When a biscuit tin of soil scooped up during the construction of Scott Base in 1957 was sent to the New Zealand Soil Bureau for analysis, it marked the beginning of a long and proud tradition of New Zealand soil scientists exploring the nature, properties and formation of Antarctic soils. 

The resulting present-day collection of Antarctic soil samples and associated analytical data is unique. Stored at the National Soils Archive, it provides the best available record of Antarctic soils in their most pristine condition, with the earliest samples essentially representing a state of pre-human visitation. They are invaluable “time capsules” for assessing temporal changes in soil properties, and their data form the baseline for all further scientific analysis on Antarctic soils.

Why study Antarctic soils?

While most of Antarctica is covered by ice sheets, a small part of the continent (~0.44%) is permanently ice-free, and has been for sometimes millions of years. These are the areas where environmental conditions have resulted in a diverse range of soils.

The largest expanse of ice-free areas, the McMurdo Dry Valleys, is an arid, cold desert, with very low and fluctuating temperatures, almost no liquid water, often very high soil salinity, and typically slow rates of soil formation.

Despite the small area they represent, Antarctic soils are scientifically remarkable: harbouring life, including arthropods, nematodes, rotifers and tardigrades, and a surprisingly high diversity of soil microbes. Ice-free areas also form essential breeding grounds for macrofauna, such as seals and seabirds.

The trophic simplicity of those ecosystems makes Antarctic soils a great model for studying broader ecosystem functioning. Some of the highest elevation ice-free areas and their dry permafrost conditions represent the closest Mars analogue on Earth. (Roudier et al., 2022).

The Frozen Assets Project

In a 2-year project supported by Te Tahua Taiao Ngā Taonga - Lottery Environment and Heritage, Manaaki Whenua undertook data custodianship work to ensure Aotearoa’s Antarctic soils heritage is protected, managed, and made accessible for future generations. The following objectives have been completed:

  • Integration of the physical soil samples into the National Soils Archive.
  • Digitisation and migration of the soils data into a spatial database.
  • Cataloguing of other materials and photographs.
  • Publishing of this information into this purpose-built web portal.

Professional custodianship for samples and data at risk of getting lost is at the heart of this project. Protocols were developed for the securing and safe processing of thousands of quarantined physical samples. The curation of this taonga will enable managed access to these samples for ongoing scientific and cultural research. Soil analytical data have been linked with other historic records, such as photographs, field books, and publications. 

Our efforts aim to ensure meaningful access to the materials for Māori, the public, and scientists. It will preserve our Antarctic soils heritage for future generations and is hoped to also inspire further avenues for research.

Soils Portal | Pātaka Oneone

Manaaki Whenua's Soils Portal | Pātaka Oneone provides free and comprehensive soil resource information for much of Aotearoa New Zealand. Access the site here

In addition, Manaaki Whenua provide various other soil and land resource tools and websites, a list of which can be found here.