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Locked up with deep-breathing krill

 

krill shrimp

Krill and shrimp: netted in the interests of science.

This morning started with a kind of international incident. My fellow Brit Carl Ballantyne and I were horrified to see our expedition leader Stig put sugar on his black pudding at breakfast. These trips are, of course, very international. With scientists from Norway, Russia, Poland, the UK, Germany and other countries on board, there is plenty of scope for “intercultural exchange”, although I still prefer my black pudding straight and spicy.

In between times, I found myself earning my passage on the Helmer Hanssen, working briefly – believe it or not – in the fridge with a load of krill! As the scientists work in shifts through the night and sleep when they get a chance, Carl was having trouble finding an assistant to help him note down his hourly measurements. He is monitoring the respiration of krill samples. So I found myself putting on a head torch and going into the dark fridge with a list and a pencil.

Carl has to keep his ears warm in the fridge!

Carl has to keep his ears warm in the fridge!

Carl is checking the respiration of certain species, mainly krill. They are living in little bottles of sea water. He puts a tube in to measure how much oxygen they are consuming, the figure appears on the computer and gets entered by hand in a notebook. That was my job. So what is this all about, I wanted to know. Again, it is all about finding out what creatures are up to in the water during these dark winter months. In summer, there is lots of respiration, Carl tells me, compared to winter. It has generally been assumed that since it’s colder and darker and there is not much phytoplankton for them to eat, they will not be feeding and so not using up much energy, which shows in the respiration. But now scientists have found that even at this time of year they are migrating vertically, that is moving up and down in the water column, so they must be using energy. Carl and co. want to find out more. Again, this is an area where not much research has been carried out in winter until fairly recently. These people really have the chance to find out things nobody knew before. Fascinating. And the iceblogger had the chance to make a tiny contribution!

Disappearing into the fridge.

Next assistant Marine disappears into the fridge.

 

Date

January 15, 2015 | 8:43 pm

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Ice and mud, glorious mud

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Sculpted by nature!

Most of the time our ship is out of range of internet connectivity, so this post will be delivered  to you from the research base Ny Alesund. My hosts and the station staff were  kind enough to arrange a special little boat and a survival suit for a trip through the dark but fascinating polar night. This is only possible because tonight we are still relatively close, with the ship collecting samples in Kongsfjorden, on the north-west side of Spitsbergen. This is an open fjord with a relatively free connection  to adjacent shelf. It’s 20 km long, between 4 and 10 metres wide and a maximum depth of 400 metres. This means it is largely influenced by both Atlantic water and Arctic water. It also gets a discharge of fresh water and sediments from adjacent glaciers, which we will be looking at more closely in the next few days. It has been an action-packed day today, watching polar marine night researchers in action. Night research during the day sounds odd, but I can assure you it is certainly dark enough –at any time of day.

Busy on the deck

Busy on the deck

Muddy secrets Sergei Korsun from St. Petersburg university and PhD student Olga Knyazeva were out on deck preparing a box corer, a  big box-shaped instrument to go down to the seabed and bring up samples of sediment. The teamwork between scientists and crew seems to work brilliantly. The crew operate the lifting and lowering equipment and all sorts of other gear. The scientists collect their samples from it and take them in to the ship’s lab.

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Sergei and Olga hard at work

“Just a load of mud”, quips Sergei, and there is certainly plenty of it sploshing about in the course of the operation. No wonder there are no outdoor shoes allowed inside.

Separate the mud from the mud!

Separate the mud from the mud!

Olga drains off the water so that only the sediment is left. These two are interested in foraminifera or forams, one-celled organisms. Ice Blog readers may remember I discussed them here some time ago, in connection with research on ocean acidification. German scientists actually wrote a children’s story with Tessi and Tipo, two of these tiny ocean creatures, as the main characters. The focus there was on how increasingly acid seas are dissolving the protective shells of many organisms, especially in cold, Arctic water, where the process is faster. Every creature counts! So why should we be interested in these forams in particular? No question about it, says Olga. There are so many of them, they account for a huge proportion of biomass and we know far too little about what they are up to in the winter. Given their important role in the ecosystem, what they do in winter is something we really ought to know. The season of winter is just too long to be ignored any longer, says Olga. And ultimately, even the tiniest creatures play a role in the global foodweb.  Sergei mentions another reason why climatologists and those interested in the history of the planet are so interested in these tiny creatures. They fossilize, so that scientists can use samples from the seafloor to get a record of earth’s history that goes back a very long way.

