Studying climate change from the bottom of the world

Dr. Rachael Morgan-Kiss regularly joins members of her lab on a research expedition to Antarctica. - submitted
Dr. Rachael Morgan-Kiss regularly joins members of her lab on a research expedition to Antarctica.
— image credit: submitted

There is a connection between an infinitesimal organism living beneath the frozen surface of lakes in Antarctica and extreme weather events impacting the planet.

It may not be top-of-mind for most people following climate change in the news.

But it could be one day, thanks to ongoing research in the extreme cold of Antarctica.

A project led by Rachael Morgan-Kiss and students in her lab at Ohio’s Miami University is examining the possible connection between microalgae in the world’s coldest desert and increasingly extreme global weather patterns.

Morgan-Kiss is a Duncan native and Vancouver Island University alumna whose PhD research led her the frozen landscape of Antarctica. She has taken students on research expeditions to its McMurdo Dry Valleys since 2007.

“Antarctic-funded research has to have a climate change component,” Morgan- Kiss said. “One of our objectives is to predict how climate change is going to affect the organisms we’re studying.”

The photosynthetic organisms, or microalgae, Morgan-Kiss studies live in isolated Antarctic lakes. Her group is working to expand knowledge of them, as well as single-celled, amoeba-like organisms known as “eukaryotes.”

In the McMurdo Dry Valleys — the largest ice-free region in the Antarctic — the activity of eukaryotes amidst subtle weather changes has Morgan-Kiss and her team interested in learning more.

“These environments are extremely sensitive to climate change, so it’s important to understand them and try to predict how these cold communities of micro-organisms are going to change,” Morgan-Kiss said.

An increase in summer temperatures that send large pulses of glacier water into the McMurdo Dry Valley has the potential to impact these organisms. The team wants to understand what happens to them when material like Antarctic soil, microbes, and foreign nutrients make their way into the lake.

“These organisms are extremely sensitive because they’re adapted not only to extreme conditions, but to environments that have been virtually constant for thousands of years,” Morgan-Kiss said.

Even small changes in nutrient levels could dramatically alter the activity of the microorganisms and permanently change the food web dynamics of these isolated systems.

During her doctoral work at the University of Western Ontario she began studying cold-adapted microorganisms in Antarctica.

Morgan-Kiss grew to love it, and now passes her enthusiasm for them on to undergraduate and graduate students as well as high school girls working in her lab.

Those who accompany her on six- to eight-week trips to Antarctica are immersed not only in a rare type of field science, but also get the opportunity to travel to a landscape few get to visit.

“There’s the science side, and then there’s the survival side out in that extreme environment,” she said. “The logistics of going there and doing science are unbelievable. We spend 90 per cent of our time doing non-science things, like getting water, feeding ourselves, chasing our tent down the valley!”

A new Antarctic field season is planned for 2014. With funding for her lab’s Antarctic project ending in 2016, Morgan-Kiss is working on grants through NASA and the National Science Foundation.

“Even though it was a five-year project, it’s really just scratching the surface of these organisms, she said. “It was the first project focusing on the microbial eukaryotes there, and it generated a lot of questions. Now we want to ask more focused questions about these organisms.”

In a year when Morgan-Kiss spent the month of December in her university lab, rather than supervising experiments in freezing Antarctic weather, you might think she would be planning a holiday in the sun with her husband and 13-year-old son.

That’s not the case.

“I don’t actually like the heat very much. Summer is my least favourite season.”

This piece by Shari Bishop Bowes originally ran in the Vancouver Island Alumni magazine Journey.

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