Monday, 8 January 2018

Antarctic Voyage (3) - Work getting under way

I am now in my beautiful temporary office in the Bonner Lab of Rothera Research Station and reflecting about the work we are trying to accomplish here. My work is focused on the seaweeds of this part of Antarctica. During my previous expedition in December 2010 - January 2011, the objective was to establish an inventory for the Adelaide Island - Marguerite Bay region (SW Antarctic Peninsula)[i]. Our present work, in collaboration with Prof. Lloyd S. Peck (British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge) and funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), has the following objectives:

(1)   To understand how seaweeds, which are photosynthetic, plant-like organisms, cope with spending more than half a year in darkness due to the polar night and due to > 6 months of sea ice cover.
(2)   To study how seaweeds and other seabed-dwelling organisms colonize the recently-deglaciated seabed areas which were until recently covered by the nearby Sheldon Glacier in SE Adelaide Island, which has shrunk fast since the mid-1990s.

Indeed, there is plenty of evidence for climate change in this part of Antarctica. Just a few examples:
- Major glaciers and shelf ice areas (= glaciers floating on the sea) have been shrinking right here, especially over the last 20 years. These effects are well-documented back to the 1940s, since glaciers are relatively easy to map and since the 1960s, there are also plenty of satellite images. As mentioned above, one of my science objectives is to look at how marine life is colonizing seabed areas that were underneath such shelf ice areas for the last 100,000 years or longer. The challenge is that it may be too hazardous to do any diving in the most interesting areas near the glacier's edge since it releases icebergs with hardly any prior notice – we may resort to using a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV, a remote-controlled, robotic submarine instead).
- We are also looking into how organisms from more temperate climates further north are colonizing the seabed in this part of Antarctica. When I first came to this place 7 years ago, several colleagues told me that "there isn't much seaweed at Rothera" and "so why do you want to go there?" - but in the end, we found a lot more than expected (to be precise, 18 species which had not been seen in this area before) i. The difficulty with such studies is the shortage of historic baseline data for many types of biodiversity - were these 18 species previously unrecorded because they really were not here, or has nobody been looking for them? Before my own studies here in 2010-2011, only 2 colleagues from UC Berkeley did any diving-based surveys for seaweeds in this part of Antarctica (in the early 1970s) - and even though they were working in this same area, they managed to do only 3 dives at sites different from those that I visited in 2010-2011. They are very eminent, senior colleagues who were certainly doing the best work they potentially could - if they have managed to do only 3 dives around here back then, that is entirely down to the great logistical difficulties that they were facing when working here in the 1970s (which are still not trivial still now). Back in 2010-2011, we managed to accomplish 17 dives, which may not be a lot in a place like the Mediterranean or much of the tropics, but quite a lot given the climatic and logistic realities of Antarctica, obviously being fortunate to have much better logistics and support for doing my work than my colleagues in the 1970s, which they could only have dreamed of. Historic records for the extent of glaciers in Antarctica are much more accurate (and there is therefore high confidence to say that glaciers and shelf ice areas are really shrinking in a big way) than biodiversity records for poorly known groups of organisms such as seaweeds.
- Another well-documented effect of climate change in this area is the spread of land plants in this part of Antarctica. In the past, there used to be only 2 species of land plants, in very few restricted, ice-free areas. Ice-free areas have increased a lot, and land plants are the "winners" of climate change - both the 2 native species have spread a lot in their range and also a number of (mostly unwanted) new arrivals from sub-polar regions are spreading around here. Land plants are obviously much easier to survey than marine life that requires diving and more complex logistics.
- Also, sub-Antarctic penguins seem to be spreading their range further into Antarctica, while genuinely Antarctic penguins (like emperor and Adelie penguins) seem to be coming under pressure.

What I hear from colleagues and friends at various institutions in the US is that the Trump administration is currently de-funding this kind of research at all levels, entirely on short-sighted ideological grounds...

