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Q & A

Ask us a question. It can be about science or our journey aboard the ship ---anything you like!

Q:  Bengt J writes: I wonder if you can confirm this theory that I have read about. I have heard certain types of diatoms are more abundant at certain times of the year. For example, the kissy-lip looking diatom in Marlo's drawing would be more prevalent this time of the year, i.e. around Valentine's day. In a couple of weeks you'll be able to prove this theory. Let me know what you find.

A: You're quite right, Bengt. Different species of diatoms do show seasonality in their abundance. Different diatoms like different conditions. Some like to live near the ice edge, while others like turbulent, mixing water. Some prefer lots of light, and others do well with less light. Because conditions change over time (and over distance), different diatoms thrive at different times (and in different places) as light, temperature, and nutrient conditions change.

The kissy-lips diatoms are likely a species of Fragilariopsis. Of course, diatoms come in a myriad of shapes. Some look so much like flying saucers it's startling. It's sweet to find Actinocylcus actinochilus, like tiny slices of orange, and we feel lucky when we find fortune-cookie-like Campylodiscus. This Valentine's Day, we'll be keeping a special eye out for some heart-shaped diatoms, and if we discover this brand-new species, we'll blow you a kiss. 

Q:   Mackenzie A. asks: Do krill live in colonies or by themselves?


A:   Hi Mackenzie! Antarctic krill live in large schools or “swarms.” You’ve probably heard the phrase “safety in numbers”—and that’s very true for krill. Living in a large group makes each individual less likely to be eaten by their predators, which include whales, seals, and penguins.

Krill swarms can be very thick, with thousands of individuals per square foot. According to Wikipedia’s page on Antarctic krill, one swarm covered 170 square miles to a depth of 660 feet! Scientists estimated it contained over two million tons of krill (a krill can be around the size of a small shrimp). In terms of biomass (the amount of material that comes from living things; for example, our bodies are biomass), Antarctic krill is probably the most abundant species on Earth.



Q:   Grace C. asks: What do you guys do on a daily basis, and on a scale of one to ten, how much do you like this work?


A:   Hi Grace! A typical day on a station keeps us very busy. The ship works 24 hours a day, and we are constantly putting instruments over the side to collect water or particles or mud from the bottom of the ocean. Each of these things takes several hours or more and lots of people to help.

In terms of how much we like this work? I asked everyone, and most people said 11.


Q:   Aidan F. asks: What do you do on a regular day basis?


A:   Hi Aiden! We get up and have a delicious breakfast in the galley. When the boat is at a sampling station, someone is always busy, day and night. First, we survey the sea floor, which you can read about here. If it looks like a suitable area, we send down the CTD to measure the temperature, salinity, and other properties of the ocean, and to collect water samples. The people who collect water from the CTD take it back to their labs and start measuring it. We measure nutrient and chlorophyll content. Chlorophyll is the pigment plants use to photosynthesize. We filter some of this water to learn which diatoms are living at the surface.

Then we send the McLane pumps deep into the sea to collect particles (such as dead diatoms, zooplankton, and other organic matter, even poop!) out of the water. When we recover them, Pat spends hours processing the samples so they are ready to analyze when we get home to Rhode Island.

Later, we send down the megacorer, a piece of equipment that we lower all the way to the sea floor (which can be 2 to 3 or more km below us). The megacorer sinks into the oozy mud on the seafloor, captures some of it, then brings it back to the surface. Then we process the mud by cutting it into sections and putting it into bags so we can analyze it later. We get muddy, but it’s fun!

When we are done with the station, the boat travels to the next sampling station. People use these 6 hours to process samples and catch up on sleep. We are also running experiments that require us to take measurements daily. Colin, who is growing diatoms aboard the ship, has to measure the fluorescence—or the amount of chlorophyll—in his bottles each day. This gives him an idea of how quickly his diatoms are growing and reproducing. 


When we can take a break, we hang out together, use the gym or sauna, watch movies, play games, play Ping-Pong, read books, or talk to our families. We’re having a foosball tournament this week. Most people take some time every day to go out on deck or up to the bridge with the crew to admire the view and look for whales and other wildlife.


Q:   Marc K. asks: Why do diatoms eat nitrogen, iron, and other metals in the ocean? I thought they were plants!


A:   You’re right, Marc—diatoms are plants. But all plants, including the ones in your garden, take up nitrogen, which is essential for plants to grow. We call these essential things nutrients. Diatoms, just like people and other living things, need metals such as iron and zinc, and other nutrients like phosphorus, to grow and thrive. Diatoms are really interesting because they use silica (the same thing glass is made of) to make their outer skeleton (called a frustule). They really are tiny plants in glasshouses!


Q:   Brendan K. asks: How is it to live on a ship in Antarctica? Is it cold? How do u stay warm? What kind of animals are there and what do u do with them?


A:   Hi Brendan! Living on a ship in Antarctic waters is mostly a LOT of fun. We all work very hard, but we love what we’re doing, so it feels like fun. The ship itself is very comfortable, and we have lots of fun things to do when we’re not working such as a gym and a sauna, a lounge with movies, a Ping-Pong table, and more. The food has been really good, too.

