Shipping Off to Palmer

42.2286° N, 71.5231° W

I am going to Antarctica. It is a phrase I have been retelling for the past six months to astonished friends, relatives, and various acquaintances along the way. If you are reading this, there is a good probability you are one of those people. I’ve been met with responses all over the spectrum, from enthusiastic congratulation and intrigue to questioning puzzlement at my apparent excitement (“So you think that’ll be fun?).

As the countdown to my departure turns to single digits I can honestly say my disbelieving and dazed attitude has quickly turned to a series of fluttering butterflies within the pit of my stomach. A dancer all my life, I compare it to the moment right before breaking from the curtain legs and stepping on stage. The moment where you say to yourself, “Here we go.”

I am excited. I am excited to be going to a place alien to the small town I grew up in and to see a world where ice is the norm, the sun stays up through the night, and funny tuxedoed birds are daily companions. But I am also excited to be a part of an ongoing research project that for the last 25 years has monitored the ongoing effects of climate change in Antarctica.

The Palmer LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) Network is based along the Palmer Basin of Antarctica, right offshore from the long arm of the continent that reaches up towards Chile. Teams of marine researchers aboard a 230 foot research vessel, the Laurence M. Gould, study everything from microscopic algae all the way to massive humpback

Palmer

The Palmer LTER project is based off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula pictured above via Google Earth 

whales that feed on tiny krill (Think Finding Nemo and “Swim Away!”). I will be part of the zooplankton team, or the team that studies the tiny animals like krill that live suspended throughout the ocean water.

 

It’s pretty crazy that for the first two months of 2016 I will be living onboard the Gould off the coast of Antarctica with roughly 25 other researchers. Starting today I will be maintaining this blog periodically so that I may share the surprises, trials, rewards, and eccentricities involved in being a scientist onboard the Gould and hopefully share a bit of the science as well. For the intrigued and enthusiastic I recommend watching the documentary Antarctic Edge: 70 Degrees South, (which you can currently stream on Netflix) a documentary about the research project I will be working on.

My flight takes off December 31st. Stay tuned for more on krill, the Gould, and the answers to many questions like “How does one get to Antarctica?”

 

The Seashells Say So

December 13, 2015

In a bayside seawater lab on the south shore of Southampton tanks of baby scallops, clams, and oysters tell the story of an increasingly clear reality. The ocean’s waters may no longer be a suitable place for growing shellfish.

Researchers at Stony Brooks School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences are using clues from developing shellfish to determine how the ocean’s evolving waters will change the types of sea creatures seen beneath the water’s surface. For many of their experiments, the prognosis doesn’t seem good.

“We saw the scallop larvae die immediately,” says Andrew Griffith, a PhD candidate studying ocean acidification. The scallops were grown in a tank of water collected right off the shores of Long Island.

SOMASlab

The seawater lab at Stony Brook University

The culprit of such a change is ocean acidification, or a change in the ocean’s water chemistry due to climate change. As the atmosphere becomes increasingly saturated with carbon dioxide the ocean acts as a giant carbon sponge. Some of the extra carbon gets absorbed into the water and disrupts its natural chemistry.

New studies, including Nagelkerken and Connell’s paper published in October, reveal ocean acidification will have broader worldwide impacts than previously predicted. This topic will surely be a hot button issue at the Paris Climate Change Conference this week.

Since the Industrial Revolution the world’s oceans have become 30 percent more acidic and by the end of the century scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predict the ocean’s acidity will be higher than it has been over the last 20 million years.

But how exactly does this change in ocean chemistry hurt the growing shellfish?

“The initial shell development is crucial for larva,” says Griffith. “If they have to spend more energy in developing the shell t

Oysters

Oysters from Widow’s Hole Oyster Farm in Greenport, Long Island

hat’s less energy available for other things like reproduction, resisting disease and other environmental stressors.”

Shellfish are soft-bodied creatures that rely on their protective outer shells for survival. These shells are made of calcium carbonate, the same type of material that makes chalk and marble. As the oceans become more acidic the shellfish have a harder time building strong calcium carbonate shells.

“Acidification and shellfish is a problem, that doesn’t mean shellfish can’t overcome them but its being overcome at a cost and we don’t know what that cost is yet,” says Griffith.

Shellfish already have a rocky road ahead without the added threat of ocean acidification. According to The Nature Conservancy, nearly 85 percent of global oyster reefs have been lost. Commercial dredging, overfishing, invasive species, loss of habitat and a decrease in water quality are all contributing factors.

Laura Fabrizio grew up on the shores of Westhampton on Long Island. The changes in the waters surrounding her home prompted her to create the Moriches Bay Project, a non-for profit organization dedicated to reintroducing oysters into the Moriches Bay. She and Aram Terchunian, a coastal geologist and environmental scientist for First Coastal Corporation, co-founded the project.

MorichesBay

The view from a Moriches Bay Project site in Westhampton, NY

“The water’s continually become dirtier and dirtier and dirtier, and the fish move away, and the oyster and clam populations have become smaller and smaller,” says Fabrizio.

Oysters specifically play a key role in keeping ocean waters clean. They are the filter systems of the ocean. A mature oyster filters roughly 50 gallons of water a day.

“You’re average swimming pool is about 20,000 gallons. So think a bout that, a thousand oysters filters more than two swimming pools in a single day,” says Terchunian.

Beyond maintaining clean and healthy waters, shellfish also contribute significantly to local economies. The West Coast shellfish industry provides paychecks for over 3,000 people, and supports a $84 million industry.

In the early 2000s the Pacific Oyster hatcheries experienced an alarming plummet in oyster production. By 2008 one oyster farm, Whisky Creek, experienced an 80 percent decrease in oyster landings according to the NOAA.

The unique Pacific coast water circulation patterns called upwelling brings cold and carbon rich water to the surface where shellfish grow, creating a hot spot of ocean acidification.

scallopeyes

A sea scallop. Look at those eyes!

On the West Coast they frequently use the term “lazy larva” to describe young shellfish that fail to swim or eat.

“That’s the canary in our coal mine,” says Griffith. Acidic conditions on the West Coast means the Atlantic coast will soon see similar problems.

In Maine, that may already be the case.

A report released this past February by a specific commission tasked with studying possible impacts of ocean acidification on the state deemed the situation an “urgent” matter.

The state is not taking this issue lightly. They have since created four bills that outline a plan to combat ocean acidification including initiating a runoff limit, a $3 million bond to monitor coastal pollution, and a guarantee that the ocean acidification commission would remain for the next three years.

The lobster industry alone accounts for $1 billion, and there is new evidence from Saint Francis Xavier University suggesting acidic conditions impact lobster larva just like they impact shellfish larva.

The Maine shellfish industry will take a hit as well. Bill Mook of Mook Sea Farm noticed problems with his oysters over a decade ago. Since the start of his company nearly 30 years ago the acidity off Maine’s coast has changed by roughly 30 parts per million, enough to significantly hinder shellfish shell growth.

Griffith expects the rest of the Atlantic Coast will soon follow.

“We will see these effects begin to migrate down…Southern New England and long island are next,” says Griffith.

The next challenge may be determining new ways of promoting shell growth despite naturally acidic conditions. Humans may have to intervene to preserve such a critical ocean animal, for our own sake and for the rest of the ocean.