University of Southern California

Been There, Still Amazed

Alison Murray, January 10, early morning — Someone asked why I was standing in line to look out the porthole window on the plane coming down to Antarctica, since I had been here so many times.

“It always amazes me,” I said.

This is my sixth trip with the NSF Marine Biology course led by Donal Manahan, and 12th trip overall to do research in Antarctica.

Yes, it is still exciting!! It’s always different. Anticipation, excitement and a little anxiety are all components of each Antarctic trip.

Anticipation: What will the conditions will be like, how will the field season go, what people from the past will I run into, what kind of group will we have this time, and how will all the logistics come together?

Excitement: My sense of adventure runs strong, and I’m getting to spend a month sharing with others something that I’m naturally passionate about — Antarctic research.

And the anxiety: Did I order and bring everything that we need? Really, everything? We put the requests for orders in eight months ago.

Arrival is also met with the feeling that the race has started. We’re on a tight schedule, running to briefings and training courses, setting up the lab, testing reagents and assays, preparing lectures, and getting started on our sampling program, which today involved a full course outing to the sea ice in front of McMurdo Station.

My forays in teaching people to drill sea ice (that’s me in the purple jacket) were foiled by extremely deep ice. We never did get to the underlying ocean!

alison murray explains.JPGMy goals for the course are to introduce, raise awareness and start a dialogue about the amazingly diverse and versatile Antarctic microbial world — as this is, in essence, a land of the microbes. Microbial life in the sea ice and underlying waters of McMurdo Sound will be the subject of our studies this year.

In addition, we will tackle a conceptual project in which we will try and develop a framework for the future to predict how climate-associated changes, potentially resulting in ocean warming and loss of sea ice in this ecosystem, will influence microbial diversity, activity, the carbon cycle and other biogeochemical cycles (nitrogen, sulfur, iron…). We will create a conceptual model of an ice-edge ecosystem and try to figure out how the processes and biological interactions that happen there would change if the sea ice disappeared.

Alison Murray is a research professor at the Desert Research Institute of Nevada.