Antarctic soil supports surface microbial communities that are dependent on ephemeral moisture. Understanding the response to availability of this resource is essential to predicting how the system will respond to climate change. The McMurdo Dry Valleys are the largest ice-free soil region in Antarctica. They are a hyper-arid polar desert with extremely limited moisture availability. Microbial colonization dominates this ecosystem but surprisingly little is known about how communities respond to changing moisture regimes. We utilized the natural model system provided by transiently wetted soil at lake margins in the Dry Valleys to interrogate microbial responses along a well-defined contiguous moisture gradient and disentangle responses between and within phyla. We identified a striking non-linear response among bacteria where at low moisture levels small changes resulted in a large impact on diversity. At higher moister levels community responses were less pronounced, resulting in diversity asymptotes. We postulate that whilst the main drivers of observed community diversity were deterministic, a switch in the major influence occurred from abiotic factors at low moisture levels to biotic interactions at higher moisture. Response between and within phyla was markedly different, highlighting the importance of taxonomic resolution in community analysis. Furthermore, we resolved apparent stochasticity at high taxonomic ranks as the result of deterministic interactions taking place at finer taxonomic and spatial scales. Overall the findings provide new insight on the response to moisture and this will be useful in advancing understanding of potential ecosystem responses in the threatened McMurdo Dry Valleys system.