Shades of blue and dark

Shades of blue and dark

Inner clocks without daylight? Shortly afterwards, I joined  Sören and Lukas from Germany’s Alfred-Wegener  Institute  for one of their  four-hourly net-dropping exercises. For  this, a big hatch is opened on the laboratory deck. This brought added excitement as  there were a lot of beautifully shaped chunks of ice just floating past. Iceblogger’s delight!

Ice bonus!

Ice bonus!

We could also see the hills in silhouette in the background. Clearly there are indeed many shades of “dark”. Seagulls are following us constantly. No doubt they know fish and shrimps are being caught and are always on the lookout for an easy, tasty morsel. In this climate, I don’t blame them. And it is kind of reassuring to have their company, bright in the ship’s lights against the dark sky and sea. The wind felt icy, but the experts up here tell us it is actually relatively mild. Anyway, our two scientists dropped a longish thin net attached to a sort of circular hoop out the hatch, sampling the water.

Getting the net ready

Getting the net ready

When it came in, they take samples of small jellyfish, copepods and krill, for a fascinating project to find out about the “biological clock gene”. How can some marine organisms migrate vertically in a 24-25 hour cycle, without light to trigger this?  More about that when I’ve interviewed the experts over the next couple of days.

Lukas takes a close look.

Lukas takes a close look.

The advantages of winter If you have been waiting for the answer to the question about reproduction in the last blog, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Given that the reason is unlikely to be an ideal food supply for the “babies”, some of the scientists on board think the reason could be that there fewer predators about to eat the young, if they arrive in winter. Does that seem plausible? The next post may be a day or two in arriving, as the ship will be out of range from tomorrow onwards. But I promise plenty more to come as soon as we are back in internet range. (How on earth did we live without it?!)

Pick your helmet!

If you want to get ahead… get a (hard) hat! No going on deck without one.

 

Date

January 13, 2015 | 7:41 pm

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Food and sex in Svalbard’s icy waters?

The Helmer Hanssen anchored at Ny Alesund

The Helmer Hanssen anchored at Ny Alesund

This is my first post from the Polar Marine Night expedition, from the Kongsfjord in Svalbard.

On the flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen, the main settlement on the island,  after a period with a beautiful sunset red strip in the sky, it was dark by half past midday and I realized I had seen my last sunrays for this week.

The last sunrays on the way north…

Flying in to Longyearbyen airport, I could see a white mountain, its dark silhouette outlined by the airport lights. Having been here before in the summer sun, I realized somewhere up there was the famous seed vault where safe supplies of seeds for the world’s food crops are stored under the permafrost, supposedly safe from wars or some other disastrous calamities which might require a “new start” for humanity. I was fortunate enough to visit it on a previous trip a couple of years ago. At the moment, though, the darkness reveals very little of the fascinating landscape.

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Winter travel in the High North

New winter visitors to Ny Alesund

Our small, robust propeller plane carrying scientists and service staff from the research station, one fellow journalist as well as two young German scientists joining the scientific cruise had us in Ny Alesund late afternoon. It was strange to see the station completely in the dark, although it is not as deserted as it once was in winter, thanks to this Polar Night research. As our driver told us on the way to the harbour, (nothing is far from anywhere else in the small settlement, but hauling luggage across slippery snow and ice in the dark is something I can do without) there are around 60 people on the base, whereas once there was only a skeleton crew of around 13 over the winter.

The French-German station, the Norwegian station and the Chinese building are manned throughout the winter. The others are summer-only stations. Different scientists from around the globe come in and out for the boat trips to investigate marine life in the polar night. This is only the second year of this heightened interest in life in the dark season up here.

Select company of hardy researchers

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Members of the crew between shifts on the deck

The RV Helmer Hanssen – named after Amundsen’s navigator to the South Pole – was waiting at the quay. Built as an ice-going fishing vessel, these days the only  trawling done here is in the interests of science. Since we left this evening, nets have been deployed at different levels at regular intervals bringing samples of Arctic sea life on board and into the labs. There are 16 students and professors on board, with a crew of 12 to operate the ship, round the clock. It’s an expensive business, says Stig, so they have to make maximum use of the ship time by working to a busy schedule, sleeping in shifts in between. Well, at least we have enough bunks, so we don’t have to economise by sharing those.

