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NSF SHIPS TO PROBE BIOLOGICAL ENIGMAS OF THE FROZEN SOUTHERN OCEAN

Eileen Hofmann, professor of oceanography at Old Dominion University, is one of several U.S. researchers taking part this spring in a study of shrimp-like animals living in the Antarctic.

The project, the international Southern Ocean Global Ecosystems Dynamics (GLOBEC) survey, will examine how trillions of the animals, called krill, form the base of a food chain that supports untold numbers of penguins, seals and whales in Antarctic waters.

How krill survive the long, cold and dark winter in water temperatures around 30 degrees Fahrenheit and what role algae that thrive on ice play in their survival are among many mysteries about life in the Southern Ocean, the body of water surrounding Antarctica.

In late April, two research ships operated by the National Science Foundation (NSF) sailed for the Antarctic Peninsula as part of precedent-setting international oceanographic survey. Hofmann and other researchers have made several trips to the region since the study began in 1991.

The ships left from Chile and are expected to return from the cruise during the first week of June.

The science portion of the GLOBEC survey is being funded by an $8.5 million NSF grant. Old Dominion's portion is about $500,000, Hofmann said.

"What happens in the winter determines how productive the ecosystem is," Hofmann said. "How well the krill do during the winter sets their spawning capacity for the summer."

The science teams will sail aboard the U.S Antarctic Program vessels Lawrence M. Gould and Nathaniel B. Palmer as part of a multinational effort that also will include research cruises by vessels from Germany, the United Kingdom and South Korea.

Although conducting research aboard ships in the austral, or southern, winter is not unprecedented, the scale and technological sophistication of the GLOBEC cruise, as well as the cooperative aspects of the undertaking, make the venture unique, according to researchers.

Hofmann noted, for example, that the GLOBEC cruise will for the first time include observers from the International Whaling Commission.

"Just the reality of learning how to carry out research aboard these vessels in ice-covered waters is going to be a tremendous challenge," said Peter Wiebe of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass.

The Palmer will carry out a geographically widespread survey of Marguerite Bay, an important krill wintering site. The Gould will simultaneously conduct detailed examinations of the water-column in the bay at various locations.

This article was posted on: April 17, 2001

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