Questions from students at Wakefield School in The Plains, VA.

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Erin Bertrand

Second set of questions from Bio I

Hey Tyler!  :)
Mrs. Parker read your last letter aloud to the class, so we heard about the alarm.  Did the generator failure interfere with your electrochemical experiments?  Also, what is your opinion on iron fertilization?  Mrs. Parker started to explain the topic in class so we were curious to know your input.  And one more question - how thick is the ice that you've been dealing with?
~Simon, Jack, Brandon, Anne Marie, Tatiana, Henry, and Will

Tyler's response to Section I's second set of questions

Hi again, and thanks for writing with more questions!

Fortunately the computer running my instrument has its own power supply, so there was no damage to the stored data or computer.  I did have to re-start the instrument that is controlled by the computer because its power supply was interrupted.

The iron fertilization topic is still pretty highly debated.  Studies have shown that it is true that the oceans iron limited communities can be stimulated upon iron addition.  The debate though (as I've gathered) is over the merit of using this process to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and potentially reduce the greenhouse effect.

Regardless of the debate, my personal view is that the basic knowledge obtained about iron limitation is valuable, however I am very skeptical of any claims that iron fertilization is the solution to our growing environmental problems. I think efforts would be better focused on reducing the inputs to the problem. It is probably  more effective to focus on efficiency and conservation - however these often come at a larger cost to individuals and society and become less appealing - even if they might be the better solution.

I hope this is the sort of input you were looking for.  There are countless details that I can't include because I am not an expert on the topic, but I think this is a fairly objective evaluation.

The ice question... well the ice thickness has ranged from a form called grease-ice, which is a relatively plastic form of ice that moves with the surface motion as blown by the wind - it gets its name from its appearance... it actually looks like grease or oil over the water surface.  The thickest I've seen is about 6 feet thick, and I know that last year the boat became stuck after the ice was about 14 feet thick!

Thanks again for writing, I'm happy to see your interest in our activities. We'll be turning for home very soon which seems strange since it took so long just to get here and we've only started to get in a solid groove with our experiments.  It has been an exciting and productive cruise though, and we'll return with many hours of work still in processing samples and data back ashore!


Additional comments on iron fertilization from Rob Dunbar:

Tyler has got it right in saying that it seems clear that adding iron to some iron-poor areas of the ocean can stimulate plant growth. But the condition is that these areas must also have all of the other things that plants need, for example nutrients like nitrate and phosphate. There aren't many areas in the ocean like this so you can't just go out anywhere and add some Fe and expect the ocean to bloom. But in the areas where is does bloom, the extra plant growth will take up more carbon dioxide from the water allowing the ocean in turn to suck more CO2 from the air. So that scenario makes it sound like "Fe fertilization" is a solution for greenhouse warming. The problem is that if all that happens is that the little plant cells then die and rot at the end of the bloom, they may emit their C right back into the ocean and atmosphere as CO2 again. Even if some of the plant cells sink into the deep ocean and decay (decay produces CO2) eventually that deep water will make its way back to the ocean surface and it will give up that CO2 back to the air.......

My own opinion is that ocean fertilization is not likely to be important in terms of solving our man-made CO2 problem. We are better off collecting the CO2 from power generating stations and sending it back down into the ground - to the oil reservoirs and coal beds that the fuels came from in the first place. The Norwegians have been doing this already and it seems to work OK. The CO2 stays put underground. But we still have lots of work to do to make sure it stays there.

Tyler is also right in saying that studying Fe and how it may control plant growth in the ocean is still an interesting question. For all we know, Fe is the main year-to-year control on how much food is produced here in the Ross Sea - food that all the penguins, whales, and seals ultimately depend on.

Bye for now,

Second set of questions from Bio II

We're completely devastated about the penguin issue, but we understand the legal issues (but seriously, Annie was in tears!).
We have a few questions for you before you leave...
1. What is your opinion about global warming?  Do you think that humans are the main factor or is it the natural flux of the earth (or both)?
2. Other than penguins, is there any interesting wildlife (can you bring us one of those)?  :)
3. How big is the ship?
4. What has been your greatest experience on the trip?
Ellerie, Ilvis, Annie, Alex, Sebastian, Eric, Gracie, Anna, Kelsey

Rob Dunbar's responses to Section II's second set of questions

 1. What is your opinion about global warming? Do you think that humans are the main factor or is it the natural flux of the earth (or both)?

