Janet Cotter, from Greenpeace’s Science Unit is currently on board the Esperanza on Leg 1 of the Arctic Under Pressure expedition. The ship is currently in Ny-Ålesund, in the Arctic, where Janet has been helping seagulls from ‘contributing’ to ocean acidification research.
In my day job, I work as a scientist as Greenpeace’s Research Laboratories in Exeter, in the UK, which is part of the Greenpeace International’s Science Unit (see www.greenpeace.to). We might not get do the banner hanging from bridges and all of the other dramatic stuff that other Greenpeace activists do, but we have an important role in the organisation. We analyse of samples from around the world in our laboratories, often looking for toxic contamination of soils, rivers and seas or sampling foodstuffs for GM contamination.
Alongside writing papers, reports and briefings, we attend UN and other international environmental meetings to impress on politicians the importance of the scientific evidence so that international agreements that provide real protection for the environment are reached. For example, our recent work on reducing carbon emissions from deforestation has stressed the scientific importance of conserving natural forests to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Otherwise, the decisions made in the climate negotiations risked encouraging the conversion of natural forests to plantations (e.g. for palm oil). As most scientists agree, such conversion will not help the climate and risks losing valuable diversity.
Right now, I’m on board the Esperanza in the Arctic, where I’m helping out on some important experiments into the effects of a process known as “ocean acidification”. The ship is at the tiny international scientific research base of Ny-Ålesund, only 1200 km from the North Pole, in the Norwegian Archipelago of Svalbard. This is my first time in the Arctic and I’m finding it a little strange to think of my friends back home, lying on the beach whilst I’m surrounded by snow!
Ny Ålesund, is the most northerly settlement in the world, at very nearly 79°N. It’s an old coal mining village nestled amid dramatic mountain, glacier and fjord scenery. The coal mining ceased in the early 1960s following a tragic accident and the village has since reinvented itself as a research village housing scientists studying the Arctic. Since the late 1960s, the number of scientists coming here and the number of countries they come from has vastly increased, especially during the summer months – currently there are about 100 scientists living here. This has created a mini “scientific village”, with the scientists and laboratories from each nation housed in one of the old buildings from coal mining days. These include the Chinese building, the British building, the Norwegian building, the Indian building, the French-German building. Almost a mini United Nations! Not only are the scientists from a diverse range of countries, but also disciplines including geologists; glaciologists; atmospheric chemists; plant, mammal and bird specialists. Everyone dines together in a central building and they tell me this is where the most fruitful exchanges and scientific advancements are made – over coffee.
The scientists are not the only residents here. Arctic wildlife is also abundant in the village. Within the village, humans have to stick to the roads because of nesting sites and the delicate tundra soils vegetation. Arctic foxes are nesting under the Dutch station and a Svalbard reindeer patrols the village eating they sparse vegetation. Signs of summer are also here with arctic terns returning here to nest from their wintering sites, which can be as far south as Antarctica, and flowers such as purple saxifrage appearing as the snow recedes.
Living in 24-hour daylight is extremely strange. You think it’s three o’clock in the afternoon when in fact it’s midnight! Fortunately, the portholes in the cabins have “deadlights” which make it quite dark inside. I’m not sure curtains would make the room dark enough to sleep! Sunsets only occur up here for a few months of the year – during spring and autumn rather than every day as they do back home.
Over the last week, the Esperanza, and all of us on board have been working hard with our friends from the German marine research institute IFM-GEOMAR (a prestigious institute of marine science based in Kiel, Germany) to deploy nine big mesocosms in Kongsfjord, just offshore in from Ny-Ålesund. These mesocosms are large structures, approx. 17m high, consisting of a frame that holds a large bag, enclosing 50 tonnes of seawater containing all the different kinds of microscopic life.
One of the things I’ve been doing is helping the scientists prepare roofs for the mesocosms before their deployment. I was intrigued, why do the mesocosms need roofs? The reason, as I found out, is because otherwise seabirds, like the glaucous gulls, fulmars and kittiwakes that live in Kongsfjord, can land in the mesocosms. Attracted by the fluorescent orange colour of the mesocosm structures which apparently look like fishing boats, they think they might get a free meal.
Unfortunately, the birds can either get stuck in the mesocosms, or their excrement inadvertently fertilizes the experiment, which would wreck the results! The roofs look very much like umbrellas, but we fixed rows of 10cm long spikes all around the outside to deter the the birds from landing. They certainly don’t look very comfortable to sit on, so hopefully the seagulls will also find them unattractive.
Using the ship’s crane, each mesocosm was carefully lowered into the approximate position about 200m from the shore in a sheltered part of the bay. Then the scientists used a smaller boat to tow each mesocosms and then attach them to anchors that had earlier been placed on the floor of the fjord.
For the experiment, the nine mesocosms will be acidified to different levels using CO2 enriched water (made here in Ny Ålesund by bubbling CO2 through seawater), which will reflect the range of of atmospheric CO2 concentrations that are predicted to occur in the future.
Ocean acidification results from increased CO2 in the atmosphere, and like climate change, is caused by burning fossil fuels and forest destruction. As CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise, increasing amounts of CO2 are dissolving into the oceans. The CO2 combines with seawater to form a weak acid, causing the chemical balance of the seawater to shift from its natural state towards being less alkaline, a process termed ‘ocean acidification’. This, in turn, causes other important changes in ocean chemistry.
Over the next few weeks, the scientists will be taking daily samples from the mesocosms, and subjecting to intense biological and chemical analysis to determine the changes caused by this artificial acidification.
One of things they’ll be looking for is any effects on marine plankton, as acidification is expected to cause a drop in the abundance of carbonate ions, the basic building blocks for these organisms Research on this issue is in its infancy and although the ocean chemistry is well understood, the impacts of acidification on marine organisms and food webs are less clear.
Plankton, at the bottom of the food chain, are a vital component of this food web, so effects on them will be seen further up the food chain. So that’s why I’m here getting my hands dirty looking at plankton!
Referred to as 'the roofs', these plastic covers being carried by the scientists shield the experiment from contamination by seabirds. The birds would otherwise gather on the complex structures, jeopardising the data produced.
All images © Greenpeace/ Nick Cobbing