From The Cistern Yard to Antarctica

The sunset reflecting off the ice and the mountains, making them appear pink. (Photo: Michael Bollen)

Recent College of Charleston graduate, Lauren Lees (BS, Biology, 2017), shares her experiences aboard a research cruise to Antarctica

When I graduated from the College of Charleston last May, I never thought I would spend a significant part of my year off working in Antarctica. However, that’s where I ended up thanks to an amazing opportunity offered to me by Dr. Jack DiTullio. The trip down south was a chance for me to broaden the scope of my research experience, as well as a personal adventure, to say the least. Dr. DiTullio was the Chief Scientist aboard the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer. The Palmer set sail from Punta Arenas, Chile on December 19, 2017 to the Amundsen Sea. From the Amundsen we performed a transect along the Antarctic continent into Terra Nova Bay. After a brief stop in McMurdo Station roughly halfway through the trip, we continued to collect data in Terra Nova Bay until we began our transit to Hobart, Tasmania where we disembarked on March 4, 2018.

Many (but not all) from the science party and USAP staff aboard the second leg of NBP18-01. (Photo: Michael Bollen)

Zodiac operations to collect sea ice and brine samples. (Photo: Michael Bollen)

On board, the DiTullio group was one of four academic research groups gathering massive amounts of data over our 77 day research cruise. We were funded by National Science Foundation to investigate the factors that limit phytoplankton growth in the Southern Ocean. This is one of the most productive phytoplankton communities in the ocean, and it plays an important role is sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By understanding what factors limit phytoplankton growth, we can begin to predict how this community might affect, as well as be impacted by, climate change in the future. In our experiments, we explored how the limitation of iron, B12, zinc, manganese and other trace elements affected the growth, productivity, and species composition of phytoplankton in the Ross Sea. Additionally, we conducted a series of hydrocasts as we travelled from the Amundsen Sea into Terra Nova Bay. From these samples, we measured numerous variables such as chlorophyll, accessory pigment and Vitamin B12 concentrations. The data collected from the hydrocasts allow us to develop spatial and depth profiles of several biogeochemical parameters that influence the phytoplankton community. The DiTullio group also consisted of two collaborators from Italy—Francesco Bolinesi, a PhD student from the University of Naples Federico II who investigated the photosynthetic efficiency of phytoplankton, and Pasquale Castango, a physical oceanography post-doctoral researcher from the Parthenope University of Naples. We worked closely with Dr. Mak Saito’s group from the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI).  The Saito group focuses on trace metal chemical oceanography and worked with us to set up experiments investigating the effects of various trace metals on phytoplankton growth and productivity. Their sampling involved the use of a separate trace metal clean rosette which allowed them to measure concentrations of various trace metals (e.g. iron, cobalt, zinc, etc.)  that may greatly affect phytoplankton growth and productivity throughout the cruise.  The WHOI group also collected large volume in-situ filtered water samples for measuring protein concentrations. Dr. Rob Dunbar’s group from Stanford investigated dissolved oxygen isotopes and salinity changes in seawater to determine how much water at a given location and depth came from basal ice melt, which can be used as evidence for rates of glacial melt in Antarctica. Additionally, throughout the cruise they collected data to investigate carbon cycling, and one graduate student, Michael Bollen from the University of Otago, New Zealand  also collected samples for diatom identification and abundance. The fourth group aboard the Palmer was Dr. Grace Saba’s team from Rutgers University, who deployed and monitored an autonomous glider fitted with an acoustic sensor that will be used to better understand the composition and food web interactions in the Ross Sea.

New frazil ice forming in February. (Photo: Lauren Lees)

The Palmer breaks through ice. (Photo: Michael Bollen)

Being on a research vessel for the first time was an experience that I’ll always value, and it was filled with highs and lows. One of the best parts of the cruise was meeting my fellow scientists and getting to bond with them as time went on. It can be hard to see the same people every day, all day for an extended period of time, but the group got along incredibly well—probably too well if you knew of the shenanigans that took place during the science breaks. Another obvious highlight of mine would be seeing the wildlife and the scenery—pictures honestly don’t do it justice. I’d also being lying if I said one of my happiest moments wasn’t getting off the ship in McMurdo. Being able to walk for more than a few hundred feet in one direction felt amazing after being on board for about a month and a half.

With high points, there are always low points. The most glaring low point for me was running out of fresh food half-way through the trip. But, we all survived, and I have a new appreciation for a salad. Additionally, being unable to communicate with my loved ones back home was hard at times. The ship has limited internet—enough to send some messages— but not enough to maintain the constant communication we are so used to today. That being said, it was rather refreshing to unplug from social media for a few months, and I can now say I’m able to live without my smartphone.

Overall, the high points of the trip greatly outweigh the low. We were able to see Orcas with the southernmost active volcano, Mt. Erebus, in the background. We saw penguins and seals regularly as we transited through the ice. We experienced a sunset after months of constant light in the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. And we conducted some amazing science with an incredible group of people.

An Orca spy-hopping in the channel into McMurdo. (Photo: Michael Bollen)

Orcas and penguins stand-off. (Photo: Hannah Beutler)


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