A team of Waikato University scientists and students has completed a successful research trip to Antarctica.
Led by Professor Craig Cary, a team of 16 spent several weeks collecting samples in the Dry Valleys as part of the New Zealand Terrestrial Antarctic Biocomplexity Survey.
The survey, in its third year of a four-year project is focused on examining the biocomplexity of terrestrial ecosystems of the Ross Dependency and building a model linking biodiversity, landscape and environmental factors. The model may help predict the effects of natural and man-made impacts on the ecosystem and assist to protect it.
Prof Cary said because the ecosystem in Antarctica was so simple, it enables scientists to look at the entire system and how aspects of it interact with and impact on each other. "A study like this has never been done on this scale before."
Sampling this year focused on about 1000 sq m. Earlier sampling trips enabled scientists to create a model that could be used to select sample sites in a large valley, such as the one tested this year.
It was previously thought the Dry Valleys was a desolate system.
"Over 10 years our understanding of what's in the valleys has totally changed. It was thought it was a low-diversity system but it's the absolute antithesis of that. It's extremely diverse. It has a rich biodiversity and several organisms have adapted to live there."
Prof Cary said on the surface, the environment looked like a desert. But on close examination there were tiny insects, fungi and lichen and soil-dwelling organisms.
The Antarctic environment is delicate but Professor Cary says it has largely been immune to global climate change.
"Apart from the Western Peninsula, the continent is largely untouched." He said there was an urgent need to understand how the continent will respond to climate change and to project what may happen.
He said the ozone hole had seen much of Antarctica become cooler because the hole allowed warm air to escape.
With the ozone hole predicted to close in about 50 years, scientists would be watching closely to see what effect that would have on the continent.
Prof Cary said the study fed into a bigger political picture. "This isn't just about climate change. Change is coming from other areas. There is continuous and relentless pressure from the tourism sector to gain access to places in Antarctica."
He said it was imperative delegates of the Antarctic Treaty had access to "good science" and were fully informed as to the importance of protecting the region's biodiversity, not just from climate change but from the threat posed by tourism.
"It was an exceptionally successful trip. We got everything we went to get, with no injuries." Prof Cary said Prime Minister John Key's visit to the Dry Valleys was a "great opportunity" to explain what the team was doing.
Waikato University has teamed with the International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research to develop an Antarctic Genetic Archive.
As climate change happens it will enable scientists to harness and sample biodiversity as change happens. The repository will have the capability to store up to a million samples of DNA as an archive of the biodiversity of the Antarctic eco system.
The archive is a tool to link all biodiversity research conducted in Antarctica by housing DNA. Once collected, it will enable researchers from throughout the world gain access to valuable samples without having to visit the remote location.
The archive is considered the first of its kind in the world.