The imposing cliffs and cascading glaciers of Elephant Island faded into the mist as we set out across the Scotia Sea, retracing Sir Ernest Shackleton’s heroic, 800-mile ocean voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia.
Shackleton’s 1916 crossing took 17 days in the James Caird, a 22-foot life boat rigged with a canvas deck and small sail, and equipped with a sextant and compass.
During our three-day crossing, my fellow explorers and I were humbled by Shackleton’s achievement; our vessel, the 70-meter Professor Molchanov, rolled up to 25 degrees, water crashed over her decks, and the topsides became encrusted snow and ice – one of a mariner’s worst fears.
Our days at sea were full of lectures on the history of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17, the identification of sea ice, the nesting habits of sea birds, climate change, oceanography, geology, plate tectonics, deep sea vents, krill, Leopard seals and photography. Resembling a boot camp for Antarctic explorers, this marathon series of lectures was delivered by the world’s preeminent scientists, naturalists, historians, artists, moviemakers and National Geographic photographers-in-residence.
Participants required a good center of balance – drapes, chairs, AV screens and even lecturers lurched back and forth with predictable regularity – as the Professor Molchanov plied the roughest waters in the world. Anti-motion sickness drugs became a daily staple for all.
As one of the expedition’s two geoscientists, my responsibility was to present a lecture on the geology and geophysics of Antarctica and South Georgia, providing an overview of the historical role that geoscientists have played in polar exploration.
I also discussed plate tectonics, volcanism, glaciology, recent fossil finds in Antarctica and climate change within the context of the geological time scale.
Later, on terra firma in South Georgia, fellow explorers started snapping photographs of geological outcrops, dykes and sills, weathering features, and glaciers.
To my surprise and delight, some of my colleagues were seeing the world, for the first time, through a geological filter.
Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions always included geologists and geophysicists.
Since the late 1800s, geoscientists have mapped the continent’s mineral and coal deposits, and have tracked the position of the magnetic south pole – in fact, Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition of 1909 is widely credited with its discovery. Drifting 10 to 15 kilometers per year, the magnetic south pole lies offshore today, in the Southern Ocean.
Bottom line, it’s tough being a geoscientist in Antarctica – 97 percent of the continent is covered by ice, leaving a thin continental veneer to explore on foot. Remote sensing technologies, however, including satellite, gravity and magnetic techniques, have illuminated this largely unexplored continent, providing data on isostatic rebound, sea ice thickness and the collapse of the surrounding ice shelves.
During the audition for a coveted spot on the Elysium Expedition Science Team, I pitched my vision of recreating the role of the ship’s geoscientist – 100 years later – providing a unique perspective to the discussions of climate change, glaciology and oceanography.
My vision of a geoscientist-in-Antarctica was supported by numerous corporate and industry association sponsors, including the AAPG Foundation, and by generous individual donors.
The 2010 Elysium Visual Epic Expedition’s mission was to undertake oceanographic studies and to document the impacts of accelerating climate change, both above and below the water. During the past 50 years, the Western Antarctic Peninsula has increased in temperature by 3 C.
Experiencing more than twice the world’s average warming trend, the peninsula represents an ideal outdoor laboratory to study climate change.
Because 71 percent of the planet’s surface area is blanketed by oceans, the study of ocean change – including the dynamic relationship between ocean acidification and sea ice melting – is fundamental to understanding climate change.
For 19 days, the Elysium Team – comprising 57 explorers from 19 nations – scouted, recorded and documented this fragile continent, the planet’s last remaining frontier. The Expedition’s deliverables – a feature film, a TV documentary, a photo essay book and a permanent photo archive – will be rolled out in 2014, in conjunction with the centennial celebrations of Shackleton’s journey.
The science team’s task was to study the genetic distribution of Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), shrimp-like crustaceans that are the keystone species of the Southern Ocean.
Literally every species in Antarctica relies upon krill for its survival; failure of the krill populations could precipitate a dangerous domino effect in the ecosystem.
On the Western Antarctic Peninsula we witnessed – at eye level, from inflatable Zodiacs – the food chain in action, as voracious crabeater seals chased large swarms of red krill in a feeding frenzy akin to wildlife moments in the Serengeti Plain.
The Western Antarctic Peninsula’s continental shelf is widely believed to house the major breeding grounds of krill. Once born, the krill are carried downstream into the Scotia Sea by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.
According to Cabell Davis, the Elysium Expedition’s chief scientist and a senior scientist in the Biology Department of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, observed warming in this region has coincided with a reduced krill population and a concurrent increase in salp populations. More commonly known as “sea squirts,” salps are pelagic (or open ocean) tunicates.
