Recently in Antarctica Category

Sea Ice

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Editor's note: Since Titanic is the best (only) movie featuring large ships and ice bergs, I found some relevant movie quotes to go along with Karen's latest entry.  Perhaps Fred can loan us one of his Celine Dion albums.

Working in sea ice is a unique experience.  When the LMG first got into the ice, I heard and felt it before I saw it.  The boat slowed and it felt like something was jostling the entire ship from below: a little jolt this way, then that way.  And the sound of it- mostly slush against the metal hull with an occasional bang and grind- was attention-grabbing.  Due to the white overcast, the sea and sky blended together into a white-wash of bright though diffuse light.  Magical!

An ice and skyscape, tweeked blue.
Lookout: "Ice berg right ahead!"

Up close and personal with sea ice.
Ruth: "So this is the ship they say is unsinkable." 
Cal Hockley: "It is unsinkable. God himself could not sink this ship." 

Deploying scientific instruments and collecting water and plankton in sea ice is a real challenge.  Large chunks of ice can damage and break cables; they can smash sensors, and they can rip nets.  The people deploying the gear, whether CTD, net or towfish, must communicate with each other, a winch operator and the person steering the boat.  The winch operator lets wire and cable in or out depending on whether the equipment is to be lowered or raised.  The person steering the boat must watch for large ice bergs, hold a course, stay on station and provides wash behind the boat which clears the ice away.  The people on deck must coordinate everything and physically guide the equipment into the water.  It is common to have to replace nets that get snagged on ice.

The coordination of all people involved in deploying equipment takes extra communication when working in ice. 

After this deployment, the net was ripped so badly that we had to replace it with a spare.

Jack: "I don't know about you, but I intend to write a strongly worded letter to the White Star Line about all of this. "

Another exciting aspect of working in ice is the different wildlife you can see.  Ross seals are often observed floating around on chunks of ice.  Killer whales are also found along the ice edge, hunting seals.  We were lucky enough to find a pod of killer whales; the whale researcher onboard attempted to biopsy and photograph the group.  Unfortunately for us, killer whales are fast and smart; no successful biopsy was collected.  However, photos for individual identification were collected.  Unique dorsal fin shapes and features, as well as the saddle patches (a lighter patch on the backs of killer whales), are used for categorizing individuals.

Three killer whales in a pod of around 10 individuals.  

Here you can see how different the dorsal fins are; they males have the tallest fins (left).

Jack: "it hits you like a thousand knives stabbing you all over your body. You can't breathe. You can't think. At least, not about anything but the pain. Which is why I'm not looking forward to jumping in there after you."

This photo clearly shows this animals saddle patch, used for identification and cataloguing of individual animals.

I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to work and travel in and around the sea ice.  Unfortunately, it kept us from reaching our southernmost station, but was beautiful and exciting all the same.

A sunrise with some distant icebergs.

One of our only sunny days!
Rose: "Look. It's so beautiful." 
Jack: "Yeah." 

Growing Copepods

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Editor's note: The LTER zooplankton team has generously allowed Karen some time and resources to do some of her own work.

While here in Antarctica, I am trying to grow copepods.  Copepods are small crustaceans that are part of the zooplankton, a word for all animals whose movement in the sea is mainly due to the movement of their liquid surroundings.  Their sizes range from less than one millimeter to several.  They have complex life histories, involving both naupliar and copepodite stages, before reaching maturity.  Copepod growth rates are thought to be primarily controlled by food availability, while their development rates are likely linked more to temperature.  Therefore, under different temperature conditions, it is likely that copepods will mature at different sizes.  I would like to find out what the relationship is between copepod egg development and temperature; eggs are interesting in this respect because they do not require food from the environment outside of the egg.  

I began by collecting live copepods in a net, selecting out mature females, carefully placing them in glass petri dishes.  I placed trays of petri dishes into two incubators at two different temperatures (0 and approximately 4 degrees Celsius).  The first time I did this, the copepods lived for about four days and that was it; nothing happened.  I was a little discouraged.
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Many copepods together under a microscope; there are a few different species here.  The red-colored bits are their antennae, which they use to sense their surroundings.

