Ross Virginia

Myers Family Professor of Environmental Science
Director, Institute of Arctic Studies at the Dickey Center for International Understanding

Dartmouth College
Hinman Box 6182
109 Steele Hall
Hanover, NH 03755
Phone: (603) 646-0192
Fax: (603) 646-1682

My research interests are ecosystem science and elemental cycling in terrestrial systems. Specifically, my research focuses on the polar deserts of Antarctica where I am a co-principal investigator on the NSF McMurdo Dry Valley Long-Term Ecological Research Program. Since 1989, I have studied how climate and soil factors influence the establishment, distribution and function of soil biota. These microscopic soil organisms may serve as sensitive indicators of environmental change and human disturbance.

Antarctic Research

Soil Biogeochemistry and Long Term Ecological Research(1989-present)

In 1989-90, with soil ecologist Diana Wall, Colorado State University, I began a three-year project that first established that soil nematodes are widely distributed in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. This research also determined that nematode distribution and diversity are related to the soil environment (water availability, chemistry). This initial project began a collaboration that continues today to understand how soil biota respond to climate change and the role of these organism in the biogeochemical cycling of carbon and nutrients essential for life.


This research is now an essential piece of the NSF McMurdo Dry Valley Long Term Ecological Research Program, a site in the NSF LTER Network. Our Antarctica soil ecology research group is the "Victor-Whisky" team also known as the "Wormherders," a name bestowed by Navy helicopter crews in the early 1990's. (list compiled by Diana Wall)

In 2002 the LTER group published a paper in Nature (Doran et al. 2002), "Antarctic climate cooling and terrestrial ecosystem response" that reported on dry valley ecosystem change in response to a decadal long period of climate cooling. This paper was widely (mis)used by the climate change "naysayer" community. Peter Doran published an Op-ed in the New York Times in 2006 about this paper, the controversy, and our defense of the science.

Cape HallettField TeamGarwoodPenguinsShackleton Hut

SkyTEM, Exploring the Subsurface (2011- present)

The SkyTEM project is being conducted by an international research team led by Jill Mikucki, University of Tennessee. This research mapped portions of the McMurdo Dry Valleys and the adjacent Ross Island shoreline in 2011-12 using a time domain electromagnetic (TEM) instrument flown beneath a helicopter to map the distribution of freshwater, ice, permafrost, and saline brines to depths of 250m.


These data will help construct the history of the evolution of the dry valley ecosystem and identify subsurface environments that may be suitable for microbial life.

Read more about the SkyTEM project in the March 2012 Dartmouth Now article, "Airborne System Allows Researchers to Look Beneath the Antarctic Surface."


Antarctic Synthesis

Synthesis of Soil Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning in Southern Victoria Land, Antarctica: A workshop, NSF Polar Programs.


This international workshop was held April 21-23, 2005 at Jekyl Island, Georgia to draw together leading researchers in Antarctic and other ecosystems to assess our knowledge of soil biodiversity and the role of soil organisms and communities in biogeochemical processes. A research agenda was prioritized and international collaborations were fostered. The results of the workshop appear in the special issue of Soil Biology and Biochemistry:

Wall, D. H., B. Adams, J. E. Barrett, D. W. Hopkins, and R. A. Virginia (editors). 2006. "Antarctic Victoria Land Soil Ecology." Soil Biology and Biochemistry Special Volume 38, Issue 10, Pages 3001-3180, Elsevier Press.

Antarctic Research Grants

NSF Antarctic Instrumentation and Support, Resistivity Mapping of Subsurface Microbial Habitats in the McMurdo Region. 2011-13


NSF LTER. The Role of Resource Legacy on Contemporary Linkages between Biodiversity and Ecosystem Processes in a Cold Desert Ecosystem: The McMurdo Dry Valley LTER Program, 2005-2011

NSF Polar Programs. Soil Biodiversity and Response to Climate Change: A Regional Comparison of Cape Hallett and Taylor Valley, Antarctica. 2003-2006

NSF LTER. Nitrate Accumulation In Arid Ecosystems: Implications of Biotic Limitation For Surface Age Estimates. 2003-04

NSF LTER. The McMurdo Dry Valley LTER: The Role of Natural Legacy on Ecosystem Structure and Function in a Polar Desert. 1998-2004

NSF Polar Programs. Antarctic Dry Valley Nematode Communities: Establishment, Function and Response to Disturbance. 1996-98

NSF Polar Programs. The Ecology of Nematodes in Antarctic Dry Valley Ecosystems. 1992-95

NSF Polar Programs. Distribution and Function of Nematodes in Antarctic Dry Valley Ecosystems. 1989-92

Arctic Ecosystem Research


My Arctic research began at Toolik Lake, Alaska (now an LTER site) under the DOE-R4D program award to San Diego State University to study and model the effects of disturbance on Arctic tundra vegetation and soils.

