“If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart.”

by Michael Mullaney on June 6, 2010

 

Summer break started last week at Rensselaer. When it’s not storming, temperatures around Troy slowly crescendo toward a sunny swelter.

But here’s a cooling thought: Professor Chip Kilduff has shared with us some stunning photography he and his colleagues took in December during a month-long research expedition to Antarctica.

(December is actually summer in Antarctica, and Kilduff said temperatures were around 10 degrees Fahrenheit – on par or even warmer than December temperatures half a world away in upstate New York.)

Kilduff, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was part of an international, interdisciplinary research team charged with collecting water samples and ice core samples to study the microbial communities found in the Antarctica’s Transantarctic Mountains and the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Conventional wisdom once deemed these areas were completely devoid of life, but we now know glacial ice in the region is home to bustling microhabitats that are “teeming with life.”

Kilduff and the research team had a lab in McMurdo Station, seen below, but spent most of their time working at a camp at Lake Fryxell in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. These valleys, the team said, are on the western coast of McMurdo Sound and form the largest relatively ice-free area on the Antarctic continent.

McMurdo Station

 

Lake Fryxell Labs

Lake Fryxell Labs

The team took water samples from streams in the Fryxell basin, so they could compare them to the stream on the Cotton Glacier – a “supraglacial” stream that forms on top of the glacier each summer. Because it’s essentially a new river every year, this superglacial is a unique way to study how microbial communities and dissolved organic matter “start from scratch” and develop over time.

Sampling on Cotton Glacier

Sampling on Cotton Glacier

Supraglacial Stream in Cotton Glacier

Supraglacial Stream in Cotton Glacier

Here’s why this endeavor is important, in the words of the research team:

“In these extreme conditions, microorganisms live in the liquid water phases of ice, and they depend upon dissolved organic matter (DOM) in the water for food and nutrients. Although DOM is found in every environment and is an important component of the global carbon cycle, we still need more basic information about it, such as how DOM forms and changes over time.

… By isolating the DOM and studying its chemical and structural composition, the team hopes to learn more about how the contributions and interactions between microbes and the DOM pool are different in the two different types of streams.”

Much of Kilduff’s research centers on the role of natural organic matter in water treatment systems – organic matter’s effects on adsorption process design and adsorbent performance. He’s concerned with making water as clean and fit for drinking as possible, and wants to better understand how organic matters impacts the purification/filtration process.

For the Antarctica expedition, Kilduff designed and built an advanced reverse osmosis system for isolating natural organic matter from water. The machine was critical for obtaining dissolved organic matter specimens, by removing all the water from the collected water samples and ice core samples.

Here’s what he said about it:

“We are working on a project to characterize the biology and chemistry of streams and lakes in the dry valleys. The idea is that these water bodies have biota and microbes, and the microbes both produce and use organic matter as food. I’m helping to study the organic matter.

One way we do that is we collect water samples and use reverse osmosis tech to remove the water from water samples, leaving just the organic matter. Then it makes it easier to study it with different techniques. We shine light on it and see how it reacts to the light, we put it through different analyzers, and we try and characterize its composition and behavior.”

Here’s the reverse osmosis machine he built, and an ice core sample:

Reverse Osmosis Machine

Reverse Osmosis Machine

Ice Core Sample

Ice Core Sample

This research is also important because about 25 percent of the Earth’s surface is frozen. Kilduff said the scientific community is still unsure how dissolved organic matter and carbon locked in glacial ice will respond to climate change. The research group said that if this ice melts, additional carbon could potentially be released into the atmosphere.

Kilduff hopes to return to Antarctica later this year. Though the sleepy seals and tuxedoed penguins were fun to meet, he said the glaciers that left the biggest impression:

“They’re beautiful, there’s a ton of them, you can see them from your bedroom window.Iit’s pretty exciting. I’ve seen glaciers before in the mountain of Switzerland, in Glacier National Park in the U.S. They’re both very nice, but the glaciers here are older, and you can really visualize the glacier as a river of ice. From the airplane, you can look down and see it, looking across McMurdo Sound – and it’s just beautiful.”

The project home page has more info on the Antarctic expedition, and also has a wondeful blog. Be sure to watch a video of Kilduff in Antactrica, answering questions from inquisitive letters from middle schoolers.

Below are some additional photos taken by Kilduff and the research team:

McMurdo Sound

McMurdo Sound

Camping Out

Camping Out

Canada Glacier Terminus at Lake Fryxell

Canada Glacier Terminus at Lake Fryxell

Nice Tuxedo

Nice Tuxedo

Sleepy Seal

“If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it.” – Andrew Denton