Studying soils in Antarctica: Ed Gregorich

Ed Gregorich has done a lot of field research in his career, and as a native of Wisconsin, USA, and a resident of Ottawa, Canada, he’s no stranger to frigid weather. Still, nothing quite prepared Gregorich, a soil scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, for working in Antarctica.

Soil scientist Ed Gregorich

Invited to join an international research team led by a pair of New Zealand scientists, Gregorich traveled to Antarctica in 2003, 2004, and 2005 to measure soil carbon pools, soil respiration, and other related factors. The team conducted its study along the shores of Lake Colleen in the Garwood Valley on the coast of Victoria Land, Antarctica, just south of Cape Chocolate. Garwood Valley is a largely ice-free “dry valley,” although looming at its head is the Garwood Glacier. Here’s what Gregorich told Soil Horizons about working in this far-flung and starkly beautiful place.

Soil Horizons: How did you get involved in this project?

Gregorich: I was invited by the New Zealand scientists. They were the lead on it, and they got the funding from Antarctic New Zealand, their local funding agency. They basically put together a team of people who had expertise in different disciplines and areas of research. They had somebody from Scotland, and Denmark, and me from Canada, [although] the team differed a little bit from year to year. My area is soil carbon cycling, and they had some experts in microbiology, geology, and geomorphology.

Soil Horizons: Had you done research in comparable environments to Antarctica before?

Gregorich: Well, I do a lot of field work, but I had never before worked in an extreme environment like that. The approach we used was similar to other studies—taking the soil samples and readings. Well, it was similar but also different because of the harshness of the environment and where we were located. It’s very remote. The whole project was through the Kiwis’ (New Zealanders) research station called Scott Base. We flew there, and then we were put out in the field and stayed out there for roughly two weeks. We were by ourselves about 100 kilometers (62 miles) by helicopter from Scott Base.

Soil Horizons: What’s it like to work in such an isolated spot?

Gregorich: The logistics are the big difference: getting organized not only for field work, but remote field work, and not being supplied on a daily basis. We weren’t supplied for up to 10 days. We had to maintain radio contact for safety reasons. But we took everything with us and then we had to carry everything out, too. It’s not like camping in the woods. You have to bring everything back, including all the toilet stuff (laughs). They have really strict requirements there. We had to have permits, and everything had to be documented about what we were doing in the soil. We got a special permit to put some minor organic compounds into the soil. And we had to document where they would be, how long they would be there, and when we would take them out.

Snowstorm in Antarctica

So the difference in this type of field work is logistical: the long-term planning, getting the permits, and getting everything approved.

Soil Horizons: What about the weather?

Gregorich: You have to take extra precautions there, also, because the weather can change very drastically. It’s quite dangerous, actually, if you don’t carry your warm weather gear. [The field season] is their austral summer (December, January, and February), so the daytime temperatures would be plus 5 to up to 10°C, but then it would get down below zero at night. So you could be lulled into thinking it was quite a nice, sunny day and take your jacket off, and you’d walk away a little bit. And then if the wind started, you could get cold very quickly. So the environment is very harsh. I guess if you’re in the deep, dark woods of northern Wisconsin, you have to take some precautions, as well. This is just another level of precautions and logistical things to think about.

Soil Horizons: Since you had to be so careful about not altering the environment, how did you locate your study sites again after an entire year? Did you mark them?

Gregorich: We had geo-referencing. But the sites were also clearly marked with stakes that we would pound in. We just had to make sure everything stayed in place because the wind can really blow. There are very strong winds in the dry valleys that come down off the ice, called katabatic winds. They come off the polar plateau, and then they scour through these valleys, and this really blows the snow around. But when we were there, we only had one major snowstorm, and the snow disappeared within a day or two. Generally it was clear, sunny conditions—often quite nice.

Soil Horizons: You were at the field site for two weeks at a time, you said?

Six researchers posed for a photo

Gregorich: Well, at the field site anywhere from 7 to 10 days. When you travel to Scott Base through the Antarctic New Zealand program, you have to take an emergency field training course. You take a daylong trip out, and then you spend a night outside. It’s to simulate a situation like an airplane crash. You learn all the survival techniques in the field, and you build a little snow hut and survive in it for a night. They also give you complete instructions on all sorts of things about helicopters. You get video training on where to switch things off on a helicopter if it goes down. You have to take that training before you go out in the field—it’s a two- or three-day course. So, that adds a little bit of time.

And then, weather is always a variable for traveling in and out. Sometimes, you’ll plan to go and the trip is called off. If the conditions aren’t just right at the runway they’ll cancel flights. So you always put on a buffer of two to three days at either end.

Soil Horizons: And how long did it take to get ready for the trip?

Gregorich: Oh, several weeks—just getting my supplies and double-checking all my gear. Antarctic New Zealand supplies a lot of the clothing; in fact, they require you to wear their clothing. All their gear was top quality, so it was probably better than I could buy anyway. But in terms of my experimental gear, I had to package up stuff here and ship it all the way down to New Zealand. And then it had to be shipped from there to Scott Base. So it took me a good couple of weeks just to make sure I had all my sampling gear.

Soil Horizons: Did anything go wrong? Did you miss anything once you got down there?

Three pairs of legs sticking out of a tent

Gregorich: Actually, there was one lucky thing. I had some fairly sophisticated equipment to measure soil respiration. It measures carbon dioxide as it comes out of the soil as a result of the microbial activity. But I realized that maybe I should have a backup plan and it was really fortunate I did. What happened, of course, is that it was very cold and the electronic gear malfunctioned. So we had to go back to the analog version and just collect gas samples by hand.

We had placed these simple, organic substrates in the field, and we would put a chamber, or collar, over the soil and let the CO2 build up from the microbial activity. Then we’d measure the CO2 with this instrument. Well, the instrument went down, so we kept the collars and were able to cap them—this was part of the planning beforehand. I thought I better have a backup: other equipment to enable me to block that collar. I also brought syringes and evacuated vials so I could take a sample out of the chamber and inject it into the vial. And that really worked quite well. We took the samples all the way back to Canada and analyzed them with a gas chromatograph.

Soil Horizons: Would you go to Antarctica again?

Gregorich: It was mentally and physically challenging to work in Antarctica—the most difficult field work I’ve ever done. Organizing and packing up a few thousand kilograms of gear, getting used to the eerie silence of the dry valley, doubling my usual caloric intake, so I could put in 10- to 12-hour workdays in the cold, and sleeping in a tent with temperatures as low as –10°C was extremely demanding. But it was a tremendous privilege to work with a great team of scientists, with whom I continue to collaborate on other work. We obtained some novel and significant findings, learning a lot about a unique, cold desert ecosystem and publishing 12 scientific articles.

So would I go to Antarctica again? Yes! At the drop of a hat!

This story first appreared in the March-April issue of Soil Horizons. All photos courtesy of Ed Gregorich.

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