October 6 , 2010 joining 4-h kinds in the US to learn about carbon dioxide and ocean acidification

Today, October 6th, kids all over the United States are participating in the third annual 4-H National Youth Science Day. This year, the young scientists are learning about carbon dioxide, water quality, global warming, and ways that they can reduce their environmental impact. First, the kids are all doing an experiment which we also did down here in Antarctica! (A plane managed to land yesterday and we got all our supplies, including the materials for this experiment today – just in time!)

In this experiment, the kids are learning how carbon dioxide builds up in water. The kids are mixing simple tab water and a bit of solution called bromothymol blue which detects if something is basic or acidic. Then they are covering the solution with plastic wrap and they blow into the cup through a straw. As they blow, they release carbon dioxide which, with the help of the bromothymol blue, changes the color of the water from blue to yellow. The color change shows the kids visually how carbon dioxide changes the acidity of the water. We did this experiment with them in order to connect the kids to Antarctica and to some of the actual research that is going on here.

After discussing the experiment and the results, the kids are then calculating their carbon footprint. By answering questions about their family’s transportation habits, electricity, gas, and propane use, they find out how many total pounds of carbon dioxide their family releases into the air. A few interesting facts is that gasoline for driving releases 22 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon, air travel releases 0.9 pounds per gallon, and electricity releases 1.5 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilo-Watt Hour. Again the young scientists will discuss their findings and the significance of it. Lastly, the groups will discuss steps to improve their local environment. Down here in Antarctica we are already doing many, many things to improve our environment. Through an intricate sorting system, the station recycles 70% of their waste. Water and energy is conserved in all areas with special toilets, sinks, and signs all over the place reminding us to conserve our resources. We even used glass instead of plastic for this experiment! How much carbon dioxide did we save with that?

With all of the scientists down here at McMurdo, I had the opportunity to talk to one group that has a teacher on board, Peggy Lubchenco, who helped her team develop curriculum for k-12 classes that even involves our 4-H Carbon Dioxide experiment. This group is currently researching ocean acidification, the lowering of the pH of the ocean’s water. Dr. Pauline Yu, who works with the Hofmann lab first explained some of the background to her group. Dr. Gretchen Hofmann is the scientist in charge and she has studied the effects of abiotic factors, such as temperature, on the physiology of organisms for the last 10 years in Antarctica and for the last 8 years in Santa Barbara. Here in Antarctica, she studied heat stress in fish related to the severely overfished Chilean sea bass, otherwise known as the Patagonian toothfish, and in Santa Barbara she studied heat stress on the intertidal organisms.

About five years ago, as public appreciation for ocean acidification rose, Dr. Hofmann started also doing studies involving ocean acidification. Yu states, “At the beginning not many people other than chemists and oceanographers were doing research on ocean acidification and Hofmann became one of the early adopters on the ecological physiological factors from ocean acidification.” She also had a unique approach as she collaborated with ocean chemists and they helped her guide and develop her experiments. Her team put together the instrumentation and methodology to monitor pH in an accurate and precise way.

She collaborated with a marine engineer / chemist who developed a deployable pH sensor. This machine monitors the pH levels multiple times in an hour and allows Dr. Hofmann and her team to measure ph levels over time in various locations to see how it changes due to factors such as depth, current, and tides.

This past June, her team first deployed the sensor in Santa Barbara. They found that the pH levels are shockingly dynamic in coastal ranges. The pH actually has a daily cycle similar to temperatures. It goes up and down by a much as 0.6 of a pH value. Dr. Hofmann’s group thinks it might be due to upwelling but they are still analyzing their data.

They are now studying the levels of pH and its effects on sea urchins. They have been studying one type of sea urchin in Santa Barbara for the last five years and they are now going to be comparing that to a different kind of sea urchin found here in Antarctica. The group is studying them here as carbon dioxide dissolves more readily in colder water – in polar water. These purple sea urchins were actually the first marine invertebrates to have their genome sequenced – back in 2006. Dr. Hofman has studied how its genes respond to stress and now they will see how they respond to ocean acidification. Will there be a stress response to the pH that is represented by changes in gene expression? In Santa Barbara, they found that certain genes in metabolism and skeleton formation have less expression. What will they find here?

Tomorrow, they will also deploy the pH sensor down here in Antarctica. Their team has drilled a hole in Cinder Cones, a place on the ice not far from McMurdo where we will also dive, and tomorrow their pH sensor will start measuring the pH in the cold, Antarctic water. On October 25, they will retrieve the sensor, gather the data, and then analyze it. We’ll all have to stay tuned to see what they find down here but to find out more about Dr. Hofmann’s time here, follow their blog.

Tina Sander, Polar Trec, 6 October 2010. Article.

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