A scientific update, and (finally) some introductions

First, a scientific update: The start of Palmer Station “boating season” is imminent. Several strong storms this past week (video here) have blown away much of the sea ice to the south and west of station, leaving only the boats to be dug out of their snowbanks and the station’s boat ramp to be cleared of snow. This a herculean task, given the amount of winter precipitation the Peninsula received this year, but the staff here are working furiously to get the job done.

View from the Palmer Station pier at almost 10 p.m., November 11, 2015. Some of the fast ice in Hero Inlet has broken off into scattered floes. Icebergs are visible on the horizon.

View from the Palmer Station pier at almost 10 p.m., November 11, 2015. Some of the fast ice in Hero Inlet has broken off into scattered floes. Icebergs are visible on the horizon. To the right is the southern edge of the fast ice on which we’ve been sampling these past two weeks.

Fortunately, the relatively large expanse of fast ice on the other (north) side of the station — where we have been conducting our ice sampling — continues to hold itself together. Many of us were worried that the storms would blow out all the ice. Being that this didn’t happen, we’ll gladly take the current situation for as long as it lasts.

In fact, we took full advantage of the ice during a lull in the weather earlier this week. Using a special pump, we collected 120 liters (~ 32 gallons) of water on Tuesday for an experiment back on station. Over the next week or so, we will be using the water we collected to simulate — under very controlled conditions in one of the station’s open-air tanks  — the effect of the ice blowing out to sea. In many marine and aquatic ecosystems, the seasonal retreat of ice cover is a critical event: The phytoplankton and bacteria living in the darkness immediately underneath are suddenly exposed to more sunlight than they’ve seen in six months. This, of course, is often when a “bloom” of phytoplankton happens. (Another critical ingredient for bloom initiation is wind; Jeff has more here.)

Members of the B-045 and B-019 sampling team head out to the Arthur Harbor ice station on Nov. 10, 2015. While on station, we collected 120 liters of water for an on-deck experiment back at Palmer.

Members of the C-045 and C-019 sampling team head out to the Arthur Harbor ice station on Nov. 10, 2015. While on station, we collected 120 liters of water for an on-deck experiment back at Palmer.

Here at Palmer, we are controlling the amount of light that our samples are receiving in the on-deck tank to simulate the ice retreat. With any luck, the ice at our station will actually retreat within the next few weeks, and we’ll be able to compare the result of our experiment with what’s really happening in the environment. (In the environmental sciences, this kind of opportunity is less common than you might think!)


But now, I’m finally coming through on a promise. Below, you will find introductions to members of the LTER scientific team currently conducting research at Palmer Station. There will be many more scientists onboard station this season working on their own projects; my decision to introduce only the LTER cast here is no slight to them.

Principal investigators

First, while none of them is currently present here on station, there are 10 principal investigators (“PIs” and “co-PIs”) who direct — and hold the funding for — the Palmer LTER study. I’ve included a brief note at the end of this post on the role of these PIs in obtaining funding for the science that goes on here at Palmer. These scientists come from various institutions and bring different sorts of expertise to the study. Some are experts in marine biology or ornithology. Others study the ice or sea currents, while still others use computer models to predict how the ecosystems of West Antarctica will change in the future.

Hugh Ducklow, a professor at Columbia University, is the LTER PI for whom I am officially working while here at Palmer. Hugh is a microbiologist and biogeochemist and is currently the lead scientist on the LTER study. Formally, he is responsible for the study’s Microbial Ecology and Biogeochemistry component. (Our sub-section of the LTER study has the U.S. Antarctic Program project number C-045, and this is how we usually refer to ourselves. Both scientists and support staff here on station often refer to the various research groups by project number, since it’s the easiest way to keep track of everyone.)

I got to know Hugh when he was director of the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. Hugh is a mentor and member of my thesis committee. I would be remiss here in failing to also mention Hugh’s research technician, Naomi Shelton; Naomi is the logistician who keeps Hugh’s Palmer work going, and she continually provides us with very valuable guidance. While Naomi is not here on station at the moment, she spent time on station last season and is part of Hugh’s team on the annual LTER research cruise. Naomi previously worked at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab on the Gulf Coast in Alabama.

The other (present) members of team C-045

My primary field team partner this season is microbiologist Jeff Bowman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (part of Columbia University). Jeff, whom I introduced indirectly in a previous post, arrived here on station with me last month and will depart when I leave to head north in December. Jeff has studied the microbial communities (algae and bacteria)

Jeff tries on Tuesday to find our original hole in the ice so we could sample through it. We couldn't find it, so we had to drill a new one.

Jeff tries on Tuesday to find our original hole in the ice so we could sample through it. We couldn’t find it, so we had to drill a new one.

associated with sea ice in both the Arctic and in and around McMurdo Sound, on the other side of Antarctica. He has significant field experience at both ends of the earth, and is leading our burgeoning sea-ice sampling effort at Palmer this season. Jeff maintains a very well-written and scientifically-oriented blog at http://www.polarmicrobes.org; I’d recommend following the action there as well. Jeff earned his Ph.D. in biological oceanography from the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington. On station this season, he is filtering large volumes of water for analysis of DNA and RNA; this will allow him to assess both the genetic potential of the microbial community (i.e., what microbes are present and what they’re capable of) and “who” is doing what at any given time.

Later in the season, several additional personnel will be joining the C-045 effort here at Palmer Station. Joining us in mid-November will be Conor Sullivan, a recent Brown University graduate who was part of the Palmer field team last season, and Ribanna Dittrich, a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Rachel Kaplan, another recent Brown grad, will be joining the team after Jeff and I depart.

Lastly, I want to introduce microbial geochemist Colleen Hansel, an associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Colleen had a short stay here at Palmer — she arrived with Jeff and me in October and then headed back north five days ago — but she managed to set us up with some critical, additional instrumentation that could add another fascinating dimension to the science here this season. Colleen left us with some special equipment to measure two kinds of reactive oxygen species (“ROS”) in the seawater we are collecting. For a short introduction to ROS and how they fit into my (and Colleen and Jeff’s) work, see these two paragraphs in my previous post.

Colleen has set us up to make measurements of two very elusive chemical compounds: Superoxide, and hydrogen peroxide. These compounds act as chemical signals and can degrade (or modify) other organic compounds that are nearby. Superoxide and hydrogen peroxide are strong oxidizing agents, meaning they can remove electrons from other nearby molecules; needless to say, this “stripping” of electrons is a powerful process that can have very negative effects. The tricky part is that neither of the two compounds sticks around for very long. In fact, most superoxide degrades in less than a minute! Colleen and members of her laboratory group have spent the last few years refining a working method to measure superoxide in the environment. This enabled them to make some of the first measurements showing that superoxide is produced not just by photosynthetic organisms like plankton, but also by bacteria.

We (mostly Jeff!) expect to consult frequently with Colleen over the course of the next month and a half.

Our close partners (and other scientists)

Members of B-019 and B-045 at the ice station in Arthur Harbor.

Members of “C-019” and “C-045” at the ice station in Arthur Harbor.

The members of C-045 work very closely at Palmer with members of Oscar Schofield‘s phytoplankton ecology and bio-optics group, who go by the project number C-019. Oscar is another PI on the LTER project. C-045 and C-019 share much of the sampling that goes on here every season via small boat, and the two groups are jointly participating in the current sea ice sampling effort. The team leader for C-019 right now is Nicole Couto, a graduate student at Rutgers University. This is Nicole’s fourth trip to Antarctica. (Nicole has a blog you can follow here, with some good posts about life and science at Palmer from her previous three seasons “on the ice.”)

Despite making measurements at Palmer of chlorophyll and other parameters associated with the life (and health) of phytoplankton, Nicole is actually a physical oceanographer who studies the effect that currents, sea ice formation, and other physical processes have on the phytoplankton community here. She uses very cool instruments called gliders to collect data for much of her work. Nicole is joined this season by a recent Rutgers graduate, Chelsea Farischon, and a rising Rutgers sophomore, Ashley Goncalves.

Also on station at the moment are Ben, Carrie, and Shawn — three birders who are members of the LTER study’s seabird component. The seabird (mostly penguin) effort is led by Bill and Donna Fraser. Bill and Donna have been studying the bird colonies around Palmer Station for more than 40 years. The startling decline over that time period in the size of the Adélie penguin colony on Torgersen Island was the inspiration for a book by Fen Montaigne that bears Fraser’s name. Ben, Carrie, and Shawn are among those here who have been anxiously awaiting the disappearance of the sea ice since they can only access many of the colonies they study using small boats.

Lastly, though they are not directly associated with the LTER study, two members of Rhian Waller‘s group from the University of Maine are here on station this spring. They are carrying out experiments in the aquarium here on a unique species of cold-water coral. On our trip south last month, the Gould retrieved over 100 of these corals from the ocean floor.

A short aside about LTER funding

An aside about funding for the LTER study, and the process that PIs (like Hugh) must go through to keep bringing in the necessary funding:  Like all taxpayer-funded science administered by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Palmer LTER study is a research grant. All research grants awarded by the NSF (and most, but not all, other federal agencies) are based on scientific proposals that are vetted through a stringent peer review process. A key difference with the LTER program is the term of each grant: Instead of the two or three years of funding attached to a “normal” NSF research grant, grants for long-term research at the various LTER sites are made on a renewable six-year cycle. All of this means that LTER scientists are required to submit fewer (albeit much lengthier) proposals than those crafted for research elsewhere. The important point here is that they’re still required to submit themselves to the peer review process. There are some misconceptions in the U.S. research community that scientists associated with the various LTER projects get a “free pass” when it comes to the grant game. Proposals to fund work on LTER projects can (and do) fail: For example, the Shortgrass Steppe site, in Colorado, was de-funded by NSF in 2014 after the project’s PIs submitted an unsuccessful renewal proposal.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading — and maybe you learned something about the grant process.

Until next time,


Anomalously high precipitation this winter means mountains of snow covering everything here on station... including the small boats! Jack (one of the marine technicians) is busy digging.

Anomalously high precipitation this winter means mountains of snow covering everything here on station… including the small boats! Jack (one of the marine technicians) is busy digging.

Grey skies greeted our sampling effort on Tuesday. This isn't a black and white photo!

Grey skies greeted our sampling effort on Tuesday. This isn’t a black and white photo!

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