Cruise leader Stig Falk Petersen in the instruments room of the Helmer Hanssen

Cruise leader Stig Falk Petersen in the instruments room of the Helmer Hanssen

Nocturnal goings-on

If I hadn’t done my homework, there were times during the evening briefing by Stig and his colleague Paul Renault, when  I might have been tempted to call for an interpreter , with talk of pelagic trawls, the hyper-benthos,  grabs, diel vertical migration, epibenthic sleds and more of that ilk. Then comes the high-tech LOPC – a laser optical plankton counter, of course! In case you are not a marine biologist yourself, this is all about getting samples from different layers of water and the seabed to find out about the relatively unknown winter lifestyles and behavior of organisms living in the Arctic ocean.  (There was some discussion about supplies of ethanol and formaldehyde, which you must not run out of if you want to take some samples home as a souvenir). It seems amazing, but there is still very little known about marine life in the polar night, because the region was so remote and inaccessible, and because people assumed where there was no light, there would be no biological activity. Now our scientists have discovered (last year was a real “eye-opener”, says Stig) that there is all sorts of activity going on.

Marine looking at the stomach of a tiny fish. Stig looks on.

Marine looking at the stomach of a tiny fish. Stig looks on.

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What did this 1.5 meter long cod have for dinner?

It does not surprise me personally that a lot of creatures have to feed all the year round. But what exactly do cod, for example eat? That’s what Marine Cusa wants to find out for her PhD. I met her in the lab, where she was dissecting fish. I had a look inside the stomach of a large specimen of Atlantic cod in the lab.

Not for the faint-hearted, so I won’t go into details.  There are even creatures up here who choose to reproduce in this dark season. Now presumably it’s not like with human beings, where there tends to be a rise in the birth-rate after major power cuts in some places. So why would sea creatures choose to have their young in the cold, dark, polar winter? Some of the experts here have some theories – but I’m going to save that for another day.

 

Date

January 13, 2015 | 6:04 pm

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Snow delays? In Norway?

De-icing monster on the approach, departure looking more likely!

De-icing monster on the approach, departure looking more likely!

Norway is one place that generally has no problem with a bit of snow, but my flight from Oslo to Longyearben on Svalbard is indeed delayed because of snow. There seems to be a queue at the de-icing stand. I am hoping there will be no problems catching the next little plane up to Ny Alesund. But as it is a fairly special flight, I am hoping the pilot and my Polar Night colleagues already in Longyearben will wait for me.

As I struggled to get out of bed early on a cold, snowy morning, I imagined what it must be like to live in the High Arctic and have a few months without any light at all. Tough going! But there is also something absolutely beautiful about snow in moonlight and starlight.

I am looking forward to seeing Ny Alesund again, although I know it will be very different in the dark. In summer, of course, it is light all year round. The weather seems to be fairly changeable. A colleague in Tromso (where I shall be heading after the scientific boat expedition) tells me there are some areas with no snow cover and others close by covered by snow drifts. “Pack for everything”, he said, and be prepared for a VERY cold spell on the horizon.

A fellow passenger told me he had been evacuated from a ship at Trondheim, because of gale force winds, force 12. So I am wondering what conditions will be like for our ship, the RV Helmer Hanssen, when it leaves Ny Alesund later today.

Meanwhile, when I left Germany yesterday, I saw hazel bushes in bloom. I reminded myself this is January. But of course it comes after the warmest year on record. The climate is changing – and I am headed for the region most affected on the whole planet, warming at around twice the average speed. I’ll keep you posted.

Date

January 12, 2015 | 1:11 pm

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Arctic Ocean: “Mare incognitum”

Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen hosts the world's northernmost marine lab. (Quaile, 2007)

Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen hosts the world’s northernmost marine lab. (Quaile, 2007)

As I continue to prepare for my trip to Svalbard and the Arctic waters around the archipelago, into the Polar Night, the title of a website strikes me as particularly appropriate: Mare Incognitum  is the umbrella title for a group of Arctic research projects, including the one I will be joining this weekend at the harbour of the Arctic research base at Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen. The title was chosen to reflect the group’s view of the Arctic as “one of the least known marine ecosystems of the planet”.

Date

January 8, 2015 | 3:56 pm

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