RV Polarstern through the fog

BIOPOLE at the North Pole

On the 2nd August 2023, I (BIOPOLE researcher Dr Kathryn Cook, University of Exeter) joined the RV Polarstern in Tromsø, along with project partners Morten Iversen and Sinhue Torres-Valdes (AWI), to participate in the 9-week ArcWatch 1 (PS138) cruise to the central Arctic.  The overall aim of the 50 scientists participating on the cruise was to study the physics, chemistry, and biology of the sea ice, but I was invited along to collect samples to help address BIOPOLE WP2 deliverable ‘What controls the depth at which polar copepods diapause, and their physiological rates during overwintering?’.

I used a Hydro-Bios Midi Multinet (thanks to project partner Barbara Niehoff, AWI) to sample the important Arctic lipid storing copepods Calanus hyperboreus, Calanus glacialis, and possibly the northern North Atlantic interloper Calanus finmarchicus (we’ll have to wait for molecular confirmation to find out) throughout the upper 1500m of the water column.  I was also able to take samples from immediately below the sea ice using a net attached to an ROV affectionately known as ‘The Beast’.  We took samples at 9 ice stations, including the MOSAiC station and the North Pole.  These samples will be used to quantify the biomass (carbon and nitrogen), lipid content and composition, and estimate the metabolic rates using enzyme assays (Electron Transport System (ETS) activity as a measure of respiration rate; Amino-Acyl-t-RNA-Synthetases (AARS) activity as a measure of growth).  These data will be used to inform life-cycle food-web models and will be available to WP3 to help develop simplified, global parameterisations of the lipid pump and improve estimates of the amount of carbon sequestered in the mesopelagic ocean.

First steps on the ice. Kathryn Cook (University of Exeter)

As well as being very successful scientifically, this cruise was, by far, the most exciting research trip I have been on in my career to date.  Just getting out on the sea ice was amazing, but we also had helicopter excursions to measure ice thickness, a polar bear coming to play with ‘The Beast’, live footage of sea mounts and hydrothermal vents courtesy of the OFOBS (Ocean Floor Observation and Bathymetry), live music courtesy of The ArcWatchers (featuring project partner Morten Iversen) and of course being, literally, on top of the world.  We were accompanied by a media team who wrote regular social media posts, blogs (Arctic August – October 2023 – AWI Polarstern) and German newspaper articles, as well as a documentary film crew.  The documentary ARCWATCH – HOPE IN THE ICE was broadcast on 29 December 2023 at 9:45 p.m. by German broadcaster ARD and is available (in Germany) in the ARD Media Library.  There should be an international version released at some point, so watch this space.

Wrestling ‘The Beast’ with net into a hole in the ice to sample under ice copepods. L-R Kim Vane (AWI), Emiliano Cimoli (University of Tasmania), Marcel Nicolaus, Julia Regnery (AWI).

The author of the blog – Kathryn Cook (University of Exeter)

UKCEH Dips its Toes into (Arctic) Waters

It’s been a month since the team’s return to the UK from Ny Ålesund, Svalbard, and after a much needed two week holiday, I finally feel ready to put the proverbial pen to paper to put our epic BIOPOLE adventure into words. After re-reading my daily journal that I kept during the trip, I have realised that my ramblings completely failed to capture the utter privilege it was to spend time with these fantastic people and call this incredible place home for a month. So in this blog I will endeavour to expand on my scribblings and paint a picture for the reader that may just give them a small window into our month of thrilling polar science. It’s a tale of an arctic escapade involving impossibly good weather, a heroic label printer, the Poet Laureate, a squeaky winch, and the most fetching orange boat suits.

Our story starts long before our departure from the UK in July 2023. It starts back in May 2022 with an email I sent to my fellow UKCEH colleague, Dr Nathan Callaghan, asking to discuss the field campaign in Ny Ålesund of which he was the named coordinator. From this email I had the following reply: ‘Could you please send me a link to where I am listed as the task co-ordinator, as I have to admit that this is news to me. No problem having a discussion about this, but at present it sounds like you know more than me’. A less than ideal start to what would be, in the end, a very eventful and successful field campaign!

Fast forward to 2023 and the team had already completed the pilot field study in Loch Etive, Scotland (see a previous blog to learn more about that), and now had a good idea of what we needed to accomplish in Ny Ålesund and how we were going to go about achieving it. One major question in BIOPOLE is whether nutrient delivery from land-based sources is sensitive to climate change. If the balance of nutrients entering the sea changes in a warmer climate, then the impacts of climate change on polar marine ecosystems could be significant. To answer this question in Ny Ålesund, we need to track nutrients as they travel from land and glacial meltwaters, through rivers, and into the Kongsfjorden inlet and out to the open ocean. The data we collect here should be able to tell us where the nutrients are coming from, how they are transformed as they travel through the environment, and how much of this makes it out to sea.

