Sciencing, Pt. 1

I kind of slipped it into the last post all casual-like, so in case you missed it: WE’RE IN ANTARCTICA. Now that I’m done playing catch-up on all that Gould stuff, I can tell you a bit about what life has been like here at Palmer Station so far.

I’m a little torn about where to start. The last few days have been exciting and exhausting, and everything seems to merit immediate dissection. Even if I’d just arrived, plopped down in the middle of the galley, and sat there for a week, there would still be more to talk about—about the sights and sounds and modi operandi of the United States’ smallest Antarctic research station—than I could reasonably explore in a 500-word blog post.

But of course, that’s not how we spent the last few days. Unexpectedly, we ended up starting ~ScieNCe~ within our first twenty-four hours on station. That was not the original plan. The original plan was to take a few days to unpack; set up the lab space; attend orientation meetings, safety briefings, and the like; and generally adjust to life at Palmer. Of course, we did most of that, anyway. (Don’t worry, NSF! We didn’t start lab work until we’d had training.). But, when we arrived, the water around Palmer was filled by a bumper crop of sea ice. And that was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

So while I promise I will tell you about Palmer—the industrial-park-on-the-outside-family-owned-ski-lodge-on-the-inside aesthetic, the glacier in the backyard, what in Sir Ernest Shackleton’s name “House Mouse” means—right now, it’s time to talk turkey. And by “turkey,” I mean science.

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… Okay, first you can check out this cute picture of a mother seal and her pup. We think it’s a crab-eater, but someone else said it was the Weddell seal, which is rarer in these parts. So if we have any mammologists in the audience who can tell us, don’t be a stranger!

Before I talk about sampling, I’m going to give an overview of what we’re actually trying to accomplish during our all-too-brief time on station.

We came here primarily to study algae. Okay, you hopefully got that from the name of the blog. But hey, what even are algae, anyway? I’m glad you asked! Algae are microscopic photosynthesizers—that is, organisms so small that they are invisible to the naked eye (thanks, Hans and Zacharias Janssen!) that use the sun’s energy to turn carbon dioxide (a waste-product in our nasty nasty animal breath) into food, generating oxygen in the process. All the oxygen you breathe was made by photosynthesis.

When most people think of photosynthesis, their minds immediately jump to plants. For good reason: land plants are responsible for about half of photosynthesis (and therefore oxygen production!) on Earth.

Where did the other half originate?” you ask, suspecting the answer but willing to humor your friendly neighborhood blogger.

Algae! That’s right. Those tiny green dots you can only see under a microscope are responsible for half the air we breathe.

 

Or, as my PI (recall: principal investigator, not private eye) says, every second breath you take was produced by algae in the oceans.

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But, like, picture her saying it in an Australian accent. (Sorry Jodi plz don’t fire me)

“Okay, algae are important. Can we see pictures of derpy penguins now?”

Soon! But first, a bit more about algae and why we’re studying them–and perhaps more saliently, why we’re studying them here.

Wait a second. That’s a good point. Aren’t the little suckers everywhere? Couldn’t you go someplace like, I don’t know, Hawaii to find algae? I mean, isn’t your lab two steps from the ocean? Why don’t you just walk down to the dock with a bucket and call it a day?”

That’s a valid question. One reason we came here is that “here” is a really special place, and not just in the sense that we have a glacier in our backyard. Biologically, the Western Antarctic Peninsula is both fascinating and crucially important. It’s one of the most productive places in the entire Southern Ocean. (“Productive” is just a fancy way of saying that a lot of carbon dioxide is coming out of the atmosphere, which is good for humans, and lots of oxygen is going into the atmosphere. Which, you know. Also good for humans.)

And it’s not just about breathable air; it’s about ecosystems. The wildlife here is remarkable, with lots of marine mammals and bird life unlike anywhere else on the planet. But all that life needs a healthy system to support it. Remember learning about the food chain in grade school? The orca eats the seal who eats the penguin who eats the fish who eats the krill. It’s all a big house of cards, and if you pull out one of the cards on the bottom–e.g., if the krill go away–the whole thing comes falling down. (“It’s a chain? It’s a house of cards? For heaven’s sake, woman, pick a metaphor and stick to it!”). Those krill are mighty important, and boy howdy, do oceanographers like to study them. Which they absolutely should.

But what do the krill eat?

You guessed it. Algae.

It’s crazy enough that algae are able to live in these waters. The first officer on the Gould told us that even in our Gumby suits, we wouldn’t be able to survive a full hour in the sub-zero waters of the Southern Ocean. (A very reassuring fact to learn during a safety briefing.) Remember, life is chemistry. And in chemistry, low temperatures mean slow reactions. Slow reactions are bad news for any living thing that wants to stay that way. And some algae aren’t just living in the water–they’re living in the ice itself. How is this possible? How are these guys–who, by all logic, should be living life in the slow lane, if at all–not only surviving in these conditions, but thriving to such an extent that they are supporting a food web that gives us penguins and baby seals?

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It’s not just humans who depend on algae to survive. 

And to complicate matters, the Western Antarctic Peninsula is among the places on Earth warming the fastest.

Remember “every second breath”? Remember the house of cards?

Hawaii would be great. There’s important work to do in Hawaii, and the Puget Sound, and any other body of water you can think of. There are amazing discoveries to be made no farther than your front lawn. But something important is happening here, and right now, we just don’t understand it well enough. We don’t know why this place is so productive. We don’t know how these algae can survive the extremes that they do. We don’t know what will happen when the climate changes more dramatically here than anywhere else on the planet. From a bioengineering perspective, the answers could give us clues about how to use algae as a carbon sink to help fight the rise of greenhouse gases causing the very climate change that is currently altering every part of the world, including and especially this most remarkable corner. More basically, it lets us lift up the hood (“Please, not another metaphor, we beg you“) and peek inside this biological engine so we can see how it works, and predict how it’s function will be affected as the environment in which it operates changes.

Luckily for us, we don’t have to wait for the climate to change to get some idea of how the algae will change. Spring in Antarctica might not feel so spring-like to those of us used to walking around in fewer than five layers of clothing, but the shift is near-cataclysmic on a microscopic level. The temperature increases, causing ice to melt, which in turn decreases the salinity (=saltiness) of the sea water. And the days–which are nonexistent during the so-called “Polar Night”–stretch to eighteen hours or longer depending on latitude, until the sun never fully sets at all. That kind of extreme puts a lot of stress on humans, but that’s nothing compared the havoc it wreaks on photosynthesizers.

The effects of sunlight on algae are very interesting, and pretty well studied, but less relevant to climate change than temperature and salinity. Why? Well, climate change– devastating as its effects are predicted to be–won’t shorten or lengthen our days. It will, however, change temperature and sea water salinity. So Hannah and I are hoping to tease apart some of the physiological changes these magnificent microbes make to survive the buck-wild shift in temperature and salinity they undergo each year during the austral spring.

Here’s a funny joke: remember when I suggested this post might clock in at 500 words? Hysterical, I know. I guess the actual deets of sampling and Palmer livin’ will have to wait for another day. It’s coming, I promise! Anyway. Here’s some seal cuddles for your troubles.

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