StFX master’s earth sciences student Chris MacIntyre of Antigonish, NS is in Antarctica as part of a team investigating soil biological activity in the extremes of the earth. The expedition is led by the International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research in New Zealand, and is aimed at developing additional depth in its biological survey activities. The trip is an extension of a project started three years ago between Mr. MacIntyre's supervisor, StFX earth sciences professor Dr. Dave Risk, and the Centre for Antarctic Research. Here’s the latest update the StFX student conducting research in Antarctica.
January 23, 2014
StFX earth sciences professor Dr. Dave Risk reports another call from Chris MacIntyre today. Life is good in Antarctica. It only dropped below freezing for one day out of the past seven. Comfortable conditions for working! Chris communicated excitement on early experimental results. His automated equipment is "working better than expected." “I thought we had pretty high expectations in the first place, so that's great news,” Dr. Risk says. The equipment has been continuously recording minute fluctuations in gas concentrations within the soils, sniffing for biological metabolism. What Chris has seen, however, is altogether different. Each night he and Fiona, the project’s main collaborator, a PhD student at Lincoln University in New Zealand sit down and add the new data to that which they've already collected. They are seeing fluctuations but the rapid observations make it clear that the fluctuations are entirely of a geochemical origin, and probably related to interactions between carbon dioxide and soil water. And, there is a deeper source that is also present, which is a bit mysterious to the researchers. Dr. Risk says they have seen it in the past three years, but they still don't know where it comes from. Chris was prepared for this, and took sample canisters of soil air that they'll use for radiocarbon analysis of the gases, to see if they are really old, and could have originated from tectonic activity deep in the crust. So far, the gases don't indicate much biological activity, which is to be expected at this late point in the Antarctic summer. “Chris's equipment might catch a pulse early next summer, and we will be able to retrieve that data a year from now.” One particularly exciting aspect of this work is how other research teams have taken an interest in the project. Some have contributed infrastructure that they have finished using for the season, or which they have placed there until next January. This includes an "eddy covariance" tower, a $60,000 aboveground gas and water vapour measurement tool providing complementary data, with Chris seeing inside the soil to some depth, and the eddy covariance seeing the resultant surface emissions. That equipment will be there for another week or so. Staying longer will be the now several long term webcams in the area, three weather stations at sub-sites, and the whole variety of other sensors. One trip leader jokingly said it is now the best monitored hill in all of Antarctica! “Our good results, plus this complementary data, will give Chris, Fiona, and I a lot to work with,” Dr. Risk says. Dr. Risk says Chris “our intrepid explorer” has another week or so in Antarctica.