Thursday, February 9, 2012

UAB team shoves off for Antarctica to conduct ocean acidification research

UAB’s Antarctic marine research team left campus today for their annual journey to Antarctica. It will take them seven days and three forms of transportation to reach the White Continent.

James McClintock, Ph.D., professor, UAB Department of Biology and the husband-and-wife team of research associate Maggie Amsler and Chuck Amsler, Ph.D. will take two UAB graduate students with them. Kate Schoenrock will be on her third UAB trip to Antarctica and Julie Schram, who is making her fourth overall trip, will take her second with UAB.

Despite a combined 80 years’ experience in Antarctica, this is their first trip to conduct ocean acidification research thanks to a new three-year grant from the National Science Foundation.

“This is exciting because there hasn’t been a lot of ocean acidification research done in Antarctica,” says McClintock. “Antarctica is the best place for this because it is a natural laboratory to study ocean acidification and it will be one of the first places in the ocean to become more acidic.”

Increased ocean acidification is caused by the uptake of increased levels of CO2 from the atmosphere, about a quarter of which goes into oceans.

“Physics is working against the organisms because the cold water already makes it hard for organisms to calcify,” says Chuck Amsler, pictured left with their $27,000 underwater fluorometer that measures photosynthesis underwater. “Increased acidification will change the rate of calcification and that could mean animals' shells are vulnerable to dissolution, and if animals can’t build their exoskeletons they will die.”

The UAB experts will conduct their research at Palmer Station where they have pioneered research for years. They will look at combinations of current and future water temperatures and pH levels. They will put algae and invertebrates into microcosms with the levels that are projected for the future. They have hopes and they have fears about what they will find.

“I hope that some of the non-calcified algae will do better in this environment,” says Chuck Amsler. “We all recall from ninth grade biology that plants use carbon dioxide, so even if everything is negatively impacted, some would be impacted less. But there would still be changes in the communities that would not have occurred otherwise.”

“I am afraid we will find that all species are negatively impacted by ocean acidification,” says McClintock. “The worst-case scenario is that all species in our experiments die upon exposure, but on a positive note I can say that is highly unlikely.”

The UAB team flies to Chile and will then sail from Punta Arenas through the Drake Passage arriving in Antarctica on Feb. 17. They will be on the White Continent conducting experiments through the last day of March; the students will stay through May to wrap up the projects.

For more details about the team and their trip check out Jeff Hansen's story in The Birmingham News titled UAB students studying in Antarctica.

No comments: