Soil and permafrost in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica: stable or dynamic?


  • M. R. Balks University of Waikato
  • T. A. O’Neill University of Waikato



cryosol, gelisol, soil temperature, geomorphic processes


Soils in the Ross Sea Region of Antarctica generally comprise a surface desert pavement and a seasonally thawed active layer over permafrost. Most soils are formed on regolith such as glacial till or colluvium. Mean annual air temperatures range from -18°C to -24°C with low precipitation. The active layer ranges in depth from minimal in higher altitude, colder sites, to near 1 m deep at warmer coastal sites in the northern part of the region.  Underlying permafrost may be ice-cemented, or dry with no ice cement. In some areas ice-cored moraine occurs where there is a large body of ice within the subsoil permafrost. Two examples of active gully/fan -forming events, one at Cape Evans and one at Lake Vanda are described. At the Cape Evans event water from a small lake thawed and came into contact with the ice in the underlying patterned ground ice-wedge causing the ice-wedge to melt and extensive gully erosion to occur. A fan-building event near Lake Vanda in the Wright Valley resulted in erosive and depositional features covering a horizontal distance of about 3 km and an altitudinal range of about 1400 m. Such occasional events, can be attributed to warmer than average summers, and were first described in the Ross Sea Region in the 1970s. The Cape Evans and Lake Vanda events are examples of active, rapid, landscape processes and show that landscapes are not as static as is often assumed.


Download data is not yet available.


Adams, B., Bardgett, R., Ayres, E., Wall, D., Aislabie, J., Bamforth, S., Bargagli, R., Cary, C., Cavacini, P., Connell, L., Convey, P., Fell, J.W., Frati, F., Hogg, I.D., Newsham, K.K., O’Donnell, A., Russell, N., Seppelt, R.D., Stevens, M.I. 2006. Diversity and distribution of Victoria Land biota. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 38 (10), 3003-3018.

Adams, B., Wall, D., Gozel, U., Dillman, C., Hogg, I. 2007. The southernmost worm, Scottnema lindsayae (Nematoda): diversity, dispersal and ecological stability. Polar Biology 30, 809–815.

Adlam, L.S., Balks, M.R., Seybold, C.A., Campbell, D.I. 2010. Temporal and spatial variation in active layer depth in the McMurdo Sound Region, Antarctica. Antarctic Science 22 (1), 45–52. Doi:10.1017/S0954102009990460

Aislabie, J.M., Chhour, K.L., Saul, D.J., Miyauchi, S., Ayton, J., Paetzold, R.F., Balks, M.R. 2006a. Dominant bacteria in soils of Marble Point and Wright Valley, Victoria Land, Antarctica. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 38, 3041-3056.

Aislabie, J.M., Saul, D.J., Foght, J.M. 2006b. Bioremediation of hydrocarbon- contaminated polar soils. Extremophiles 10, 171–179.

Aislabie, J.M., Duggan, S., Barker, G.M. 2008. Relation between soil classification and bacterial diversity in soils of the Ross Sea region, Antarctica. Geoderma 144, 9-20.

Balks, M.R., Lopez-Martinez, J., Goryachkin, S., Mergelov, N.S., Schaefer, C.E.G.R., Simas, F.N.B., Almond, P.C., Claridge, G.G.C., McLeod, M., Scarrow, J. 2013. Windows on Antarctic Soil-Landscape Relations across selected regions of Antarctica. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 381, 397-410. Doi: 10.1144/SP381.9

Balks, M.R., Paetzold, R.F., Kimble, J.M., Aislabie, J., Campbell, I.B. 2002. Effects of hydrocarbon spills on the temperature and moisture regimes of Cryosols in the Ross Sea region, Antarctica. Antarctic Science 14 (4), 319-326.

Barrett, J.E., Virginia, R.A., Wall, D.H., Doran, P.T., Fountain, A.G., Welch, K.A., Lyons, W.B. 2008. Persistent effects of a discrete climate event on a polar desert ecosystem. Global Change Biology 14, 1-13.

