Wind as an ecological factor in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica
The aim of this work was to investigate the role of wind on the ecology of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica (MDV), one of the coldest and driest deserts on Earth. The MDV landscape consists of a mosaic of permanently ice-covered lakes, ephemeral streams, exposed soils, and glaciers, all of which contain habitats dominated by microorganisms. Data on wind-driven flux of sediments and associated organic matter were collected using passive aeolian traps and dynamic mass erosion particle counters to investigate the timing, direction and magnitude of aeolian sediment transport. Combination of genomic techniques and phenotypical fingerprinting (pigment analysis) was used to examine microbial diversity over a wide variety of wind-eroded habitats across the MDV landscape to elucidate the role of wind dispersal on the contemporary distribution of microorganisms across the MDVs. Sediment entrainment occurs predominantly within 20 cm of the ground surface and has character of saltation bursts that occupy <3% of the total time within a year. The high-energy winter föhn winds uplift sediments in the upper parts of the MDVs and transport them down-valley where they are deposited onto the surface of perennially ice-covered lakes and surrounding soils. The sediment that enters the water column of the lakes does not provide a significant source of organic carbon for bacterioplankton communities compared to the in situ production by phytoplankton but can be a source of new microbial propagules. The aeolian material is low in organic matter (<1% dw) but is composed of a relatively large numbers of cyanobacterial taxa (~20 OTUs) that can be found in all other MDV habitats. In conclusion, wind distributes microorganisms across the MDV landscape but local environment selects for specific taxa. Predicted climate warming will increase the importance of wind transport, which will affect nutrient cycling and connectivity among MDV ecosystem components.