News - May 2002
NSF PR 02-36
Dispatch 1, from the Second Data-gathering Cruise
of SO GLOBEC
April 9, 2002: It was hailed as an incredible
feat in 1898 when explorers from a Belgian research
cruise became the first humans to survive winter in
But plankton, penguins, and seals, among others wildlife,
have for centuries "over-wintered" in Antarctica,
despite fierce cold, raging winds, and months of darkness.
In fact, the Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica,
is one of the world's most biologically productive
Today, the Southern Ocean Global Ecosystem Dynamics
(SO GLOBEC) program is examining the extraordinary
survival strategies of Antarctic creatures and their
prospects in the face of potential climate change.
This remarkable and complex scientific expedition
left Punta Arenas, Chile this week for the Antarctic
Peninsula, that portion of the continent that extends
northward towards South America.
Two National Science Foundation (NSF) research vessels,
the Laurence M. Gould and the Nathaniel
B. Palmer, will house about 100 scientists and
support crew for the next six weeks. Scientists will
repeat and refine data and sample collections and
experiments conducted last year in SO GLOBEC's inaugural
research season, applying some lessons learned in
the harsh Antarctic conditions.
"This is a real tough environment that doesn't treat
your hardware very nicely," said Peter Wiebe, of the
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who is the Palmer's
The productivity of the Southern Ocean depends largely
on an unassuming but abundant animal called krill.
These small shrimp-like creatures are the key link
in the Antarctic food web, in which nutrients from
the water "feed" primary producers (algae and phytoplankton),
which in turn feed krill, which in turn feed predators:
fish, sea birds, penguins, seals, and whales.
SO GLOBEC's central mission is to find out how and
where krill live during the critical ice-covered winter
period. But, beyond that, scientists hope to find
out how krill are connected to the rest of the Antarctic
animals and microorganisms and to the physics of the
"There are people with expertise in all these areas
on both of these ships," Wiebe said Peter Wiebe, of
the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods
Hole, Mass, who is the Palmer's chief scientist.
Working As a Team
The Palmer and the Gould will work as
a team. The Palmer will conduct a broad oceanic
survey, collecting data along a series of points on
fixed grid. The Gould will collect more focused
data, spending four to five days at five stations
in strategic locations. The study area centers on
Marguerite Bay on the western side of the Antarctic
Wiebe's team, aboard the Palmer, will map the
distribution and abundance of krill and smaller plankton,
including populations living under the ice. Others
aboard the Palmer will count whales and sea
birds from the Palmer's observation decks high
above the ocean's surface.
Ocean physics underlies the survival of all these species;
for one thing, ocean currents bring in vital nutrients.
John Klinck of Old Dominion University in Norfolk,
Va., will lead a group of physical oceanographers
who will scan the Bay looking for characteristic layers
of warmer water -- a "balmy" 2 Degrees Celsius --
(35.6 Degrees Fahrenheit) that signal nutrient-rich
water coming from the Atlantic.
"As a student, I found it the most incredibly boring
thing in the world to do these diagrams of temperature
and salinity," Klinck admitted. But, he said, these
diagrams actually tell an extraordinary tale.
"Water from the surface of the North Atlantic becomes
dense and falls to the bottom, slides down the Atlantic,
goes round and round the Circumpolar Current [where
warm northern waters meet cold Antarctic waters] and
eventually comes up to the Antarctic shelf," Klinck
explained. After hundreds to thousands of years in
this system, this water has built up a rich nutrient
base from degrading bacteria and plants.
In addition to nutrients, the Atlantic water also brings
heat, which can thin out sea ice. Since krill, as
well as certain penguin species and mammals, require
sea ice as a winter refuge, their populations might
suffer if the temperature of this intruding water
were to rise.
"Last year at this time, there wasn't any ice. This
time, we have a lot of ice. The contrast will be interesting,"
Wiebe said. Learning how krill respond to year-to-year
variations in climate may help scientists predict
their responses to prospective long-term climate change.
How do krill survive the winter?
Complementing the Palmer's large-scale survey, Gould
scientists will focus on specific biological questions
about how krill and other Antarctic animals meet the
physical challenges of the Antarctic winter.
For example, krill reduce their metabolism in the winter
so they do not have to eat as much to survive, said
Kendra Daly of the University of South Florida, who
is sailing aboard the Gould. They can also
feed on large masses of bacteria and algae that accrue
on the bottom of sea ice if the ice sits around long
"It's kind of like spinach in your freezer," Daly said.
Since food in the water column is extremely low in
the winter, these "algal popsicles" are a key food
source. In the absence of sea ice, or if sea ice forms
late in the winter, this food source may diminish,
affecting krill survival rates.
Daly will measure krill growth rates, molting rates,
and feeding rates. The Gould's chief scientist,
Joseph Torres, of the University of South Florida,
will measure krill metabolism rates.
Torres will also lead a group scuba divers under the
ice to study Antarctic fish up close. Among other
adaptations, some Antarctic fish make antifreeze proteins
that prevent their blood from freezing.
A penguin group will brave the start of the Antarctic
winter in tents. They will camp on land for two weeks
to tag penguins and examine their stomach contents.
"The penguin guys have a good idea what's going on
in the system because their animals are sampling the
same things my net's sampling," Torres said. A second
group will camp at a separate location to tag seals.
The Gould left on April 7, 2002, several hours
behind schedule due to a weight problem. Crew removed
rocks and gravel destined for Palmer Station for ongoing
construction. The Palmer left port on April
9, 2002, right on time. The bright blue, green, red,
and orange rooftops of Punta Arenas faded into the
distance as the Palmer headed into the Straits
of Magellan en route to the Drake Passage-- which
contains some of the roughest seas in the world.
The voyagers are as much adventurers as scientists
as they prepare to take on the cold, rough seas of
the Antarctic and even to camp on its lands or dive
in its seas. But, then again, adventure is the heart