Persistent effects of a discrete warming event on a polar desert ecosystem


J. E. Barrett, e-mail:


A discrete warming event (December 21, 2001–January 12, 2002) in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica, enhanced glacier melt, stream flow, and melting of permafrost. Effects of this warming included a rapid rise in lake levels and widespread increases in soil water availability resulting from melting of subsurface ice. These increases in liquid water offset hydrologic responses to a cooling trend experienced over the previous decade and altered ecosystem properties in both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Here, we present hydrological and meteorological data from the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research project to examine the influence of a discrete climate event (warming of >2 °C) on terrestrial environments and soil biotic communities. Increases in soil moisture following this event stimulated populations of a subordinate soil invertebrate species (Eudorylaimus antarcticus, Nematoda). The pulse of melt-water had significant influences on Taylor Valley ecosystems that persisted for several years, and illustrates that the importance of discrete climate events, long recognized in hot deserts, are also significant drivers of soil and aquatic ecosystems in polar deserts. Thus, predictions of Antarctic ecosystem responses to climate change which focus on linear temperature trends may miss the potentially significant influence of infrequent climate events on hydrology and linked ecological processes.