Rob Dunbar here again. As a scientist that works on modern climate change as well as planetary temperatures over the past 1000 years, it is my opinion that "global warming" is very real but there are many misunderstanding about what it is. We know that the average temperature of the planet has increased by 0.6 to 0.9 degrees centigrade over the past 100 years. You'll still see a few references in the media to people that don't believe this is true but I don't know a single actively practicing scientist in this field that doubts this so I think we must take it as fact. The attribution to human-released CO2 is a more difficult question, but many hundreds of scientists around the world have been working on the answer for 20 years now and what has developed is a very strong consensus that yes, excess CO2 in the atmosphere is the most important cause of warming over the past 100 years. Along the way we have figured out some of the other things that change our climate, like the intensity of the sun, the kinds and amount of cloud cover, the reflectivity of the planet, methane in the atmosphere, name a few. We make very complex models that describe how all of these things work together (or against each other in some cases) to change our climate and no matter what we do, CO2 comes out as important. So, although I know from my work and the work of many other scientists that the Earth warms up and cools down "naturally", it seems to me to be a certainty that our current warming trend is causes by human activities.

2. Other than penguins, is there any interesting wildlife (can you bring us one of those) <smile>? 

Sorry, but the terms of the Antarctic treaty don't allow us to take any animals home with us! We see lots of birds every day. The snow petrel is pure while with coal-black eyes and always shows up when we collect sea ice cores. We saw some killer whales the other day and when we are in the ice we see seals, Crabeater seals, Weddell Seals, and Ross Seals

3. How big is the ship?

308 feet long and 60 feet wide

4. What has been your greatest experience on the trip?

I like being with all the people here the best. Everyone is nice, smart, funny, and full of energy and excitement. Kind of like the first day of school over and over!

Second set of questions from Bio III

Hi Tyler!
We just got back from Thanksgiving!  How was yours?  We hope that you were stuffed.  :)  We have some more questions about your research.
1. Since plankton require sunlight for photosynthesis, what happens to the plankton when there is 24 hours of darkness?
2. In your last email, you were waiting for a test for cobalt?  What was the purpose of testing cobalt?
3. What other animals do you see on your trip?
Ivan, Connor, Gracie, Olivia, Stephanie, Anna, David, Jake, Mary, Nick, Will, and Lexie

Response from Jack DiTullio to Section III's second Question 1

1. Since plankton require sunlight for photosynthesis, what happens to the plankton when there is 24 hours of darkness?

Phytoplankton (microscopic algae) cannot photosynthesize or grow during the winter months (May through September in Antarctica) when there is nearly 24 hours of darkness. During this time of darkness and very cold temperatures most diatom cells will form spores and dinoflagellates will form cysts to reduce their metabolic costs. The onset of light in the spring and melting of the pack ice are the environmental cues that will trigger the excystment of these organisms. Thick ice sheets alone will not prevent ice algae from growing. Ice algae typically grow on the bottom of the ice at the ice/seawater interface. Depending on the ice thickness and snow cover light is reduced to very low levels (typically < 1% of surface light levels). It is actually the snow thickness that is most effective in reducing light through the ice. Antarctic sea ice diatoms are extremely low light adapted and can overwinter in the brine channels of sea ice. Sea ice algae can also produce high concentrations of osmoprotectant compounds that helps protect protein integrity under such cold conditions.

Mak's response to Section III's second Question 2

Hi Ivan, Connor, Gracie, Olivia, Stephanie, Anna, David, Jake, Mary, Nick, Will, and Lexie,

Thanks for your questions. My name is Mak, and I'm also on the Palmer.  Tyler and I work together on the cobalt testing in seawater.  We're interested in cobalt because its a nutrient that the algae in the oceans need to survive.  As the algae grow they take up nutrients in the seawater that they make their cells with.  It turns out that metals are needed in very small quantities for all of life to grow.  If you look at a vitamin tablet bottle that you might have at home (or even the side of your cereal boxes) you'll see iron and zinc which are both metals that we need to live, again in very small quantities.  There's so little metals in some parts of the oceans that it actually controls how much the algae can grow.  The Ross Sea is like that, where the ecosystem is limited by iron during parts of the year.  Cobalt is another metal that is used as a nutrient, but it hasn't been studied very much at all.  So we're studying it down here, measuring how much is in seawater and how much the algae need it. While cobalt doesn't appear to be controlling the growth of algae, it can be found inside a vitamin, called vitamin B12, that has cobalt in the center, and last year we found out that this vitamin actually can be important to the algae in the Ross Sea.  So just like we need vitamins to live and grow, the algae do too.  We're studying where those vitamins, like B12 and the cobalt inside it, come from so we can understand how that affects the algae.

