We were booked to go ashore at Palmer Station, the American base on Anvers Island, on the 9thJan, but the brashy, sea ice had blown in around the station making it too risky for the Ushuaia staff to take zodiacs in. So about 10 expeditioners from Palmer come aboard the ship to tell us about the science that is happening on the base.
I am really happy to see that one of my colleagues from the US Dr Zicheng Yu(Zic) from Lehigh University, is one of those researchers. Like my group, Zic is using stable isotopes of carbon, and also oxygen, to understand how plant growth is affected by climate change in Antarctica. Specifically, Zic is a paleoecologist and works with peat mosses. These are mosses that have been growing for thousands of years in wet, boggy sites and the older mosses become compressed and peaty as the plants above press down. The wetness helps to preserve the moss which means it can contain climate records that go back for thousands of years. Zic has sampled such mosses from Patagonia and is interested in how far South the peat mosses extend. The Antarctic mosses we work with are younger, hundreds, rather than thousands of years old, but we are working with individual plants, not peat. In peat there can be layers and layers of different mosses and even grasses and other plants as you delve down into the core. Our individual plants are only a few centimeters tall whereas peat cores can be meters deep. It’s all a matter of scale. In East Antarctica the mosses grow a few millimeters each year, whereas on the peninsula they might grow a whole centimeter in a year!
Zic and I last met at the SCAR Open Science meeting in Davos in June, when Dr Melinda Waterman and I spoke at the same session as him. Zic tells everyone on the ship about the work that we are doing on Antarctic moss which is great visibility for me! He also has a University research position in China and so I introduce him to the Chinese HB3 team.
After the formal session we go onto the front deck for photographs and also get to talk to the Palmer staff. It’s really nice to meet a range of expeditioners including scientists and the staff who keep the station running and support the researchers on the base.
All the expeditioners at Palmer were affected by the US Government Shutdown. Staff employed by the government were working for no pay and having trouble ordering supplies for the station for the coming season. Some of the scientists cannot get to their sites to do research, because the public servants in the US who prepare the permits are on furlough and can’t process the permits. This is such a waste of everyone’s time and is ultimately a waste of the NSF grant money. I am hoping that some of this has resolved since we got back and Zic and his colleagues got their work done. Lets hope the rest of the season is productive for them all.
Palmer is part of the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network with a study area extending North and South of Palmer from the coast to several hundred kilometers to the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula.
We were supposed to go ashore at Neko Harbour but it was ice bound. The wind has blown the sea ice close to shore and so we can’t get ashore in the zodiacs. It’s too dangerous to risk puncturing them.
So, we have a glorious glacier cruise and see more spectacular ice formations both cascading off the continent and in the icebergs and sea ice.
We collect clear, black ice for the bar and see glacial deposits where rocks and silt are layered into the icebergs.
We also find some moss on a Point near Neko Harbour. I am hoping it’s a new description and we can go back to study it! Although it’s on a pretty sheer rock face so it would be tough to collect. I think we would need a drone to collect samples for us.
We were on an iceberg cruise on the zodiac and our guide was Juan, a fellow plant enthusiast so when I spotted green through my binoculars and asked if it was moss or algae, he was happy to get closer to check it out. It was on a huge volcanic plug with full length dykes running down the steep cliffs.
On one side was a stream of moss cascading down terraced steps in the rock face. Very exciting. Just above the moss we spotted 2 Antarctic tern chicks which were probably helping to fertilise the moss stream.
Then of course we were miles from the ship and the weather closed in so it was foggy on the way back and for the first time we had to navigate back to the ship on GPS. It was cold and felt properly Antarctic in the zodiac and we had to keep an eye out for bergy bits of sea ice. Very exciting for us all because it felt a bit intrepid, but I didn’t want to get a reputation for being the last one back on the zodiacs and holding up the ship. Don’t want to set a bad example!
Each day the participants on the voyage spend 4-5 hours on the leadership program and we attempt to have a landing or a zodiac cruise if landings are not possible. I am leading the on board science program with Dr Katherine Duncan from the University of Strathclyde. Kate was a participant on the second voyage (HB2) back in March. We hadn’t met before this voyage but had talked on whats app and zoom calls whilst preparing the program along with the science faculty founders, Dr Justine Shaw (University of Queensland) and Dr Mary-Anne Lea (University of Tasmania). Kate is a wealth of knowledge about the HB program, the ship and what we need to bring with us. Luckily, both she and Dr Sophie Adams (our wellbeing guru and also a HB2 alumna) brought real coffee, an important component for wellbeing on the ship as elsewhere!