We have good heating in our cabins and the labs where we work, but it sometimes gets cold in the galley (dining room) because it’s right in the ship’s bow. It’s a good idea to wear long underwear and layers most of the time. It can be VERY cold out on deck, especially when it’s windy or the ship is moving, but the United States Antarctic Program provides special ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) clothing. The back deck where we work is heated. This prevents ice from building up and keeps us safe while we deploy our instruments over the side.


Even though we’re out in the open ocean now, there’s always something different to see: all sorts of icebergs and wildlife. So far, we have seen Weddell and Ross seals, a minke whale, lots of humpback whales, and some orcas (aka killer whales). Among birds, we’ve seen Adélie penguins (which are very cute), emperor penguins, snow petrels, Antarctic petrels, cape petrels, skuas, and albatrosses (which are huge), among others. We don’t do anything with the animals but take lots of photos and really enjoy looking at them.


Q:   Jillian V. asks: What is it like living in Antarctica? Do you like it or do you not like it?


A:   Hi Jillian! We don’t like living in Antarctica—we love it. It’s the most beautiful place most of us have ever seen, and we’re enjoying a huge adventure in one of the most remote places on Earth. The scenery is very dramatic, and we did some really cool hikes around McMurdo Station. Did you know that it’s built on the slopes of a volcano called Mt. Erebus? I hope I get to come back again!


Living on the ship is really fun, too. The hardest thing is being away from our families, but we can talk to them via the ship’s phone and email. Also, when the sea gets really rough, seasickness isn’t much fun… But we think we’re extremely lucky to being having this wonderful experience!


Q:   Sara W. asks: What are some of the biggest struggles of living in such an extreme environment? Also, what is the main reason you’re there and what are you looking for?


A:   Hi Sara! Luckily, we don’t face too many struggles. When we were at McMurdo Station, the weather was fine, and in the summertime (which it is right now), McMurdo itself has everything you need to be happy: a thousand or so other people, a big galley (dining room) with lots of food choices, computers and Internet, a store, a post office, a barber/hairdresser, and lots of fun activities both inside and outside.


For people who live on the scientific bases in Antarctica for longer periods, life revolves around the weather. It can turn ferocious and dangerous with little warning, and there are all sorts of safety rules. You can’t go for a walk off base without letting the fire station know where you’re going, and you have to take a communication radio with you in case you find yourself in a dangerous situation and need help.


On our research ship, we are warm and well-fed. One of the big differences from our lives on land is that we do not have very strong Internet; however, we are lucky to have it all. It comes from a satellite, so the strength of our signal depends on whether our ship can see the satellite where it is in its orbit. This can be annoying, but it can be good, too: it’s nice not to be on social media all the time and to just enjoy the beauty of where we are and the people we’re with.


One of my biggest struggles has been seasickness. The Southern Ocean has the roughest seas on the planet, and while our ship is able to handle them, the people sometimes find it pretty challenging. We also have to tie everything down so things won’t get thrown to the floor and broken! We even have special placemats in the galley (dining room) to stop our plates from sliding all over the place as we eat.

We are here to study tiny plants called diatoms, which grow extremely well in the Southern Ocean. We want to better understand how they use two particular nutrients—nitrogen and silica—and how they did so in the past. While using the nutrients in the ocean, diatoms also absorb a lot of carbon. Carbon dioxide is a gas that affects our planet’s climate. The amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is changing today. It has varied in the past, too, and understanding more about diatoms can help understand more about what causes global changes in climate.



Q:   Alexis C. asks: What is the lowest temp. it got down to when you were there, and how did it impact your day in Antarctica?


A:   Hi Alexis! When we were at McMurdo Station, we were lucky to experience mild temperatures (around or just below freezing), and it was sunny every day (and all night long because the sun never sets at this time of year). We even saw people running in shorts and a T-shirt! Probably the coldest temperature we experienced was around 17°F /-8°C, cold but not unlike RI!

Traveling northward on the ship through the Ross Sea and Southern Ocean, it gets a little warmer each day, and most days are just above freezing. But the wind-chill has been far colder, both at sea and on the continent—often around -18 Celsius (around 0 degrees Fahrenheit) or lower. When the weather is cold, we wear our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear. When we are working out on deck, we also have to wear flotation jackets, hard hats, and steel-toed rubber boots, as well as waterproof foul weather gear, since larger waves often come onto the deck or it can be snowing. It can be a little uncomfortable to wear so much clothing, but it would be way more uncomfortable (and dangerous) to get hypothermia or frostbite!

Sometimes when the weather is poor—usually meaning strong winds and bigger seas—we can’t send down some of our oceanographic equipment. It becomes too dangerous for the marine technicians and scientists to be out on deck and too chancy for the equipment itself, which might be lost or damaged.

Q:   Clea G. asks, “Have you seen any birds or anything like that? If so, what kind?”

