Amplified climate change in polar regions is significantly altering regional ecosystems, yet there are few long-term records documenting these responses. The McMurdo Dry Valleys (MDV) cold desert ecosystem is the largest ice-free area of Antarctica, comprising soils, glaciers, meltwater streams and permanently ice-covered lakes. Multi-decadal records indicate that the MDV exhibited a distinct ecosystem response to an uncharacteristic austral summer and ensuing climatic shift. A decadal summer cooling phase ended in 2002 with intense glacial melt (‘flood year’)—a step-change in water availability triggering distinct changes in the ecosystem. Before 2002, the ecosystem exhibited synchronous behaviour: declining stream flow, decreasing lake levels, thickening lake ice cover, decreasing primary production in lakes and streams, and diminishing soil secondary production. Since 2002, summer air temperatures and solar flux have been relatively consistent, leading to lake level rise, lake ice thinning and elevated stream flow. Biological responses varied; one stream cyanobacterial mat type immediately increased production, but another stream mat type, soil invertebrates and lake primary productivity responded asynchronously a few years after 2002. This ecosystem response to a climatic anomaly demonstrates differential biological community responses to substantial perturbations, and the mediation of biological responses to climate change by changes in physical ecosystem properties.
This is a preview of subscription content
Subscribe to Nature+
Get immediate online access to the entire Nature family of 50+ journals
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $9.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Polyakov, I. V. et al. Observationally based assessment of polar amplification of global warming. Geophys. Res. Lett. 29, 24–25 (2002).
Schofield, O. et al. How do polar marine ecosystems respond to rapid climate change? Science 328, 1520–1523 (2010).
Post, E. et al. Ecological dynamics across the Arctic associated with recent climate change. Science 325, 1355–1358 (2009).
McClintock, J., Ducklow, H. & Fraser, W. Ecological responses to climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula. Am. Sci. 96, 302–310 (2008).
Hinzman, L. D. et al. Evidence and implications of recent climate change in northern Alaska and other Arctic regions. Clim. Change 72, 251–298 (2005).
Jia, G. J., Epstein, H. E. & Walker, D. A. Greening of Arctic Alaska, 1981–2001. Geophys. Res. Lett. 30, 2067 (2003).
Grebmeier, J. & Priscu, J. C. Frontiers in Understanding Climate Change and Polar Ecosystems: Report of a Workshop (National Academies Press, Washington DC, 2011).
Steig, E. J. et al. Warming of the Antarctic ice-sheet surface since the 1957 International Geophysical Year. Nature 457, 459–62 (2009).
Bromwich, D. H. et al. Central West Antarctica among the most rapidly warming regions on Earth. Nat. Geosci. 6, 139–145 (2013).
Chapman, W. L. & Walsh, J. E. A synthesis of Antarctic temperatures. J. Clim. 20, 4096–4117 (2007).
Fountain, A. G. et al. The impact of a large-scale climate event on Antarcic ecosystem processes. BioScience 66, 848–863 (2016).
Doran, P. T. et al. Antarctic climate cooling and terrestrial ecosystem response. Nature 415, 517–520 (2002).
Zachos, J., Pagani, M., Sloan, L., Thomas, E. & Billups, K. Trends, rhythms, and aberrations in global climate 65 Ma to present. Science 292, 686–693 (2001).
Sonderegger, D. L., Wang, H., Clements, W. H. & Noon, B. R. Using SiZer to detect thresholds in ecological data. Front. Ecol. Environ. 7, 190–195 (2009).
Clements, W. H., Vieira, N. K. M. & Sonderegger, D. L. Use of ecological thresholds to assess recovery in lotic ecosystems. J. N. Am. Benthol. Soc. 29, 1017–1023 (2010).
Bestelmeyer, B. T. et al. Analysis of abrupt transitions in ecological systems. Ecosphere 2, 1–26 (2011).
McKnight, D. M. et al. Dry Valley streams in Antarctica: ecosystems waiting for water. BioScience 49, 985–995 (1999).
Fountain, A. G. et al. Physical controls on the Taylor Valley ecosystem. BioScience 49, 961–971 (1999).
Kohler, T. J. et al. Life in the main channel: long-term hydrologic control of microbial mat abundance in McMurdo Dry Valley streams, Antarctica. Ecosystems 18, 310–327 (2015).
Stanish, L. F., Nemergut, D. R. & McKnight, D. M. Hydrologic processes influence diatom community composition in Dry Valley streams. J. N. Am. Benthol. Soc. 30, 1057–1073 (2011).
Esposito, R. M. M. et al. Antarctic climate cooling and response of diatoms in glacial meltwater streams. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, 2–5 (2006).
Moorhead, D. L., Wall, D. H., Virginia, R. A. & Parsons, A. N. Distribution and life-cycle of Scottnema lindsayae (Nematoda) in Antarctic soils: a modeling analysis of temperature responses. Polar Biol. 25, 118–125 (2002).
Wall, D. H. Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in terrestrial habitats of Antarctica. Antarct. Sci. 17, 523–531 (2005).
Barrett, J. E. et al. Persistent effects of a discrete warming event on a polar desert ecosystem. Glob. Change Biol. 14, 2249–2261 (2008).
Obryk, M. et al. Responses of Antarctic marine and freshwater ecosystems to changing ice conditions. BioScience 66, 864–879 (2016).
Foreman, C. M., Wolf, C. F. & Priscu, J. C. Impact of episodic warming events on the physical, chemical and biological relationships of lakes in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. Aquat. Geochem. 10, 239–268 (2004).
Gherardi, L. A. & Sala, O. E. Enhanced precipitation variability decreases grass- and increases shrub-productivity. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 12735–12740 (2015).
Kohler, T. J., Chatfield, E., Gooseff, M. N., Barrett, J. E. & McKnight, D. M. Recovery of Antarctic stream epilithon from simulated scouring events. Antarct. Sci. 27, 1–14 (2015).
Overhoff, A., Freckman, D. & Virginia, R. Life cycle of the microbivorous Antarctic Dry Valley nematode Scottnema lindsayae (Timm 1971). Polar Biol. 13, 151–156 (1993).
The McMurdo LTER team gratefully acknowledges the funding support from the National Science Foundation for the initial LTER grant and subsequent renewals (award numbers 9211773, 9813061, 9810219, 0096250, 0423595, 0832755, 1041742 and 1115245). We are grateful for the numerous collaborators and students who helped carry out lab and fieldwork associated with this project, and thank the logistical and helicopter support contractors who have facilitated our field research in Antarctica since 1993 through the US Antarctic Program: Antarctic Support Associates, Raytheon Polar Services, Antarctic Support Contractors and Petroleum Helicopters.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Electronic supplementary material
About this article
Cite this article
Gooseff, M.N., Barrett, J.E., Adams, B.J. et al. Decadal ecosystem response to an anomalous melt season in a polar desert in Antarctica. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 1334–1338 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0253-0
Glacial lake outburst floods enhance benthic microbial productivity in perennially ice-covered Lake Untersee (East Antarctica)
Communications Earth & Environment (2021)
Environmental effects of stratospheric ozone depletion, UV radiation, and interactions with climate change: UNEP Environmental Effects Assessment Panel, Update 2020
Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences (2021)
Habitat controls on limno-terrestrial diatom communities of Clearwater Mesa, James Ross Island, Maritime Antarctica
Polar Biology (2019)
Nature Climate Change (2018)
Stable C and N isotope ratios reveal soil food web structure and identify the nematode Eudorylaimus antarcticus as an omnivore–predator in Taylor Valley, Antarctica
Polar Biology (2018)