And this was my diary of the week:

Tuesday, January 2, 2018
For once, it's not the fault of the leopard seals: what was meant to be the first dive of the Rothera Marine Team this year was screwed up by the resident orcas of the area! Simon Morley and I were on "seal watch" (i.e. on the lookout for marine mammals which can be potentially hazardous for divers - leopard seals and orcas) for the first team to go into the water today (and we were meant to dive later today). It looked like a perfect day for diving: Sunny, mild temperatures, almost no wind... until the orcas showed up. No diving for the next 4 hours as stipulated by BAS Diving Regulations, back to the PC in the office instead. It is important to make good use of downtime like this - whenever this happens, I revert to writing 2 papers and an EU proposal during my present visit to Rothera.

I might add that these orcas actually belong to a well-known resident pod, and that some of them have featured in the 2001 first sequel of Blue Planet (in the scenes where orcas chased seals off ice floes, which were filmed around Rothera).

Launching the RHIB from Rothera's Biscoe Wharf

Dive team on the water, getting ready to dive...

...when these guys showed up!
The culprits for keeping the divers out of the water today: The resident orcas of the area
(Photo courtesy of Dr. Simon Morley, BAS)

In the evening, I went again on my little hike around Rothera Point. Quite a bit of snow had molten over the last 3 days, since I had last done this hike, and more and more of the coast, still under snow and ice last week, was now showing rock.

While hiking around Rothera Point, I met Matt Davey and Andrew Gray

And, finally, the penguins are back to Rothera! While I was sitting on a rock on the shore, suddenly this Adelie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae - endemic to Antarctica, you won't normally see these in the Falklands!) jumped out of the water next to me.

Adelie penguin, Rothera Point

Adelie penguin, Rothera Point

Adelie penguin, Rothera Point

 Adelie penguin, Rothera Point

 Adelie penguin, Rothera Point

 Adelie penguin, Rothera Point

Adelie penguin, Rothera Point

 Weddell seal, Rothera Point

 View of the base from Cross Hill

The same view as posted on two previous occasions here,
but quite a different scenery tonight due to the cloud cover!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018
Still no diving here. The orcas who have prevented us from getting into the water yesterday are gone, but today the Diving Safety Officer (with whom I need to do one single check-out dive before being able to dive to my own agenda here) is injured and can’t dive…  I had a lovely boat trip to a nearby island, Anchorage, this morning instead, assisting Dr. Matt Davey (University of Cambridge) in his sampling of snow algae. Matt is interested in correlating the abundance and diversity/taxonomic composition of snow algal patches with satellite observations of the same areas. We used a Humber RHIB to get to Anchorage, where we were dropped off by Aurelia and the Rothera Boat Team (the “Boaties”). I had visited the island on December 28, 2010 together with Julia Kleinteich for her sampling of cyanobacterial mats.

When we wanted to leave for our boat excursion this morning, we had a problem... 2 icebergs were blocking Biscoe Wharf and we had to wait until they had drifted away so that the RHIB could be lowered into the water by the crane!

I had previously visited Anchorage Island in December 2010, supporting Julia Kleinteich during her sampling of cyanobacterial mats. Back then, I had thought that this might be the only time in my lifetime to visit this remote spot of the planet!

   This is one of the icebergs blocking the boat launch point

The culprit that had delayed our departure
 Leaving Rothera's Biscoe Wharf

 Approaching Anchorage Island

 Giant petrel and elephant seals, Anchorage Island.
This beach turned out to be unsuitable for landing with our equipment.

 Landing on Anchorage Island.
This was the hard part, since the beach pictured before was not useable for this.

 Matt Davey (University of Cambridge) and I after having been dropped off on Anchorage Island. Landing required a bit of a climb over rocks and ice.

 Matt and I hiking from the landing spot to the Melon Hut (shelter, see next picture).
This was very hard and sweatening work since we were still wearing the heavy boat suits and we had to carry our gear.

 Matt opening the Melon Hut on Anchorage Island. This serves as a shelter for those who want or have to stay here overnight - voluntarily or involuntarily (e.g. if the return to Rothera is impossible due to the weather). The pole with the black flag serves as a deterrent for the skuas, which would otherwise be constantly dive-bombing us.