Having only met on the 28thDecember, Kate and I are now sharing a cabin, running a science theme together, enjoying our new-found friendship and planning future science grant applications. We also get to be on one of the first zodiacs ashore in order to supervise the landings and are often last back as we round up the stragglers who just want an extra minute ashore and, that last photograph or video.
The next landing is on Cuverville Island (7thJan) where we find Gentoo penguins nesting and skuas patrolling.
Cuverville Island is very snowy and the chicks were tiny, but at one end it has the most amazing wall of moss, a whole cliff face, green and grey against the white-grey sky. I would love to visit again and take moss samples for dating, to see how old these moss forests are.
We watched penguins rolling eggs or feeding chicks as well as well as mating. Presumably many of these Gentoo penguins have also had aborted attempts at rearing their first clutch of chicks this season.
I take the opportunity to segue from penguin sex to moss sex to the amusement of the nearby participants and Fern Hames (Arthur Rylah Institute)our on-board Sci-Comms facilitator.
On the way back to the ship we have a spectacular iceberg cruise, full of amazing blue, turquoise and white shapes against the grey of the sea.
Ceratodon purpureus is a cosmopolitan moss that survives some of the harshest places on Earth: from frozen Antarctica to hot South Australian deserts. In this study we isolated nine compounds from Australian and Antarctic C. purpureus and considered how they might help this species to survive under such extreme conditions.
Saturday (5thJan) we are back on King George Island, at the Argentinian Carlini Base. Carlini is the only station in Potter Cove and is named after a scientist Alejandro Ricardo Carlini. The station sits beneath the impressive Tres Hermanos mountain and the nearby glaciers are retreating rapidly exposing new rocky areas.
The weather is overcast, cloudy with wet snow. Young elephant seals haul out amongst the chunks of glacial ice that are washed up along the beach.
We tour the Science labs, the Dive sheds and also are given refreshments in the station mess. There is a compression chamber in the Dive facility and a technician to operate it in case the divers run into problems.
The scientists on station came from many countries and tell us about the current science research programs that are running on and around the station including a lot of marine biology and hydrology. It is great to see another base in action and to hear first-hand from the scientists about their research. It is also wonderful that so many people on station are prepared to give up their Saturday to entertain visitors.
The projects include remediation projects aimed at understanding how plants and microbes can clean up contaminated soil around Antarctic stations. Many sites in Antarctica are contaminated with oil and other chemicals as a result of historic waste practices and some of my students have investigated how tolerant Antarctic mosses and alga are to oil and if Macquarie Island plants can help promote soil clean ups.
I was particularly excited to see so much moss and lichen around Carlini, as well as the two vascular plants that grow on the peninsula region of Antarctica, the grass Deschampsia antarctica and the pearlwort, Colobanthus quitensis. The lichens and mosses have even started to colonise the whale bones that remain from historic whaling in the region.
The lush moss beds that grow near East Antarctica’s coast are among the only plants that can withstand life on the frozen continent. But our new research shows that these slow-growing plants are changing at a far faster rate than anticipated.
Read more in the Conversation
Plus here is a link to our latest youtube video
Sharon Robinson, Melinda Waterman & Andrew Netherwood (2017) East Antarctic mosses reveal a windier, drier climate
Robinson SA, King D, Bramley-Alves J, Waterman MJ, Ashcroft MB, Wasley J,Turnbull JD,Miller RE,Ryan-Colton E, Benny T, Mullany K, Clarke, LJ, Barry, L, HuaQ. (2018) Rapid change in East Antarctic terrestrial vegetation in response to regional drying. Nature Climate Change8, 879-884, DOI: 10.1038/s41558-018-0280-0
Drones are helping scientists check the health of Antarctic mosses, revealing clues on the pace of climate change.