As for the animals, I've seen a lot of the same animals that Tyler has, and in addition, I caught a glimpse of a pod of minke whales early one morning, about six of them that were swimming along side the ship for a while.


Tyler's response to Section III's second Question 3

3. What other animals do you see on your trip?

Just this morning I heard there were orca off the port side, and there were some earlier in the cruise too.  You may have seen that Rob Dunbar mentioned some other animals (snow petrel, Crabeater seals, Weddell Seals, and Ross Seals) in his response to your school's section II class.

P.S. we had a nice thanksgiving, I missed spending the holiday with family, but at least there are many great friends aboard (new and old) and we enjoyed each other's company.  And of course at lunch we had a feast of turkey, and all the usual fixings 

First set of questions from Wakefield Bio I students

Hey Tyler!
We are Mrs. Parker's section I biology class (pst - we are really better than all the other sections...don't let them fool you).  It's a balmy 70 degrees outside today and ooooooh does it feel good!  How's the weather down there?  We enjoyed looking at the website.  Here are a few questions that the class wanted to ask:
1. What are you looking for in the ice?
2. Have you discovered any new phytoplankton species?
3. How long will you be down there?
4. What effects do all the different chemicals/elements have on the phytoplankton?
From up above, over and out!
Anne Marie

Response from Erin Bertrand to Section I students

A note from the home office: Erin Bertrand is a graduate student in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program.  Her advisor is Mak Saito.  See a picture of Erin at the right.

 1. What are you looking for in the ice?

We are looking for a number of things in the ice.  We are all interested in factors that affect what kinds of phytoplankton are in the ice and how many of them can grow there.  Some of us are also interested in how much bacteria there is in the ice.  We also want to know how much of the nutrients that phytoplankton and bacteria need to grow are in the ice.  Particularly, we are interested how much iron and other metals are there because phytoplankton need iron to grow and use light for energy, and they might not be getting enough of it.  We are also interested in how much vitamins, particularly vitamin B12, there is in the sea ice.  This is interesting to us because some phytplankton need the vitamin to grow, but none of them can make it themselves; the bacteria in the ice must make it for them.

2. Have you discovered any new phytoplankton species?

We havent found any new species on this cruise yet, but we know other scientists who've discovered new species while working on this same ship, in this same area.

3. How long will you be down there?

We will return to New Zealand on Dec 16th, which means we need to leave our study site around Dec 4th or so in order to make it back in time.

4. What effects do all the different chemicals/elements have on the phytoplankton?

Phytoplankton can only grow if there is enough of every nutrient they need in the water where they live.  The nutrients phytoplankton need oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, silica, phosphorus, iron, other metals like cobalt and zinc, as well as vitamins.  The concentrations of these nutrients in the water, relative to how much of each nutrient the phytoplankton need, determine how much phytoplankton can grow.  The water in the Ross Sea has plenty of oxygen, silica, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and phosphorus.  It might not have enough iron or vitamin B12, however.  So, the lack of these nutrients (iron and vitamins) can be the limiting factor in how much phytoplankton can grow in this area.

Some phytoplankton are better at living where there isnt quite enough iron or vitamins because they can either use smaller amounts of each nutrient to accomplish the same thing, or they can substitute other nutrients for the scarce ones. These phytoplankton might be more abundant in areas where there is less of these scarce nutrients.  In this way, the amount of each nutrient in the
water can determine which types of phytoplankton live there!

Thanks for sending us your questions!


First set of questions from Wakefield Bio II students

Hi Tyler!
We're Mrs. Parker's Section II biology class (and the best class ever!).  We all took the time to look at your website and we like that we have our own link.  We have a few questions that we'd like to ask you.
1. What are you hoping to gain from this expedition (in terms of both personal importance and global importance)?
2. What type of food do you eat while you are on the trip?
3. What inspired you to do this?
4. How cold is it where you are?
We can't wait to hear from you and hope you're having a good time!
Have fun!
P.S. Can you bring us back a penguin?  :)

Tyler's response to Section II's questions

Hi Annie, Anna, Ilvis, Kelsey, Alex, Sebastian, Gracie, Ellerie, and Eric!

Great to hear from you, sorry for my delayed response.  I’m having a fantastic time down here, and it’s great to have you onboard with the outreach website -- thanks for visiting (also, be sure to check back from time to time, and see dialogue from other classes too).

