SCIENCE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD: WINTER IN ANTARCTICA

By Clifford Hoang
VP Finance and CEO

This summer, I was fortunate to be one of a small but growing number of international scientists to spend months at a stretch on the world’s most remote continent: Antarctica. As a science team member in NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division (AERD), our mission is to conduct research to fulfill NOAA’s mandate of providing scientific advice that supports interests related to resource management by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), of which the U.S. is a key member.

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Illustration by Katie Peek

Antarctic Marine Living Resources (AMLR) 

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My journey to the bottom of the world began at one of the most southern cities in the world, Punta Arenas, Chile. It’s a small but cozy port city, with all points of interest within reasonable walking distance. At the entrance to the largest pier in Punta Arenas there hangs a banner around a humpback whale’s tail, which appropriately reads, “Gateway to Antarctica”. The far end of the pier docks the Nathaniel B. Palmer, a 308-foot icebreaker-equipped research vessel that will carry the AMLR team across the treacherous Drake Passage to the research area along the West Antarctic Peninsula.  We are in search of a two-inch crustacean species called Euphasia superba, generally referred to as krill.

Why krill?

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Krill set up the marine Antarctic food web. They represent the primary food source for a wide variety of animals including penguins, seals, whales, fish, and sea birds. Humans, too, rely on this food source approximated to be between 100 and 500 million tons. More comprehensive regional studies reveal that the krill population is subject to considerable fluctuations from year to year, linked to changing climate. After three decades of study, the question of how krill behave in the winter remains largely unresolved. Our work will advance understandings of krill patterns during bleak winters and help the United States manage the Antarctic krill fisheries.

Crossing the Drake

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To those prone to motion sickness, the Drake Passage is unforgiving. The trek to the southern continent took approximately three days–sailing from Punta Arenas through the Strait of Magellan (Estrecho de Magallanes) to the tail of the South American continent takes a day alone. The Drake boasted waves that rocked our vessel upwards 20 degrees from normal. While crossing the Drake Passage, we deployed expendable Bathythemographs (XBT) and surface drifters, instruments that collect various kinds of oceanographic data including temperature and salinity. Data in this region is scarce, and understandably so. Researchers have developed a network of autonomous instruments (e.g. Argo Floats, Global Drifter Program) to sidestep the dangers involved with collecting data in such inaccessible regions.

Frozen Breakfast

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I captured this image on the first morning nearing the end of our long voyage across the Drake Passage. I was on the back deck, just beginning to drop an XBT into the ocean for a temperature profile when a single white conglomerate floats across my line of sight. Having just dropped the instrument into the water, I anxiously waited for the radio call that the instrument reached a depth of 750 meters before I could cut the copper wire and see what was happening at the front of the vessel.  As the vessel continued on its course, more clusters of these icy chunks appeared. When I finally received the signal to cut the line, I dashed directly towards the ship’s bridge and found myself mesmerized by a vast calm sea covered in pancake ice!

Tip of the Iceberg

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It’s difficult to imagine the entirety of these majestic figures. Mind-bending even. Only a small fraction of an iceberg’s mass protrudes from the sea surface. Unlike sea ice which originate from freezing seawater at the surface, icebergs are masses of ice that formed on land and are detached from the terminus of a glacier or ice shelf and float in the open water.

Sunrise in Admiralty Bay

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Working the graveyard shift (12 a.m. to 12 p.m.) certainly had its perks. While I wasn’t awake to catch a single sunset at the bottom of the world, the sunrises were more than enough to make up for them. The sky and ocean would emanate a flaring intensity of red from the rising sun. From the west coast, the sunrises I’ve witnessed always crept up from behind a range of mountains. Watching the sun appear as a yolk on one side of the ocean was a new experience to me.

Penguin Isle

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To map the distribution of krill–which like to hide under the sea ice–we employed acoustic sounding equipment. Like with most research equipment, the data collected is only as valid as what the instrument is calibrated to. On the morning of this sunrise, we positioned ourselves in the calm waters nearby Penguin Island to calibrate the acoustic gear. In sum, the process consumed five hours of our day. Believe me, time passed in a blink of an eye! To the surprise of many, there were, indeed, penguin colonies living around Penguin Island. These adorable flightless birds topped the lists of many for “sights to see in Antarctica”.

Breaking Ice

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Compared to previous AMLR research cruises, this cruise had gone absolutely flawlessly. We were reaching all of the stations on our grid in record time–the ice we encountered until this point was too young or thin to put up a fight against our mighty icebreaker. This was one of the rare instances where we were forced to break ice to arrive at our next net tow station. Forced to fire up all four of the vessel’s engines, the engineering crew couldn’t wait to get out of the ice. I quite enjoyed this new and exciting experience. The unfamiliar sounds of crushing ice effortlessly drowned out the groans resonating from the overworked diesel engines.

 

Aside from taking in the sights, there are plenty of other ways scientists and crew spent their time.

Ice hockey

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Leave it to the crew to make even the most menial, unimaginative tasks entertaining! Interested in a little exercise, beautiful views, and helping the crew clear the back deck of residual ice chunks? Look no further.

Disco party anyone?

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There’s a long-standing tradition on these research cruises where we celebrate Hump Day, the midpoint of the month-long cruise. Following the installment of the disco ball, the Zooplankton team held once-a-tow (every four hours) spontaneous dance parties to inspire a bit of fun and boost morale amidst long 12-hour shifts.

