Dissolved Organic Matter in Antarctica

What Are They Doing?

An interdisciplinary research team collected water and ice cores to study the microbial communities found in the Transantarctic Mountains and the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica. Once believed to be devoid of life, closer observations of glacial ice have revealed microhabitats teeming with life. 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.

The research team compared the microbes and DOM in two different types of Antarctic streams: normal streams that flow out of a lake and a supraglacial stream that forms on top of a glacier each summer. Because the supraglacial stream forms each year from a relatively clean surface, the investigators had a unique chance to study how the microbial community and DOM start from scratch and develop over time. By isolating the DOM and studying its chemical and structural composition, the team learned more about how the contributions and interactions between microbes and the DOM pool are different in the two different types of streams.

In addition, it is not well known how DOM and carbon locked in glacial ice will respond to climate change. The connection between ice-bound DOM and climate change is important because frozen environments comprise 25% of the Earth's surface, potentially releasing additional carbon into the atmosphere as global temperatures warm.

Where Are They?

The team had a lab in McMurdo Station, but spent most of their time working at a base camp at Lake Fryxell in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. The McMurdo Dry Valleys are located on the western coast of McMurdo Sound (77°00' S, 162° 52' E) and form the largest relatively ice-free area on the Antarctic continent. The team studied the streams in the Fryxell basin in order to compare these to the supraglacial stream on the Cotton Glacier.

The Cotton Glacier lies in the Transantarctic Mountains north of Cape Roberts (77° 07' S, 161° 40' E) in Antarctica. The unique fluvial system that forms on the Cotton Glacier results from the prevailing winds which deposit debris on the surface of the glacier. Heating of the dark debris warms the surface, melting the ice, and generating large quantities of meltwater which were essential for the project's data collection.

The Lake Fryxell basin is up valley from Lake Bonney, which is the location of the Microorganisms in Antarctic Glacier Ice PolarTREC project.

Expedition Map


The last couple days flew by in a whirlwind of packing, cleaning the lab, hosting my 2nd PolarTREC webinar and participating in Gary Wesche's second one, as well as saying "see you later" to all the wonderful friends I met in McMurdo and dreaming up plans for my first couple weeks back in the "real world." Yesterday afternoon, I left McMurdo on a C-130 military cargo plane along with 87 other people who are either finished with their time on the Ice for the season, or are taking a short vacation in New Zealand before heading back to Antarctica to spend the winter...
I introduced you to one of the buildings in McMurdo Station a couple days ago, Building #1, the Crary Lab. While there are absolutely important and vital events occurring at Crary every single day, there is one building I give higher importance to in this town, Building 155. Building 155 is the hub of this community- there are living quarters, finance, housing, and recreation offices, a computer room with internet access, a craft room, the store, and most importantly, the galley. The amazing chefs, bakers, prep cooks, dining assistants, and supervisors that keep the people of McMurdo happy by...
This is the shortest journal I plan to write, aside from the few days when I did not write at all! I am nearing the end of this trip to Antarctica, and I am pretty busy with all the last minute items on my ever-growing "To Do" list. The DOM team arrived at Crary Lab to a completely empty lab space and somehow or other filled up shelves, drawers, counters, fridges, and freezers with countless science tools and pieces of equipment. By the time we leave, the lab must look as it did on our first day here- with no sign of the DOM team, except the project number on the door. There are...
The DOM team is beginning to close up our Antarctic science lab for winter, as we get ready to depart this beautiful continent in just four days. Heidi and I compiled lists of all the Cotton Glacier and Canada Glacier water samples. Heidi, Mike, and Collin are carefully packaging up samples for shipment back to Montana State and Ohio State Universities for further testing. I am making sure all borrowed equipment returns to the correct department around McMurdo- science stuff to the Crary Supply Center and camping and field gear to the Berg Field Center. It is a bit of a bittersweet time- I...
The stage is built, the instruments in tune, the speakers wired, and the McMurdo crowd is ready to rock Ice Stock! The mainstage. This is the tenth year of the Ice Stock Music Festival at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Groups of talented amateur musicians all around the station form bands or practice on their own in preparation for this one-day celebration. There are ladies playing ukuleles (they call themselves the "Ukaladies"), folk singers, reggae-ska groups, an awesome 70's disco cover band, classical musicians, jazz trios, and a little bit of everything in between. In true...

Expedition Resources

Project Information

17 November 2009 to 13 January 2010
Location: Cotton Glacier, Antarctica
Project Funded Title: The Biogeochemical Evolution of Dissolved Organic Matter in a Fluvial System on the Cotton Glacier, Antarctica

Meet the Team

Sarah Diers's picture
Langley, WA
United States

Sarah Diers has worn many professional hats in her life…commercial crab and salmon fisher in Alaska, fisheries biologist, coffee barista, whale watching naturalist, caterer and most recently, middle school science teacher. She is very excited to add the “hat” of PolarTREC participant to her collection. Sarah has dreamt of visiting our Earth’s great Southern continent since she was a child. She cannot wait to share her expedition with Polar students of all ages. Sarah invites you to become an active participant in the Dissolved Organic Matter expedition- ask her team questions, join the webinars, read the journals, wonder and explore Antarctica with her.

Yu-Ping Chin's picture
Ohio State University
Columbus, OH
United States

Dr. Yu-Ping (Yo) Chin, is a Professor of Geology at Ohio State University. Dr. Chin is an aquatic geochemist and hydrogeologist whose research interests range from photolytic degradation of environmental contaminants and contaminant reduction to the role of natural organic matter in environmental oxidation/reduction processes.

Christine Foreman's picture
Montana State University
Bozeman, MT
United States

Dr. Christine Foreman is an Associate Research Professor at Montana State University at the Center for Biofilm Engineering and the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences. Dr. Foreman has spent seven seasons in Antarctica studying life in extreme conditions, connecting the very smallest organisms to the workings of the entire planet. Her research revolves around the organization of microbial communities in relation to their physical environment, and the processing of nutrients and dissolved organic matter (DOM). In her spare time, Dr. Foreman enjoys being outdoors, hiking, and fly-fishing with her friends, husband, Toby, two sons, Alex and Matthew, and two dogs, Táo and Tye. Dr. Diane McKnight is a Professor at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Dr. McKnight is a Principal Investigator with the McMurdo Dry Valleys and Niwot Ridge Long Term Ecological Research Groups. Her research focuses on interactions between hydrologic, chemical and biological processes in controlling the dynamics in aquatic ecosystems. This research is carried out through field-scale experiments, modeling, and laboratory characterization of natural substrates.

Diane McKnight's picture
Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research