SO Christmas: Why here? Why now?

Sofia Alexiou, NOC


“You’re going to be WHERE for Christmas?!” is the most common response I get from family and friends after I tell them I will be going on a sea-going research expedition in the Southern Ocean for 6 weeks over the holidays. Followed by “Whatever for?”  With 29 scientists, marine engineers and technicians on board the RRS Discovery, (and an equal amount of crew), it occurred to me that this is probably a common theme amongst us, and at some point we all must’ve had that awkward moment where we needed to explain why we go to the far end of the world to conduct our work.  Because a one-sentence response of “to do research” isn’t sufficient enough to satiate their curiosity, nor does any justice to the complexity of interdisciplinary science, carefully coordinated activities of 60 persons, shift patterns, myriad of methodologies and procedures, running of instruments and labs, operating scientific equipment, marine robots, large cranes and winches, all whilst moving about a vessel in 3 to 4m swells, sometimes 25 or even 40 knot winds, in the cold, 700 nautical miles from Antarctica.

Therefore, this post is dedicated to all of our loved ones who we miss during this special time of year, and who support us in our endeavours to understand the ocean and our planet, strive to progress in our fields of research, and for some of us, (ahem), for whom the call of the sea runs deep –  Thank You! And here is a bit of what we are up to, and why it is important.

Oct 2019 RRS Discovery docked outside NOC in Southampton loading equipment for Southern Ocean expeditions
photo by Adrian Martin, NOC

Why Here?

CUSTARD is mainly studying the seasonal growth of microscopic marine plants, called phytoplankton, whose annual growth equals that of all land plants worldwide combined. Without life in the sea, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere would be 50% higher.

For all the keen gardeners out there, you know how important the type and amounts of nutrients, pH, temperature and light conditions affect the health and growth of your garden. These same conditions determine the growth rate of phytoplankton in the ocean. When these plants go through the process of photosynthesis, absorbing carbon dioxide, and eventually die, the carbon held within them moves deeper into the ocean, some in the stomachs of crustaceans and fish that eat them, or by sinking as ‘marine snow’ to deeper parts of the ocean.

This movement of carbon into the deep sea is particularly important in the Southern Ocean since the region is effectively a ‘motorway junction’ for ocean currents. Which motorway the carbon enters determines how long it will remain ‘locked’ away in the ocean – If shallow, maybe just a year or less, but if deep, possibly for hundreds or thousands of years.

Why Now?

Simple – We come to the Southern Ocean during the holiday season because it is mid-summer here at the moment, when marine plants should be blooming – perfect timing for us to sample. Also, sea & weather conditions are more favourable this time of year in this notoriously rough part of the ocean.

Over the coming weeks, our blog will feature more in-depth stories directly from the research teams about their experiences at sea, the work they are conducting, the variety of equipment deployed, including large water samplers, marine snow catchers, moorings with intricate and novel sensors, ocean gliders, marine robots, the labs they are working in, that are kitted out with state of the art instruments used for analysis of nutrients, oxygen, carbon, trace metals, pictures of phytoplankton species, and more.

You can also follow the activities of the expedition and daily Christmas Advent Calendar on the Twitter feed on the right, #CUSTARDcruise

CUSTARD 2019, Blog # 2: SO Christmas: Why here? Why now?

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