Fuel spills in Antarctica typically occur in rare ice-free oases along the coast, which are areas of extreme seasonal freezing. Spills often occur at subzero temperatures, but little is known of ecosystem sensitivity to pollutants, in particular the influence that soil liquid water and low temperature have on toxicity of petroleum hydrocarbons (PHC) in Antarctic soil. To evaluate PHC toxicity, 32 locations at an aged diesel spill site in Antarctica were sampled nine times to encompass frozen, thaw, and refreeze periods. Toxicity was assessed using potential activities of substrate-induced respiration, basal respiration, nitrification, denitrification, and metabolic quotient as well as microbial community composition and bacterial biomass. The most sensitive indicator was community composition with a PHC concentration effecting 25% of the population (EC25) of 800 mg/kg, followed by nitrification (2,000 mg/kg), microbial biomass (2,400 mg/kg), and soil respiration (3,500 mg/kg). Despite changes in potential microbial activities and composition over the frozen, thaw, and refreeze period, the sensitivity of these endpoints to PHC did not change with liquid water or temperature. However, the variability associated with ecotoxicity data increased at low liquid water contents. As a consequence of this variability, highly replicated (n = 50) experiments are needed to quantify a 25% ecological impairment by PHCs in Antarctic soils at a 95% level of significance. Increases in biomass and respiration associated with changes in community composition suggest that PHC contamination in Antarctic soils may have irrevocable effects on the ecosystem.
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