  Matt Davey and myself having coffee in the Melon Hut before starting work

 Preparing Matt's sampling of snow algae on Anchorage Island

 The Melon Hut is well equipped, also for medical emergencies such as seal bites which can be pretty nasty. In this case, not the leopard seals are the culprits, but the cute-looking fur seals,
which can outrun a human on land.
The last field season had 3 cases of BAS staff bitten by fur seals in South Georgia!

Matt preparing sample tubes

 The Melon Hut is well stocked with food, drinks and fuel

 Skuas resting outside the Melon Hut

 The first sampling site of snow algae was right outside the Melon Hut

  For every sampling site, GPS coordinates are recorded

Many rocks are broken by the frost
  View from Anchorage to Leonie Island and Adelaide Island behind it

 So many skuas!

 Members of the Rothera Marine Team at work in Ryder Bay (before picking us up from Anchorage Island later). The hut in the background/right is located on Lagoon Island,
which has a large seal colony.

 The shrinking Sheldon Glacier on Adelaide Island. Part of my own research objectives here at Rothera is to investigate how benthic communities (especially seaweeds) are colonizing the seabed in areas which were covered by this glacier until a few years ago, and which are now being released to open water by climate change. This will not be an easy task - diving close to the glacier may be very difficult (because of the steep seabed profile, quickly dropping to > 100 m) or too dangerous (if too close to the glacier, which calves icebergs all the time) and we may have to resort to using ROVs instead of divers (as much as I love diving in Antarctica...).

 Hiking across Anchorage Island to Matt's next sampling site

 Hiking across Anchorage Island to Matt's next sampling site

Hiking across Anchorage Island to Matt's next sampling site (photo credit: Matt Davey, Cambridge)

 Prasiola sp., a terrestrial / coastal green alga (on which I have an ongoing research project with my brother Hendrik and Julie Zedler)

 Finally, the boat returned to pick us up...

Calling Ops on base just before heading back
 Return to Rothera... another big chunk of ice approaching...

 The penguins are definitely back to Rothera.
Quite a few of them were waddling around the base tonight.

 Empty fuel drums and recyclables in elephant bags waiting for return to the UK. Absolutely no waste remains in Antarctica, and most of it is recycled upon arrival in the UK.

 The penguins are definitely back to Rothera.
Quite a few of them were waddling around the base tonight.

Thursday, January 4, 2018
Still no diving. Day mostly at the office.

 Dive team getting ready to dive in Hangar Cove. I took this photo while covering seal watch for them ( = making sure that no leopard seals are in the area). Unfortunately, diving is still off for me for maybe another week: While there are several divers here who could accompany me, I need to do the first dive here as a check-out dive with the Rothera Diving Officer - who unfortunately injured her foot when jogging last Sunday. This recreational accident may now delay my diving work by as much as over a week.
I am trying to fill this time with other sensible, non-diving activities, but the main reason why I am here is clearly diving-based research.

 Matt Davey (Univ. Cambridge), whom I had accompanied yesterday to Anchorage Island, giving a talk about his research on snow algae. Once a week, one or two of the scientists currently at Rothera present their science to everybody else so that the community on base gets a better understanding of why they are here and what they are doing.

 Rothera's New Bransfield House certainly has one of the bars which could claim to have the best view of any bar in the world.

