Late Thursday night, we finally received our first marine sediment core, in the form of a Jumbo Kasten Core from the Vega Drift. For Professor McCormick’s marine microbiology team this meant the start of a long couple of days. The first deployment of the Kasten Core equipment by the Marine Technicians, resulted in a core that was only about a meter and half in length. Since the Jumbo Kasten Core can potentially produce a core 6 meters in length, this short one was considered bad to sample. However with a second deployment, we were able to get a core 4.3 meters long. With the help of many people, the Kasten Core was carried into the Aft Dry Lab and laid down along a very long table. This is where the sampling began.
As we opened up the side of the metal frame surrounding the core, panel by panel, the smell of sulfur emanated into the lab as well as the hallway. To most people the smell of rotten eggs would repulse them, but for our group it was exciting because we are looking to identify microbes that use different forms of sulfur to respire. We quickly got to work using 60 milliliter syringes to collect large amounts of the sediment at thirty different locations down the core. With a tape measure lying next to the long sediment core, each centimeter down the length of it, represented a centimeter deep into the sediment. We took samples at thirty different depths because we are interested in how the microbial community structure changes the deeper you go into the sediment. We also collected a second set of sediment at the same depths to investigate the geochemistry of the pore water, which was separated from the sediment using a centrifuge. We hope to determine what kind of levels of methane, sulfide, sulfate, iron, and many other elements exist at the different depths. One of the goals of this project is to potentially hypothesize why certain microbes are found at some depths and not others using the geochemistry and other information we already know. By the end of the trip we should have samples from several different Jumbo Kasten Cores from several different locations along the Antarctic Peninsula.
During the night shift, 12 a.m. to 12 p.m, we completed our journey through the Bransfield Strait. By 6 a.m., we had entered the Antarctic Sound. The sunrise was cloudy, and fog descended soon after, but we were able to catch a glimpse of Joinville Island to the east and the continent to the west of the ship.
The marine geology students took regular trips to the deck every half hour or so by in hopes of being the first to spot ice. Not long after arriving in the sound, we set up station. Our first deployment of the cruise began at 7:42 a.m. as we released a Conductivity Temperature Depth profiler (CTD), and everyone was happy to receive water samples from the instrument and move on to the next project. By noon, we had released another CTD and were troubleshooting a few whale bone lander issues. By the time the night shifters were off, we were on our way to the Vega Drift, a site further south where we intend to collect a jumbo Kasten core. If we are successful, we will be sampling this core for the next 24 hours or so. It’s difficult to leave the lab and climb into bed on this first day of sampling and icy scenery.
We are now three days out of port and have entered the Drake Passage. We were informed before leaving Punta Arenas that this passage had some of the roughest waters in the world, but, so far we've encountered very little pitching or rolling.
For the past week, Liz and I worked with Professor McCormick to set up our lab. Most importantly, we set up an anoxic glove box that we will use to divide up sediment cores for sampling. This task proved to be particularly difficult because we needed to ensure that the container was airtight. Anoxic conditions are ideal for the bacteria we are researching.
Yesterday we received a tutorial on how to load and unload the megacore tubes used for sampling. The marine techs brought out two megacore casings and demonstrated the proper way to load them so that the mechanism closes properly once it reaches the ocean floor. There are twelve casings in one drop for a megacore, so we will have our hands full with both loading and carefully unloading them without disturbing the samples. Once our group has selected an optimal core for sampling, we will take several chemical readings from the sediment. We will also bring samples back to Hamilton to propagate bacteria.
054 14.9290 S
065 29.4548 W
With the recovery of the whale bone lander in the Antarctic Sound three and a half days away, the scientists aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer are making ready equipment for the deployments to follow. Unfortunately, a bout of rough seas in the Straits has put a few members of our stalwart party out of commission.
High wind and waves made sleeping difficult last night for those of us on day watch (noon to midnight), but I can’t help but feel sorrier for my peers on the night watch (midnight to noon). They’ve been adjusting their sleep schedules over the past three days to wake up at 11 p.m. and work through the night until lunch. The changes will be easier to deal with once we reach Antarctica and the seas are calmed by ice.
Today we started the normal duties associated with the watches. Nadine Orejola, a student from Montclair State University, and I are keeping track of the multitude of numbers blinking at us from monitors in the ‘forward dry lab.’ This is lab closest to the bow of the boat. As our watch chief Julia Wellner, a professor at University of Houston, explains, we are responsible for recording data including latitude, longitude, speed and heading (360º compass direction), and water depth. Time and date are other matters. Instead of recording the local time, we record GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), which is three hours ahead of current local time, and the Julian Day (today is Julian Day 072). These numbers standardize data comparison, especially in case the time zone changes. We are also charged with recording the gravity in our area, which changes according to one’s location. We also record air and water temperatures, wind direction and speed, and barometric pressure. These readings are but a few of those available to us from shipboard instrumentation.
As our watch-mates recover from seasickness and we make it through the Drake Passage to our field area, we will all take on the many responsibilities of watch-standing. For now, Nadine and I are hanging out in the forward dry lab, waiting for the seas to calm.