In the mid 1980's I conducted research on soil carbon cycling and carbon dioxide flux on the north slope of Alaska. I was pulled south to Antarctica for several years before reestablishing an Arctic agenda when I became Director of the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College.


In 2009 we began studying organic matter cycling in tundra soils near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.


IGERT Ph.D. students Julia Bradley-Cook and Ruth Heindel are investigating the temperature sensitivity of organic matter as a function of vegetation type and the evolution of soil deflation patches, respectively.

Ross Virginia at Greenland ice sheetIGERT seminar, GreenlandStudying soils in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

Desert Ecosystem Research

This research focused on plant-soil interactions that were linked to desertification, the loss of aridland productivity and biodiversity in response to climate change and disturbances such as overgrazing. My research in southern California examined approaches for the ecological restoration of sites disturbed by mining and highway construction.


Much of this research was done with Dave Bainbridge while we were at UC Riverside and San Diego State University. His book "A Guide for Desert and Drylands Restoration," published in 2007, shows the power of using ecological understanding to restore the productivity of water-limited ecosystems

As a former member of the Jornada Basin LTER project on desertification, I studied desertification of southwestern grasslands and their conversion to shrublands, with a focus on changes in soil fertility and the ecology of the encroaching shrubs, creosote bush and mesquite. The Jornada group produced the following widely cited model of desertification that examined changes in the spatial distribution of soil resources as a primary driver of desertification.

W. H. Schlesinger et al. 1990, "Biological feedbacks in global desertification," Science 247:1043.

Desert Research Grants



NSF Ecosystem Studies. Resource Islands: Their Role in the Stability of Desert Ecosystems. 1990-94

NSF Long-Term Ecological Research. Desertification: Response of Arid Ecosystems And Landscapes to Resource Distribution: Jornada LTER II. 1989-94

California Department of Transportation. Revegetation Practices for the Colorado Desert of Southern California. 1987-91

NSF Ecosystem Studies. Root Symbionts and Plant Productivity in Warm Desert Ecosystems. 1985-89

NSF Ecosystems Studies. Nitrogen Fixation, Water Use, and Plant Productivity in Warm Desert Ecosystems. 1983-86

NSF Ecosystem Studies. Resource Islands: Their Role in the Stability of Desert Ecosystems. 1990-94

California Department of Transportation. Revegetation Practices for the Colorado Desert of Southern California. 1987-91

NSF Ecosystem Studies. Root Symbionts and Plant Productivity in Warm Desert Ecosystems. 1985-89

NSF Ecosystems Studies. Nitrogen Fixation, Water Use, and Plant Productivity in Warm Desert Ecosystems. 1983-86

Ecology and Law in Modern Society

Richard Brooks, Vermont Law School and Adjunct in Dartmouth Environmental Studies, and I have formed an ongoing research collaboration to examine the coevolution of the relationships between the discipline of ecology and the field of environmental law. Our interests led to the Ecology and Law in Modern Society Book Series published by Ashgate, which we co-edit.


This series presents a legal and ecological perspective on important environmental issues such as declining biodiversity and the ecological significance of endangered species, the effects of pollution on natural and managed systems, the ecology of fragile ecosystems (mountains) and the effects of pollution on ecosystem services.

The list of books in this series includes:

  • Law and Ecology, The Rise of the Ecosystem Regime, 2002, Authors: R. O. Brooks, R. Jones and R. A. Virginia
  • Mountain Resorts, Ecology and Law, 2009, Editors: J. E. Milne, J. LaMense, and R. A. Virginia
  • The Law and Ecology or Pesticides and Pest Management, In Press (June 2013), Author: M. J. Angelo

Polar Environmental Change Graduate Education, IGERT

Funded in 2008 by the NSF Division of Graduate Education, the Dartmouth IGERT Ph.D. program provides students in Ecology, Earth Sciences, and Engineering with a core curriculum that integrates departmental graduate requirements into an interdisciplinary framework for studying polar environmental change. Currently, I serve as director of this graduate research program.

The IGERT provides training in the central topics of polar science and engineering, the human dimensions of polar science and the development of skills to communicate polar science to different groups, and an awareness of traditional ecological knowledge and its implications for the ethical conduct of scientific research in Native communities. The culmination of the IGERT program is a 5-week Field Seminar in Greenland. Check the IGERT student blog to learn where we go and what we do.