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What's It Like To Be on a Research Cruise Near the South Pole? ODU Bloggers Tell All

Stephanie Hathcock, a doctoral student in science education at Old Dominion University, is neither an oceanographer nor a marine scientist, the kinds of researchers you would expect to find aboard an ice breaker/research vessel traversing the rough and icy seas near Antarctica.

But the New Year finds her on just such an expedition, together with ODU oceanography faculty members John Klinck and Peter Sedwick, and several of the university's oceanography students. Hathcock's job is to blog about the expedition as science outreach for laymen, and her work can be found at http://www.steminaction.org/blog.

Klinck, professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences and director of ODU's Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography (CCPO), is also producing a blog, although one aimed more at scientists. His reports are at http://rosssea2011.blogspot.com.

The ODU oceanographers involved in this research project, who also include Eileen Hofmann, a professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences who is not on the six-week cruise, are focusing on inputs of minute quantities of the micronutrient iron to surface waters of the Ross Sea off Antarctica. The iron content drives the amount of phytoplankton in the waters, which controls the amount of carbon dioxide that the tiny plants take out of the atmosphere.

Their work, which is supported by awards totaling $700,000 from the National Science Foundation, reflects how closely scientists are watching Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean because of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and anticipated climate warming and related environmental changes.

The research team made it to Punta Arenas, near the southern tip of Chile, on Dec. 20 and departed for Antarctic waters aboard the research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer on Christmas Eve. The journey from Punta Arenas to the Ross Sea takes about two weeks.

On Christmas Day, according to Hathcock's blog, the team amused itself with gift-giving and a feast that included traditional foods as well as Chilean delicacies. Then, the last line of her Christmas post, was, "We're getting close to the Drake Passage, where we'll likely encounter more turbulent seas."

There is a lapse of a few days before she posted again - on Dec. 29:

"I'm sure every seagoing blog contains a post about seasickness. I feel the need to add my account, and then we shall never speak of it again, okay?

"I've had bouts with motion sickness since I was a child. The Tilt-O-Whirl at the fair was an unpleasant experience. IMAX theaters are a bad idea, and I can even make myself carsick during allergy season. So it was pretty much inevitable.

"Some people don't seem to be bothered at all by sea state. Others throw up a few times and move on. And then there are those who become incapacitated for a few days and have to work through it with a lot of nausea and medication.

"I'm sure you guessed that I experienced the later type due to my extended absence from the blog. Seasickness is different from other motion sicknesses because you can't escape it. Although I had drug-induced dreams of stepping off of the ship to my land-based hotel, that was not an option. I had to adjust, and after 3 days, I finally did (and on the plus side, goodbye extra holiday pounds)."

Hathcock felt much better by New Year's weekend and participated in an initiation ceremony that involved a scientist playing the role of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. Here is her report from Jan. 3:

"We crossed the Antarctic Circle in the wee hours of the morning yesterday. It's pretty significant because less than 5% of the world population can say that they've done the same.

"Neptune, ruler of the seas, and his court, held a crossing ceremony. Those who had never crossed were known as Pollywogs. They had to go before Neptune's court to ask for permission to cross and to entertain him. It was a big production with performances, singing, and dancing.

"Afterward, the Pollywogs were 'cleansed' of their newness, and are forevermore considered a Rednose. We even have the certificate to prove it. It was a lot of fun and a great bonding experience for everyone on board."

By Jan. 5, the research vessel was in icy water, dodging icebergs as it approached the Ross Sea, where the hard work will begin.

"Why are we going to the Ross Sea to study iron supply?" Hathcock wrote in her blog. "Scientists noticed that the amount of phytoplankton that grows in Antarctic waters during the growing season is less than what could grow there. They made the hypothesis that iron limits phytoplankton growth. A first step in understanding how iron regulates phytoplankton growth is identifying the different sources of iron in the Ross Sea and where they come from. This will help us understand how the marine food web in the Ross Sea and other parts of the Antarctic works."

And she adds this about her ODU colleague Sedwick, an associate professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences: "The job of measuring iron in the water falls to Peter Sedwick, from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Getting accurate iron measurements is actually very tough to do because most of the measurement tools contain iron, which then skews the results. Iron is also present in the air, on our clothes, and pretty much everywhere on the ship, so you can see why this kind of testing is challenging."

Hathcock's outreach also will involve audiovisual communication between the scientists on the cruise and schoolchildren in Portsmouth and Norfolk. She is the student of Daniel Dickerson, professor of science education in ODU's Darden College of Education.

Also on the cruise are Pierre St. Laurent, a post doctoral researcher at CCPO, oceanography graduate students Suriyan Saramul and Candace Wall, and research associate Bettina Sohst.

Other researchers working on the project include Dennis McGillicuddy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts and Blair Greenan of Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia, who will be dealing with physical circulation of waters and the phytoplankton distribution. Walker Smith of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Thomas Bibby of the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, England, will be examining the relationship between iron levels and phytoplankton growth.

Hofmann and Klinck, along with Mike Dinniman, a research scientist at CCPO, will contribute their expertise in the development of numerical model simulations, which will be compared to the measurements from the expedition and will help to describe the processes that move iron to the ocean surface, including projections of how such processes may be affected by future climate change in the Antarctic region.

This article was posted on: January 5, 2012

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