Scientists heading to Antarctica to study the continent as it wakes from winter

Klaus Meiners' fast-ice research

Video transcript

My name is Klaus Meiners. I’m a sea ice scientist with the Australian Antarctic Division. My research focus is on understanding ecosystem processes in ice-covered waters and this year I’m going down to Antarctica to lead a project with six team members.

The aim of the project is to better understand physical sea ice processes in the coastal zone of Antarctica and how they impact on the seasonal development of microscopic algae communities that grow at the bottom of the ice. So we are particularly interested in understanding how snow cover and ice thickness affects light levels at the bottom of the ice and how that effects the seasonal development of these communities.

This project really brings together physicists and biologists and looks at larger scales using new technologies. We use a Remotely Operated Vehicle which is a tethered platform which is instrumented with different sensors and you can use this to measure ice thickness. We also have an upward looking camera where we can look at the subsurface of the ice to look for animals grazing on ice algae. Importantly we have optical sensors and we use these to estimate the amount of algae in the ice.

We try to tease out is ice thickness a driver of this biological communities, where they are, how they develop over the season, or is it more snow cover.

Having regional information on fast-ice algal distribution will help us to assess the vulnerability of the ecosystem to changes in climate which will change sea ice conditions and therefore habitat extent of the algae. The other thing is the algae are considered an important food source for crustaceans or for the pelagic food web. We hope to identify ‘hotspots’ where we find a lot of algae which are there early in the season and that might affect the distribution of predators or higher trophic levels like penguins or seals.

Working down on the station its good to be out there on a cold day. You hear the snow crunching under your boots, you often see crystals glittering in the air, which is call diamond dusts, that’s really beautiful.

This time I’m going with six people and I did a calculation last night; we have a combined experience of 88 years of sea ice field research, and it’s just nice to work with these people. So you learn a lot. You think you know a little bit but then you go out with the old guys and they show you some tricks. It’s nice.

[end transcript]

The Aurora Australis in sea ice
The Aurora Australis is heading to Davis on the first voyage of the Antarctic season. (Photo: Sandra Zicus)
Dr Klaus Meiners with the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) in Antarctica, which will be used to investigate the under-ice environment and algae growth in the fast-ice zone in Antarctica.  Davis station from the air.

Final preparations are underway for the start of Australia’s Antarctic summer season tomorrow, with one of the key projects travelling south to study the frozen continent as it wakes from winter.

A remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) has been loaded onto the Aurora Australis for the 4,800 km voyage to Davis station in East Antarctica, where it will be deployed under the ice to study early season algae growth on fast ice – the sea ice attached to land.

Australian Antarctic Division Operations Manager, Robb Clifton, said the 2015-16 season promises to be busy, with more than 400 expeditioners travelling south as part of the Australian Antarctic programme.

“This season, Australia is collaborating with 28 countries and 178 international institutions on 94 individual science projects,” Mr Clifton said.

Dr Klaus Meiners, of the Australian Antarctic Division and Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, will lead the fast ice project. The team will use the ROV to help improve their understanding of ice algae, an important food source for tiny herbivores such as amphipods and zooplankton, which in turn are prey for animals such as penguins and seals.

“Ice algae begins growing earlier than algae in the water column and scientists think this early season productivity in the fast ice may be responsible for kick-starting the entire Antarctic food web,” Dr Meiners said.

“This makes the location and distribution of ice algae important when it comes to the foraging habits of larger predators and understanding the effects of fast-ice algae growth on different scales is important if we are to understand the impacts of changes to the ecosystem more broadly.”

The ROV will use a range of sensory equipment to carry out weekly observations of the physical and biological properties of the fast ice during the transition period from spring to summer.

Scientists will combine these observations with ‘point measurements’ from ice cores taken within and outside the ROV survey areas. These core samples will measure the physical, chemical and optical properties of the fast ice, the thickness and structure of snow cover on the ice, and abundance of algae in the ice.

Mr Clifton said another major project of the season is a multi-nation marine science voyage.

“In January, the Aurora Australis will travel to the Kerguelen Axis in the Indian Sector of the Southern Ocean where scientists will assess habitats, productivity and food webs.

“The Aurora Australis will be joined by four other research vessels that will undertake complementary science in the region, including the CSIRO’s RV Investigator and ships from France, Japan and the United States.”

French vessel L’Astrolabe is also scheduled to depart tomorrow, dropping supplies and expeditioners at Macquarie Island on its way to the French station Dumont D’Urville in East Antarctica.

“The departure of the L’Astrolabe from Hobart further highlights Tasmania’s role as the gateway to Antarctica and offers valuable opportunities for logistical collaboration between Australia and France,” Mr Clifton said.

The Aurora Australis is scheduled to return from Davis station in late November, with three more resupply voyages visiting Casey, Mawson and Macquarie Island stations in turn; delivering fuel, supplies and expeditioners for the year ahead.

For updates on the fast-ice project during the season, visit the project blog.

Media contact: (03) 6232 3253; media@aad.gov.au