Rothera Diary: July 1999

written by Gerard Baker

Scientists at work over the winter


July 1999

Dear everyone

My right ear lobe is still smarting from the shock of a temperature of minus 21.5·C and several knots of wind. I am as thrilled as I can remember ever being, having just sat down after an exhilarating seven kilometre ski on sea ice. Those two little words do no justice whatsoever to the remarkable experience I have just had. Think about it. Sea ice. Frozen sea. A solid surface where normally icebergs bigger than houses crash about in huge waves. A solid surface only a foot or so thick. Underneath, the marine world carries on - deprived from a moderate amount of light maybe - but there is liquid water under sea ice - an interesting thought that enters one's head as one bridges a slight crack with one's skiis. Liquid water to quite a depth, and water that is only marginally above minus 2·C. Not water to swim in.

To travel for any distance on the sea ice must be truly fantastic - with dogs it must have been as close to heaven as I can imagine. And yet, it is not straightforward. We have to undertake a thorough process of drilling to ascertain depth and condition - the ice has to withstand bad winds too - before we might be able to travel on it. I have just been out with one of our Field Assistants, Phil, who was doing some drilling to the north, and the ice is looking favourable for travel in the near future if the weather remains nice and cold.

The formation of sea ice around the coastline of Antarctica is the largest annual climatic event on our planet. Effectively the size of this continent doubles in the process, only to be shrunk once more in the spring thaw. Our world changes immeasurably - where we have seen waves, bergs, seals, penguins and other birds feeding, from the same sea that gives us the noise and iodine smell of waves crashing against rock, we are left with a silent and odourless, apparently sterile vista. A haze of greys and whites greets the eye and one is immediately disoriented. Skiing home towards Rothera Point today, only the faint lights of the base stood out as a signal of our presence here, and I felt truly humbled in the face of Nature. Something in me wants to shout ?beauty!', as I often do, and I might had it not been for the presence of my companions.

To have time in this place is truly precious. And, to see our peninsula from the ice - the scale of our tiny presence against the magnificence of cobalt ice cliffs, dusted with fresh snow and rearing to forty metres above what ought to be water - one is reminded, if that were necessary, that we shall not be part of Antarctica, but mere visitors to it. This place belongs to Nature.

And that brings me to consider why we are here. Since the earliest days of exploration, Antarctica has awed the human race - our finest composers and artists, writers and thinkers have pondered its significance. Our Terra Australis Incognita has its fans across the academic disciplines, but it is one - science - that brings us here and validates our presence. And it is science that allows me to be here.

What science then? What does Antarctic science mean - why is science carried on here - what science happens here at Rothera - lots of questions. Science has been a theme of exploration at least since the heyday of Antarctic exploration at the beginning of this century. An oft-quoted fact is that Scott, Bowers and Wilson had rock samples on their sledge until the end - carrying them back in the name of science, using energy they could ill afford to waste.

The International Geophysical Year of 1957-58, arguably, marked the beginning of wholesale scientific exploration in the Antarctic - nations combining strength to accomplish science in the face of environmental adversity. The British base at Halley was founded in that year and, in its present incarnation, exists as a centre for research into climate and the upper atmosphere. Rothera Research Station - a relatively new base dating to the mid 1970's - has many science roles throughout the Antarctic summer - being the main staging post for scientists travelling south for a summer field season, but in the winter, marine and terrestrial biology dominate, with meteorology also featuring.

Four biologists are currently living and working at Rothera - two on the marine side - Dr Keiron Fraser who holds the post of Marine Biologist and Jenny Beaumont, Marine Assistant. They are only the second people to hold these roles at Rothera, as the former home of their predecessors was at Signy station in the South Orkney Islands, which recently became a summer-only station. Our Terrestrial Biology team is made up of Dr Kevin Hughes- Terrestrial Biologist, and Paul Geissler, Terrestrial Assistant. In their work, the four scientists are supported by the remainder of the station, but especially the Boatman Ian Mc Donald, and the Diving Officer, Craig Barnes.

That marine science can occur as far south as this is remarkable in its own right. That diving and boating are also able to occur in a primarily ice-locked environment is very special indeed, and a testament to the professionalism of those who undertake it that it is able to occur at all.

Biology in Antarctica - the phrase doesn't seem quite right does it? After all, there is little but ice and rock here - well, yes, but look a little closer - investigate a little more and you will find life above the ice wherever there is rock - in the form of microorganisms, adapted to one of the harshest environments on the planet. And look at the margins of the continent and a rich ocean of life abounds. Quite why these organisms are here and how they have been able to colonize such an extreme environment and thrive within it are questions central to the purpose of biological science - adaptation is the key word.

