CCU professors, student prepare for Antarctica tripby Mona Prufer
Two Coastal Carolina University marine scientists and a graduate student will most certainly be having a white Christmas this December – on an oceanographic research cruise in the Antarctica.
Rich Viso, assistant director of the School of Coastal and Marine Systems Science, Rick Peterson, marine science lecturer, and graduate student Leigha Peterson (no relation) leave Myrtle Beach on Dec. 7 and travel through Atlanta and Santiago, Chile, to the tip of South America, crossing the treacherous 500-mile Drake Passage. They board the R/V Gould (research vessel) for a National Science Foundation-funded research trip involving groundwater discharge.
While the professors will return by the end of December, Leigha, who is from Ocean City, Md., will remain at Palmer Station, the 44-person research camp, for eight more weeks to conduct technical tests and will send the results back to CCU for interpretation. Palmer Station is the home for multinational scientists, a camp consisting of two main buildings and several smaller structures. The average temperature during this time of year, which is summer, is 34 degrees, with 19 hours of daylight per day.
Leigha is staying because she's the only person in the department trained to perform both geochemical analysis and geophysical electrical methods that will be used as instruments to track groundwater flow.
"The overall objective is to quantify the submarine groundwater discharge from the Western Antarctic Peninsula," says Viso. "This water carries nutrients from land to the sea. These nutrients support life in the ocean, feeding the primary producers (plankton). Iron is a limiting nutrient, and so the area's planktonic health is controlled by how much iron is present in the water. There are many sources for iron that other scientists examine, such as icebergs, sediment resuspension, river discharge and atmospheric deposition. The groundwater pathway is often overlooked. Since iron is so important to the most basic biological activity in the ocean, we must gain a better understanding of the sources for iron."
CCU was invited to join the research trip led by East Carolina University scientist Reide Corbett as a result of Coastal's groundbreaking work with groundwater techniques. Viso and Rick Peterson also participated in a research cruise in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 to investigate the aspects of the BP oil spill damage.
Eight scientists from the two universities are involved in the research on the 250-foot polar exploration ship that breaks sea ice in its path.
The Antarctica research is ultimately about climate change, the scientific phrase for global warming, says Viso.
"This work is important to society as the primary biological production is the base of the food web in the ocean," says Viso. "These primary producers can also draw down CO2 levels in the atmosphere and produce oxygen (they are photosynthetic). Since iron is a limiting nutrient, people have discovered there is potential to fertilize the ocean with iron. This study does not consider the potential for iron fertilization, or the outcomes of such experiments, but future 'geo-engineering' efforts will benefit from a thorough understanding of the natural cycles."
CCU has a Groundwater Discharge Measurement Facility, established by Peterson and Viso, within the University's Burroughs & Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies.
Leigha is trying her best to prepare for her 10 weeks in a new, white world, seven of them without her professors.
“I am slowly gaining confidence,” says the grad student who plans to get her degree in December 2013. “I’m still nervous as heck, but there will be a medical staff in addition to technicians to help me if I have electrical issues (with the data collection).”
The graduate student had to have four impacted wisdom teeth pulled in preparation for the trip since there are limited medical facilities in Antarctica. She spent the Thanksgiving holiday rounding up long underwear, polar gear and studying the icy continent. After graduating with a master’s degree in coastal marine and wetland studies in December 2013, Leigha plans for a career in hydrogeology.
"I didn't grow up thinking I'd study groundwater," she says. "But I'm open to the possibility."
She is also well aware that Christmas this year will be different, but memorable.
"Oh, I'm bringing presents with me," she says, including a Nook for herself. "My mom is freaking out a bit, though. She even warned me about the skua, an aggressive migratory bird with a four-foot wing span that overwinters in that area of Antarctica."
Adam D. Child contributed to this article.