Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Smart science: Chilly landscape harbours a million clues to our destiny

This week, science reporter Jamie Morton explores a range of homegrown research projects. Today's feature looks at important clues for our planet's future uncovered from Antarctica's Dry Valleys.

Professor Craig Cary (left) with the Antarctic Genetic Archive cabinet at the University of Waikato. Photo / Christine Cornege
Professor Craig Cary (left) with the Antarctic Genetic Archive cabinet at the University of Waikato. Photo / Christine Cornege

Swept by winds reaching up to 320km/h, Antarctica's Dry Valleys rank among the most extreme and uninhabitable deserts on Earth.

Until recently, scientists thought these ice-free bedrock landscapes were too harsh to accommodate any diversity of life, yet a series of discoveries over the past few years has now led them to believe the complete opposite.

More importantly, the biodiversity that exists within this bleak environment in one of the remote corners of our planet is thought to hold vital clues on how the continent will respond to climate change.

Waikato University biologist Professor Craig Cary, director of the International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research (ICTAR), and his colleagues have been at the forefront of ground-breaking research that has combined taxonomy and advanced DNA technology to lift the lid on Antarctica's little-understood biological diversity.

"Historically, the Dry Valleys were thought to be a low-diversity system, mainly as on the surface it looks like a barren desert.

"However, it's actually the absolute antithesis of that," Professor Cary said.

Among its evidently rich diversity were tiny insects, fungi, lichen and extremely diverse soil-dwelling micro-organisms.

Last season, a team led by Professor Cary and supported by Antarctica New Zealand spent several weeks collecting samples in the valleys as part of a four-year survey.

The project, exploring the complexity of terrestrial ecosystems within the Ross Dependency, will ultimately form a detailed picture of how life forms interact with the landscape and environmental factors.

By tracking how the ecosystems there respond to a changing climate, scientists also hope the project will shed more light on impacts further afield.

"New Zealand is very close, geographically, to the Antarctic Continent," he said.

"So we, in New Zealand, will be among the first in the world to feel the effects of any changes in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean."

A talk by Antarctic research scientist Dr John Turner had left Professor Cary alarmed at the rapid change expected to take place on the continent over the next 50 years.

Yet the speed at which that change would occur was not well understood, he said.

As part of the survey, his team moved a mummified seal from a spot where it had lain for 250 years to a more pristine area.

They then analysed the effects on microbial communities living beneath it.

"In the order of two years, the composition of the microbial community completely changed - and not only had it changed, but the diversity had significantly dropped," he said.

"So that set off an alarm of what could happen in a very short period of time - we could see a massive shift in biodiversity, and a significant loss of the diversity that is there today."

With this change, he saw the crucial need to begin storing samples, not only to help scientists better understand the changes occurring in Antarctica today, but to provide a time-stamp for researchers in the future.

"This publicly accessible repository will also greatly reduce the need for scientists to travel to many remote locations in Antarctica, lessening the impact on its pristine environment."

ICTAR's Waikato-based Antarctic Genetic Archive (AGAr), developed with support from Antarctica New Zealand, is the first of its kind in the world and is capable of storing up to a million samples of Antarctic ecosystem DNA.

The first samples for the repository were collected by Prime Minister John Key when he visited the Dry Valleys this year.

He plans to showcase the research and the repository at several international conferences this year.

NZ interlinked with Antarctic climate

What is it?

Through ground-breaking research over the past decade, scientists have discovered that biodiversity in Antarctica's Dry Valleys is much more diverse than they previously believed.

Separately, a special repository, launched by the International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research at the University of Waikato and capable of storing up to a million DNA samples from the Antarctic ecosystem, will provide scientists with a time-stamp of biodiversity on the continent as the effects of climate change alter its environment.

What does it mean for me?

The changes that take place on Antarctica can be seen as indicators to what will eventually happen in New Zealand.

Our close proximity to the continent and the Southern Ocean means our fates will be interlinked, and research there will ultimately help us better predict, prepare and cope with climate change effects here.


The series:

Monday: The flu and us: The Shivers Project
Yesterday: What lies beneath: Mapping our underground
Today: Secrets of the ice part one - life in Antarctica
Tomorrow: Secrets of the ice part two: unlocking Antarctica's past
Friday: Our drone future: Miniature air vehicles.

- NZ Herald

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