Billi, D., Potts, M. 2002. Life and death of dried prokaryotes. Research in Microbiology 153, 7–12

Bockheim, J.G. 1990. Soil development rates in the Transantarctic Mountains. Geoderma 47, 59-77.

Bockheim, J.G. 2010. Evolution of desert pavements and the vesicular layer in soils of the Transantarctic Mountains. Geomorphology 118, 433-443.

Bockheim, J.G. 2015a. Soil-forming factors in Antarctica. In: J.G. Bockheim (ed.), The Soils of Antarctica. World Soils Book Series, Springer, Dordrecht, pp. 5-20. Doi: 10.1007978-3-319-05497-1_2

Bockheim, J.G. 2015b. Cryopedology. Springer, Dordrecht, 177 pp. Doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-08485-5

Bockheim, J.G., Campbell, I.B., McLeod, M. 2007. Permafrost distribution and active layer depths in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 18, 217-227.

Bockheim, J.G., McLeod, M. 2015. Soils of Central Victoria Land, the McMurdo Dry Valleys. In: J.G. Bockheim (ed.), The Soils of Antarctica. World Soils Book Series, Springer, Dordrecht,, pp. 1-8. Doi: 10.1007978-3-319-05497-1_8

Cameron, R.E., Devaney, J.R. 1970. Antarctic Soil Algal Crusts: Scanning Electron and Optical Microscope Study. Transactions of the American Microscopical Society 89 (2), 264-273.

Campbell, I.B., Claridge, G.G.C. 1975. Morphology and age relationships of Antarctic soils. Royal Society of New Zealand Bulletin 13, 83–88.

Campbell, I.B., Claridge, G.G.C. 1987. Antarctica: Soils, weathering processes and environment. Developments in Soil Science 16. Elsevier, Oxford, 368 p.

Campbell, I.B., Balks, M.R., Claridge G.G.C. 1994. The effect of human activities on moisture content of soils and underlying permafrost from the McMurdo Sound Region, Antarctica. Antarctic Science 6 (3), 307-314.

Campbell, I.B., Claridge, G.G.C., Campbell, D.I., Balks, M.R. 1998a. The soil environment of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. In: J. Priscu (ed.), Ecosystem dynamics in a polar desert. The McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. Antarctic Research Series Volume 72. American Geophysical Union, Washington DC, pp. 297-322.

Campbell, I.B., Claridge, G.G.C., Campbell, D.I., Balks, M.R. 1998b. Permafrost properties of the McMurdo Sound-Dry Valley Region of Antarctica. In: A.G. Lewkowicz, M. Allard, (eds,), Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Permafrost. Yellowknife, Canada, pp. 121-126.

Campbell, I.B., Claridge, G.G.C., Balks, M.R. 1998c. Short- and long-term impacts of human disturbances on snow-free surfaces in Antarctica. Polar Record 34 (188), 15-24.

Campbell, D.I., MacCulloch, R.J.L., Campbell, I.B. 1997. Thermal regimes of some soils in the McMurdo Sound Region of Antarctica. In: W.B. Lyons, C. Howard-Williams, I. Hawes (eds,), Ecosystems Processes in Antarctic ice-free landscapes. Balkema, Rotterdam, pp. 45-55. ISBN 90 5410 925 4.

Cannone, N., Wagner, D., Hubberten, H.W., Guglielmin, M. 2008. Biotic and abiotic factors influencing soil properties across a latitudinal gradient in Victoria Land, Antarctica. Geoderma 144, 50-65.

Chinn, T.J.H. 1979. Impacts of “extreme” events on the Dry Valleys area. New Zealand Antarctic Record, 2 (2), 9-13. ISSN 0110 5124.

Chong, C.W., Pearce, D.A., Convey, P., Tan, I.K.P. 2012. The identification of environmental parameters which could influence soil bacterial community composition on the Antarctic Peninsula - a statistical approach. Antarctic Science 24, 249-258.

Chong, C.W., Tan, G.Y.A., Wong, R.C.S., Riddle, M.J., Tan, I.K.P. 2009. DGGE fingerprinting of bacteria in soils from eight ecologically different sites around Casey Station, Antarctica. Polar Biology 32, 853-860.

