At the bottom of the world
January 24, 2011
Researchers from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary began a six-week field expedition to Antarctica Jan. 10 to study the effects of global climate change on the Antarctic food web.
The team, which includes VIMS professor Deborah Steinberg, VIMS graduate students Carolina Funkey, Lori Price and Kate Ruck, post-doctoral researcher Kim Bernard, marine technician Joe Cope and Caitlin Smoot ’10, will collect samples of zooplankton from waters along the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.
The VIMS expedition is part of the Long-Term Ecological Research Program at the U.S. Palmer Research Station on Anvers Island, Antarctica. The program is led by former VIMS professor Hugh Ducklow and funded through grants from the National Science Foundation.
According to Steinberg, studying the plankton samples could reveal the impact climate changes have had on microscopic organisms, which comprise a significant portion of the Antarctic food web.
“We’re interested in zooplankton for two main reasons,” Steinberg said in a press release. “First, changes in their abundance and species composition ripple up the food chain to affect fish, penguins, and whales. Second, they play an important role in the ‘biological pump,’ potentially helping to move carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the deep sea where it doesn’t contribute to global warming.”
Winter temperatures in the Antarctic Peninsula have risen by 11 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 50 years — five times the global average. Evidence suggests that the relatively rapid rise in temperatures has had a negative effect on the ecosystem and native wildlife. For example, the local population of Adelie penguins declined from 35,000 breeding pairs to 5,600 in the 36 years during which scientists have recorded their populations.
The Palmer program is one of over 26 LTER sites throughout the world, each researching different ecosystems.