Terrestrial biologist, Dr Kevin Hughes, is in the middle of an eighteen month spell at Rothera station. Working with microorganisms his work is not, perhaps, as high profile as, say, the dive team and marine biologists, as he spends most of his time looking at life that most of us disregard as bugs, but these are Antarctic bugs, and very special ones at that. Studying microbes here is so valuable to a biologist because in Antarctica those microbes which are able to survive - bacteria, fungi, algae and viruses - live in relatively simple communities. There are fewer things that conspire to get in the way of observing how they interact.

Living in Antarctica is as extreme as life gets, but the environment here is not amorphous. As well as being able to differentiate between ?maritime' habitats such as those on the Antarctic Peninsula and outlying islands and the central, continental Antarctic, where the environment is markedly more harsh, the Antarctic environment is changing. Decreased ozone levels and rising temperatures may affect the ability of organisms to survive here and this is key to some of the science Dr Hughes is carrying out. He hopes to be able to sample and preserve microbes from as far north as he can - the outlying islands and the Falkland Islands, to as far south as he can - to the South Pole if possible. As well as having to survive the extreme cold, microbes must also tolerate desiccation, freezing and thawing, ultraviolet radiation, and being buried in snow for much of the year. These organisms and their internal chemistry must therefore be either very flexible - able to tolerate all manner of conditions, perhaps forming relationships with other organisms to survive in the way lichens do - or just be very specialised, so that they can only live here and nowhere else.

During the summer period Kevin is hoping to return to Mars Oasis - a fabulous name for a field site - and fabulous too as a site for the collection of microorganisms. Alongside scientists from the Netherlands, the UK and Germany, Kevin will collect and preserve samples of cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae and some of the most ancient organisms on Earth), bacteria, fungi, and lichens, in order that research can continue here and around the world on these most fascinating of creatures.

The responses of organisms to environmental change is a very important aspect of biology at Rothera research station. Here, when the ozone hole forms in the Spring, scientists study how increased levels of ultraviolet radiation affect living organisms here. It is widely known that the presence of the ozone hole was first confirmed by British Antarctic Survey scientists whose work in this field goes back to the International Geophysical Year in 1957. During the summer period at Rothera, Terrestrial Assistant Paul Geissler is charged with the responsibility of maintaining our Spectroradiometer, which is able to tell us what wavelengths of light are being received at ground level. Thus, from about August to May, the machine sits outside and gives us minute by minute accounts of incoming radiation. This is not only useful as an indication of how long it will take to get a sunburn. It is essential information for those scientists who are monitoring the amount of Ultra Violet (UV) radiation here and its effect on the animals and plants that survive in this part of the Antarctic.

Although we do not see the sun high in the sky at this time of the year, we do experience higher levels of UV than back in the UK, because of the ozone hole, and also because what little light there is reflected by the snow surface. Because the sun is low in the horizon at this time of year, we have to be careful to avoid getting face and eye burns from direct sunlight which later in the year only burns our hats.

Many experiments are carried out at Rothera and also at a field site nearby on Léonie Island in cooperation with a Dutch team who carry out a programme known as BRUVA - Biological Responses to Ultra Violet Radiation in Antarctica. Areas of land have been set aside and covered with cloches to test the effect of eliminating parts of the light spectrum on the plant life beneath. Sensors in the cloches report back to their scientists across the world - giving an indication throughout the summer and winter of the amount of light, temperature, and humidity. Environmental growth cabinets within the Bonner Laboratory provide controlled conditions for the testing of field data in the laboratory. All of this equipment and much of that within the Bonner Laboratory come under Paul's remit - so a lot to look after. In addition, there is a great deal of preparation to be undertaken in readiness for the summer. Whilst the Bonner Laboratory has four scientists and one diving officer working in it during this winter - during the coming summer there will be twenty seven people passing through it - some workload.

Coordinating space and time in the Bonner Laboratory alongside Paul is Jenny Beaumont, Marine Assistant. Jenny completed a degree in Biology with Oceanography at the University of Southampton before working for a while in an environmental consultancy and then coming to Rothera for a two and a half year period. Despite the fact that we also have a marine biologist, Jenny's work is not to be an assistant to him - her job is wide ranging and involves maintaining a collection of animals for research here and across the world, managing long-term monitoring studies, and the day-to-day running of the Bonner Laboratory. An experienced diver, Jenny will be in the water several times per week in the summer and whenever the weather and ice allow in the winter - which so far has not been as often as she would have liked.

