RIBA IN ANTARCTICA – News from the South

Another update from Antarctica, Author Ribanna, who is currently in Antarctica. Please read more of the Ribanna's posts at: https://ribasantarcticadventures.wordpress.com/ This is a wee blog entry about the scientific background for my stay down South (but to spoil this a bit, there’s a very exciting non-scientific paragraph in the end!). So, why would I go away from real life for 4 months? For Science of course! Well and for other reasons. But the science reason is usually a good one and the one that brought me here. So what is it we study here: The Palmer LTER program (Long-Term-Ecological-Research) focusses on different aspects of the ecology down here. Different groups work on these different aspects. At the moment, I am working with the microbial group. And we work closely together with the phytoplankton group. That means, we go out twice a week (as long as the sea-ice conditions and the weather let us go) on a zodiac. We go to the two same stations every time we are out and sample water from the same depths every time. We fill between 4 and 5 small sample vials and two big sample bottles per depth while being on the zodiac which can be quite entertaining when the weather is not nice and sunny. Those samples are stored in an ice container so that the original temperature of the original depth is not disturbed too much. The water temperature is about -1.5 centigrade at the moment. For the whole water column. It is quite shallow,the deeper station is only about 70m deep. Back at the station, we sort the samples. Each person is responsible for the analysis of one particular aspect. I am working with a flow cytometer. That means that I am basically counting the number of cells in the water. You can separate between different phytoplankton and bacteria cells. My peers work on phytoplankton production, bacterial production, nutrients in the water, DNA in the water, dissolved and particulate organic carbon. All these parameters will eventually deliver a picture about what is happening in this region: When is the onset of the annual phytoplankton bloom? How is it affected by climate conditions and sea-ice conditions? How do bacteria respond to phytoplankton blooms? Bacteria in marine environments are important because they – just like on land – decompose dead material and recycle it within the water column, hence making it available again for more production. The importance of these aspects can be put into a bigger context: It is not only the small stuff, the LTER is looking into. There are also birders and whalers. For example, it was found recently that the breeding success of Adelie penguins directly depends on the availability of krill which, in turn, feeds on phytoplankton. Krill, as most of us probably know from Polar documentaries, is a key species in the Antarctic oceans. Feeding on phytoplankton and being fed on by whales and penguins, it plays a major role in the Antarctic food web. If there are severe changes and shifts in the phytoplankton availability and community, this will have severe effects on krill availability working its way up the food web. But it is also important in terms of climate science: Phytoplankton uses CO2 for the production of organic matter. This comes from the atmosphere, so the more phytoplankton is active and productive, the more atmospheric CO2 is drawn into the surface waters. On the other hand, there is the bacterial community, feeding on the organic material produced by phytoplankton. They use oxygen for respiration, and release CO2 as an end product which may or may not end back up in the atmosphere. Some organic compounds, however, are difficult to be used for bacteria so that these sink down into the deep ocean where eventually, carbon is stored for thousands of years. In the Southern Ocean, all this plays a particularly important part in therms of global climate: The water of all the world’s ocean either enters or comes from the Southern Ocean. Here, deep water is formed by sea-ice formation which drives the global thermohaline circulation which is a major player in global climate. Further, the Southern Ocean is responsible for about 30% of the global CO2 uptake. Hence, when surface water conditions, both physically and biologically, change, there will be consequences for the global climate. However, all this actually just plays indirectly into my own Ph.D. project. My own field work will start in January when I am joining the Laurence M. Gould for the LTER cruise. They will pick me up from the station and then we will be travelling for 5 weeks along the West Antarctic Peninsula. Here, I will collect all the samples I need for my project: Dissolved organic nitrogen in the Southern Ocean. Now again: Why is this important? Well, we actually don’t know for sure yet which is why I am working on it. It is known that in nutrient poor conditions – that is where phytoplankton theoretically cannot be productive because there are no nutrients available to grow – DON which is in organic compounds produced and released by e.g. phytoplankton, will be recycled by bacteria. This means, even though there are not enough nutrients to drive productivity, bacteria are able to deliver new nutrients from these organic compounds to the system and refuel production. However, the Southern Ocean is the opposite of a nutrient-depleted ocean: Because it is lacking iron, there is tons of bioavailable nitrogen in the water which is not used up. This is why the Southern Ocean is also called a High-Nutrient-Low-Chlorophyll (HNLC) region. And this is why we don’t know the importance of DON. However, nitrogen per se is thought to play a major role in global carbon cycling due to its critical role in primary production and hence direct carbon drawdown. Please let me know if anything unclear or if you have any questions. So now to the unscientific updates about Antarctica: The last two weeks have been very variable, especially considering the weather conditions. We have not been able to get out a lot because the wind was pushing in all the sea ice so that it was impossible to go out in a zodiac. We managed to get out one time last week and just yesterday. But today again, the wind turned direction and pushed the ice back in. This variability is very intense and interesting to experience. The wind can pick up within seconds. If you decide to go up the glacier because it is nice and sunny, the moment you step outside, you might just be able to look 10m ahead. So safety is the highest priority. We are not allowed to go boating when wind speed is =>20 knots (about 37km/h) and have to return asap if >25knots (about 45 km/h). It is also very unpleasant to be out on the boat when winds are high. This week’s sampling was a rather windy day and sampling on the small and stuffed zodiac was more of a challenge than the other days we went out. But even if we do not manage to get samples from the ocean, there is a lot of science going on at the station. We have started preparing chemicals for standards that will be used on the cruise, set up some instruments to test-run them before