Thursday, August 24, 2017

Robex

Alright, friends, it's time I told you more about my cruise. I am going on the German research icebreaker Polarstern to the eastern Fram Strait. More specifically, we are visiting the Hausgarten, a long-term ecological observatory maintained by the Alfred Wegener Institute.

This expedition is actually quite different from past cruises I've been on. For starters, every single person on board speaks German (I'm one of just 4 foreigners in the scientific party, and we're all fluent), so it's an entirely German-language cruise. Second, most of the scientific party is actually engineers. The expedition is called ROBEX, for "Robotic Exploration of Extreme Environments." The ROBEX project is a joint venture of 16 German universities and institutions to develop new robotic technologies for exploration in the deep sea and outer space, and this is their deep-sea demo cruise. There are a lot of new vehicles on board, many of which will be tested for the first time. My group actually has nothing to do with technology development but rather has a second objective for the cruise: using robotic technologies for precision sampling in the deep sea.

We’ll use one of the vehicles on board, a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV), to collect samples and monitor long-term experiments at the central Hausgarten station. The experiment I’m particularly interested in concerns colonization of hard substrata in the deep sea. Back in 1999, my German colleagues outplanted a large metal frame on the deep seafloor (2500 m depth) at 78° N in the Arctic. Attached to the frames were plates of plastic, brick, and wood, so that they could observe what animals settled on each substrate over time.

A few of the plates were cut off and brought to the surface in 2005, but they were barely even colonized - only a bacterial biofilm was visible. The other plates were left behind, and they remain on the seafloor today.

During the cruise, the settlement frame will be brought to the surface with help from the ROV, and I will have the opportunity to observe and analyze what is living on the remaining plates. I am beyond excited to see what is there. Long-term datasets are rare, especially in the deep sea, and almost unheard of in the Arctic deep sea. No matter what is on the plates, it will be new, valuable information. Even if there is nothing on the plates, that will be an important result! I can compare the recruitment on the 2017 plates to the 2005 plates and also natural hard substrata (dropstones and a rocky reef) in the surrounding area, to understand how hard surfaces in the Arctic deep sea are colonized over time.

It's going to be a very good cruise! I’m still able to post blog entries from the ship, but unfortunately, there is not enough bandwidth for pictures. I’ll try to describe what I’m experiencing as well as I can, and hopefully text will suffice for now!

For more about the Robex project, visit http://www.robex-allianz.de/en/
I also recommend the official Polarstern blog (in German), at https://blogs.helmholtz.de/polarstern 

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