A tray of petri dishes sitting at the bottom of the 0 degree incubator. I had to keep them at the bottom of the incubator, or they would freeze: a lesson learned by mishap.

The second time I tried the experiment, I had better luck.  The copepods I selected laid eggs within a couple days in the warmer incubator and within a couple more days in the colder one!  The eggs have yet to hatch and may have stopped developing.  The copepods that laid eggs were a Calanus species, the ones with the red antennae, which I have yet to identify to a species level.  

Calanus sp. used in my experiment
Editor's note: Notice the shiny sack of  oil filling out the copepod's carapace.  This is why everyone wants to eat Calanus.  

Copepod eggs

There is incredible copepod diversity here; it is both exciting and a little overwhelming trying to learn the different species.
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A copepod of the genus Candacia, distinguishable by its frilly black legs.  When Candacia are floating around in a tub with lots of other zooplankton, all you can see is their legs because their bodies are transparent.
Editor's note: I think Candacia would be an excellent candidate for the next stuffed copepod.
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A mature female Paraeuchaeta antarctica, with a spermatophore attached to her uromsome (tail).
Editor's note: Paraeuchaeta is a voracious predator.  Not quite in the same league as a honey badger, but close.
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The setae on the posterial corners of a Paraeuchaeta antarctica: a feature that helps distinguish this copepod from other species.

I am still working on definitively identifying the Calanus species that I used in my experiment; they may be Calanus propinquus.  You can tell the difference between Calanus spp. and Calanoides spp. by a serrated upper, inner edge of the most rear swimming legs.  Try seeing that in a microscope on a moving ship!  It's a great challenge.

A More Detailed Look at Zooplankton--Salps & Their Poop

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Editor's note: Some science from Karen.  Zooplankton poop is the most globally significant fecal material.

One of the zooplanktonic critters that we catch in our nets from time to time is salps.  The species seen most commonly here in large numbers is Salpa thompsoni.  Salps have received a lot of attention in marine science lately due to the nature of their poop.  Compared with the fecal pellets of other marine zooplankton, the poop produced by salps is denser and in a larger pellet-like form.  Krill on the other hand produce a long strand of poop.  Copepod fecal pellets are much smaller.  The result of having such dense, large turds is that salp poop sinks faster and is not broken down as quickly as others as it sinks, making it a first-rate organic matter transporter from the surface waters where it is generated, to depth where it eventually settles.  This process is one mechanism that naturally sequesters carbon (organic matter) in the ocean.  Futher, salps are thought to thrive in relatively nutrient-poor waters, making them able to proliferate where other organisms, such as krill, may not.  

Salp species are found in the ocean world-wide.  They have two different adult life-cycle forms: aggregate and solitary.  Aggregates can form long chains, up to several meters in length.
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Salpa thompsoni in aggregate form- note its pointy ends, characteristic of aggregates.  Also, note the lighter muscle bands and bright orange gut.  

Solitary salps are more barrel-shaped than aggregates, and in our net tows are less common.  Their poops are larger than aggregate poops, in fact, Kate, a scientist conducting fecal pellet production experiments on this cruise, nearly collapsed a large hard plastic carboy while trying to filter a solitary salp's poop, though she had filter plenty of aggregate salps' poop before with no problems.  Solitary salps reproduce asexually by budding off chains of tens to hundreds of clones, whereas aggregate salps reproduce sexually.  Younger chains of salps produce the female gametes, which are fertilized by male gametes from older chains.  Eventually, embryos are released and grow in the solitary form.  We sometimes catch salp embryos.
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A salp embryo

When we collect net tows in an area rich with salps, it's a big mess and takes a long time to sort though to find other non-salp zooplankton. This tends to happen at our offshore stations, rather than inshore; we have only had this situation once thus far.

Miram holds graduated cylinders full of salps that we have picked through for other zooplankton; this took around 10 hours!

A handful of salps in a strainer.

The weather on this cruise has been (typical of Antarctica) highly variable.  The majority of the time has been overcast.  We have had a few snow storms, and just yesterday we had to cancel science for the day because it was blowing 50 knots with 15 foot seas.  However, we have also had several beautiful days, with nice sun and moon rises and sets.

A lovely sunset
Editor's note: sunset pic inserted to counterbalance the poop.

