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Science Careers Blog

December 14, 2009

Extreme Science

It's snowing heavily today. (A year ago, instead of snow, it rained cats and dogs here at Palmer.) The icebergs on the bay are covered by a frosting, like fine powdered sugar, and the sea has blue and green brash ice that sings like broken crystals as the water moves underneath. Visibility is just a few hundred yards.

Even so, we went out water sampling with Maggie Waldron from the Marine Biological Laboratory. Twice a week, Maggie collects water in a contraption similar to the Nansen bottles that are widely used in oceanography. Each bottles is mostly a tube with springs and caps that open and close as the bottle is lowered to stops at five different depths between 0 and 50 meters. Maggie collects always at the same two locations, named B and E. So far, she has collected more than 200 samples.
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"We want to see what happens with microorganisms, like bacteria, in these locations as the Summer progresses", she says. "As soon as we get back to the lab  we start processing them, ...  before the environmental conditions in the bottles change too much. I start filtering the nitrogen right on the boat".

The zodiac for this job is larger than the ones we have used so far. It has a small crane and it is powered by a 70-horse outboard engine, which allows it to go over medium-sized pieces of brash ice. For the other boats, this brash ice is like a minefield.

Working in the middle of the ocean, under a snowfall,  at -4 degrees celcius, is difficult. Doing so while wearing cumbersome gloves -- pushing buttons and entering data in laptops, or in my case, when operating video and still cameras -- can be a small ordeal. Moving gear in and out of a dry bag is a task. Keeping camera lenses clean is even more difficult. And of course, when you spot a penguin on an iceberg everything has to be done at once.
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The other two scientists on board today are Alex Kahl and Brian Gaas from Rutgers University. They are collecting information about the quality and quantity of light that phytoplankton receives in these waters. These photosynthetic algae are the base of the food chain in the seas. Alex and Brian are deploying two devices laden with sensors that will measure the extent to which the particles suspended in the water column are absorbing, reflecting, and scattering sunlight. The instruments scan between the surface and 100 meters deep.
 
The snow is relentless. It accumulates on everything. Our fingers are numb with cold; mine actually hurt. The scientists go on with their work, telling jokes and talking about the hot lunch that awaits at the station as they check salinity and temperature. These parameters, they explain, will be studied along with everything else: the quantity of plankton in the water. How healthy the krill and bacteria are, and what the penguins are eating.

Because this is such a hostile environment, says Alex, the life chain here in Antarctica is less complex in the upper levels of organisms.  Later, he explained what he means in an online chat on the NPR Web site. "The greatest difference between this food chain and that of non-polar oceans is the energy that is put into the system. The phytoplankton -- the krill's food -- can only introduce biomass -- that is, energy -- into the system when it has enough light. That means during the Austral summer.

"This makes one think of the enormous impact of the sea-ice variability.  It is basically the key to the whole system. Both the krill and the adelies need this ice to survive. But if the sea ice  continues to recede to the south there won't be enough light during the winter for the phytoplankton to grow, which would leave the adelies in the dark, so to speak".

Three hours after we leave the station, our fingers are useless. We return to the ranch, our  eyes filled with visions of icebergs in an extraordinary array of textures and shapes and characters. This is truly science in the extreme. And I love it.

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