Showing posts from June, 2021

One day.

"No matter how long you spend in the Arctic, it is exactly one day." - Hope Jahren in Lab Girl You want to know what is the most jarring thing after spending a month in the Arctic in summer? Darkness. We're not even that far south yet, but the dim evening light feels really weird. If each day is marked by a cycle of the sun, then this expedition has been one loooong day. We are steaming south to Germany now, and I get to look back on a challenging but successful cruise. The sea ice this year was glorious to behold, but it also made our research much more difficult. We had to adjust the plan so many times and were occasionally reduced to deciding hour-by-hour what comes next. I'm pretty sure the chief scientist is going to sleep for a week when he gets home. This cruise, I experienced a rite of passage: losing gear in the ocean. I've been on ships plenty of times when things have gone wrong – heck, I was on the cruise when Nereus was lost – but this is the firs

The very happy story with the grappling hook

When I was in high school German class, we did a unit on poetry. I don't remember most of the poems we read, but one that still sticks in my mind was called "Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug." Translation: "The very sad story with the lighter." It's about a little boy who is home alone and starts playing with a lighter and accidently lights the house on fire. Thing is, the poem is two pages long and contains detailed descriptions of the fire – first the tablecloth catches on fire, then the curtains, then a cat runs through the room and gets licked by the flames. The situation just spirals out of control. It is a horribly weird poem. Today, I bring you the exact opposite of a disturbing life lesson in rhyme. Here is an uplifting tale in prose – I call it "The very happy story with the grappling hook." Once upon a time, there was a group of intrepid scientists at sea on R/V  Polarstern . They traveled to the high Arctic to study the ec

The Molloy Deep

The deepest point in the Arctic Ocean is at 5500 m in the Fram Strait. It's a depression called the Molloy Deep, and it's also a HAUSGARTEN station. We steamed over here from the east Greenland continental margin and are collecting samples from the water column and the seafloor. The Molloy Deep is a really unique place. It's basically a giant bowl at the bottom of the ocean, so it tends to collect organic matter that rolls down the steep sloping sides. The sediment is extremely fluffy on top but changes to thick, gray clay about 10 cm down. Very few species live here – there are sea pigs that crawl along the top of the sediment and digest whatever organic matter they can find, but that's about it. Most deep-sea sediments are chock-full of worms, but the Molloy Deep is almost barren. The sampling program near the Molloy Deep is all about the benthos. A number of HAUSGARTEN stations fall very close together here to capture changes in the seafloor community across a dept

East Greenland

Friends, we are on the east Greenland continental margin, at the westernmost point of our expedition. We've actually crossed the prime meridian and are in the western hemisphere. Of course lines of longitude are super close together at the poles, so you really don't have to travel far to see a change in your longitudinal position. There are four stations over here that are sampled regularly as part of the HAUSGARTEN Long-Term Ecological Research observatory and plenty of new discoveries to be made. Our larval samples in east Greenland have included three new types: a trochophore (swimming ciliated sphere), a nectochaete (grows up to be a worm), and a very young pluteus (grows up to be a sea urchin or a brittle star). The pluteus kind of looks like a space ship – a baby Millennium Falcon. A stalked feather star on the mooring Probably the most exciting thing we've found, though, is a baby crinoid. Some of you may recall that crinoids are related to sea stars, brittle stars

Dropstone Island

It started in the red salon. This room, located right next to the galley on Polarstern's C-deck, is entirely clad in red - red carpets, red upholstery. It's our communal living room, and a lot of good conversations start here. Today, Melanie wanted to talk about dropstones. Some of you may remember that I studied dropstone communities in the HAUSGARTEN as the cornerstone of my PhD. I compared patterns in the sponges, anemones, and other hard-bottom fauna to classical ecological theories of island biogeography. The stones themselves originate on land and are carried out to sea by icebergs that eventually melt and drop them. They're incredibly common in glaciated regions of the Arctic and Antarctic. More importantly, they constitute the only viable habitats for a number of hard-bottom organisms. Melanie had the impression that the number of dropstones on the east Greenland continental margin was increasing. A lot of the stones were uninhabited, she said, which suggests the

The northern stations

After stopping in the east near Svalbard, we headed north. Long-term research stations in the HAUSGARTEN stretch up to nearly 80° N, which is usually where we find the ice edge. Not this year. We were headed deep into the ice. One of our biggest tasks at the northern stations was to exchange two long-term oceanographic moorings. These large installations include an array of physical and biological sensors deployed on a line that stretches vertically through the water column. The instruments collect temperature, salinity, oxygen, and other data year-round, but they also collect something else: biofouling. For the past 4 years, I've treated moorings in the Arctic as experimental substrata and collected whatever settles on them. I started out by deploying my own samplers on the mooring lines but then later realized there was more biodiversity in the organisms fouling up the oceanographic instruments than those landing in my samplers. Now every time a mooring comes up, I stand out on

Total eclipse of the bear

Polar bears seen from Polarstern It's very still in the ice. The heavy white plates dampen any waves, and it's not even that windy today. From my spot behind a shipping container on the roof of the bridge, I can see out to the horizon. Ice floes closed in on us as we transited north, so it is white everywhere. The frozen landscape feels somehow emptier than open water ever does, even though there's more texture there. In the distance, the floating ice merges into a cloudy, reflective sky. On the decks below me, I can see people emerging from various exterior doors and gesturing to one another. A student makes a bee-line for the bridge. My grad student, Kharis, is wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and sandals, her crossed arms the only protection she has from the cold. When she spots me on the upper deck, she starts jumping up and down. Friends, this is how I know I'm getting to be a seasoned Arctic scientist. The flurry of activity could only mean one thing – a polar bear some


