2002-2003 Science Planning Summary

Biology & Medicine

Dr. Polly Penhale
Program Manager


NSF/OPP 99-09271
Station: McMurdo Station
RPSC POC: Steve Alexander
Research Site(s): Granite Harbor, Cape Royds, Cape Evans

Investigation on deterioration in the Historic Huts of the Ross Sea region of Antarctica
Dr. Robert A. Blanchette
University of Minnesota
Department of Plant Pathology

Deploying Team Members: Robert A Blanchette . Benjamin W Held
Research Objectives: During the first two decades of the 20th century -- Antarctica's "Heroic Era" -- Europeans mounted a handful of expeditions in hopes of reaching (and claiming) the geographical South Pole. Base camps established in the McMurdo Sound region by Scott at Cape Evans and by Shackleton at Cape Royds were abandoned once the expeditions were over, leaving behind thousands of artifacts, as well as the huts they built for shelter and storage. Over the intervening 90 years, the extremes of the polar environment have actually protected some of the artifacts from rapid decay, but conservators have recently become concerned about serious degradation of what is an important historical, archaeological site.

Some of the most exigent threats:

Wood in contact with the ground is being destroyed by a specific wood-destroying fungus. Various molds and cellulose-degrading fungi are attacking artifacts made of leather, textiles, and other organic materials.

Exterior wood is being degraded by non-biological deterioration processes as well, including salt, ultraviolet radiation, and wind erosion.

Chemical damage within the huts is apparent, and the soils on site are contaminated with aromatic hydrocarbons from petroleum products.

This is a collaborative project with the New Zealand Antarctic Program's K-021. The researchers plan to identify the biological and non-biological agents responsible for causing the deterioration, study the mechanisms and progressive sequence of events taking place during decay processes, test methods to be used to control future deterioration, determine the extent of environmental pollutants in soils at the historic sites, and evaluate chemical spills within the huts. The goal is to provide the scientific data required by conservators to help protect these important historic sites for future generations. But the project should also shed scientific light on these unique deterioration processes, as well as augment scientific understanding of the biology of antarctic microorganisms and the biodiversity of microbes present in this unusual environment.

Field Season Overview:
American and New Zealand team members from both projects will travel by helicopter to their field camp site near the historic huts at Cape Evans and Cape Royds where they will collect soil and wood samples. They will also make a helicopter day trip to the site of a 1960s-era hut in the Dry Valleys, where they will take similar samples. Team members will also travel by helicopter to Mount Fleming in the upper Wright Valley where they will collect soil samples.

The soil and wood samples will be returned to the U.S. and to New Zealand, where they will be tested for microbial diversity. Microbe populations from the Dry Valleys will be compared to those collected at the hut sites. The researchers will attempt to determine the extent of both non-biological and biologically mediated deterioration in the huts, and then evaluate methods to control this decay.