Although microsatellite DNA markers are being developed for Euphausia superba from the Western Antarctic Peninsula, the genetic similarity of downstream krill populations is not yet known. Similarly, scientists know little of the genetic composition of salps (Salpa thompsoni) originating from the peninsula.
Weighing in globally at a staggering 125 to 725 million tons of biomass, krill also represent an important commercial fishery. Just as the great whales migrate annually to Antarctica to gorge on krill, so travel the international fishing fleets that collectively capture 150,000 tons of krill every year in the nutrient rich waters of the Southern Ocean.
Rich in protein, fatty acids, lipids and enzymes, krill are used in the aquaculture, livestock, pet food and medical industries. Their Omega-3 fatty acids are also packaged as nutritional supplements.
An international body, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, uses ecosystem-based management to set catch limits for the global krill fishery. Looking to the future, however, ecosystem management may face considerable challenges (and uncertainties) in an era of environmental change.
The science team commandeered about one-third of the ship’s bar space, transforming it into a portable science laboratory – a situation that initially generated some grumblings among the non-scientific explorers.
The laboratory was outfitted with a photomicroscope for viewing and photographing tiny zooplankton and phytoplankton, and a light box for examining the larger specimens.
Steve Nicol, the expedition’s krill expert from the Australian Antarctic Division, provided tutorials on how to classify krill, larval krill, copepods, amphipods and salps.
Equipped with new-found knowledge – and with tweezers poised – I was excited to contribute to this oceanographic research.
But no one warned me about the “robust” species of free-swimming plankton – yes, I discovered a tomopterid worm in one of the early plankton net tows. Moving its paddle-like body extensions, the tomopterid worm darted energetically around the dish.
Revisiting my invertebrate zoology background, I worked alongside the members of the science team, sorting through buckets of sea water recovered by the plankton net from depths of 148 to 216 meters. Predominated by gelatinous cocoons secreted by salps, we affectionately dubbed this aqueous mess “salp soup.”
Between the science team’s powers of observation and the gizmo’s optical eye (see box below), we classified radiolarians, diatoms, ostracods, ctenophore jellies, copepods, amphipods, salps and worms. The DAVPR also imaged marine snow particles – decaying organic matter in the water column – which form a potentially important food source for krill in the open ocean.
Based upon analyzing the plankton net hauls and the DAVPR imaging, we observed that krill and larval krill were in short supply in the open ocean. Our initial observations supported the phenomenon previously noted by Davis and his global peers: A climate warming-related increase in salps is displacing krill in the Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean.
Samples were preserved, both cryogenically in liquid nitrogen, and in formalin. A portion of the salps and krill samples were sent to the Census of Marine Zooplankton for DNA bar-coding, to determine the degree of genetic similarity of populations distributed across the Scotia Sea. The digital and preserved samples data will be used to estimate the abundance of krill and other plankton, in relation to marine snow and hydrography.
Our return voyage from South Georgia to Ushuaia, the southernmost city on the South American continent, involved five days of sailing across the roughest seas in the world. En route, we encountered a Force 11 storm with waves cresting 15 meters in height and winds whipping at 110 kilometers an hour. When the Professor Molchanov docked in Ushuaia, we had logged 3,277 nautical miles in 19 days.
During the early part of the return voyage, the science team took advantage of calm seas. While we were processing the plankton tows, an interesting transformation occurred in the Professor Molchanov’s bar: science suddenly became cool. Or cooler.
No longer focused on getting the “money shots” or on planning the logistical details of the next shore visit or dive, the Elysium explorers had some free time and were looking for interesting tasks. The scientists were swarmed by these enthusiastic explorers who queued up at the microscopes to examine and photograph krill and the plankton swimming in the salp soup.
Shrewdly reassessing our role, we moved seamlessly to mentor these scientists-in-the-making. Recognizing this transformation as a value-added educational opportunity, I gladly surrendered my tweezers and relaxed with a glass of fine Argentine Malbec.
Coaching from the sidelines, I cautioned, “Watch out for the tomopterid worms! They’re small but scary critters!”
The bar-cum-laboratory had morphed into an elegant teaching platform, and the adult students were buzzing with excitement.
“The science outreach activity on this expedition was excellent,” Davis said. “The interfacing of scientists with photographers, cinematographers, artists, writers and musicians was unparalleled.”
The cross-pollination of scientists and individuals with diverse skill sets will, no doubt, result in numerous, multi-faceted collaborations amongst the Elysium team members. Given the right type of educational platform, this transformation process works amazingly well with the general public and with children, the geoscientists of the future.
And, as AAPG members, the teaching platforms needed to inspire today’s youth can often be found in our everyday workplaces. Our platform was an amazing outdoor laboratory and a jury-rigged ship’s bar. But a coffee table in your company’s reception area, a three-dimensional geophysical workstation in your office or a teacher’s classroom can be your platform.