Read more in the Conversation
Plus here is the Youtube video
and if you want to read the paper
Malenovský Z, Lucieer A King DK, Turnbull JD & Robinson SA (2017) Unmanned aircraft system advances health mapping of fragile polar vegetation. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 8 1842-1857
Professor Sharon Robinson has just returned from 19 days aboard the MV Ushuaia as part of the Homeward Bound Leadership Faculty 2019. She led the On Board Science Stream leader with Dr Katherine Duncan.
Antarctica seems like a long way from anywhere but climate change is affecting the tiny plants and animals that make their home there. Along the Antarctic Peninsula region, that Homeward Bound 3 is visiting, the climate is becoming much warmer and wetter which means that plants can colonise new ice-free areas and grow faster.
On the other side of the continent it is getting colder and drier and the plants are having a tougher time. My team have shown that some East Antarctic moss beds are drying out and dying.2-4So from pole to pole, and all around Antarctica, these tiny plants are recording how we are changing our planet as they grow. My team’s work shows that although these plants are tiny (a few centimeters tall), they can be hundreds of years old. They are the old growth forests of Antarctica, home to tiny microscopic animals, like water bears or moss piglets (tardigrades) springtails and nematode worms, as well as fungi and microbes. We know the plants are hundreds of years oldbecause as they grow, they lay down a signal of the carbon dioxide in the air and so record changes in the composition of carbon dioxide. From coal burning to radioactivity released from nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s (the bomb pulse) they are recording the Anthropocene from the bottom of the globe. That means they are sentinels for our past, as well as early warning of possible global futures.
These plants survive freezing winters, emerging from under winter snow for a brief summer of weeks to just a few months. They get their water from ice melt and their nutrients from ancient deposits of penguin poo, as well as more recent bird droppings.
They grow all around the Antarctic coast, and it is exciting to think that we may be the first people to see some of these plants as they take over newly exposed land on the peninsula.
On 13thJanuary, we saw a lot of moss growing near the Admirante Brown (Argentinian) Station. Based on their past visits, our guides on the Ushuaia were able to show us how fast the ice is retreating behind the station and we can see the moss that is colonising these newly exposed rocks. We saw many species of bright green moss on this one landing.
The day was so warm, we could see tiny animals, small as a pin head, running around. These invertebrates live in the tiny moss forests and on warm days roam around the nearby rocks looking for food. I was excited to see my first Antarctic midge (Belgica antarctica), the wingless fly that is found on the Peninsula.
But there is also a sobering message of climate change in action. Seeing first hand, how quickly the glaciers are retreating and the area is changing, makes the Homeward Bound goal of building a sustainable global future even more important.
- Waterman M, Turnbull J and Robinson, S (2018) Antarctica’s ‘moss forests’ are drying and dying https://theconversation.com/antarcticas-moss-forests-are-drying-and-dying-103751
- Sharon Robinson, Melinda Waterman & Andrew Netherwood (2017) East Antarctic mosses reveal a windier, drier climate https://youtu.be/LF4p3ng0HRQ
- Robinson SA, King D, Bramley-Alves J, Waterman MJ, Ashcroft MB, Wasley J,Turnbull JD,Miller RE,Ryan-Colton E, Benny T,Mullany K,Clarke, LJ, Barry, L, HuaQ. (2018) Rapid change in East Antarctic terrestrial vegetation in response to regional drying.Nature Climate Change 8, 879-884, DOI: 10.1038/s41558-018-0280-0
We have just got back from KL where the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research held its biennial meeting. Mel and I went via Singapore so we could catch up with Jessica on the way. We got to see the Singapore Botanical Gardens as well and meet some VIP orchids. Diana and Mick met up with us in KL. Xurxo Gago who is visiting our lab for a few months came from Spain. We also met up with our Antarctic collaborators Todd from Portland, USA and Angelica from Concepcion, Chile as well as several hundred other Antarctic Scientists. We were surprised to find that fashion week was on in KL but we couldn’t find a red shoe to pose in (see news from SCAR 2014 in NZ).
Antarctica is a natural subject for interdisciplinary exploration because it ignites passion and curiosity on so many fronts. The day brought together a kaleidoscope of interested parties from the worlds of visual art, toxicology, history, climate science, law, plant biology and the humanities. Such disciplinary diversity gave a taste of the contradictions that Antarctica embraces - whether from the point of view of temperature change, ice movement or the tourism industry of this remote continent.