The uses of history for ecological research: A scientist’s perspective on contributions from the heroic age of Antarctic exploration
Many Antarctic researchers have been fascinated by the biographies of the explorers from the historic age, especially those of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton from the early 20thcentury. Their historic huts are now being actively conserved. The diaries and other records from their expeditions, as well as their geologic and biological samples collected, are archived in collections around the world. These records represent potential resources for understanding the recent past and interpreting the trajectory of environmental change in Antarctic ecosystems.
Interdisciplinary research involving history, glaciology and limnology have advanced understanding of environmental change in the McMurdo Dry Valleys and Cape Royds regions by investigators of the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long-term Ecological Research project. Historical records and photographs from Scott’s expeditions were used to document changes in the ice-covered lakes. Measurements of the width of the narrows between the two lobes of Lake Bonney document that the lake has risen about 12 m since 1903. A retrospective Monte Carlo analysis demonstrated that meltwater inflows have increased steadily from 1903 to 1970. Another example comes from the reanalysis of microbial mat samples collected from ponds on Cape Royds by James Murray during Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition. The diatoms in the mats were described in 1911, serving as the foundation for diatom taxonomy in Antarctica. Comparison of historic and modern samples from the same ponds shows that the diatom communities are stable, providing insight into microbial meta-community dynamics, and background for evaluating the risk from introduction of invasive species.