Your questions are great!  Okay, so (1a) personally I am really excited for the opportunity to see a part of the world that is not easy to visit!  The ice is beautiful, and crushing through on the ice breaker is really exciting (and loud!).  I saw my first penguins today and it was a really moving experience - they were very curious about what we were doing.  I’m also looking forward to other wildlife we should see.  Professionally/scientifically we are studying a variety of features that have global implications; I’ll have a go at explaining a bit of this...

Here’s some useful background info.  We know that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas.  Burning fossil fuels - among other activities both natural and anthropogenic (human caused) - converts solid or liquid forms of carbon molecules into CO2 which passes into the atmosphere.  Some CO2 sources are large, like the fuel burned across the country every day in transportation (daily commute, school bus, etc).  Sinks or removal pathways are provided by plants (terrestrial and aquatic), removing CO2 from the atmosphere and incorporating it into biomass, thus reducing the greenhouse effect.  Ideally there is a balance between sources to atmosphere, and sinks back to the crust, but as the human population expands and uses fossil fuels (as opposed to some renewable energy sources - solar, wind, hydro, geothermal...) the balance shifts to a situation that is effecting our environment on a global scale.  We are investigating the influence of rising CO2 on the growth and diversity of algae.

Since the oceans are a huge part of our globe and contain far more biomass than the terrestrial environment it is very important to understand how the oceans fit into the lager puzzle.  My colleague, Mak Saito, suggests drawing an analogy to forests... in the ocean just as on land there is plant and animal life.  Many people are studying rain forests and other terrestrial regions.  We study the other half of the biological controls, namely phytoplankton communities.  In particular we study how iron, light, CO2, and other parameters influence productivity at the base of the food web.  From the tropics to the poles there is great quantity, and variety of life (biodiversity).  Even though it seems very inhospitable, the Ross Sea is highly productive with large annual phytoplankton blooms believed to be a significant sink of carbon from the atmosphere.  Thus, biological activity, even as far away as the southern ocean can drive regional and global climate change (both warming, and cooling).Implications of warming include polar ice melting, raising sea levels, and reduced salinity, among other changes that hold great significance.

Okay, questions 2-4... (2) after the first week there are fewer fresh fruit and vegetables.  It’s a pretty “meat and potato’s” cuisine.  Meats are usually chicken, beef, fish, or pork prepared in a variety of ways (baked, fried, stir-fry).  Along with this there’s a pasta dish, breads, rice, and soups (different each day).  Perhaps I should send a picture of the galley and mess deck to you... I’ll try to remember this.

As for my inspiration, (3) I really enjoy science, discovery, and traveling to new places.  Working in ocean science could put me in a variety of places for field work.  I have worked in several oceans traveling to Hawaii, Florida, and California in the US.  Outside of the US work has taken me to India, Oman, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, and now Antarctica.  In the next several months I will also visit Australia, and New Caledonia (an island in the Pacific Ocean).

And your last question, it’s pretty cold, but will get colder (burr)!  Right now it’s daytime and the temperature outside is 0.5 degrees C (31.1 F).  With wind-chill it’s -18 C.  Four nights ago it was very cold and snowy, and because we couldn’t see our way through the ice we had to stop until the weather improved.  Now, however, it’s daylight all day 24 hours!S  ince we arrived in the ice we have been going much slower (3 to 6 Knots).  Take a look at the satellite image on the website of the ice... in that image right now we are near the second line of latitude, nearly to the polynya (an opening in the ice by the coast).

Oh, and I’d be pretty happy to bring back a penguin, but I think the penguin may have something to say about the trip - besides that, they’re protected by law.

Thanks for the great questions!  Hopefully this interaction makes your course work more exciting and relevant!  Study hard, have fun, and write again!


First set of questions from the Wakefield Bio III section

Actually, we are the best class.  Everything the others said is false.  We understand your pain of being cold - Mrs. Parker's classroom always feels -5 F.  Here are our questions for you:
1. How many people live on the boat?
2. How do you wash your clothes?
3. What is the temperature of the water?
4. Will the dominance of one type of algae/phytoplankton have an effect on the surrounding wildlife?
We hope you are having a wonderful time and that you are staying warm.

Answers to Wakefield Bio III questions.

Hi Stephanie Anna, Mary, Nick, Fraser, Lexie, David, Ivan, Olivia, Connor, Jake, and Gracie!

Well, it appears that each of Mrs. Parker’s biology sections thinks it is the best... I will say that all of your questions are great, and you have a fantastic teacher.

It’s fun to get your emails, and I hope answers are equally fun for you guys to read!So, Answers, here goes...

