Remotely characterizing photosynthetic biocrust in snowpack-fed microhabitats of Taylor Valley, Antarctica

TitleRemotely characterizing photosynthetic biocrust in snowpack-fed microhabitats of Taylor Valley, Antarctica
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2024
AuthorsPower, SN, Salvatore, MR, Sokol, ER, Stanish, LF, Borges, SR, Adams, B, Barrett, JE
JournalScience of Remote Sensing
Date Published02/2024
KeywordsAntarctica, biocrust, carbon, reflectance spectroscopy, snow, soil ecology

Microbial communities are the primary drivers of carbon cycling in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Dense microbial mats, consisting mainly of photosynthetic cyanobacteria, occupy aquatic areas associated with streams and lakes. Other microbial communities also occur at lower densities as patchy surface biological soil crusts (hereafter, biocrusts) across the terrestrial landscape. Multispectral satellite data have been used to model microbial mat abundance in high-density areas like stream and lake margins, but no previous studies have investigated the lower detection limits of biocrusts. Here, we describe remote sensing and field-based survey and sampling approaches to study the detectability and distribution of biocrusts in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Using a combination of multi- and hyperspectral tools and spectral linear unmixing, we modeled the abundances of biocrust in eastern Taylor Valley. Our spectral approaches can detect low masses of biocrust material in laboratory microcosms down to biocrust concentrations of 1% by mass. These techniques also distinguish the spectra of biocrust from both surface rock and mineral signatures from orbit. We found that biocrusts are present throughout the soils of eastern Taylor Valley and are associated with diverse underlying soil communities. The densest biocrust communities identified in this study had total organic carbon 5x greater than the content of typical arid soils. The most productive biocrusts were located downslope of melting snowpacks in unique soil ecosystems that are distinct from the surrounding arid landscape. There are similarities between the snowpack and stream sediment communities (high diversity of soil invertebrates) as well as their ecosystem properties (e.g., persistence of liquid water, high transfer of available nutrients, lower salinity from flushing) compared to the typical arid terrestrial ecosystem of the dry valleys. Our approach extends the capability of orbital remote sensing of photosynthetic communities out of the aquatic margins and into the drier soils which comprise most of this landscape. This interdisciplinary work is critical for measuring and monitoring terrestrial carbon stocks and predicting future ecosystem dynamics in this currently water-limited but increasingly dynamic Antarctic landscape, which is particularly climate-sensitive and difficult to access.