December 27: Christmas

Post by VIMS graduate student Mar Arroyo.

27 Dec 2016

22:07 – 65° 19’ S, 109° 5’ E

View of the Heli Deck on Christmas Day

Merry Christmas! When is the best time to celebrate Christmas, if not Dec 25th? Two days later on a ship stuck in the ice! The voyage leaders and watercraft operators were working hard to finish off the final bits of resupply at Casey on Dec 25th, so Christmas was postponed.

Now that resupply is complete, we are making our way east to the Totton Glacier to begin marine science. Crunching through thick pack ice isn’t always forgiving, even for a huge ice-breaker like the Aurora. The captain decided to pause the ice breaking to give the pack ice an opportunity to loosen up. In the meantime, we celebrate Christmas!

The food spread arranged by the galley staff. This was only about 1/3 of the food served!

The amazing galley staff on the Aurora arranged a feast of a Christmas lunch, with more crayfish, ham, and fruit cake than you can imagine. There was also a special surprise of beer and wine to celebrate the holiday.

After lunch, we played games and exchanged presents. We had a visit from Santa Claus, who seemed to have lost his beard while traveling south from the North Pole. Santa brought presents for all 81 passengers on board. I got a kite!

Santa and sea ice
Merry Christmas from V2!


Jan 27: Process Study 2

Post by VIMS graduate student Lori Price

After our little break at Avian Island we immediately began our second of three Process Studies. This process study is focused in the waters surrounding Avian Island to look at the environment where the penguins are feeding and the quality/types of the food the penguins are eating.

The set-up for the CO2 experiments.
The set-up of Grace Saba's CO2 experiment features large gas cylinders hooked up to bottles to bubble varying amounts of gas to achieve different levels of CO2. The gray screening simulates the light levels that the organisms experience at the depth the water was collected (about 10-meters deep). The bottles are inside the large gray tubs. Photo by Grace Saba.

The intensive study began with Dr. Grace Saba, one of our phytoplankton post-doctoral researchers (and her team of helpers), setting up a complicated CO2 addition experiment to see how different levels of carbon dioxide affect the phytoplankton, bacterial, and viral communities. She had previously done an experiment at the beginning of the cruise to test the effects of increased CO2 levels on krill. These experiments involve very intensive set-up and sampling every few days and their entire group has been working very hard and they have already been seeing some interesting preliminary results!

Researchers sample zooplankton.
Caitlin Smoot (L) and Kim Bernard (R) pick large zooplankton from a net tow, then bring the rest of the sample into the lab to finish sorting. Photo by Ken Legg.

We then moved on for some intense sampling, hitting stations that were only about an hour apart and doing the full suite of sample collection at each station, including all of our net tows. Our sample processing rapidly got backed up and we had to slightly alter the way we were processing our tows to make sure we finished in time.  About halfway through the Process Study we received satellite tracks from three of the penguins the bird researchers had tagged when we dropped them off on Avian Island.  Based on those tracks, we shifted our sampling to include the locations where the penguins were feeding just a few days prior and continued our intense sampling.

Needless to say, we all worked around the clock to finish processing our samples, and even had time to squeeze in some experiments. It was an exhausting Process Study but in the end will provide very valuable information in the area where thousands of breeding penguins feed. And again, another perfectly timed break was scheduled for us to visit Rothera Station, the British base on the Peninsula that hosts the British Antarctic Survey and some of our British collaborators.

Jan 19: Mooring Recoveries and Some Bad Weather

Posting by VIMS graduate student Kate Ruck.

The LTER cruise was designed to happen every austral summer (Dec.-Jan. in the southern hemisphere) for a couple of different reasons:

  1. This is the most productive time in the ocean waters of our sampling grid. There are plenty of phytoplankton (single-celled plants), which means there are plenty of animals eating the phytoplankton.
  2. It’s the time of year when the waters around the peninsula are the most accessible by boat, because all of the sea ice that built up during the winter has now melted.
  3. The weather is usually at its mildest during the summer, maximizing the number of days that we’re able to work while out at sea.

But we are in Antarctica and the weather can change very quickly. Recently, I helped to deploy a net during my shift on a relatively calm, overcast day, only to retrieve it about 30 minutes later in 30-knot winds and growing swells. The bad weather persisted for the next couple of days. The winds never got bad enough to stop our work, but they were persistently strong and the ocean swells reached about 15 ft. The boat was rolling so much that it was tossing loose equipment off of our workbenches and we could see water washing over the portholes in our labs. During this time we had to retrieve a few moorings that have been sitting in the ocean since we deployed them last year, making for a couple of exciting moments on the back deck.

Marine technicians aboard the Laurence M. Gould recover a sediment trap from the waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo courtesy of Kate Ruck.
Marine technicians aboard the Laurence M. Gould recover a sediment trap from the waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo courtesy of Kate Ruck.

A mooring is basically an instrument that’s suspended in the water column with a heavy weight on one end that sits on the sea floor and some type of buoyancy on the other end that keeps the whole set-up upright. We have two types of moorings that we use in our work; a sediment trap and four temperature/depth moorings.

The sediment trap is a big funnel-shaped contraption that sits 150 meters below the surface of the ocean and collects particles that are sinking from the surface waters toward the sea floor. The particles are collected in the funnel and then deposited in large, plastic bottles that contain a preservative. The trap is set on a timer, so the bottles will rotate and we can collect samples from very specific times during the year. The bottles are set to smaller time increments during the austral summer, when the ocean is more productive and there are more particles in the water, and for longer times increments during the winter when the ocean is less productive and there is a low particle level in the water.