1. How many people live on the boat?
There are about 70 people onboard... 32 scientists, about 30 crew, and then another group of support staff from Raytheon Polar Services Company (RPSC).  The crew are responsible for keeping the RV/IB (Research Vessel/Ice Breaker) Palmer in ship shape - engines running, pluming flowing, power generators on track, meals prepared, and much more.  The RPSC staff help with the shipboard lab infrastructure (everything from data handling, computer servers, and email, to chemical safety, and sampling equipment - to name only a few).

2. How do you wash your clothes?
As for clothes and other such day-to-day living “stuff.”  We have everything you have back on land (well, almost).  Bathrooms, bedrooms (cabins or staterooms), laundry washers and dryers... it’s just like on land.  We even have a few lounges with TVs, a conference room, a gym for exercise, and  -- believe it or not -- a sauna!  Sounds luxurious, but all of this is very important when you consider the importance of maintaining high morale when everyone is working very long, tiring days (typically 12-16 hours), and are away from family and dear friends for months at a time (even on holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Yew Years).

see for pictures of the interior of the Palmer.

3. What is the temperature of the water?
The water is downright cold!Surface water is -1.5 degrees Celsius, and as you can see in the satalite imagery, there’s a lot of ice about.  So it’s good we’re on a research and ice breaking vessel (RVIB).

4. Will the dominance of one type of algae/phytoplankton have an effect on the surrounding wildlife?
Your last question is excellent ... as you probably suspected, dominance of one type of algae/phytoplankton does have an effect on the surrounding wildlife.  The phytoplankton is the base of the food chain; they harvest light and make biomass that supports larger and larger organisms all the way on up to the largest mammals here in Antarctica, whales!  Different communities will often dominate depending on different nutrient inputs (ie. CO2, trace metals), and light conditions.  In fact one group may wage chemical warfare on another by producing toxins that for itself it is immune to, or by producing chemicals that make a given nutrient unavailable to a competing organism.  Other strategies can be as simple as making chemicals that result in more favorable living conditions for that particular organism’s way of life, and increasing the odds for one species over another.

Here’s a specific example to answer your question.  Here in the Ross Sea, two groups compete for dominance, Phaeocystis, and Diatoms.  There are more details out there, but suffice it to say that these two groups are quite different - Diatoms are much smaller than Phaeocystis which is a colonial phytoplankton that forms relatively large clusters of cells (on the order of 10s of mm, or as much as a quarter inch large).  Diatoms on the other hand are much smaller, generally microscopic.  Phaeocystis tends to dominate in the early spring, and when it goes into decline the diatom communities expand.  Now as for effects on other wildlife... Phaeocystis produces a gooey substance that has been shown to effect fish health as it can actually clog their gills and prevent sufficient oxygen supply, so they’re basically strangled to death!

Chemical warfare, strangulation, it all sounds pretty scary, but it’s part of the fight to survive and just as on land, each plant and animal forms an intricate relationship web where changes in one population will have a specific (sometimes subtle, sometimes catastrophic) effect on another or others!

I hope this answers your questions and gets you all interested in science, and oceanography!There’s a lot to learn about our oceans and our environment.  You’re our nations future leaders and it’s very encouraging for me to see that you have an interest in science and learning about our environment.  Keep up the good questions, study hard, and of course have fun in all things along the way!


P.S. you say Mrs. Parker’s class always feels like -5 Fahrenheit, wow, that’s pretty cold!Someone should put the heat on :) !

 Message from cruise participant Tyler Goepfert to Wakefield students:
Hi!  My name is Tyler, and I studied at university with your teacher, Danielle... errr... Mrs. Parker.  Since college I have been working as a research assistant at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.  My education is in engineering, however I had work experience in a lab doing chemical oceanography.  I work in the chemistry department collaborating with biologists, and geologists.  On November 1st (which will happen a day sooner for me than everyone back home in the US, thanks to the international dateline) I will be going to sea with a number of scientists to study the Ross Sea, part of the Southern Ocean.  Our group has created a website to share our experience with you and other schools.  At the site you should be able to track our progress over the high seas and onto the ice in Antarctica.  I hope you'll explore last years site as well.  A good start is the front page of the site, then start writing to us, we're excited to hear from you.  Danielle can answer many of your questions, but I still hope you'll write to us so we can share your questions on the site and others can learn along with you - you'll see there are a number of other schools participating.  So that's it for now.  Thanks for your interest and I look forward to hearing from you!
From down under, over and out!


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Last updated December 7, 2006
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