We’re on our way! After a couple days of delays, we have finally made our way east along the Straits of Magellan to the South Atlantic Ocean. From there, we will be heading due south through the choppy waters of the Drake Passage. Our field area is the northeastern Antarctic Peninsula, where we’ll be starting operations in about three days.
First on the agenda is a project that has everyone simultaneously excited and a little squeamish. The diversity of deep sea floor organisms is amazingly complex, and perhaps the most unique site of organism diversification is on the decaying bodies of massive whales. It’s easiest to think of these whales on the seafloor like decaying trees in a forest. As trees decay, they progress through multiple stages during which specific varieties of insects and fungi pick away at the wood. Whale carcasses are very similar, and while the seafloor may look like an expansive, empty plain, the seafloor around the Antarctic Peninsula is loaded with nutritious sediment. Whale bones, unlike decaying trees, actually seem to host organisms that only live on the bones, and nowhere else. Even more interesting, organisms are not unlike those that inhabit the area around deep sea vents: tubeworms, amphipods (e.g. pillbugs), and sea spiders.
Craig Smith, of the University of Hawaii, and David Honig of Duke University are heading up the whale bone project. Deployed two years ago, the “whale bone lander” is a large rectangular frame, with baskets on either side that hold the large whale bones that were left on the sea floor during our previous LARISSA cruise, NBP10-01. Two years later, we’re back to pick up the lander and sample the whale bones. An acoustic release mechanism, after receiving a signal from the Palmer, will release the lander. Everyone who’s experienced the whale bones in the past agrees, while the organisms are fascinating, the bones themselves issue a pungent odor that’s not easy to remove from clothing. That being said, I think we’re still pretty excited to pick some worms from decayed whale bone!
The LARISSA project (LARsen Ice Shelf System, Antarctica), part of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Integrated Systems Science department, was initiated in 2007. Scientific research in remote environments like Antarctica is especially difficult and expensive. However, advantageous collaborations such as LARISSA allow geologists and biologists from a diversity of institutions to facilitate efficient multi-disciplinary study. This variety of new-age exploration grants scientists greater capacity to focus on specific topics, while also receiving input from their peers. LARISSA was developed in response to the collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in 2002 as a way to discover as much as possible about the newly exposed area. Our current voyage encompasses a diversity of institutions and nationalities. Fourteen institutions and seven countries are represented amongst the scientists alone. Three specialized groups compose the LARISSA project: Marine & Quaternary Geology, Marine Ecosystems, and Cryosphere & Oceans. Each group is devoted in part to determining the mechanisms of the ice shelf’s collapse, as well as the consequences to previously covered ecosystems. Other projects involve the geological and biological processes of the Antarctica Peninsula.
Before we can even cross the Drake Passage, the stretch of water separating South America and Antarctica, we must leave the Straits of Magellan, which is the natural channel that made Punta Arenas a booming port town before the construction of the Panama Canal. Ferdinand Magellan, for whom the Straits are named, is one of the names most synonymous with exploration in western history. A Portuguese explorer with ample funding from the Spanish monarchy, his fleet of ships set out to circumnavigate the world in August of 1519. Although he was killed in a mutinous uprising in the Philippines before he could complete the voyage, Magellan managed to discover an alternate route to the treacherous Cape Horn below South America: the Strait of Magellan. Although the days of blazing new routes around little-explored continents have passed, there are still mysteries to be uncovered in the far-flung reaches of the world.
It is disconcerting to begin a six-week sojourn to one of the most mysterious places on Earth and leave the familiarity of Syracuse’s small international airport. As we traveled south from the wintry northeast, it quickly became apparent that our fellow scientists, heading to the Research Vessel Nathaniel V. Palmer, were coming from all corners of the world. After thirty six hours of travel (and a very long stopover in Santiago), we finally arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile. The excitement of customs was nothing compared to our growing jitters the following morning while walking through the city’s beautiful streets. A cosmopolitan port town, Punta Arenas was once the hub of trade and transportation at the bottom of the world. Now, its extreme southern latitude serves climate scientists, geologists, and biologists as a stopping-off point before they head to remote Antarctica.
A buff and blue team of six: two professors, one alumna, and three undergraduates, we are a small part of the scientific team aboard the Palmer. Professors Michael McCormick and Eugene Domack study biology and geology, respectively. Andrew Seraichick ’13 and Liz Bucceri ’11 will be working under Professor McCormick for the duration of the voyage, studying microbial community structures in different environments around the Antarctic Peninsula. They will be answering general, but vital, questions about these communities: who is living in these communities, and what allows them to survive in harsh Antarctic waters.
Natalie Elking ’12 and Manique Talaia-Murray ’12 are Geoscience majors working under the direction of Professor Domack. They will be heavily involved with the collection and ship-board analysis of offshore sediment cores, as well as a brief excursion ashore to Robertson Island to collect granite samples that will help establish a chronology for land ice extent on Antarctica from before the last glacial maximum (~12 000 years ago).
On March 5, we convened in the massive NSF LARISSA warehouse to collect our cold weather gear, including Carhart overalls, steel-toed rubber work boots, and massive red down parkas affectionately termed ‘Big Reds.’ The following day we boarded the ship, stowed our gear in our small, but well-proportioned berths, and got ready for a tempestuous voyage across the Drake Passage.