Collaborative Research: Exploring the Functional Role of Antarctic Plants during Terrestrial Succession
Part I: Non-technical summary
The Antarctic Peninsula warmed very rapidly in the late part of the 20th century, much faster than the global average, and this warming is predicted to resume and continue over the rest of the 21st century. One consequence of this rapid warming is the melting and subsequent retreat of glaciers, leading to an increase in newly-exposed land on the Peninsula that was previously covered with ice. Once new terrain is exposed, the process of ecological succession begins, with the arrival of early-colonizing plants, such as moss and lichens, and soil organisms - a process commonly referred to as the “greening” of Antarctica. Early stages of succession will be an increasingly common feature on the Antarctic Peninsula, but the mechanisms by which they occur on the Antarctic continent is not well understood. Once the plants have established on the newly-exposed soil, they can change many important properties, such as water dynamics, nutrient recycling, soil development, and habitat for microscopic organisms, which will ultimately determine the structure and functioning of the future ecosystem as it develops. These relationships between vegetation, soil, and the associated microorganisms, referred to as “plant-soil” interactions, are something we know virtually nothing about. This project will be the first to make a comprehensive study of how the type of colonizing plant, and the expansion of those plants from climate change, will influence terrestrial ecosystems in Antarctica. Understanding these processes is critical to understanding how the greening Antarctica is occurring and how soil communities and processes are influenced by these expanding plant communities. Through this work the research team, will also be intensively training undergraduate and graduate students, including training of students from underrepresented groups and collaborative training of students from Chile and the US. Additionally, the research groups will continue their focus on scientific outreach with K-12 schools and the general public to expand awareness of the effects of climate change in Antarctica.
Part II: Technical summary
In this study, the researchers will use surveys across succession sites along the Antarctic Peninsula and Scotia Arc as well as a manipulative field experiment at glacier succession sites to test how species-specific plant functional traits impact soil properties and associated microbial and invertebrate communities in a greening Antarctica. In doing so, they will pursue three integrated aims to understand how Antarctic plant functional traits alter their soil environment and soil communities during succession after glacial retreat. AIM 1) Characterize six fundamental plant functional traits (thermal conductivity, water holding capacity, albedo, decomposability, tissue nutrient content, and secondary chemistry) among diverse Antarctica flora; AIM 2) Measure the relative effects of fundamental plant functional traits on soil physical properties and soil biogeochemistry across glacial succession gradients in Antarctica; and AIM 3) Measure the relative effects of fundamental plant functional traits on soil microbial and invertebrate communities across glacial succession gradients in Antarctica. They will explore how early-colonizing plants, especially mosses and lichens, alter soil physical, biogeochemical, and biological components, potentially impacting later patterns of succession. The researhcers will use intensive surveys of plant-soil interactions across succession sites and a manipulative transplant experiment in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica to address their aims. The investigators will collect data on plant functional traits and their effects on soil physical properties, biogeochemistry, biotic abundance, and microbial metagenomics. The data collected will be the first comprehensive measures of the relative importance of plant functional types during glacial retreat and vegetative expansion from climate change in Antarctica, aiding our understanding of how plant functional group diversity and abundance are changing in a greening Antarctica.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.
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