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Klaus Meiners' fast-ice research
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.
Adélie penguin research
My name’s Colin Southwell. I work at the Australian Antarctic Division, and I’m a seabird ecologist.
In our paper we aimed to assess change in Adelie penguin populations across East Antarctica over the last 30 years. We worked with colleagues from France and Japan to try and cover the full extent of East Antarctica. Now that’s a really large area. It’s a coastline of around about 5000 km, there are over 200 colonies in that area. And what we did was look back at what historical data there was for populations back in the early 1980s and we tried to go back to those same sites and do counts in the 2000s, so that we could compare if the populations had changed over that time.
What we found is that in five regional populations spread right across East Antarctica there’d been a consistent increase of around about the same rate and extent in the populations since 1980. So over 30 years, overall the populations had increased by 70 per cent.
Within the region there was some variability. So within the Davis area for instance, as an example, most of the populations increased at different colonies, but some decreased. And this was happening across all of the regions. So what that told us was that there were some local effects driving populations, but overall there must have been some kind of regional driver of that population change.
There is evidence there’s been quite a substantial decrease in sea ice across East Antarctica in the mid-20th century. It’s possible that the reducing sea ice could have made prey more available to the Adelie penguins. The other thing that happened back in the 20th century was that there was extensive fishing for fish, krill, and also harvesting of whales, and in the 1970s there was a hypothesis called the krill surplus hypothesis that proposed that that would have made available many more krill to other predator populations such as Adelie penguins.
Our work has answered some questions but posed many others. So we worked on Adelie penguins because they’re convenient to study. They’re one of the few components of the marine ecosystem that we can work with easily. But we only have knowledge on a few pieces in this big ecosystem puzzle. And if we can get more information on other parts of the puzzle, other species, particularly the marine species that don’t come on to land to breed then we’re going to be able to piece together the mechanisms of ecosystem change much better than we can. So of course there’s more work that we could do, if only we could measure the marine environment better. Now one way we might be able to do that is to have new technologies that could make those measurements for us, and work on new technologies for making observations, I think, is very important.
New Australian Antarctic Division Director takes up role
It's a very complex organisation, the Antarctic Division, and the whole program, and I've been lucky enough to have worked in quite a few different areas. I wintered way back in the 1980's, and then the recent experience on the Executive and running the science branch really does help me understand why we do what we do and how we do it.
The role of the Director is really challenging, it's very exciting. I think it's really important, and I think it's important to everyone in Australia that the Antarctic program delivers really well for them and for the government. Australians have always been really interested in Antarctica, so there's an important historic context.
The climate systems that affect everyday life in Australia, the drought patterns in the agricultural belts, through to just enjoying coastal living, they're born in the Southern Ocean if you like, those systems. So understanding how Antarctica works helps us understand what kind of weather we'll have regionally around Australia and indeed globally.
I've had a very lucky career, I've been involved in taking science directly into policy and management through most of my career, that's where I get my greatest enjoyment.
Australia's a really well respected nation internationally, we've earned that respect by being a major player in all of the major initiatives around especially in eastern Antarctica, the part of Antarctica to the south of Australia, and you know certainly in my new role I'll be wanting to ensure that Australia remains highly influential and a real leader in the science, policy and operations space.