Antarctica was the last place on earth where I expected to spend my summer. It is undeniably one of the most remote and beautiful places in the Southern Hemisphere, if not the world. However, this experience helped me put into perspective that winter is rapidly coming to an end in Antarctica. Summers are becoming longer and winters are more confined, threatening the seasonal cycles that these fragile ecosystems have grown accustomed to. Climate change is, by far, the most pressing issue facing the world today. It is not an issue pertaining to any one particular country but rather, it is an issue that transcends national borders and geographic boundaries. While the implications of warming oceans remain unclear, in the coming decades and century, sea ice is expected to continue rapidly changing. These alterations will have major impacts on both the physical and biological environment at the global and regional levels.

To view more photographs from his time in Antarctica, check out Clifford’s album.

All photographs by Clifford Hoang, VP Finance and CEO.

MIND GAMES: HOW VIRTUAL REALITY CAN HELP SAVE THE OCEANS

Rendering of an Underwater Scene

By Annam Raza
Contributing Writer

How many of us have actually dived in the Great Barrier Reef? Or explored the waters off the coast of Costa Rica? I haven’t; despite growing up near the Persian Gulf, and going to university right next to the Pacific Ocean, I never got around to getting a scuba license. My interest in seeing the ocean was whetted by pictures or documentaries, a vicarious exploration of a foreign world, guided by a photographer or cameraman. A glimpse of an intriguing fish flitting away into the distance would often make me wish I could turn to follow it, but that was a privilege reserved for the actual diver, not the viewer safe in the comfort of her own home.

What if that wasn’t the case? What if you could explore a shipwreck, searching for fish and coral at Chuuk Lagoon, the site of a pivotal World War II battle, since transformed into a glorious reef, without leaving your own home? This is exactly what players do in the initial levels of ‘Infinite Scuba’, a next generation simulation game launched in March 2013 by Seattle game designers Cascade Game Foundry, partnering with many diving industry groups, including Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), Diving Equipment and Marketing Association, Mission Blue (an ocean conservation group), various scuba equipment manufacturers such as Scubapro, Body Glove, Oceanic and BARE, among others. The game hopes to “raise public awareness about the importance of ocean health” by painstakingly recreating famous dive sites from around the world in order to spread information about important environmental issues through entertainment.

This is an incredibly unique response to Dr. Earle’s 2009 TED prize wish (which inspired the creation of Mission Blue itself, as described on their website): “to use all means at your disposal — films, expeditions, the web, new submarines — to create a campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas.”

Although video games may seem like an unusual medium to employ to educate the public about conservation, research suggests that they can be used effectively for education. As Professor Resnick of MIT states, “many of [sic] people’s best learning experiences come when they are engaged in activities that they enjoy and care about…[one is] likely to learn the most, and enjoy the most, if [one is] engaged as an active participant, not a passive recipient.”

The Internet has a particularly remarkable number of active participants – you included. You are reading this blog post online, alongside (probably) several other tabs: email inboxes, Facebook, and a myriad of other websites. According to Jane McGonigal, a video game designer and inventor at Institute of the Future, more than half a billion people use a computer or play a video game for at least an hour a day- with over 183 million of those in the US. She says, “The average young person racks up 10,000 hours of gaming by the age of 21 – or 24 hours less than they spend in a classroom for all of middle and high school if they have perfect attendance. It’s a remarkable amount of time we’re investing in games. Five million gamers in the U.S., in fact, are spending more than 40 hours a week playing games – the equivalent of a full time job!”

So why not reappropriate this time to serve the purpose of marine conservation?

That is what the organization Games for Change aims to do. Their mission statement is “Catalyzing Social Impact Through Digital Games”. Founded in 2004, it consists of a group of people that create and distribute games that aim to create a social impact by engaging contemporary issues in a meaningful way. Clicking through the “play” section of their site makes it obvious they haven’t restricted themselves to merely the marine realm: categories also include poverty and economics, and they even have a “Games for Change” festival, which unites people interested in accessing the positive social aspect of games.

On an individual level, games can be used to teach children and young adults about the threats facing endangered wildlife. ‘Predator Protector’, an online game on PBS’s website that is meant to accompany the channel’s documentary ‘Ocean Adventures’ with Jean Jacques Costeau, has players “swim with sharks and experience the threats they face,” striving to stay alive and thus inadvertently learning about the vital role sharks play in the delicate balance of a marine ecosystem. It makes one reevaluate the label of ‘mindless predator’ that sharks have been burdened with by a misinformed media.

“Sea Turtles and the Quest to Nest,” launched by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Fisheries Service, is similarly structured. It is the second educational game in the WaterLife series, centering on loggerhead sea turtles, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and involving six stakeholders critical to the turtle’s protection. Players must work through a series of mini-games, which encompass activities such as beach cleanups to assist turtle nesting, improving the likelihood of the turtle’s survival. Without understanding how human actions affect turtles and how to improve the chance of survival for the species, players cannot succeed.

As players experience firsthand the harmful effects of human activities on marine animals, they are forced to think about the importance of conservation and the role we, as humans, play in the loss of biodiversity. These games require players to use their minds, combining “difficult challenges, possibilities, and use of information” in a way that can be used to establish “real pedagogical constructivism”. Constructivism is the learning theory that refers to the idea that “learners construct knowledge for themselves”, and is the most powerful argument for the use of video games in education: as players work their way through levels, they absorb information and store it away, subconsciously learning facts about conservation that may have bored them had they been presented to them in a traditional classroom environment. This can evoke powerful emotional responses in players – delight if they win, and sadness if they lose. More than knowledge, it is that awareness and emotion that is necessary. I firmly believe that although the most important part of conservation as a science is research, it is one’s passion for conservation, and his or her motivation to embrace it in all realms of their life, that can make it truly successful.

Image by Ian Burt