UAB students studying in Antarctica

UAB graduate students Julie Schram and Kate Schoenrock are leaving today for the world’s coldest continent — the start of a one-week trek that will carry them to Palmer Station, Antarctica.

There they will dive in freezing ocean waters, where forests of plants and untold algae, amphipods and mollusks live, collecting underwater creatures for a long series of experiments that will test the possible impact of increased temperatures and carbon dioxide in the Southern Ocean.

Summer is nearing its end in Antarctica, and the students will work at Palmer through the end of May as autumn arrives. Helping them the first month and a half will be UAB professors Jim McClintock and Chuck Amsler and researcher Maggie Amsler.

“We literally are working in underwater forests,” said Chuck Amsler. “But we don’t dive deeper than 130 feet — we never dive deep enough to need decompression.”

If a diver’s drysuit — worn over a one-piece insulated bodysuit and long underwear — should ever breach, the divers have to get out before they freeze in water that is 29 to 36 degrees.

This trip is the latest in a storied tradition of UAB research in Antarctica. It’s the third research trip to the continent for Schoenrock, the fourth for Schram, the 14th for McClintock (not counting five cruise ship expeditions he has helped lead), the 15th for Chuck Amsler and the 21st for Maggie Amsler.

The group will be diving 10 times a week into March, and several times a week after that as the experiments get set up on land — 72 Tupperware containers filled with sea water that is chilled to precise temperatures and bubbled with carbon dioxide to lower the pH to levels projected to occur in 50 and 100 years. The tubs will hold creatures collected from the icy seas.

Though Antarctica may seem far from civilization, it is sensitive to carbon dioxide that gets released into the air around the world, including carbon dioxide created when we burn fossil fuels. One-third of that carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere gets dissolved into ocean waters, where it then starts to increase the acidity of the water, said McClintock. The Southern Ocean is the greatest sink for this carbon dioxide, which makes Antarctica a natural lab to see the threat to existing underwater life if the levels continue to increase.

“It’s the canary in the coal mine,” said McClintock.

The trip to Palmer Station takes about a week. The five researchers will fly to Dallas today, and then 4,860 miles overnight to Santiago, Chile. Then they hop 1,360 miles farther south to Punta Arenas on the Straits of Magellan, where they board the National Science Foundation’s research vessel, The Laurence M. Gould, to sail 740 miles to Palmer.

The diving is the dramatic part of their research.

While two UAB scientists dive underwater, another pair aboard the inflatable Zodiac boat keeps guard for leopard seals or for suddenly bad weather. They will sound an underwater siren if they see either threat.

In the cold water, the divers sometimes have to swim through brash ice — chunks of wind-blown ice from the size of a softball to the size of a chair. For added safety in severe weather, each of the nearby islands has a cache of survival gear, including tents and stoves, in case a sudden storm prevents the Zodiac from getting back to Palmer.

But the real science will get done in those Tupperware tubs as Schoenrock and Schram do sophisticated measurements for growth, metabolism, shell structure, behavior, pigmentation and other things on a variety of limpets, gastropods, crustose coralline algae, mollusks or other creatures.

This trip is the first of two field seasons for the Antarctica climate change research, which is supported by a three-year NSF grant of about $650,000.

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Jeff Hansen,,  9 February 2012. Article.

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