ARTIGAS BASE, Antarctica – Most people imagine Antarctica to be a barren and silent continent void of vegetation but during the austral summer, a whole palette of colors emerges from beneath the thawing ice.
In January, the snow recedes to some of the higher peaks on King George Island and the harsh terrain gives way to a bloom of grasses, lichens and moss.
One of Antarctica’s closest points to the southern tip of South America, King George is a natural treasure where scientific bases from several countries, tour groups and the natural environment coexist.
Much of the surrounding islands have been earmarked as part of the Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) in a bid to preserve the ecosystem found here, and visitors need a special permit.
One of the people with permission to visit is Fabiana Pezzani, an agronomist from the University of the Republic in Uruguay who is researching the presence of microorganisms and the role they play encouraging plant growth in the region.
But the grasses the scientist is focusing on are widespread, so concentrating her sample area around the Artigas scientific base on King George is not enough.
One of those most sought after ASPAs around King George is Ardley Island, which is known for its abundance of penguins.
While tourists are confined to visiting the coastline, thanks to her permit, Pezzani is able to join another group of scientists and trek to the interior.
There, the university professor carries out her meticulous work under the curious gaze of the flightless seabirds.
She came to the Earth’s least-explored continent to study mycorrhiza, a type of fungus present in vascular plants.
Pezzani came to Antarctica with a group of colleagues, most of them biologists, as part of a 15-day field trip to the Artigas scientific base.
“Mycorrhizae are fungi that live inside the roots of plants, so at first glance, there may be hyphae (filament networks) of these fungi in the soil, but in the roots we see nothing.
“To study it we have to take the roots to the laboratory, we dye them with a solution that allows us to observe the structures of the fungus and there we quantify,” the researcher says.
Pezzani embarks on her excursions armed only with a small shovel, a jar and a container. She will sometimes add to that mix some organic rice, which she leaves behind as “traps” to encourage bacterial growth for further study in two months.
“These plants really are champions in the sense of being able to grow and develop in these conditions. Keep in mind that in the winter, for many months they are covered by snow. But they do not die, they remain dormant.”
One of the pillars of the Antarctic Treaty System is international collaboration in the only continent on Earth to have no native human populations.
Although her project is directed from Uruguay, cooperation with the other teams at the base is never ruled out.
This was illustrated during a recent seminar at the base on King George, attended by experts from Chile, China and Germany, when Pezzani stumbled across new questions for her own study.
In the spirit of the treaty, the scientist welcomes exchanges with other countries, as it helps to boost research across the field.
After 15 days in Antarctica, Pezzani has a sense of mission accomplished with the added bonus of having had the opportunity to experience such a unique place.
In scientific research, however, good work only leads to new questions, new issues to be explored and paths untrodden.