An equally lovely and coinciding moon rise on the other horizon.

Elephant Seals

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Editor's note: No, Karen's ship didn't run aground.  She is still safely on the water, we're just publishing this post out of order to save you from too many cute animal pictures in a row.  Plankton fans: don't worry, your day will come soon...

This entry is really an excuse to wow you with pretty pictures of seals.  Elephant seals are one of the species commonly seen around the Antarctic Peninsula and they were fairly abundant around Palmer Station.  Other seal species that live here include: leopard seals, Weddell seals, crab-eater seals and fur seals.  Elephant seals live in harems of females, for which male individuals fight.  It is therefore common to see one large male with several females.    

 An elephant seal smiles for the camera

Trying to reach that itch- not easy when you're HUGE!

Inter-species interaction?  Unlikely.

A group of elephant seals at the bottom of the glacier at Palmer Station- a great surprise in the middle of a lovely hike.

At the moment, little work is being done on seals in Antarctica.  Researchers opportunistically survey their populations for numbers and distribution.  Moms and pups are surveyed for their respective weights.  A study that ended a few years ago sought to understand the lipid (fat) transfer from mother Weddell seals to their pups; this work was conducted out of McMurdo Research Station.  I wonder what the trends are in different seal populations and whether each species is susceptible to different environmental factors, perhaps related to their respective food sources.  I also wonder how much the animals' distributions change over time- do the seals use one habitat for an amount of time and then shift to another?  Does this happen on the scale of one animal's lifetime?  Multiple generations?  Just some food for to speak.


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Another update from austral graduate student Karen:

This research cruise is part of a Long Term Ecological Research Program (LTER), an NSF-funded project to study long-term change in a diverse set of ecosystems.  Palmer Station and the LTER cruise are the primary components of the Antarctic LTER.  Long-term research is expensive to support and does not turn out a lot of results in the short-term.  However, without it, people would have no way of knowing how the world is changing over time.  It is therefore exceedingly important.

LTER science covers many aspects of the ecosystem.  There are people studying gases and trace metals in the ocean, bacteria, phytoplankton (plant plankton), zooplankton (animal plankton), birds and whales.  Carbon flux is a major focus that crosscuts many of the different project teams.  

The group that I work with studies zooplankton and their role in the Antarctic carbon cycle.  Dr. Deborah Steinberg, from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), runs the project.  We conduct different kinds of net tows to sample the zooplankton at different locations and at different depths around the peninsula.  In addition, some of us are conducting experiments to look at fecal pellet production, gut evacuation rates and development rates.  Each of these aspects of zooplankton ecology directly relates to carbon cycling.
The rockin' zooplankton team working their magic aboard the LMG, LTER 2012.

Carbon cycling is important because carbon is one of three primary elements that simulate the growth of life in the sea; the other two are nitrogen and phosphorus.  In addition, carbon in the ocean can exist as carbon dioxide (CO2), a major player in greenhouse gas warming.  It is therefore of utmost importance to understand how carbon moves in the marine system, and under what conditions it remains in the sea versus exits into the atmosphere.  
The way we catch zooplankton is with large nets that are towed behind the boat.  We use nets made of different sized meshes to catch different sized organisms.  
Our two meter "metro" net is deployed off the stern of the ship.  We typically tow this net down to 120 meters.  For every regular sampling station, we take a tow with this net, and another with a smaller (one meter) net down to 300 meters.

Once we have our zooplankton samples onboard, we sort, identify and count all of the animals that we have caught; this takes quite a long time!  Some examples of animals that we typically catch include: krill, salps, amphipods, copepods and chaetognaths.  We also occasionally catch larval and juvenile fish and squid.
Kate and Miram take a gander at what we have caught in our latest tow.
A mélange of zooplankton swim around in a large beaker after being brought inside the lab; here you can see different ages and species of krill, chaetognaths and more.

We are not the only ones out here trying to catch zooplankton; whales are a great indicator of large numbers of krill in the area.  In fact, when we do a net tow in the presence of whales, we usually find big healthy-looking krill in the sample.
The head and dorsal fin of a humpback whale feeding near one of our sampling stations.
Humpback whale flukes- the patterns on the underside of humpback whale flukes are used to identify individual animals.  The longest animal migration on record was recorded after a humpback known to frequent American Samoa was sighted in Antarctica.  