Claridge, G.G.C. 1965. The clay mineralogy and chemistry of some soils from the Ross Dependency, Antarctica. New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics 8, 186-220.

Dana, G.L., Wharton, R.A., Dubayah, R. 1998. Solar Radiation in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. In: J. Priscu (ed.), Ecosystem dynamics in a polar desert. The McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. Antarctic Research Series Volume 72. American Geophysical Union, Washington DC, pp. 39-64.

Denton, G.H., Sugden, G.E., Marchant, D.R., Hall, B.L., Wilch, T.I. 1993. East Antarctic ice sheet sensitivity to Pliocene climate change from a Dry Valleys perspective. Geografiska Annaler Series A 75, 155-204.

Fountain, A.G., Levy, J.S., Gooseff, M.N., Van Horn, D. 2014. The McMurdo Dry Valleys: A landscape on the threshold of change. Geomorphology 225, 25-35.

Freckman, D.W., Virginia, R.A. 1997. Low diversity Antarctic soil nematode communities: distribution and response to disturbance. Ecology 78, 363-369.

Goddard, H.E. 2013. Investigation of air and soil climate across the latitudinal and altitudinal gradient of the Ross Sea Region. MSc thesis, University of Waikato, 166p.

Goddard, H.E., Balks, M.R., Seybold, C.A. 2012. Soil temperatures over a latitudinal gradient in the Ross Sea Region of Antarctica: Preliminary results. Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Permafrost, Salekard, Yamal-Nenets Automonous District, Russia, Vol.4/1:Extended Abstracts. P183-184. ISBN978-5-91128-050-5.

Gooseff, M.N., Barrett, J.E., Levy, J.E. 2013. Shallow groundwater systems in a polar desert, McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. Hydrogeology Journal 21, 171-183. Doi: 10.1007/s10040-012-0926-3.

Grosse, G., Romanovsky, V.E., Jorgenson, T., Walter, A.K., Brown, J., Overduin, P.P. 2011. Vulnerability and feedbacks of permafrost to climate change. EOS 92 (9), 73-74.

Guglielmin, M., Balks, M.R., Adlam, L.S., Baio, F. 2011. Permafrost thermal regime from two 30‐m deep boreholes in southern Victoria Land, Antarctica. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 22 (2), 129-139.

Hofstee, E.H., Balks, M.R., Petchey, F., Campbell, D.I. 2006. Soils of Seabee Hook, Cape Hallett, Northern Victoria Land, Antarctica. Antarctic Science 18 (4), 473-486.

Ikard, S.J., Gooseff, M.N., Barrett, J.E., Takacs-Vesbach, C. 2009. Thermal characterisation of active layer across a soil moisture gradient in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 20, 27–39. Doi: 10.1002/pp.634

Isaac, M.J., Chinn, T.J., Edbrooke, S.W., Forsyth, P.J. 1996. Geology of the Olympus Range Area of Southern Victoria Land, Antarctica. Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences Geological Map 20. Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences Ltd, Lower Hutt, 60 pp. ISBN 0-478-09513-9

IUSS Working Group 2014. World Reference Base for Soil Resources 2014. International Soil Classification System for naming soils and creating legends for soil maps. World Soil Resources Reports No. 106, FAO, Rome. ISBN 978-92-5-108369-7.

Kennedy, A.D. 1993. Water as a limiting factor in the Antarctic terrestrial environment—a biogeographical synthesis. Arctic Antarctic Alpine Research 25, 308–315.

Lee, C.K., Barbier, B.A., Bottos, E.M., McDonald, I.R., Cary, S.C. 2012. The Inter-Valley Soil Comparative Survey: the ecology of Dry Valley edaphic microbial communities. The ISME Journal 6, 1046–1057. Doi:10.1038/ismej.2011.170

Marchant, D.R., Head, J.W. 2007. Antarctic Dry Valleys; microclimate zonation, variable geomorphic processes, and implications for assessing climate change on Mars. Icarus 192, 187-222.

