University of Southern California

Exploring the Ice Edge

Blaire Steven, January 16, evening — Today I stood on the edge of the world... well, the frozen world, at least. Every year Antarctica goes through a phase of sea ice expansion and contraction. Sea ice dynamics are an important driver for both local and global climate, oceanography and biology. Working with Deneb Karentz, professor of biology at the University of San Francisco, we are studying how the presence of sea ice affects the physiology and diversity of phytoplankton. By studying a set of sites that approximate a transect from multi-year sea ice to annual sea ice (see map below), we are gaining an understanding of the role this ice plays in shaping the phytoplankton communities in Antarctica.

map.jpgToday, we took a helicopter to where the ice meets the ocean. The ice edge is a rapidly changing extremely dynamic system. Fresh water and nutrient input result in abundant biology. Phytoplankton and algae blooms at the ice edge support a large ecosystem. This is immediately apparent as we step out of the helicopter and are greeted by a group of penguins huddling on the sea ice (see photo below).

At this point, it is difficult to translate the experience into words. Walking to the edge of the ice, knowing that below you is more than 600 meters of ocean and that if you were to fly to this very spot tomorrow it would likely be gone and melted into the Antarctic ocean, you look forward and see nothing but water, backwards and nothing but ice. It is hard to not just stand and stare, but we do have work to do. Samples are collected and measurements are taken. As we climb back in the helicopter to return to McMurdo Station, it is impossible not to realize what an amazing place Antarctica truly is.

Blaire Steven is a postdoctoral researcher at University of Wyoming.