The zooplankton community changes with the oceanographic conditions in different areas.  Nearshore, the water contains more phytoplankton, while offshore, the waters are less phytoplankton-rich.  We tend to find large schools of krill inshore, where phytoplankton is most abundant.  Offshore, less krill are seen but we also catch more salps, a type of gelatinous zooplankton.  Salps tend to be found in nutrient-poor waters, potentially indicating ecosystem niche-differentiation from krill.  

While tiny, zooplankton are an incredibly important component of the Antarctic ecosystem.  They are the link between the organisms converting sunlight into useable energy, and all higher trophic levels here. ¬ There is evidence that as the climate warms and ice conditions change, major changes in the zooplankton community will follow.  LTER scientists are seeking to describe and understand these changes, as they occur. 


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Transmission from Karen Stamieszkin:

Warning: this is a somewhat gratuitous entry with way too many animal pictures

As the ship approaches Palmer Station, you get a beautiful view of mountains and glaciers sliding down into the Gerlache Strait.


Upon arrival at Palmer Station, we were given the opportunity to ride in small inflatable boats to Torgerson Island, a small island only a few minutes from the station.  There an experiment is under weigh, looking at the impacts of human visitation on nesting behavior of adelie penguins.  The entire island is inhabited by the penguins, and visitors other than scientists are excluded from half of the island. 

Adelie penguins on Torgerson Island, with Palmer station (left) and the LMG (right) in the background.

Adelies on Torgerson Island with a sailboat in the background; yes, that boat and its passengers crossed the Drake Passage- I feel like a whimp.

The scene on Torgerson Island appears at first glance to be one of nursery serenity, with moms and chicks snuggling up together and dads bringing rocks to beef up the already well-used nests.

A mother and her chick.

A male adelie brings his mate and chick a pebble for the nest.

However, after about one hour on this island, I realized that the penguins are a main course in the Antarctic food web, and that a whole community of predators surrounds the penguin rookery.

Here, a skua (the big brown bird in the foreground) devours a penguin chick which was still flapping its flippers when I grabbed my camera to take this picture- BRUTAL.

Penguins are such an important source of food for skuas that they have made their own nest only meters from the penguin nests.  They are so well camouflaged that I nearly stepped on top of this mother skua, making her shriek, calling in the male to fly around my head making threatening sounds.  Skuas are known for dive-bombing people and causing injury, so I backed away as fast as I could. 

While poking around the island, I also found a leopard seal lying lazily on an ice flow, just abutting Torgerson Island.  It appeared to have just feasted, likely on penguins.

This leopard seal sports the bloody grin of a predator with a full belly, as it floats on an ice flow next to the penguin rookery on Torgerson Island.

This harsh relationship between penguins and their predators represents an important link in the Antarctic food web.  Penguins eat krill, which feed on phytoplankton- tiny marine plants which turn the sun's energy into sugars.  Therefore, penguins are a link from the primary and secondary producers of the sea to top predators such as skuas and leopard seals.  The relatively small number of links in this food web represents a fairly efficient system.

Stay tuned...more animal pictures to come.  And some science too!


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Transmission from Karen Stamieszkin:

The Drake Passage is infamous for its trying conditions.  It has been a formidable foe to voyagers from all periods of human history because the entire Southern Ocean, which circumvents the Antarctic continent, is squeezed dramatically between the southern extent of South America and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.  You can think of it as taking a bunch of marbles rolling them around in a donut-shaped track.  In some places the track gets wider, and the marbles are spread out, but in some places, the track is very narrow, so the marbles have to pile on top of one another to get through.  Likewise, when the Southern Ocean squeezes into the Drake Passage, some water has to go up and some down, making the gigantic waves for which the Drake is known.  We had a relatively smooth crossing this time: only about 15-18 foot seas- no big deal (haha).

Here, a wave breaks over the lower deck.  I am taking this picture from two decks above the one being covered by the wave.