The marine community here is very different from that you might see in the UK - Echinoderms (starfish, feather stars, brittle stars, sea urchins, sea lemons, sea spiders, and sea cucumbers) dominate along with many Molluscs, Brachiopods, Gorgonians and Sponges - with relatively few fish and few Decapods - the crabs and lobsters that we are so familiar with at home.

There are several long-term studies that have been set up here which Jenny manages throughout the year. One is a feeding study which is based on a deep site just alongside the runway here on Rothera Point. The rock face in question is home to a particularly rich community of invertebrates - Bryozoans, Gorgonians and fan worms, and every two weeks the animals are monitored to see which are feeding. Additionally, recordings are made of environmental factors such as ice cover, temperature, salinity, algal bloom activity, light and so on - in order that feeding activity can be understood. A second project is the sediment trap. Suspended at 26 metres is roughly 33 metres of water off Trolval Island to the south of Rothera Point, this site is reasonably protected from the worst weather and iceberg damage. The sediment trap itself consists of pots arranged on a grid which collect material which falls through the water column. Periodically the pots are collected so that their contents can be measured - and dry and ash weights can be assessed. Part of the analysis occurs here and the remainder at Cambridge to determine what might be available within the water for animals to feed on. Essentially, a great deal of environmental monitoring goes on here - so that we can understand what exactly is affecting the animals that live here.

Jenny describes the diving here as cold and difficult - but brilliant. It is all dry suit diving, and in the winter, a pony cylinder is used on top of the usual cylinder to provide back-up air in order to increase safety. Diving occurs throughout the year at Rothera, either from boats or from the shoreline. In the winter it can also occur through the sea ice, holes being cut by a large chain saw and protected by sheets of hardboard. Ice diving - as extreme as it gets - is carried out under the strict supervision of the base Diving Officer, Craig Barnes, whose job is to coordinate the base diving activity. Lifelines are attached to the divers and a system of communication is established through pulls on the line which, having observed it for myself, works extremely well. Working in pairs - buddies go into the water either to collect samples for research or to observe animal activity under water, as in the deep feeding study.

Animals living in the water here manage to survive in conditions as extreme as anywhere in the world. During the brief summer, algae that have survived under the winter sea ice ?bloom' and kick-start the summer period of growth and reproduction that will filter through the levels of the food chain. Krill, seals, penguins, and even the great whales depend on the algae's ability to convert sunlight into food energy, powering the Antarctic marine community. Food is not available for the entire year for the sea life that Jenny is most interested in, however. The animals living on the sea floor here may only have one short feeding period a year, but they still have to do all of those everyday things like grow, reproduce and defend themselves - all activities which cost them energy. How they store food and manage their energy budgets are serious questions for science and much of the marine science here is concentrated on these most fundamental questions - survival, distribution and adaptation.

Dr Keiron Fraser, our Marine Biologist, is like Jenny here for two and a half years, having recently completed his PhD at the University of Aberdeen, following a degree in Marine Biology and Zoology at University College, North Wales at Bangor. His particular interest is energy, or to be precise, how animals store energy and what compounds they use to do this - Protein, Lipid (fats) or Carbohydrate. Working here with a number of organisms, but particularly sea cucumbers - relatives of the starfishes and sea urchins - he is looking at protein turnover and at the ?cost' to an animal of using a particular substance for energy storage. Given the limited opportunities for feeding that many animals face here this is of particular significance, as energy storage is essential to survival and reproduction. Analysis of the comparative cost of storing similar materials at low and high temperature may indicate why particular storage materials are used in preference to others. Keiron's time at Rothera will be spent collecting data and carrying out experimental work after which he will return to Cambridge and write up at the British Antarctic Survey's headquarters. He is hoping that his work will be of great interest to the wider research community, where knowledge of protein turnover may be applied, for example, to the understanding of wound and medical recovery following tissue damage.

I have not a lot else to say this month. Work as usual carries on back in the base, with the hectic preparations for the summer, such as snow clearing the runway, yet to begin. I am off on my winter trip during the first week of August, and so shall write and tell you a bit about sledge and skidoo travel next month. Enjoy the remainder of the summer back home - and see you next month.

Gerard Baker, Rothera Research Station, Antarctica.