Soil Ecology in Antarctic Dry Valleys

What Are They Doing?

Dry soils of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, AntarcticaDry soils of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica It's hard to imagine that anything could live in the cold, dry soils of Antarctica. Early investigations of the soil bacterial communities of the McMurdo Dry Valley found only a handful of bacteria, leading to the conclusion that these soils were essentially sterile. The idea that microorganisms can grow at all in the very dry soils of the McMurdo Dry Valleys seems astounding but the recent use of advanced molecular biology techniques to investigate soil biodiversity, has revealed a surprising bacterial richness in the area.

The goal of this project was to identify active members of the McMurdo Dry Valley soil microbial community and determine their ecological role. Little is known about bacterial populations in the Dry Valley soils, but until it is understood which populations are active and what they do, it is impossible to understand the ecological role that bacteria play in ecosystem function.

Where Are They?

McMurdo Dry Valleys, AntarcticaMcMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica The team worked in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica and used helicopters to access their field sites. The McMurdo Dry Valleys are located on the western coast of McMurdo Sound and form the largest relatively ice-free area on the Antarctic 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.


Hello again to anyone who has taken the time to read my journal posts and checked out photos. If you are counting, it takes three solid days of flying to get to and from Antarctica from Arizona. Getting back was a bit of a hurried mess after the flight from Sydney to LA was delayed by about two hours. Of course this meant that connecting flights were missed and one of my bags took an extended vacation and arrived three days after I got home. As this is titled as my final post, I would like to share why I think this type of experience is important and what I learned. One important part of...
For anyone who might still be checking I am back at home and readjusting to life in Flagstaff,AZ. I am in the process of composing a reflection piece that I intend to post as soon as it is finished. Thanks for your patience. Justin Kendhammer
In the lab
In the lab I am a soil microbiologist. A microbiologist studies very small (micro) organisms. Soil is full of them; there could be more than a billion microorganisms in a thimble full of soil but they are so small you can’t see them with your eyes. What has surprised us is how many different types of microorganisms there are in soil. Most of them remain unknown to us and the only reason we know they exist is because we have detected their DNA. DNA is a large biomolecule that contains the information on how to put an organism together. Because a human is put together differently from a...
Lake Hoare
Check out the photos from the last couple of days.
Clear skies
Today was another really nice day in this part of Antarctica. We had good visibility and almost no wind, great for flying. Clear skies Our pilot was very gracious and showed us around to a couple of the sites. We went a little bit out of our way to go and see the edge of the sea ice. This is the part of the ice that is breaking into water and floating away, this is also the place to be if you want to see wildlife. At certain points in the season there can be more orcas than you can count, the same for penguins, and seals. This time around we only saw penguins but one out of three is not...

Expedition Resources

Project Information

6 November 2013 to 11 December 2013
Location: Wright and Taylor Valleys in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica
Project Funded Title: An Integrated Ecological Investigation of McMurdo Dry Valley's Active Soil Microbial Communities

Meet the Team

Justin Kendhammer's picture
Alpine Leadership Academy
Flagstaff, AZ
United States

Justin Kendhammer is a native of Wisconsin and a longtime resident of Arizona. He received a BSc in psychology from Northern Arizona University, and has been teaching in Flagstaff since 2005. Justin is co-founder of a place-based school, Alpine Leadership Academy, which focuses on the Colorado Plateau. Justin is currently teaching at Summit Middle and High School. Outside of school, Justin enjoys mountain biking, snowboarding, hiking, and going on adventures with his wife and two dogs.

Egbert Schwartz's picture
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, AZ
United States

Egbert Schwartz is a soil microbiologist. He received his undergraduate degree in botany at Michigan State University, went on to complete a master's degree in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Michigan and a PhD in soil ecology at the University of California Davis. He specializes in using molecular biological techniques to characterize microorganisms in soil. Specifically, he investigates which microbial populations are growing and which microbial populations are dormant.

Dr. Schwartz has been active in science outreach to the local schools for about 10 years. He has done laboratory experiments with elementary school students in Flagstaff and in the Hopi nation, given presentations in high school classes and has trained both middle school and high school teachers by involving them in his laboratory research.

Subscribe To Journals!