McCraw, J.D. 1967. Soils of Taylor Dry Valley, Victoria Land, Antarctica, with notes on soils from other localities in Victoria Land. New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics 10 (2), 498-539.

McFadden, L.D., Wells, S.G., Jercinovich, M.J. 1987. Influences of aeolian and pedogenic processes on the origin and evolution of the desert pavement. Geology 15, 504-509.

McGaughran, A.B., Hogg, I.D., Stevens, M.I. 2008. Patterns of population genetic structure for springtails and mites in southern Victoria Land, Antarctica. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 46, 606–618. Doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2007.10.003

Niederberger, T., McDonald, I.R., Hacker, A.L., Soo, R.M., Barrett, J.E., Wall, D.H., Cary, S.C. 2008. Microbial community composition in soils of Northern Victoria Land, Antarctica. Environmental Microbiology 10, 1713–1724.

Nkem, J.N., Virginia, R.A., Barrett, J.E., Wall, D.H., Li, G. 2006. Salt tolerance and survival thresholds for two species of Antarctic soil nematodes. Polar Biology 29, 643-651.

O’Neill, T.A., Balks, M.R., Stevenson, B., López-Martínez, J., Aislabie, J., Rhodes, P. 2013b. The short-term effects of surface soil disturbance on soil bacterial community structure at an experimental site near Scott Base, Antarctica. Polar Biology 36 (7), 985-996.

O’Neill, T.A., Aislabie, J., Balks, M.R. 2015. Human impacts on soils. In: J.G. Bockheim (ed.), The Soils of Antarctica. World Soils Book Series, Springer, Dordrecht, pp. 281-303. Doi: 10.1007978-3-319-05497-1_2.

Péwé, T.L. 1960. Multiple glaciation in the McMurdo Sound region, Antarctica: A progress report. The Journal of Geology, 498-514.

Prentice, M.L., Kleman, J., Stroven, A.P. 1998. The composite glacial erosional landscape of the northern McMurdo Dry Valleys: Implications for Antarctic Tertiary glacial history. In: J. Priscu (ed.), Ecosystem dynamics in a polar desert. The McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. Antarctic Research Series Volume 72, American Geophysical Union, Washington DC, pp. 1-38.

Saul, D., Aislabie, J., Brown, C., Harris, L., Foght, J.M. 2005. Hydrocarbon contamination changes the bacterial diversity of soil from around Scott Base, Antarctica. FEMS Microbiology Ecology 53, 141-155.

Seybold, C.A., Balks, M.R., Harms, D.S. 2010. Characterization of active layer water contents in the McMurdo Sound region, Antarctica. Antarctic Science 22 (6), 633–645. Doi: 10.1017/S0954102010000696

Seybold, C.A., Harms, D.S., Balks, M.R., Aislabie, J., Paetzold, R.F., Kimble, J., Sletten, R. 2009. Soil Climate Monitoring Project in the Ross Island Region of Antarctica. Horizons, Summer 2009, USDA, Lincoln.

Shanhun, F.L. 2005. An Investigation of Soil Moisture Associated with Ephemeral Streams, Wright Valley, Antarctica. MSc Thesis, University of Waikato, New Zealand, 161pp.

Smith, J.J., Ah Tow, L., Stafford, W., Cary, C., Cowan, D.A. 2006. Bacterial Diversity in three different Antarctic cold desert mineral soils. Microbial Ecology 51, 413-421.

Smith, J.L., Barret, J.E., Tusnady, G., Rejto, L., Cary, S.C. 2010. Resolving environmental drivers of microbial community structure in Antarctic soils. Antarctic Science 22 (6), 673-680.

Soil Survey Staff 2014. Keys to Soil Taxonomy. Twelfth Edition. United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservaton Service, 360 pp.




How to Cite

Balks MR, O’Neill TA. Soil and permafrost in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica: stable or dynamic?. CIG [Internet]. 2016 Sep. 13 [cited 2024 Apr. 18];42(2):415-34. Available from: