Sep 272011
Authors: Jason Pohl

While many shiver at the mere mention of another Colorado winter, a group of CSU scientists will be thriving in the bone-chilling conditions of Antarctica as part of a scientific study of the most extreme sorts.

Led by renowned CSU biology professor Diana Wall, the team will travel to the icy south this December to continue research on soil biodiversity and the implications of a warming planet.
Wall and members of her team say that the conditions on the driest continent on Earth present a phenomenal site for scientific experiments –– and the scenery isn’t too bad either.

“The first impression when the helicopters go away is there are no bugs, no plants no sound,” she said. “There’s nothing there. Everything that is there is what we study.”

Wall and members of her group specialize in a unique form of soil and microscopic organism study –– something she originally grew interested in stateside. After studying microorganisms and nematodes in the deserts of the U.S., she realized there were just too many specimens to study.

So she went to the frozen expanse of Antarctica, where temperatures are often below zero. The benefit of being in the driest desert on the planet is fewer organisms, making for a more exceptional laboratory, he said.

“It’s just one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been,” Wall said.

The research stations in Antarctica provide just two of the 26 long-term ecological research (LTER) sites situated around the world. These stations are part of a collaboration of more than 1,000 scientists who monitor global ecosystem differences.

For the Antarctic adventure, the team is usually based at McMurdo Station, one of the permanent research facilities located on the continent-widev laboratory. Researchers then travel by helicopter to field locations to conduct their experiments and collect samples.

Wall explained that one of the best parts about these trips is watching scientists from all disciplines around the world come together.

Taking additional CSU staff is nice too, Wall said.

Zachary Sylvain, a CSU ecology graduate student, is taking his third trip to Antarctica this December –– the continent’s peak summer. Sylvain monitors several LTER sites and is studying how soil organisms respond to changing amounts of water within the soil.

“There’s just something humbling about being in the middle of such an open, relatively pristine place,” he said.

The importance of his work, he says, is to explain how changing amounts of moisture in the soils will ultimately impact more advanced life – a key element as global climate conditions slowly change. He says the preparation for the trip itself is relatively easy, and the toughest part is getting all the documentation and medical exams.

But, he says, extremely long days in the field can wear anyone down over the course of a six-week study.

“It’s not uncommon to be working away and only realize it’s 11 at night because you happen to glance at the clock on your computer,” he said.

Martijn Vandegehuchte, a postdoctoral fellow at CSU, will be taking his first Antarctic adventure also this December. As part of the soil ecology group, he examines what drives soil diversity in such a simplified ecosystem and how the future of climate change may impact it.

“I’m looking forward most to the fieldwork,” Vandgehuchte said. “It’s interesting science in an amazing location. To me, that seems like the perfect combination.”

Vandgehuchte said he feels confident about getting all the preparation completed, and the biggest concern will likely be the weather.

“The Wall lab has a long record of Antarctic field seasons, so they know the ropes pretty well,” he added.

Wall is one of 12 CSU Distinguished Professors and served on a National Research Council committee that uncovered more about the future of science in the region. Her work has been internationally recognized as critical for an understanding of the resilient life of organisms in extreme conditions.

“CSU actually has a lot of expertise in the Antarctic sciences,” Wall said while stressing the interconnectedness of science and the world in general. From the weather patterns that originate in the south to the ocean currents that flow around the world, Wall said that too often, people forget how dependent we are on what originates and the base of the earth.

“Everything we do is global,” she said. “And you certainly learn that from Antarctica.”

Senior Reporter Jason Pohl can be reached at


  • About 1.5 times the size of the US
  • About 98 percent ice sheets
  • About 2 percent barren rock
  • A continent devoted to science
  • “The coldest, windiest, highest (on average) and driest continent”
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