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Bird with ship in background.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
A snowy sheathbill bird perches on a rock while the U.S. Antarctic Program's research vessel Laurence M. Gould steams past. The ship is used every January for the Palmer Long Term Ecological Research cruise.

Ocean observations

Palmer LTER scientists call for new strategy to take measurements

Underwater robots and marine animals outfitted with scientific sensors are part of a proposed strategy for monitoring polar oceans into the 21st century, particularly a stretch of sea along the western Antarctic Peninsula, which is undergoing rapid climate changes.

The proposal comes in the June 18, 2010 issue of the journal Science by a group of scientists who conduct research in Antarctica, most of whom currently work on the Palmer Long Term Ecological Research (PAL LTER) program External Non-U.S. government site.

Since 1993, the PAL LTER has monitored the region near the U.S. Antarctic Program’s Palmer Station External U.S. government site, close to the northern end of the peninsula, mainly on an annual ship-based survey each January. The scientists suggest profound changes to the environment necessitate new ways to make measurements of the ocean and atmosphere.

Elephant seal with device on its head.
Photo Credit: NOAA
An elephant seal with a satellite tag on its head.
Scientists with robotic instrument.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Scientist Kaycee Coleman secures a glider for transport onto a research vessel.
[See related article: Back in Time.]

For example, midwinter surface temperatures have increased by about 6 degrees centigrade in the past 50 years. Eighty-seven percent of the western peninsula glaciers are in retreat, and the sea ice season has shortened by nearly 90 days.

In their report, the scientists describe a multi-faceted approach to ocean observation, using glider robots that measure ocean characteristics continuously for weeks at a time and tourist vessels, ferries, and other “ships of opportunity” outfitted with chemical and biological sensors.

In the last few years, the PAL LTER program added autonomous underwater vehicles called Slocum gliders through a group from Rutgers University External Non-U.S. government site led by Oscar Schofield External Non-U.S. government site, who is the lead author on the review paper in Science.

“In just the first few weeks that we had the glider out last year, we collected as much data as the cruises had collected since 1993,” said Hugh Ducklow External Non-U.S. government site, a co-author of the Science paper and lead principal investigator for the PAL LTER, in an earlier interview with the Sun.

The authors also suggest outfitting oceanographic instruments on animals such as elephant seals and penguins to provide information on animal behavior and oceanographic conditions. Recent tagging of Adélie penguins nesting near Palmer Station has helped scientists understand the link between nutrient upwelling in underwater canyons and where penguins forage.

“We’re looking for ways to use our existing capabilities to obtain data,” said Ducklow, director of the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL)External Non-U.S. government site, in a recent press release from MBL. “Our goal is to make things cheaper and get a lot of them out there. This will help to narrow down uncertainty about the effects of warming on the polar oceans in the coming decades to century.”

The authors concede that deployment of the observational systems will “require international cooperation given the scale of effort required; however, because many of the technologies have been demonstrated to be effective it is not unreasonable to believe that these networks could be deployed in five to 10 years.

“The benefits of better understanding the marine ecosystem, and being better able to predict, protect, and make use of its resources, are strong drivers to make this a reality.”

NSF-funded research in this story: Hugh Ducklow, Marine Biological Laboratory, Award No. 0823101 External U.S. government site (includes Bill Fraser, Deborah Steinberg and Oscar Schofield). The Science authors include: Hugh Ducklow, The Ecosystems Center at Marine Biological Laboratory; Oscar Schofield, Rutgers University; Douglas Martinson, Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; Michael Meredith, British Antarctic Survey; Mark Moline, California Polytechnic State University; and William Fraser, Polar Oceans Research Group. 

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