– Oscar Schofield, Professor Bio-Optical Oceanography
By: Erin Pickett
There is nothing like a feature film about an upcoming field research project to get you pumped. I’m talking about Antarctic Edge: 70˚ South (now available on DVD, iTunes and Netflix!). In two months a few of us from the Biotelemetry and Behavioral Ecology Laboratory (BTBEL) will be headed down south to participate in the research project that is documented in this film.
The project is called the Palmer Station Antarctica LTER. LTER stands for long term ecological research. The Palmer site is located along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) and is part of a network of LTER sites around the world that have been established over the last three decades or so for the purpose of long term ecological monitoring. The WAP is a particularly unique place to monitor the effects of climate change because it is one of the most rapidly warming areas in the world. Temperature increases in this region are six times greater than the global average. As a result of increasing temperatures, the peninsula has experience a decline in the extent, concentration and duration of winter sea ice.
After my first viewing of Antarctic Edge with its graphic scenes of calving glaciers I thought, well, that’s a little dramatic. If you watch the preview you’ll get a taste of what I’m talking about. However, in an ecosystem dependent on sea ice, the loss of three months-worth of ice a year is dramatic! The scientists leading the Palmer LTER project have watched the marine ecosystem at Palmer Station transform radically over the course of their careers. Coastal areas along the peninsula more closely resemble the warmer and moister sub-Antarctic rather than a traditionally cold and arid Antarctic climate. The most visible effect of this southward climate shift has been an expansion of sub-Antarctic, or ice-intolerant species, into areas where ice-dependent species are disappearing. Antarctic Edge attempts to convey the urgency and importance of understanding ecological changes like these.
In January, a team of researchers from all over the country will board the R/V Lawrence M. Gould (LMG) and depart Punta Arenas, Chile. From Chile we’ll cross the Drake Passage and continue south to Anvers Island, where our research station is located. Personnel and research gear will be exchanged and then the LMG will transit south along a pre-established sampling grid. This grid covers the entire Western Antarctic Peninsula, an area the size of Oklahoma (69, 498 square miles). Over the course of a month we will collect samples and data on nearly every possible component of the marine ecosystem, including everything from microbes and zooplankton to cetaceans.
I will be working with folks from OSU’s BTBEL lab and collaborators at Duke University to study the region’s whale populations. We will be focusing our efforts on humpback whales and we will be using methods such as photo identification, tagging and biopsy sampling to understand more about this species in this area and to learn more about the ecological roles that these large baleen whales play in this fragile marine ecosystem. We are especially interested in learning more about the foraging ecology of this species and how their behavior is influenced by their primary prey, Antarctic krill. Many of the region’s top predators share this prey resource, which is declining as a result of sea ice loss. A central objective of our research is to understand how climate induced changes in this polar marine environment are affecting these top predators.
Over the next few months I’ll be keeping you updated on our preparations and journey south. Until then, I encourage you to watch Antarctic Edge: 70˚ South and get pumped!