Friday, Jan. 5
Today, I revisited Leonie Island, the island with the highest peak (455 m) in Ryder Bay and very conspicuous from Rothera Point. I had previously visited Leonie on Jan. 10, 2011, together with Julia Kleinteich, sampling cyanobacterial mats. On that occasion, I had come across a copper seam in a cliff about 30 m above the high water line – when hiking across the NE coast of Leonie with Julia that day, a blue-green rock face had struck my attention. I suspected that this was malachite, i.e. copper ore, which was later confirmed in the lab. Interestingly and despite the well-known, high toxicity of copper, there was something growing on it – an orange lichen and a green alga, Prasiola sp.! I realized that this was something unusual and collected samples of both the alga and the blue rock. My friend Akira Peters (Roscoff) subsequently managed to isolate this alga in live culture – in fact, Prasiola had been considered unculturable until then. In the meantime, analyses in Marl, Germany, had revealed that the rock was indeed malachite. A very successful MSc project of Julie Zedler in the lab of my brother Hendrik (then still at the University of Konstanz, Germany) followed, using Akira’s isolate of this interesting organism, which revealed that the Prasiola living on the malachite surface on Leonie Island was unusually resistant to copper.

I now attempted to revisit this site and to re-collect both Prasiola and rock samples. In particular, we wanted to obtain live material from its natural environment in order to study the localization of copper in its cells, and also to look at stress-related gene expression.

Enough of this prologue: Today was the day to return to Leonie, after 7 years! Again, a RHIB was launched at Rothera’s Biscoe Wharf. We had to wait a bit since an iceberg was sitting in the water beneath the wharf, but with a wait of about half an hour, it drifted away. Today, I was heading to Leonie Island together with Matt Davey (Univ. Cambridge), Andrew Gray (NERC Field Spectroscopy Facility, Edinburgh) and Christine Batchelor (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge). We reached the island after an approx. 45 min boat ride, slightly slowed down by a lot of drifting ice on the water. On the shore of Leonie, an inquisitive and friendly young Weddell seal greeted us. Arrived on the island, we parted – Matt and Andrew headed south to re-visit patches of snow algae, whereas Christine and I headed northwest to find the copper seam. It was quite difficult terrain for walking – either loose rocks or snowfields in which we kept sinking in to our knees. And we were rather overdressed – we were wearing snow pants to stay dry, but with the hard effort of walking in this terrain, we were transpiring a lot. We finally found the copper seam, which is very conspicuous on a cliff face. But – there was no Prasiola this time, only the orange lichen. Were we too early in the season? Had it been to cold or to dry for the algae to develop? While a negative result is also a result for a scientist, I decided to come back later during my visit – after all, I had another 4 ½ weeks at Rothera ahead of me. We returned to the shore, where the boat picked us up shortly afterwards. We circled Leonie once on the water – which brought home to us that only around ¼ of Leonie is ice-free, whereas ¾ are covered by snow and ice – a glacier several tens of meters thick, even on this rather small island.

Launching the RHIB again, today for an excursion with Matthew Davey (Cambridge), Andrew Gray (NERC Field Spectroscopy Facility, Edinburgh) and Christine Batchelor (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge) to Leonie Island
Our destination: Leonie Island (resembling a black triangle in front of Mt. Liotard)
 Leaving Rothera behind us...
On the way from Rothera to Leonie Island
On the way from Rothera to Leonie Island
Approaching Leonie Island
 Approaching Leonie Island
 Approaching Leonie Island
 Approaching Leonie Island
 Approaching Leonie Island
 Approaching Leonie Island
 Approaching Leonie Island
 Approaching Leonie Island
 Landing on Leonie Island
Unloading the boat on the shore of Leonie Island
 On the shore of Leonie Island, a friendly little seal was waiting for us...

After getting out of the heavy boat suits, we got ready for hiking to our survey areas on Leonie Island

Matt with elephant seals on the shore of Leonie Island

Elephant seals (a male, left, and a female, right) on the shore of Leonie Island

Getting ready. The boxes etc. are an emergency supply depot containing a tent, food, fuel and medication left here by the Rothera field guides in case scientists get stranded here - enough for more than a week to survive here.

Our team ready to go into the field - Matt and Andrew went south to hunt for snow algae, and Christine and I went northwest to search for the copper seam with interesting algae on it which I had found on Jan. 10, 2011. From left to right: Me, Andrew, Matt and Christine
Hiking through either deep snow or loose rocks in search of that copper seam was quite tough. Again, the purpose of the black flag on the bamboo pole is to scare skuas away - but we both got bombed ( = pooed upon) nevertheless...
During our hike, we found piles of limpet shells. I believe they have been taken there by skuas.