A:   Hi Clea! We have seen many birds, and many days now we’re out in the open ocean, they’re the only wildlife we see. (But we do see whales sometimes.) The first birds we saw were skuas at McMurdo. When we first arrived, we were told that skuas really like people food and will try to steal it from us, so to cover up any dishes if we take them outside. Since we’ve been on the ship, we’ve seen Adélie and emperor penguins. As we moved out onto the open ocean, we’ve seen snow petrels, cape petrels, and Antarctic petrels, wandering albatrosses, giant petrels, and more. We’ve also seen Weddell seals, Ross seals, orcas, and humpback whales. And yesterday, we had a visit from some king penguins far from land.


Q:   Gavin G. asks, “Can you fish?”

A:   Hi Gavin! No, fishing off the boat is not allowed. The lines could become tangled within the oceanographic equipment we send down or in the boat’s machinery.


Q:   Kiki asks, "Is it really, really, really, really cold there? Is it snowing, and is there ice there? What does it sound like in Antarctica?


A:   Hi Kiki! I happen to know that you live in Queensland, Australia, where it’s very hot most of the year. So yes, I think you’d find it really, really, really, REALLY cold in Antarctica! But we are also here in summer, so it’s not quite as cold as it could be. In fact, when we were at McMurdo Station, it wasn’t too bad at all, and the weather was very sunny, but we usually still had to wear our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) clothing  when we were outside. That is special clothing the United States Antarctic Program gives us to use while we are here, and it keeps us warm even when it’s below freezing outside, which it often is.


The wind can be much, much colder, though. One day, while we were in the Ross Sea, we sailed into a gale, which is a very strong wind, and it was almost as strong as a category 1 cyclone (or a hurricane for those of you who are in North America). Within minutes, the wind-chill dropped to minus 23 Celsius. The water on the deck froze instantly, and the spray coming off the ocean froze, too, so it looked like it was snowing upside down. Then it started snowing, too, and the snow was so thick we couldn’t see in front of the ship.


Antarctica is mostly covered in ice and snow all year round. We’ve also seen lots of ice in the sea, and for a day and a half, as we sailed away from McMurdo Station, we were cutting through sea ice, which is fun and very noisy. Luckily, we are in a special ship called an ice breaker, which is especially designed to cut through ice up to about a meter thick. We’ve also seen lots of icebergs, and some of them are bright blue!


Antarctica sounds like the howling of wind, the lapping and crashing of waves, the crunching of ice, the squawking of penguins, and the happy noises people make when they are having a wonderful time in one of the most beautiful and amazing places on Earth.


Are there more diatoms at night or day?

Diatoms are present day and night, and most stay as close to their favorite depth as they can. Some plankton, mostly zooplankton (animals), migrate daily, going deep in the water column during the day and rising at night to eat. There are some diatoms that appear to migrate, but in this case, they go deep to collect nutrients and then rise up to photosynthesize in the photic zone. We are sampling day and night and collecting phytoplankton with each collection.


Q:   Mrs. Kanaczet’s 5th Grade Class asks, “Has anything unexpected happened? Have you found anything “shocking?” Any close encounters with wildlife? Technical difficulties?”

A:   Hi Mrs. Kanaczet’s 5th Grade Class! Yes, unexpected things always happen at sea. While we get a detailed weather report each day, we can never know exactly what the weather will do or what the sea state will be, and conditions can change quite quickly. Larger waves can come almost out nowhere. Pat, our technician, was deploying a pump the other day and was swamped! Luckily, he was wearing his safety harness and was tethered to the ship, but he got very wet and cold!

We have seen lots of wildlife close to the ship, from small Adélie penguins and Weddell seals, who have been quite eager to get out of our way, to giant humpback whales. A humpback surfaced very close to the ship a few days ago, and we’ve seen pods of orcas passing by. We see a variety of seabirds every day and the petrels and albatrosses seems as curious about us as we are about them. I’ve even seen petrels glide until they are level with the window and stare in at me for a while! They seem to enjoy flying on the currents around the ship until they are level with the front of the ship, then swooping down in front of it like daredevils, then returning to the stern to do it all over again and again. Today we had a visit from a young king penguin while we were coring and some adult kind penguins later in the day. This was unexpected because we are far from the ice, making it all that much more exciting.


Yes, we have had some technical difficulties. It can be a very tricky thing to retrieve mud  from deep under the ocean, miles below the ship, and that process hasn’t always been as successful as we’d like. Sometimes the turbulent action of the ocean has washed some of the mud out of the coring equipment. Sometimes the mud has simply been too dense and springy for the corer to penetrate. We have a row of sediment collection tools on the deck that have all failed to come up with the mud we want. Now we are using the most powerful coring tool on board and having some success. But this has taken a lot of time and a lot of work. Once, the cable that lowers the equipment into the sea got caught up and we stopped work for several hours to fix it. When technical difficulties occur, we have to be flexible: we try again and again, and people have to be prepared to stay up all night if necessary to get the work done. But when we have success, the trouble along the way is worth it!

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