In Greenland, Dartmouth faculty and students conduct research and lead educational programs to better understand a warming planet.
Just back from his final trip to Antarctica as an investigator for the Long Term Ecological Research Program, Professor Ross Virginia breaks off a conversation and strides across his office to pull out a hundred-year-old volume of Robert Falcon Scott’s The Voyage of the Discovery.
“This is his first expedition. It’s just a treasure,” says Virginia, the Myers Family Professor of Environmental Science.
“I’m just amazed and fascinated by all of this,” he says as he thumbs through the collected journals of the British explorer who, in 1912, was the second man to reach the South Pole (achieving the feat just 34 days behind Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen).
“If you look at my bookshelf you know that I’m really deep into the history of exploration. I have been ever since I was a kind of nerdy junior high kid,” he says. “At that age I was reading all the books about Shackleton, Scott, and the explorers, and just imagining these distant, faraway places. That’s always grabbed a part of my mind.”
This fascination with polar exploration helped get him to Antarctica, Virginia says, but it was the incredible potential for scientific discovery in the coldest, driest place on Earth that hooked him. He just completed his 27th year of research on Antarctica that included 21 trips to the frozen continent.
“What kept me going back and forth to Antarctica for all these years is that the sense of discovery in your science is very high there. There are very few scientists who have been there before, so it’s a wide open environment scientifically,” he says.
Since the early 1980s, Virginia and longtime colleague Diana Wall, the Colorado State University Distinguished Professor of Biology, had been studying the conditions that support life in soils. They were trying to determine the outer limits to survival. That’s when a colleague sent them a soil sample from McMurdo Station, the U.S. Antarctic research center established in 1958. All traffic in or out of Antarctica still goes through McMurdo.
“There’d been reports, even going back to Scott, that there was some life in the soils, but they also called them ‘the valleys of the dead.’ They saw no living thing,” Virginia says. “So we had this little pile of soil. Diana did her magic and did the extraction, the process that shows us if there are animals in the soil, and there they were. We found microscopic worms called nematodes.”
In the intervening years, the National Science Foundation has funded four rounds of six-year grants supporting the Antarctic Long Term Ecological Research Project, which has brought hundreds of scientists and students, many from Dartmouth, to the Arctic dry valleys, and has produced a significant body of research on the ecology of the continent.
“Our work has gone from ‘is life there?’ to ‘where might it be?’ to “what controls the diversity of life?’ ” Virginia says. “Now we’re looking at how this connects to the carbon cycle and greenhouse gas emissions—all the things we do in other ecosystems. So our work is not restricted to understanding Antarctica, it’s connected to these larger questions.”
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