Microorganisms in Antarctic Glacier Ice

What Are They Doing?

Are microorganisms metabolically active in glacier ice? To address this exciting question, the research team traveled to the McMurdo Dry Valleys – one of the harshest environments on Earth – to study the biology, geology, and chemistry of basal ice – the dynamic layer of ice closest to the bedrock at the base of a glacier. The team used a tunnel cut into the side of Taylor Glacier to reach the basal ice layer. Data collected from field measurements and laboratory experiments helped researchers understand the connections between available nutrients, geochemical properties, and gas composition. This information helped determine if evidence for metabolism of microorganisms living in the ice could be found, and to link this to the types of cells present.

In addition, the research team investigated the similarities and differences among microorganisms in different types of ice within the basal ice zone. Some layers in the basal ice zone are clear and have little sediment. Other layers have high concentrations of debris. The basal ice zones of polar glaciers show similarities with the layered deposits evident in images of the northern ice cap on Mars. The findings from this project may be of interest to scientists studying potential habitats for microbial life on Mars and on the survival in of microorganisms in ice because the frozen environments in Antarctica and Mars may have many similarities.

Where Are They?

The team camped on the shore of Lake Bonney, a permanently frozen saline lake 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 (approximately 4,800 square kilometers) on the continent. The perennially ice-covered lakes, frozen alpine glaciers, and extensive areas of exposed soil and permafrost within the McMurdo Dry Valleys are subject to low temperatures, limited snowfall, and salt accumulation. Lake Bonney is also the terminus of Taylor Glacier, where the team conducted fieldwork in an ice tunnel they carved using chainsaws.

Expedition Map


So you might have thought that I disappeared, but I didn't. I have just been enjoying beautiful New Zealand. I spent a couple of days with Amanda and Shawn in Christchurch and then we went off in different directions. Amanda and Shawn went North towards the Kaikoura Peninsula and Matt and I went West towards Arthur's Pass. Check out our pictures and read about our adventures below. The red line is the route that we took on our adventure around the south island of New Zealand. **Day 1: **Collect our camper van (a van with a bed and kitchen in it ---so cool) in Christchurch and head across...
For the last couple of days I have been preparing to leave for Christchurch and then enjoying civilization once I got here. My journey home started with bag drag. Bag drag is when you drag all of your stuff up to Building 140 to be weighed and palleted for the plane the next day. I even had to get weighed in. I had to put on all my ECW (extreme cold weather) gear and hop up on the scale to be weighed with my carry-on. With all my gear and my carry-on I weighed 185 lbs. I am hoping that all that weight is from my gear and carry-on. If not, I must have gained a lot of weight here (it's all...
One of the cool things that you can do while in McMurdo is that you can sign-up for Delta trips. Deltas are big wheeled buses that are used to transport people across the ice. I took one to happy camper school and they are fun because the wheels are huge and you are so far off the ground. They are really, really slow, however, and it takes a long time to get anywhere in one. The trip that I planned to go on was to a place called Cape Evans and it would take us 6 hours to get there and back. The delta was our transportation to Cape Evans. Even with its big tires, it still got stuck in the...
For the past two weeks Amanda and Shawn have been busy in the lab prepping and conducting their experiments and today they would find out if they were successful. They left the field a couple of days ahead of us so that they could get a head start on cleaning, melting, and filtering almost 300lbs of the ice that we collected. It was all in an effort to extract the microorganisms out of the ice so that they could isolate the ATP, DNA, and RNA in their cells. Today Amanda would find out if she isolated the RNA and Shawn would find out if he had ATP. All of our lab benches were covered in...
It might look cold, but how cold is it??? After living in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica for more than three weeks I will admit that they are cold, but how cold are they? We set up a data logger on our front porch to take temperature, relative humidity, and dew point readings every 6 hours to see how cold it was outside. In the following activity students can use our actual data to graph the temperature readings for our first week and our last week to see how the temperatures changed by hour and by day. The data logger that I used for this experiment collected temperature, relative...

Expedition Resources

Project Information

5 October 2009 to 3 December 2009
Location: McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica
Project Funded Title: Biogeochemistry and Geomicrobiology of Taylor Glacier Basal Ice

Meet the Team

Lindsay Knippenberg's picture
South Lake High School
St. Clair Shores, MI
United States

Lindsay Knippenberg is a science teacher at South Lake High School north of Detroit, Michigan where one of her primary goals is to get her students involved in the community. She has bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Michigan State University, and a master’s degree in environmental science from University of Michigan-Dearborn. As an undergraduate student Ms. Knippenberg participated in a research experience for undergraduates (REU) studying harbor seals in Glacier Bay, Alaska. Since that experience, glaciers and the organisms that live in cold climates have fascinated her.
Even though Ms. Knippenberg lives in the city, she loves to get away and reconnect with nature by hiking, camping, snowshoeing, and kayaking. She also enjoys photography, attending Detroit Tigers games, traveling with her husband, and taking her dog Yoda for walks. She hopes that through her experiences with PolarTREC, she will inspire her students to pursue careers within the field of science and also inspire them to step outside of their comfort zones and not be afraid to take risks and have new experiences.

Mark Skidmore's picture
Montana State University
Bozeman, MT
United States

Mark Skidmore is an assistant professor of geology at Montana State University. Dr. Skidmore’s field research takes him to glaciers in Antarctica, the Swiss Alps, Alaska, the Yukon, Iceland, and Washington. He also conducts low temperature laboratory studies of microbial activity at near freezing temperatures. His current research focuses on the biogeochemical cycling and geomicrobiology of glacier systems and biogeochemical processes associated with geologic carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestration.