Studying sea ice algae in Antarctica: two graduate students take fieldwork to the next level

Ice Algae in the Antarctic
Hannah Dawson and Sussan Rundell with their gear and the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer in the background.
Hannah Dawson and Susan Rundell with their gear and the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer in the background.

School of Oceanography Assistant Professor Jodi Young is studying one of the most essential components of Antarctic ecosystems: sea ice algae. This algae supports the bottom of the food chains in polar regions, and if it were to suddenly disappear, dependent ecosystems could collapse. For two Oceanography graduate students, the chance to work with Young and collect sea ice algae data in one of the most remote and visually stunning regions on the planet was a twice in a lifetime experience. Yes — Hannah Dawson and Susan Rundell, graduate students who each focus on oceanography and astrobiology, have made the challenging expedition to Antarctica twice over the past two years. The rigors required to make the trip down to the Palmer Station research hub on the Western Antarctic Peninsula are extensive, but laced with anticipation.

“Physically going was exhausting, but exciting,” Dawson said, describing the logistics of bringing lab equipment from Seattle down to Chile, and having to pass detailed medical screenings before hopping on the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer and crossing the harrowing Drake Passage.

“It can get pretty rough. It’s some of the roughest seas in the world and it’s about a four to five day passage across from South America to the peninsula,” Dawson added. “Usually for about two or three days it gets pretty rough. They even recommend you taco yourself in your bunk.”

Once at the station, the field work and data analysis could actually begin. A typical cycle involved Dawson and Rundell conducting field work in the morning and analyzing those samples for the rest of the day. The next day they would clean and organize, and prepare for another day of field work and data analysis. Dawson and Rundell were lowered off the side of a boat in a basket to access their field sites, reaching spots inaccessible by foot or small Kodiak boats.

A patch of broken sea ice reveals an abundance of the brownish sea ice algae.
A patch of broken sea ice reveals an abundance of the brownish sea ice algae.

Although researchers frequently use satellites to study sea ice in polar regions, it  limits the kind of information they can collect. Satellites can see the extent of sea ice as it expands and contracts over the course of a year and even identify levels of chlorophyll in the waters near sea ice. But a lot of sea ice algae lives underneath the thick layers of ice, blocked from view. With polar regions experiencing faster climatic warming than anywhere else on the planet, it’s more important than ever to track the status of sea ice algae.

“This area is rapidly changing and warming, but one of the things we don’t have a good handle on is what’s happening in the sea ice algae community because satellites can’t see through the ice,” said Young. “You’ve got to actually physically get out there and get samples.”

The professional and personal development opportunities that arise from conducting field work in Antarctica are numerous. Whether scooping up water to analyze phytoplankton or drilling cores into the sea ice to access the algae underneath, each day presented challenges and obstacles that required innovation, creativity and problem solving — essential skills in such remote settings.

To recover sea algae samples in hard to reach places, Dawson and Rundell are lowered from the side of the R/V Nathaniel B Palmer in a basket.
To recover sea algae samples in hard to reach places, Dawson and Rundell are lowered from the side of the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer in a basket.

“I think it’s really fun having to kind of come up with creative solutions to our everyday research problems, because with sea ice work in particular and polar work in isolated places, there are some really well-founded methods and fancy pieces of equipment we can use,” Rundell said. “But there’s also a whole different side to that like ‘Figure it out, make it yourself and be creative.’”

The opportunity also provided Dawson and Rundell with other professional development skills in other ways.

“I feel like it was just a really good experience to learn about not only the science and the amazing field work, but a lot of what goes on behind the scenes and logistics and planning and kind of getting a sneak into what it’s like to get a grant and then what you do once you get it,” Dawson said.

Dawson and Rundell piloted Kodiak boats, like the one shown here, to retrieve hard to reach samples.

Professional development aside, getting to see the beauty of Antarctica was a joy and experience that Dawson and Rundell both found hard to describe, and a journey that both students were grateful to have taken.

“For me, it almost feels like you’re on a different planet. It’s just so foreign and untouched, and you don’t see the influence of people anywhere,” Dawson said. “It’s really cool, just insane landscapes, animals and ice and beautiful things every single day.”

The journey, the research, the breathtaking views, the professional development and more were not only made possible by Young’s research project, but also by the less visible marine techs and Palmer Station veterans.

“I think that just mentioning how many amazing people we’ve got to work with both of these years, with people at Palmer Station who go back year after year and have created a really strong community there as well as all the amazing Marine techs on the ship we were on,” Rundell said. “It takes a really special type of person to keep doing that really hard work here after a year and they do such a fantastic job and make all of the science possible.”

Dawson and Rundell collecting data from an ice core.
Dawson and Rundell collecting data from an ice core.