they join the cruise and worked on some sea-ice experiments. On Christmas day, we will do Secret Santa and everyone is going to craft something out of the stuff we can find here: Wood, glass, fabric, wool. There is a lot of stuff around for recreational purposes. On Sundays, if the weather is OK and there is not too much sea ice, we can go recreational-boating. We can either be dropped off for a hike on an island around here or stay on a the boat for a drive around. I hope to get to one of the islands with penguin colonies soon as well as to the wreck of the Bahia Paraiso which is close to this station and can be well seen as long as the phytoplankton bloom doesn’t start and blurs the water. The water is incredibly clear here due to the low productivity. But the bloom is just about to get started which introduces the next season to the region. The clear water brings me to the absolute highlight of the last week and probably of my entire stay down here: Tuesday morning, an announcement for the whole station was made that minke whales were spotted in the port. Which wasn’t really exciting me because you see them once when they surface to breath and then they are gone. Anyways, I walked to a window and those minke whales turned out to be a big family of orcas!!!! Now that was a game changer! They were swimming along the ice edge, spying on seals. They then found a huge ice floe with one crabeater seal. All it needed was one wave created by them to break the whole ice floe apart and somehow, it must have happened underwater – they managed to drag out the floe a bit with the seal on top. They kept spyhopping but somehow, they gave up after a couple of minutes. Which was great for us because then they started to explore the area closer to where we were watching them and they were literally diving right in front of us. They were about 2m away from us, exploring the floats and probably us as we were screaming hysterically. The whole spectacle took about one hour. It was the greatest hour ever. I didn’t have time to pick up my camera, but there were about 35 other people of which most had their cameras ready so that I can rely on them. So now to the unscientific updates about Antarctica: The last two weeks have been very variable, especially considering the weather conditions. We have not been able to get out a lot because the wind was pushing in all the sea ice so that it was impossible to go out in a zodiac. We managed to get out one time last week and just yesterday. But today again, the wind turned direction and pushed the ice back in. This variability is very intense and interesting to experience. The wind can pick up within seconds. If you decide to go up the glacier because it is nice and sunny, the moment you step outside, you might just be able to look 10m ahead. So safety is the highest priority. We are not allowed to go boating when wind speed is =>20 knots (about 37km/h) and have to return asap if >25knots (about 45 km/h). It is also very unpleasant to be out on the boat when winds are high. This week’s sampling was a rather windy day and sampling on the small and stuffed zodiac was more of a challenge than the other days we went out. But even if we do not manage to get samples from the ocean, there is a lot of science going on at the station. We have started preparing chemicals for standards that will be used on the cruise, set up some instruments to test-run them before they join the cruise and worked on some sea-ice experiments. On Christmas day, we will do Secret Santa and everyone is going to craft something out of the stuff we can find here: Wood, glass, fabric, wool. There is a lot of stuff around for recreational purposes. On Sundays, if the weather is OK and there is not too much sea ice, we can go recreational-boating. We can either be dropped off for a hike on an island around here or stay on a the boat for a drive around. I hope to get to one of the islands with penguin colonies soon as well as to the wreck of the Bahia Paraiso which is close to this station and can be well seen as long as the phytoplankton bloom doesn’t start and blurs the water. The water is incredibly clear here due to the low productivity. But the bloom is just about to get started which introduces the next season to the region. The clear water brings me to the absolute highlight of the last week and probably of my entire stay down here: Tuesday morning, an announcement for the whole station was made that minke whales were spotted in the port. Which wasn’t really exciting me because you see them once when they surface to breath and then they are gone. Anyways, I walked to a window and those minke whales turned out to be a big family of orcas!!!! Now that was a game changer! They were swimming along the ice edge, spying on seals. They then found a huge ice floe with one crabeater seal. All it needed was one wave created by them to break the whole ice floe apart and somehow, it must have happened underwater – they managed to drag out the floe a bit with the seal on top. They kept spyhopping but somehow, they gave up after a couple of minutes. Which was great for us because then they started to explore the area closer to where we were watching them and they were literally diving right in front of us. They were about 2m away from us, exploring the floats and probably us as we were screaming hysterically. The whole spectacle took about one hour. It was the greatest hour ever. I didn’t have time to pick up my camera, but there were about 35 other people of which most had their cameras ready so that I can rely on them. A couple of hours later, there was a leopard seal chilling on an ice floe (which would probably have been more exciting the orcas haven’t been there in the morning). And the other morning, there was a baby elephant seal lying right in the doorway so that our waste department couldn’t really get to their work. The elephant seal is still around and picks new places for his naps every now and then. Mostly in front of our doors. We called him Larry. His brothers and sisters are around as well. But they are much bigger and he seems to be a bit of a lonely kid. But he’s super cute and once he is as big as his older companions, he will do well. At the moment, there are 12 elephant seals at the station. All youngsters and not fully grown. We just saw one grown female the other day. It was slowly coming up the boat ramp when we were trying to get our boat into the water. Antarctic Treaty –> Let the elephant seal pass first. That took a while! The sea ice that is still holding the glacier in our backyard in shape is breaking off now really quickly. So the glacier will probably start calving soon which will be spectacular. Due to high winds the last couple of days from South-East, the sea ice was pushed back into the port again. I caught a gang of six penguins on camera, walking along the ice edge for hours. Maybe they were trying to find a way into the water or somewhere else. I don’t know. But they were ridiculously adorable. So that’s it for now. I hope you are all having a fab christmas time! Cheerio from Anvers Island! Riba