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CLAS researchers unravel South Pole's mysteries at science talk
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Posted: January 30, 2018

Mention Antarctica, and most people picture a seemingly endless white landscape. But Portland State University researchers who go there every year have seen another side beyond the ice and snow.

It’s in places like the western peninsula — where more areas are becoming greener as glaciers retreat — and the McMurdo Dry Valleys — a sandy, rocky polar desert — that PSU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) professors and students have been studying the extreme environment to answer questions about Earth’s past, present and future.

"It's a fun place to be a scientist because it's really a playground for scientists," said Todd Rosenstiel, an associate professor of biology and associate CLAS dean for research and graduate programs.

Rosenstiel and CLAS geology professor Andrew Fountain spoke to a sold-out crowd Jan. 29, talking about their work to unlock biological and geological clues on the frozen continent.

The special Science on Tap program — titled "Antarctica: Life and Science on a Changing Continent" — was a collaboration with the Artists Repertory Theatre's production of Magellanica, a play about scientists and engineers converging at the South Pole Research Station in 1986 to figure out if there really is a hole in the sky.

Rosenstiel and Sarah Eppley, a biology professor, study the 100-plus species of mosses and lichens along the warmer coastal fringes of Antarctica to get a better understanding of how the plants came to be and what their presence might mean for the future.

"We want to understand how as more ice-free areas become available … which plants are moving into those new barren soils and how does that affect and change the future trajectory of Antarctica?” Rosenstiel said.

For one, more green could mean more rain — a rarity now.
 
Working with the Chilean Antarctic Institute, they set up 60 open-topped chambers that operate like mini greenhouses over mossy areas. The chambers raise the temperature 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), providing scientists a glimpse of how future warming might impact the ecosystem. Among their findings: Some species thrive, while others have struggled, and the mosses have reproduced in large numbers.

Fountain, meanwhile, has taken almost-annual trips to the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the continent’s largest ice-free region, since 1993. More recently, his work has focused on "paleolakes" (ancient lakes) and cryoconite holes — water-filled holes that form inside glaciers and provide a habitat or microorganisms. He said the holes serve as a test case for scientists trying to understand what role each species plays and how important each one is to the overall health of the ecosystem.

Fountain's recent study on the lakes that formed up to 20,000 years ago will provide insight to the climate changes in a region where little such data exists.  Fountain said the research being done in the valleys could hold clues about things like the possibility of life on another planet or global sea-level rise.

"It's a canary in a coal mine," he said. "If things start changing here, you bet they're probably changing elsewhere in Antarctica."

Rosenstiel said a lifetime of discoveries await scientists on the continent.

"I think it's going to become more and more important that every citizen understands the role that Antarctica plays and has played in climate stability of the Earth," he said.

Photo Caption: CLAS geology professor Andrew Fountain pictured during one of his trips to the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica.