The female scientists protecting the Southern Ocean

Sustainable Leaders | Global

By Isabel Rowbotham, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Published January 7th, 2022

Global warming, pollution and plastics are threatening the Southern Ocean and its marine life. A group of scientists are collecting samples and researching how these factors affect phytoplankton, the main source of carbon for life in the frigid oceans of the South Pole.

Allison Cusick (@womenscientist), from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is the Co-Founder of FjordPhyto (@fjordphyto). Together with Dr. Maria Vernet, also from the Scripps Institution, they are collaborating with travellers, or ‘citizen scientists’, with no research background, to collect data for Antarctic marine researchers on tourist boats.

Allison Cusick, a marine biologist and Co-Founder of FjordPhyto. She is currently on her fifth sampling season in Antarctica, documenting her journey on Instagram and teaching citizen scientists how to participate in research. | Allison Cusick / Woman Scientist

Antarctica is one of the most remote regions in the world, and data collection is limited due to its rapidly changing environment. Allison and her team founded FjordPhyto in 2015, through which travellers participate in citizen science expeditions. It is a great opportunity for them to get up close and personal with Antarctica, but also to help with research involving phytoplankton samples.

FjordPhyto’s citizen science projects take place in partnership with touring vessels, such as the Robert Gilmore at Polar Latitudes and more recently with Antarctica21, on the Chilean Antarctic. The trip starts from the South Shetland Islands and travels down to the Antarctic Peninsula.

‘There are more than 3,000 active citizen science projects around the world. FjordPhyto has had more than 3,000 participants since it started in 2015.’

Citizen scientists are encouraged to take part in data recording, which includes testing the water temperature and salinity, and collecting water samples to retrieve genetic material from phytoplankton. The samples are then sent to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California.

Part of the seawater samples are also sent to the Universidad de la Plata in Argentina. There, FjordPhyto team member- Martina Mascioni identifies the different species of phytoplankton based on their microscopic morphology to classify them.

The Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) is a remote place and the ecosystem varies with the seasons. The presence of citizen science projects, therefore, help scientists to learn more about these dynamics at a much faster rate than one scientist alone could manage.

The fifth FjordPhyto expedition

In November 2021, Allison, Dr. Vernet and the FjordPhyto team took on their fifth expedition for sampling phytoplankton. Allison, who is currently aboard the Antarctica21 Magellan Explorer, is actively updating followers on her Instagram about the day-to-day activities of a marine biologist.

Citizen scientists journey with the team in the science boats and enjoy being part of the collaborative effort to help safeguard the land and oceans. In Antarctica, there is no government, so no need for passports. It is a place where the international community, preserved through the Antarctic Treaty since 1959, can come together for peace, scientific investigation and collaboration.

In 2021, Allison and the FjordPhyto team travelled on the Magellan Explorer for their fifth sampling expedition in Antarctica. They have partnered with tourist boats like Antarctica21, who together with tourists ‘citizen scientists’, participate in collecting ocean samples. | Anaïs Afrika Photography / Instagram

The latest citizen science expedition was made possible due to the recent funding award from NASA in the 2020 CSESP Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) solicitation. These projects, along with many others, will align with NASA’s goal to support research on the earth’s air, freshwater, snow, ice, ocean and clouds.

An update on phytoplankton research

Dr. Maria Vernet from Vernet Labs is a marine phytoplankton ecologist who leads the research group that collaborates with FjordPhyto. She has studied phytoplankton for the last 15 years and has recently published an update on the current production of phytoplankton biomass in the WAP. The accumulation of phytoplankton is crucial in sustaining the food web that many marine animals depend on.

‘The term plankton means wandering or drifting.’

Samples were collected during the spring of 2015 and autumn of 2016 by citizen science cruises. Dr. Vernet and her team aim to better understand the composition and growth of phytoplankton in the Antarctic fjords.

Phytoplankton production is highly sensitive to its surrounding environment. Some of the factors that play a role in production are ice-shelf breakup, temperature, closeness to the peninsula coast and water depth. Phytoplankton blooms usually occur in the summer (in this case it would be January), in shallow waters and during a late ice retreat season.

Springtime phytoplankton showed high biomass, intermediate production and low growth. Samples collected during autumn showed low biomass, low production and intermediate growth. Altogether, the study proves that the Antarctic fjords are highly productive and the main source of organic carbon production.

Antarctic ice sheets are melting due to global warming. This may have unprecedented effects on phytoplankton composition and production, affecting other marine animals along the food web. | Derek Oyen / Unsplash

Phytoplankton consume the micro and macronutrients from glacial melting from the nearby fjords. The process is highly sensitive to climate changes and rising temperatures are accelerating the rate of glacier ice retreat, and therefore phytoplankton abundance and composition as well.