The summer is so productive down here because when we’re this far south on the globe there is a longer period of daytime light then there is further north. And when you get below the Antarctic Circle (which we crossed a few days ago) you can get 24 hours of full sunlight. The high levels of light fuel phytoplankton growth, which in turn supports a large, high-energy food web. When all that life eventually dies, it sinks through the water column and is either buried on the ocean floor or acts as a food source for animals that live below the surface waters of the ocean. The sediment trap is useful because we can measure how much of that productivity in the surface waters is sinking to depth.

The temperature-depth mooring is a much simpler concept. It’s constructed from a very long piece of rope (~350 meters) with sensors attached at regular intervals. The sensors measure their depth from the surface and the temperature of the surrounding water. These measurements are taken every 15 minutes and we download all of the data when we pick the mooring up the next year. This huge amount of information is useful because there is a lot of warm water coming up onto the Antarctic continental shelf, which is melting the sea ice around the peninsula. Having the sensors at different depths in the water column, in different places around the waters of the peninsula, can help us pinpoint where exactly all that warm water is coming from.

PAL-LTER researchers and crew recover a mooring under high seas. Photo courtesy of Kate Ruck.
PAL-LTER researchers and crew recover a mooring under high seas. Photo courtesy of Kate Ruck.

We collected three of the temperature/depth moorings while the weather was rough. To collect a mooring, our electronics technician (ET for short) sends a radio signal that disconnects the mooring from its weight, and then the buoys attached to the mooring rise to the surface where they are spotted by a group of people on the bridge. A bunch of us collect outside on the back deck while the captain repositions the boat to get near the mooring and then one of our marine technicians (MTs) throws a grappling line to catch the mooring rope and then everyone helps to pull the mooring line on board. It’s not an easy task when the weather is rough. The captain wants to get the mooring as close to the stern of the boat as possible, which means he has to back the boat into some pretty large waves. Our poor MTs were getting wave after wave crashing on their heads as they were tossing the line, trying to hook a mooring that’s bobbing up and down in the waves. They’re strapped to a short safety line that’s set up like a dog run, allowing them to move port to starboard on the deck but keeping them about half a foot from the open ocean at the ship’s edge. Once they hook the mooring and haul it on board, they pass back the ropes and sensors to the science crew and the whole set up is hand-carried inside to be disassembled. It was a couple of exciting days to break up the routine of our usual station work.

Jan 14: Palmer Port Call

Post by VIMS graduate student Kate Ruck.

Before we can really start our work, the Laurence M. Gould (LMG) needs to make a stop at Palmer Station to unload fresh food and supplies for people onshore and to also pick up some people and lab equipment that we’ll need for the cruise.

Palmer Station is one of the three United States bases in Antarctica, with South Pole and McMurdo being the other two. It is the mid-sized station of the three, with the population maxing out somewhere between 40 and 50 people, while McMurdo is the largest (~2,000) and South Pole is the smallest (20 to 30). It’s located on the southern end of the beautiful Anvers Island in the western Antarctic Peninsula, tucked in and slightly sheltered from the open Southern Ocean.

Our stop at Palmer Station is always a little bittersweet. We say goodbye to some of the people that we’ve gotten to know and enjoy during the Drake crossing, scientists that use the LMG as a passenger ship instead of a research platform. But we also say hello to members of our own team who have been living and working at Palmer Station since October. They’ve been working from the labs on station and they also use zodiacs, basically heavy duty inflatable rafts, to sample the waters in the immediate vicinity. The boating limit around Palmer station is about 2 miles, encompassing a large number of islands that support a number of marine bird populations. All science is pretty much restricted to this area, but teams from station work hard to make the most of the natural world that is available to them.

The port call is usually a very busy time; off-loading cargo, on-loading whole labs, using the scales and chemical supplies at station to fill in the gaps we’ve noticed in our own labs on the boat. But during our brief stay, we usually manage to squeeze in some last minute shore time and a bit of sight-seeing for the people who have never been to station before. One of the stops usually includes a zodiac ride to an Adelie penguin colony on one of the nearby islands. Half of the island is open to visitors and we’re allowed to walk around, observing the adult penguins huddling over their already large chicks. Predatory skuas fly by overhead, waiting for an opening provided by a careless parent. Skuas have also been known to be interested in the humans that come to the island, with stories of this very large bird trying to snatch the hat right from your head.

We also make time for a quick hike around the “backyard,” a large stretch of rocky land behind Palmer Station. This stretch of land behind the station includes rocky hills that lead up to a small glacier, which we’re allowed to walk up to get a better view of the beautiful surrounding islands, water, and mountains. The only dangers associated with the glacier are the deep crevasses that form and a safe path created and marked with threadbare blue flags. Ice all around Palmer Station has been receding over the years, opening up dangerous crevasses that can be very deep.

The day ends with station extending an invitation to the boat inhabitants to have dinner “cross-town.” It’s meant to be a bit of a joke, as the entrance to the station galley is only about 30 meters from the gangplank of the boat. This is a very kind gesture by the station folk, as it essentially doubles the amount of food that their cooks have to prepare. It’s also something that the group from the boat values because the food on station is so amazingly delicious! After about a day and a half of steady work and some late afternoon socializing, we’re ready to begin our cruise.