevent it from blowing away in what was shaping up to be one of Antarctica’s famously powerful storms, they crawled over the frozen ground to join Dartmouth Professor Ross Virginia and a handful of students in the crowded emergency shelter.

They’d seen the storm on the horizon, a solid wall of clouds rushing toward them, and soon they felt it too — winds that slammed into the small aircraft and caused it to bounce erratically. Though they were just minutes from the relative safety of McMurdo Station on Ross Island, they had to abandon their plans and seek immediate shelter on the ground.

“It was a plywood shack with a little stove in it,” Virginia recalled. “There was a radio, and bunk beds. A little table. Nine of us jammed in there.”

To communicate how barren and inhospitable Antarctica can be, Virginia, 66, pointed out that one of the men sheltering with him was Kim Stanley Robinson, a science fiction author who had come seeking an approximation of conditions on Mars.

The snow brought by that storm 23 years ago subsided eventually — a day and a half after it had begun. But Virginia’s interest in the region and what it might teach us about climate change has endured. And now that his 27-year long research effort has come to an end, it has given him cause to reflect not just on the more memorable experiences like that storm, but about his polar experience in general.

When asked about the life-threatening conditions he faced over nearly two dozen trips to the southernmost continent, however, he offered only a shrug of an assessment.

“That’s science,” Virginia said.

The Polar Desert

Virginia is the director of the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth and recently co-authored a paper on the decadeslong study. More often than not over the last few decades, the arrival of December has meant that it’s time for him to leave the Dartmouth campus for a six-week stay at the bottom of the Earth.

To get there, he flies first to New Zealand, and then makes a 2,000 mile flight south to McMurdo Station, which has roughly 1,000 scientists living there at any given time. From there, he hops aboard a helicopter to a research camp in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

Though it may not seem like it, the near-total absence of life in Antarctica is precisely what makes it the perfect place to measure the impacts of climate change, Virginia said.

Most of the world, including the forests and mountains of the Twin States, teems with hundreds of thousands of species, all playing off each other and off environmental cues in an ever-shifting race to reproduce and survive. The complexity creates ecosystems that are strong and vibrant, but Virginia says the riot of life also makes it almost impossible to tease out the reasons behind the success and failure of any particular species.

By contrast, Virginia has focused his research on Antarctica’s polar desert, where the extreme conditions have made it difficult for all but the hardiest of life.

The lack of precipitation has allowed the high winds to scour the snow from the glacial till, revealing a landscape of soil, frozen lakes and no vegetation save lichen. The only organisms visible to the naked eye are lichen, the interloping humans themselves, and the occasional seal that has left the ocean, gotten lost and died. Hundreds of perfectly preserved seal corpses, some of them hundreds of years old, dot the landscape, mummified by the extreme dry and cold.

“They’re beautiful and grotesque at the same time,” Virginia said. “Some of them have been eroded by the wind, which creates a kind of cross-section.”

When Virginia arrives, he and his fellow scientists unload their scant personal items into a field camp tent, and then begin the work, busily performing measurements, re-setting time-lapse cameras, and using pickaxes and trowels to collect soil samples. They might pump one area full of carbon, while building a network of troughs to cover another area in regular doses of water.

Over the decades, Virginia has transitioned from being challenged by mentors, to becoming a mentor himself, said Michael Gooseff, a Colorado University at Boulder fellow who’s the lead investigator for the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long-Term Ecological Research program.

“He came into his own when he went to Dartmouth, and became a bit of a wise sage,” he said. “He’s had this really great, broad view of polar ecology and climate changes across the Antarctic.”

Rapid Changes

Virginia’s focus is on the soil, where just a few species of nematodes — tiny roundworms — make up the main components of the ecosystem.

Their lives are simple, and that’s what makes it relatively easy to track how they’re affected by an environmental factor, like climate change, Virginia said.

“They respond to changes in climate,” he said. “They provide the same kinds of information as the big critters we see running around.”