While traveling through the Drake, which takes 3 to 4 days depending upon conditions, we cannot conduct much science.  We do collect information about temperature and salinity in the upper 900 or so meters of the water column.  We call these collections XBTs and XCTDs, for the instruments used.  Both are small torpedo-like units that are dumped over the side of the boat from a "gun"; as they descend into the water, a very thin copper wire trails behind relaying information about the conditions the probe meets through a cable in the gun, to the computer.  The XBT only reads temperature, while the XCTD reads temperature and conductivity, a proxy for salinity.

The XBT probe.

Here, Nathalie holds the XBT gun before launching the probe.  Sidenote: Nathalie is a first grade teacher going to Palmer Station to help study flies that freeze solid in the Antarctic winter, can lose up to 30% of their body moisture, and survive the whole ordeal eating moss.  She will be doing education and outreach.

The temperature profiles tell us about how deep the water is mixed, indicated by a constant temperature.  Maxima and minima following the mixed layer indicate different bodies of ocean water of different origins.

In this picture, besides half of my face, you can see that there is a lot of noise caused by the rough seas at the surface, then a mixed layer down to about 50 meters, a temperature minimum, and finally a constant temperature to the bottom of the profile.  This cold subsurface layer is thought to be caused by the formation of dense, cold, salty water off of the Antarctic continent, which then sinks below the surface water of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC).  The water is particularly cold due to the conditions in which it forms.  It is relatively salty because as ice forms, fresh water is taken up and frozen, and salt is excluded, leaving saltier water behind.  The saltier and colder water is, the more dense, or heavy is it; fresher, warmer water is less dense, or lighter.  These principals of water density related to temperature and salinity in large part govern ocean water circulation world-wide.

Other activities that are popular during the Drake crossing include: sleeping, movie-watching, email checking, looking for whales and other critters, and of course, celebrating NEW YEARS! 

Happy 2012 to everyone- may it be a year of adventure and new discoveries!


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Transmission from Karen Stamieszkin:

Science is all about acronyms. The better an acronym for a proposed project is, the more likely it will get funded. While I say that somewhat in jest, it is true that anything with an acronym is more likely to be remembered and is almost always used in place of the full name. Throughout science blogs everywhere, acronyms abound- be warned and get used to it.

Punta Arenas is the most austral port and town in the world. It is one endpoint between which the research vessel the Lawrence M. Gould (LMG) bounces, the other of which is the Antarctic Peninsula and Palmer Research Station. When I think of Punta Arenas, a feeling of decadent decay is invoked; eating and sleeping in PA, as it's affectionately called by those working on the LMG, is like going back to a time when care was taken in every detail of construction; dark wooden moulding is the norm, glass atrium greenhouses serve as dining rooms, and brass-adorned underground bars are filled nightly with cigarette smoke and patrons.

One theory is that PA was a booming port town when the Straits of Magellan were the safest route from one coast of the American continent to the other. It is the largest town on the Straits, which serve as a safer passage compared with rounding the fearsome Cape Horn. It is thought that PA saw the end of its glory days with the construction of the Panama Canal, which eliminated the need for ships to sail the full perimeter of the continent to get from, for example, New York to San Francisco. The town now waxes and wanes with the Southern Ocean fishing fleet that calls PA home, as well as the Antarctic and Patagonian tourism industry.


A view of Punta Arenas from the research vessel Lawrence M. Gould as we depart from port.


The Straits of Magellan, under an interesting sky.

ON OUR WAY- the crossing

We departed from PA on December 29th. Filling ones time while making the crossing can be a challenge. While still in the Straits, it is possible to set up equipment, use the machines in the ship's gym, and generally go about life at a normal pace. I spent a lot of time looking for wildlife. There are always interesting birds following the ship, including different types of albatross and shearwaters.


A black-browed albatross.


A greater shearwater.

As we left the Straits and headed for the Drake Passage, we were visited by several groups of dolphins, some Commerson's dolphins, and some Peel's dolphins. Peel's dolphins are endemic to the area, and are therefore seen nowhere else in the world.

Some Peel's dolphins making their way toward the boat to ride its bow and stern waves; in the background you can nearly see the end of the American continent.


Peel's dolphins.


Peel's dolphins

Water Sampling and More

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Hi again!

