A Change in the Weather. And Science!

Of course, the idyllic weather didn’t last. By evening we were back in the Bransfield Strait, heaving our way through pack ice with a wind chill of -47F. Or so the displays told me: I was guiltily sipping my tea in the IT shed, watching Joee, Adrian, Martina and Tony on the CCTV as they wrestled the soggy, ice-clogged net against a gale that threatened to carry them all away into the swirling darkness like Antarctic kite surfers. Having the easiest job on the ship involves feeling guilty a lot, but doing nothing about it.

Still the ice was terrific. Those of you who’ve not ridden the MTA Green Line where tries to make the turn westbound out of Government Center will just have to imagine the screeching, careening sensation of a 5000-ton ship lurching back and forth as it pinballs and T-bones its way through a tumbled field of multi-year ice.

But the science goes on. That’s why we’re here, after all: science. Station after station, every two hours, we (“we,” he says, as he sits with his tea) we clear out a chunk of open water to run a CTD cast – I’ll have to tell you what those are in a later post – then drop and tow a net to sample krill and other pelagic swimmy things.

It’s once the net comes aboard that the science starts happening. You see, pretty much everything in the Southern Ocean either eats krill (whales, penguins, seabirds) or eats something that eats krill (orcas, leopard seals, humans). And we know little more than bupkis about krill populations, other than that they depend intimately on sea ice. And sea ice, as you may have read, is changing. Radically.

So AMLR, the Antarctic Marine Living Resources project, is mostly about getting a handle on what’s going on with krill: which species are where, and in what amounts. What point in their lifecycle they are, how healthy, and how well fed. And since krill are basically these itty-bitty shrimp-like crustaceans that look like orange squiggles to anyone without a magnifying glass, AMLR folks spend a lot of time squinting into microscopes and peering over trays with click-counters.

There are charts scattered all over Aft Drylab highlighting the morphological differences between E. tricanthia and T. macrura (or “T mac” – the only krill with its own gangsta name). The starboard cabinets are lined with color-printed tack sheets illustrating Chaetognaths, Ctenophores, Cnidaria and other little wrigglers with terrifying, alien anatomies and names that would give a spelling bee champ nightmares.

Most of the front-line sorters like Brynn, Cassie, Mo, Katie and other-Sean are students of the various professors on board. They bring the hard cases (“Is this superba or chrystallarophia?”) to the more experienced sorters, like Adrian, or Bravo (formerly Kim B., or other-Kim) or – if it’s a really tough case, to Kim, our principal krillologist (I just made that word up, in case you wondered) and master of silly hats. I’ll tell you about silly hats later, too.

Once they’re sorted and counted and weighed, some of the lucky get to further the cause of science by being carefully disassembled (they’re all dead already) and thrown into a blender together to have their lipids analyzed by Jen. Lipids are fats, and fat krill are happy krill. Except these ones because, you know, they’ve been pulled up in a net and thrown into a blender.

AMLR’s been doing month-long surveys on these hundred-odd grid points for years, and is building the first real map of how krill populations change as a function of geography, oceanography and ice conditions. It’s freakin’ hard work (especially if you are one of the aforementioned krill), but it’s hard to overstate the importance of understanding this linchpin in the ecology of the Southern Ocean.

Joee, Tony, Martina and other-Sean secure the net until the next tow

Tony is all about rocking the tow.

Krill, baby, krill. Adrian empties the cod end, while master krill counter Kim looks on.

Everybody starts counting.

Brynn and Adrian take turns.

“I choose *you*!”

“Wait a minute – you’re not krill…” Kim B. finds something interesting.

Science is even more fun at 3 a.m. Or maybe those are the coffee chews…

You’re definitely not krill. What the heck *are* you?!?

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