The research is unusual in its longevity — Virginia and his colleagues, including Gooseff, have been tracking changes in the life cycle of these nematodes since 1989.

“There’s not a story here if you only look at the first 10 years or if you only looked at the last 10 years,” Gooseff said. “It is this 20-year perspective that really helps us understand the significance.”

For the first 10 years, there was a period of prolonged cooling that thickened the ice sheets, making it more difficult for the nematodes to grow and reproduce. Their populations declined by about 10 percent each year.

The key year was 2002, a dramatically warm year that unlocked massive amounts of water. Dry places got wet. Streams ran high. Lake levels rose.

“It was the equivalent of a major hurricane in New England,” Virginia said.

In the years since 2002, Virginia and the other scientists have documented that species didn’t simply rebound back to pre-flood levels, as expected. Instead, the entire ecosystem was unbalanced, and has yet to recover.

The soil retained its added moisture for years. Some species thrived, while others never regained their footing.

The lesson, Virginia said, is that the common view of climate change — a slow, steady warming that will, over centuries, push plants and animals ever-northward — probably doesn’t describe the most dramatic impact that species will experience.

“These sorts of short-lived extreme events that are associated with climate change can have long-term lasting effects on the ecosystem that are maybe larger than the slow-moving accumulative changes coming from climate change,” he said.

For the Twin States, he said, that could mean that the loss of species such as sugar maples, which are projected to slowly migrate northward with favorable temperatures, might instead be dramatically affected by one or two weather events.

“One of the major predictions for the northeastern United States are these big long-duration periods of soaking rain,” he said. “We can be talking about warming and all these other effects, but maybe what’s really going to be shifting these landscapes are these punctuated extreme events.”

Gooseff said that the research group has been buzzing over the latest headline news to emerge from Antarctica — in July, an iceberg the size of Delaware calved off of the Larsen C Ice Shelf, on the other side of the continent from the Dry Valleys, and fell into the ocean.

After years of tracking almost-imperceptible temperature changes, it’s exactly the type of extreme event that they’re studying, Gooseff said, and the jury is out on whether the end result of the way it affects the ocean’s ice cover and clouds will be accelerated warming, or accelerated cooling.

“What form it takes has yet to be seen,” but either way, it will likely affect the continent’s ecosystems,” Gooseff said.

The End Of the End of the World

“That’s science,” Virginia said, and there’s another aspect of science that can be difficult for the individual scientist. Long-term research projects eventually outlive the careers of any one person, which is why, after 27 years, Virginia and his longtime colleague, Colorado University Professor Diana Wall, have decided to leave the project.

“We had just gone through another grant renewal cycle, and committing to six more years didn’t seem to be the best investment,” Virginia said.

There’s no doubt that Virginia has left his mark on the landscape — one area has been named Virginia Valley in his honor.

But that didn’t make it any easier in January when Virginia and Wall left the Dry Valleys, perhaps forever.

“We both sat on the steps of the Lake Horne research hut, waiting for the helicopter to come in. We signed the log book for the last time,” he said.

They cried, and hugged, and reminisced about the good times.

Like when Gooseff and other members of one of the ever-rotating teams of scientists hid all the beer from Virginia’s group. Virginia and his colleagues retaliated by filling Gooseff’s hip-waders with freeze-dried refried beans.

As the helicopter came in to whisk them away from the landscape, the talk subsided. “I think we were both somewhere between catatonic and very reflective,” he said. “Also, just in awe of the opportunity to do that. Just a handful of people on this planet have had that prolonged interaction with an environment that most people can’t imagine.”

Virginia said that he himself is moving his focus to other projects — though not to other regions. He hopes to add value to a team that’s working to mount a large sensing unit on the belly of a helicopter that will allow them to find pockets of concentrated salty brine beneath the soil and ice sheets of Antarctica.

He doesn’t know if that work will put him back in the field, but it will be a way for him to continue to study the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

“I have polar fever,” he said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.