Svalbard as seen from Polarstern Early this morning, Polarstern sat at the mouth of a western Svalbard fjord, Kongsfjorden. Fog covered the tops of the distant mountains, but pure white snow gleamed from their bases. It took me a minute scanning the topography to discern which watery passage was Kongsfjorden and which was the neighboring Krossfjorden. I could recognize some of the mountainous profiles on Kongsfjorden's northern ridge, but we were too far from the more familiar landmarks – Kongsfjorden's twin glaciers, the research station Ny-Ålesund – for me to make them out. Some of you might remember I spent time in Ny-Ålesund in 2015 and 2020.  This is our easternmost and shallowest station. Researchers on board worked through the night to collect all the necessary samples – bottles of water, cores of sediment, and net tows full of plankton. Being here also afforded the opportunity for a helicopter mission to pick up samples from AWI researchers in Ny-Ålesund. As the chopp

The carbon paper

Friends, while I am busy working away analyzing Arctic larval samples at sea, the fruits of my past research are appearing in print. I'm the second author on a new paper published today in the journal Progress in Oceanography : This paper grew out of some work I had done in Norway with my advisor there, Andrew Sweetman. Andrew had an image dataset from Svalbard fjords that needed analyzing, and together, we used the data to figure out how environmental factors influence biodiversity in seafloor communities. But that's not where the analysis ended. Another PhD student from Poland, Mikołaj Mazurkiewicz, was also in contact with Andrew about Arctic fjord communities, specifically about how they utilize carbon. I had actually met Mikołaj and his advisor during a field trip in Svalbard before, so when he wrote to me about re-analyzing the image data, I was pretty excited and more than happy to help. Mikołaj found that in colder fjords

Hot doughnuts now

In the southern US, there's a doughnut company called Krispy Kreme. They're famous for making hot, fresh doughnuts that people go crazy for, and they have an extremely effective sales strategy. Every one of their stores has a luminescent sign on the outside with the words "Hot doughnuts now." When the bakery is running and there are fresh-off-the-line doughnuts to be had, the sign is illuminated. I've heard it can cause traffic jams in some cities. For years, I've thought it would be fun to bring a sign with me to sea that says "New larvae now." I find invertebrate larval forms so endlessly fascinating that I want to share them with everyone else on board. Shouting down the hallway "I found a pluteus!" or "Come look at this bivalve!" has only ever gotten me weird looks, so maybe visual communication would be the way to go. Or maybe nobody else cares as much as I think they should. Throughout the expedition, I've been printi

Die Eiskante (The ice edge)

Sea ice seen from Polarstern I could feel it as soon as I woke up – sea ice scraping against the hull. The ship's motion is different in ice. Rather than rocking slowly side-to-side, we stay completely upright but get lifted up every once in a while. It's like going over a speed bump in your car. We usually hit sea ice somewhere in the Fram Strait, but never this far south or east. Of the 5 HAUSGARTEN expeditions I've been on, this one falls the earliest in the year, so the ice hasn't had as much time to melt yet. We'll be dealing with ice cover at many of our stations over the next couple of weeks. The good news about there being a lot of ice this year is that we're more likely to see charismatic megafauna like polar bears and seals. In fact, there were some fresh-ish polar bear tracks in the snow on one of the ice floes yesterday. The bad news (which is what actually matters for research) is that sea ice makes deploying sampling gear more difficult. For exam

No rest for the weary

The tone on board changes as soon as we get our first samples – or more accurately, as soon as we get our first overnight samples. Throughout the transit, the whole science party was synchronized and diurnal. Now that 24-hour operations have commenced, there's always someone sleeping. The number of people showing up to breakfast has dropped by at least half. And if you need to talk to someone, you better hope they're not in the throws of analyzing a sample or fixing their gear. We spend more time with our own lab groups, with all other cross-group interactions becoming catch-as-you-can. The pace also increases. There is no such thing as the end of the work day, because what is the end for one person is the beginning for someone else. There are screens in every room on the ship – the labs, the communal living room, the meeting room, even the gym – that show the schedule and the real-time events. This action log is constantly refreshed and helps us keep track of what's happe

Share and share alike

A cyprid larva Alex caught I was working on my laptop in my room when Alex showed up. She tapped her knuckles on the open door to get my attention. "Kirstin," she said, "I've just done a net tow and have some larvae in my sample. Do you want them?" Do I want them? Absolutely, I want them! I want every larva I can lay my hot little fingers on. I want to filter the entire Fram Strait! That's what I thought, but it's not how I responded. I did my best to contain my enthusiasm and agreed to meet Alex in the lab. You see, she's a phytoplankton biologist, and part of her research at sea involves collecting samples with plankton nets. At every station, Alex lowers a fine mesh net into the water and then examines the contents under a microscope in her lab. Her first sample contained 6 individuals belonging to 3 different species – a baby barnacle, anemone, and sea urchin. She had recognized the echinopluteus (sea urchin larva) as something I might be inter

Landers away!

The lander being deployed. Photo by Kharis Schrage. I set my alarm for 5 am. The plan said we would arrive on station at 8 am when I went to sleep, but that time had already creeped up a couple hours. I wasn't taking any chances. Better to stand on the bridge a few extra hours than sleep through my station. As we drew closer to the red dot on the map, I could feel my heart pound ever slightly harder. Minute by minute, the estimated time to waypoint declined. Digit by digit, the water depth under the ship drew closer to my target depth of 1800 m. I had picked this station randomly off of the map, using bathymetric lines to choose a place with a steep slope and high probability of stones – well, at least the best I could find in this part of the Fram Strait. I chose 1800 m to match the depth of some other rocky stations further north, and it turns out my hand-waving guess at coordinates was pretty darn accurate. As we pulled up to the waypoint and the ship's thrusters slowed, th