Last time I mentioned that we collect water samples at multiple depths at a couple of spots when we do fieldwork.  How exactly do you get water from 7 specific depths simultaneously?  We use these nifty things called Niskin bottles!  Essentially, they're tubes with tops and bottoms that are open until a pole on the side is hit- then the top and bottom simultaneously close.  We attach these bottles to a cable, so they are spaced apart at certain intervals.  We then lower them all down, so each bottle is at a depth we want to sample.  We then put a weight at the top of the cable and let it go, to slide down the cable.  It hits the pole on the top Niskin bottle, shutting that bottle and releasing another weight which slides down to the second bottle, shutting that bottle and releasing another weight which slides down to the third bottle, and so on...  We then haul them all up (thankfully they're on a winch- it would be way too heavy to do by hand), take them off the cable and TA-DAH!  We have water samples from particular depths!  Didn't I say they were nifty?  


Attaching a Niskin bottle to the cable.  Hitting the white bar on the right  releases the top and bottom to close the bottle.  


The parking lot at Palmer- the 2nd boat from the right, Bruiser, is our trusty zodiac for fieldwork.

The L.M. Gould will be arriving again at Palmer tomorrow.  This time when it arrives we'll be beginning a month long research cruise.  There's 2 parts to the research going on here- what's happening at Palmer Station and the annual research cruise.  At Palmer, the different lab groups sample the area right around Palmer intensively for the entire spring to fall season.  However, everything we do is limited to be within a couple miles of Palmer (due to safety reasons).  In January, there's a research cruise that samples a 600 km x 200 km grid along the Antarctic Peninsula.  This allows us to study the changes occurring on a larger scale.  The types of sampling and experiments on the ship will be very similar to what occurs at Palmer Station, just on a larger scale.  As it's my first oceanographic cruise, it should be pretty interesting!  

Life on the Ice

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I've officially been a Palmer Station resident for 5 days now!  The ship left on Monday evening to head north back to Punta Arenas.  It was definitely a strange feeling standing on the pier and watching the ship leave.  However, I didn't have very long to spend thinking about this as it's traditional to do a polar plunge when the ship leaves the station.  Jumping in the Antarctic water definitely erased any thoughts of the ship from my mind.


There are currently 33 people at Palmer, about half scientists- half support staff  (station manager, administrative, instrument tech, power plant, chefs, boating coordinator, cargo and supply, etc.)  Notice that I did not mention maintenace in that list.  Very similarly to GMRI, there is no maintenance staff at Palmer.  Everyone is responsible for helping to clean.


While it is light all day, I have not actually seen the sun since last weekend.  In true Antarctic form, our weather has been overcast, windy and rainy all week.  The typical wind the last few days has been around 20-25 knots (~23-29 mph) with gusts around 35 knots (~28 mph).  However, we have had sustained wind speeds of 45 mph and gusts of over 50mph several times already. 


There are several science groups here, each working on something different.  As I mentioned before I'm in the microbial group, then there is a phytoplankton group, a zooplankton group and the birders.  (Other groups are here at other times of the year as well.)  Together, we cover all of the trophic levels in the marine food web in this region.  All of us depend on zodiacs to do our field work.  For safety reasons we can only use zodiacs when winds are less than 20 knots and if winds reach 25 knots they call back any zodiacs that are already out.  Essentially, this ends up meaning that planning is very difficult.  Anytime someone talks about doing field work it seems to end with the phrase "weather cooperating". 


For my lab group, most of our field sampling involves collecting water samples.  Ideally we go to two different places twice a week and collect water at 7 depths at each place.  We're interested in the microbial activity in the water.  There's several analyses we do with the samples.  One thing we're interested in is how much microbial activity is going on.  We measure this using radioisotopes.  Leucine is an amino acid that is normally limiting for microbes.  By adding a radioactive form of leucine to a water sample we can measure how much has been taken up by the microbes and therefore, how much activity there is going on.  We also measure the abundance of microbes using flow cytometry.  Flow cytometers work by shooting light beams through the sample and then based on the amount of scattering it can determine abundance of particles and some other properties, such as size. 


I am also enjoying getting to see the wildlife around here!  There's lots of birds, seals and multiple penguin species.  A couple of gentoo penguins were hanging out around our pier this morning and an Adelie penguin was playing around our boat yesterday. 



A gentoo penguin next to the pier

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