View from Leonie to Adelaide Island.

View from Leonie to Adelaide Island.
Look at the height of these ice cliffs on the mountain opposite!!

Skua eggs. No wonder the adults constantly dive bombed us.

View from Leonie to Adelaide Island.

View from Leonie to Adelaide Island.

View from Leonie to Adelaide Island.

Searching every cliff for the copper seam...

... and there it was! A Prasiola culture, isolated by my friend Akira Peters in Roscoff from a sample which I had collected from this blue malachite surface on Jan. 10, 2011, had become the subject of Julie Zedler's very successful MSc in Hendrik's lab in Konstanz. The follow-up work was the reason for today's return visit, 7 years later

Pure malachite! Amazing that anything can live in this toxic
(and also obviously, very cold and high-UV) environment!

Christine with the malachite (copper) seam

In the meantime, 2 Adelie penguins showed up on the shore underneath us

We met up with Matt and Andrew and then waited for the boat to pick us up.

On the boat circling Leonie Island for searching fields of snow algae (Matt's work)

On the boat circling Leonie Island for searching fields of snow algae (Matt's work).
The amount of ice on this island is stunning!

On the boat circling Leonie Island for searching fields of snow algae (Matt's work).
The amount of ice on this island is stunning!

On the boat circling Leonie Island for searching fields of snow algae (Matt's work).
The amount of ice on this island is stunning!

On the boat circling Leonie Island for searching fields of snow algae (Matt's work).
The amount of ice on this island is stunning!

On the boat circling Leonie Island for searching fields of snow algae (Matt's work).
The amount of ice on this island is stunning!

On the boat circling Leonie Island for searching fields of snow algae (Matt's work). Amazing, these ice caves and the thickness of the glacier on a rather small island! The glacier is fed by several meters of snow fall every year.

And there it was again, "my" copper seam!

We headed back to Rothera. Getting off the RHIB involves a 4 m climb on a rope ladder. There used to be a boat pier / slipway, but it was again and again destroyed by icebergs.

Jan. 6
A day in my office at the Bonner Lab, working on a paper on the Loch Linnhe Artificial Reef (Scotland) and catching up on correspondence.

We had some amazing icebergs around Rothera’s South Cove and the Biscoe Wharf today!

 Even by Antarctic standards, I had an unusual sight when stepping out of my bedroom this morning: Two large icebergs were grounded off Biscoe Wharf and in South Cove, respectively...
 That thing is massive!
... and it also means, no boating activities from the Wharf for a while.

 That is the iceberg close up (with myself as size comparison - taken by Ben Robinson)! Can you imagine what such an iceberg does to what lives on the seabed (benthic communities, as we marine biologists say)?
 That is the iceberg close up (with myself as size comparison - taken by Ben Robinson)!
 That is the iceberg close up!
 Rothera's South Cove full of ice (and Leonie Island in the background)...
no boating or diving here today!

Matt working on his snow algal samples in the Bonner Lab

Hooray. The Field Operations Manager just briefed me that I will be co-piloting a Twin Otter resupply flight to Fossil Bluff tomorrow! That's an approx. 2 hr flight to a field site and re-supply depot south of here on Alexander Island, along the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. I had been very much looking forward to this opportunity, which should be a highlight of the whole trip - ironically, this has become possible also because I have not been diving during the last few days (the risk of de-compression illness would otherwise preclude flights on non-pressurized aircraft). Stay tuned.

[i]  This work has since been published: Mystikou A, Peters AF, Asensi AO, Fletcher KI, Brickle P, van West P, Convey P, K├╝pper FC, 2014: Seaweed biodiversity in the south-western Antarctic Peninsula: Surveying macroalgal community composition in the Adelaide Island / Marguerite Bay region over a 35-year time span.- Polar Biology 37(11), 1607–1619. DOI: 10.1007/s00300-014-1547-1

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