‘In the Western Antarctic Peninsula, currently 87% of the glaciers are in retreat due to global warming.’

The melting of the ice sheets, which provide a protective habitat, are already threatening the krill population. Studies in the last decade have found that climate change affects phytoplankton composition which may have significant ramifications for the krill population and the rest of the animals who feed on krill, such as marine mammals in the Antarctic ecosystem, including seals, penguins and whales.

Antarctic penguins may be at risk

Antarctica is home to a variety of penguin species. These birds have a thick plumage—the plumule—which helps them maintain a temperature of 38°C in the frigid Antarctic conditions. Penguins, such as the Adélie and gentoo, forage off of the Antarctic Peninsula for krill near the U.S. research base Palmer Station, located near the Palmer Deep submarine canyon.

Although a 2021 study confirmed that krill populations appear stable, the Adélie penguin populations have been in decline in the last two decades due to the continued loss of ice sheets and climate changes such as increased snowfall. This is another reason why surveying krill stocks, which the penguins feed on, is important.

Tammy Russell works at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where she leads the research group that looks to analyze Antarctic penguin guano for microplastic particles. | Tammy Russell / Instagram

Tammy Russell (@marinamorphosis) is a PhD candidate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography working with Dr. Maria Vernet. Tammy and her team are analyzing microplastics from gentoo and Adélie penguins’ guano (excrement) samples.

Microplastics have been found in this pristine habitat and it is important to understand the potential exposure of these pollutants to the Antarctic food web. Tammy’s team received guano samples from Antarctic penguins to investigate the presence of microplastics and took subsamples for the Bowman’s Lab who will conduct the DNA analysis. Tammy is currently on a trip to Antarctica to collect more samples and will continue to analyze samples throughout the year.

Penguin guano is an important marker for environmental pollutants. It contains trace elements originating from plankton, going through digestion and excretion, in a process of biological recycling.

‘Microplastics have been found in this pristine habitat.’

In the last 200 years, studies have proven an increase in contaminants in penguin guano such as lead, and other metals such as cadmium, copper, chromium, nickel, manganese and zinc related to human activity. A study published in 2021, found anthropogenic particles in three penguin species, 35% of these particles were microplastics (particles less than five millimetres).

Moreover, Tammy has previously been involved in other exciting studies regarding penguins. Starting in 2021, she has worked with Birch Aquarium to collect samples from little blue penguins, and assess the presence of microplastics in captive animals.

Additionally, Tammy was part of a study observing chinstrap penguin group diving behaviours. Cameras on the penguins logged the synchronous diving and foraging behaviour similar to how seabirds hunt for food together, often timing their dives. This proves the importance of better understanding penguins survival mechanisms when foraging for food in groups.

Plastic in the Sourthern Ocean

The Southern Ocean is in danger from climate change, pollution and the increase of plastic materials. Clara Manno is a biological oceanographer from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) who has joined the Southern Ocean Action Plan to tackle the problem of ocean pollution.

The increase of pollution and plastics in the Sourthern ocean may promote water acidification and affect the natural development of many marine animals. | Naja Bertolt Jensen / Unsplash

Nanoplastics (plastic debris less than one micrometre), in particular, may negatively impact our lives and the lives of marine organisms by entering cells and unravelling toxic reactions. In the Southern Ocean, plastic’s toxicity may occur simultaneously with another anthropogenic stressor such as ocean acidification, potentially having unknown accumulative effects on our environment.

In an experimental setting, zooplankton snails exposed to approximately 48 hours of plastics combined with ocean acidification can compromise their ability to counteract stresses in the environment, and thus their survival.

Phytoplankton is a crucial carbon source for the whole Antarctic ecosystem. The current climate crisis is melting the glacial ice in the Antarctic peninsula, potentially changing the composition and abundance of phytoplankton in seawater. Dr. Maria Vernet and her research group, with the help of citizen scientists, are collecting samples to better understand the effects of the rising temperatures in the ecosystem.

Marine animals along the food web, such as krill and penguins, are at risk. Additionally, there are unknown consequences of the increasing plastic pollution in the oceans—many animals already have microplastic particles in their digestive systems.

There is much work to be done and you can join the fight by being part of the citizen science crew with FjordPhyto!

Featured image: Allison Cusick / Tammy Russell / Jay Ruzesky / Derek Oyen | Instagram / Unsplash

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