The ways in which climate change affects polar regions are being researched by a soil scientist from The University of Western Australia.
Professor Daniel Murphy has recently returned from a month-long summer expedition to the northernmost human settlement on the planet, where he studied micro-organisms in the tundra.
"The Polar regions have profound significance for the Earth's climate, ecosystems and, ultimately, human society," Professor Murphy said.
The Australian Research Council Future Fellow is UWA's Chair in Soil Science within the School of Earth and Environment. An ARC grant enabled him to spend a month at the Ny-Ålesund Research Base on the archipelago of Svalbard, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.
Professor Murphy, who is also Deputy Leader of the Integrated Land and Water Management Program at UWA's Institute of Agriculture, said that by understanding microbial ecology, he hopes to provide information that will be useful in managing greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to climate change, and preserving natural ecosystems.
"Parts of the Arctic and Australia are both deserts: the Arctic has low temperatures and low rainfall and Australia has high temperatures and low rainfall," Professor Murphy said. "It's very useful to observe the functioning of organisms at the other end of the spectrum.
"I'm investigating how microbial ecology responds to climate change and disturbance from human activity such as deposition from atmospheric pollution. Specifically, I'm studying the mechanisms for soil-microbial-plant interactions with relevance to the cycling of carbon, nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) and the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide."
Professor Murphy said there was growing awareness by land managers and policy-makers of the importance of the soil in delivering many of the crucial environmental goods and services on which society depends. These included food and fibre production; the storage, filtering and transformation of water, minerals and pollutants; and carbon and nutrient cycling.
"The soil is where most of the biodiversity on Earth exists, and it's a large sink that contains more than the combined total carbon that is in the atmosphere and vegetation," he said.
"The Norwegian Government has designated Ny-Ålesund as an international base for research in natural sciences and in the spirit of the Svalbard treaty, researchers around the world are given equal rights to carry out research there. It's where the Global Seed Vault is located. This also stores seed from Australia."