With six months to go until the campaign kick-off, we hit the ground running with planning everything from rifle permits, medical exams, and navigating the online RiS portal, to ashing filters, creating lab protocols, and acid washing a mind boggling amount of bottles and containers. I should say here, none of this planning would have been possible without the help of the UK Arctic Research Station manager, Iain Rudkin, who was like a lighthouse in a planning storm, who always kept us heading in the right direction with his constant advice and guidance as we battered him with email after email of frantic questions. More on Iain and his many talents later on.

By May we were ready to pack up our five pallets of cargo to start their journey by ship from Bangor, Wales, to Ny Ålesund, Svalbard. By the end of June all of our meticulous planning was paying off and we were almost ready to head off with everything mostly under control. That was until I was asked two and half weeks before our departure if I could purchase a drone for measuring river discharge, learn how to fly it, and apply for special permission to use it in Ny Ålesund, all before we left. My typical technician response to this question? Absolutely!

Come the beginning of July, I had the drone (affectionately named Droney McDroneface) packed in my bag (and one day of practice flying under my belt), and was ready to leave an admittedly less than sunny summer in the UK to travel to the world’s most northerly community. The first four field team members met up in Longyearbyen, including Prof Chris Evans MBE, Dr Nathan Callaghan, Alex O’Brien, and myself (Alanna Grant) (all from UKCEH) and we journeyed on together further north on a plane not meant for those who suffer from aviophobia. Luckily, I am not one of those people and was treated to breath-taking views over mountains that rise up and ripple out of the ground, glaciers that stretch as far as the eye can see, and stunning blue green glacial lakes that dazzled in the July sun.

View of mountains, glaciers, and lakes from the plane window.
Photo: Alex O’Brien

On Arrival in Ny Ålesund we were met by our host, Iain, who showed us around the station and to our rooms. My room was number three; a small room with a comfortable single bed, a wardrobe, a desk and two chairs. A cosy place to call home for the next month. The station itself had everything needed to undertake a successful field campaign. Not only was it our living quarters but it also housed several excellent lab spaces. We also had use of the garage to store our mountains of bottles, as well as fridges and a freezer to keep our many samples preserved.

Our month kicked off with several days of training to ensure we would be safe and competent working in the field and in the station. Once this was complete the real fun began. We worked tirelessly for the first week with Chris, who brings a wealth of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem biogeochemistry knowledge, leading the campaign. Our goal was to sample as many of the rivers that drain into the fjord as possible. These rivers were an even mix of glacial melt rivers and non-glacial rivers. We sampled for a wide range of determinands such as phosphorus, dissolved organic carbon, chlorophyll, oxygen isotopes, metals, and greenhouse gases, among many others. During this first week we were treated to excellent weather and spent several days out on the boat. Each river we would come to, we would spend several minutes surveying the coast line for any sign of polar bears before Iain would expertly land the boat on the shore like something out of a James Bond film. Some sampling sites were fairly open so you could be reasonably sure you weren’t sneaking up on a sleeping bear, whilst others were more enclosed and felt like places that we didn’t want to hang around in for too long. At these sites, after some further bear scouting on land, we would collect our samples as quickly as we could and return to the boat, lest a furry visitor would come ambling into view. Luckily for us the only polar bears we saw in the field were from the safety of the boat.

The team sampling a non-glacial river in the fjord.
Photo: Alex O’Brien
Team members visiting a sampling site in Ny London.
Photo: Alanna Grant
Nathan laughing at Chris who has fallen over. Just kidding. The team taking samples and measurements from a river (not pictured).
Photo: Iain Rudkin

Whilst at these river outflows, we also deployed the drone in an attempt to quantify river discharge, a vital measurement when trying to calculate nutrient outputs. This involved flying the drone over an area of the river that was un-braided and deep enough so as not to have rocks breaking the surface which would skew the surface velocity measurement. This proved more difficult than anticipated as it transpired that rivers that meet these requirements are very few and far between. However, we persisted and managed to get measurements at several of the sites and now have a better understanding of how this novel approach could be used in the future. And Droney McDroneface managed to get some fantastic photos and videos too. Ny Ålesund is a radio silence zone which means no WiFi, phone reception, or Bluetooth allowed. This isn’t ideal for using a drone so this work was made possible with collaboration from the Norwegian Mapping Authority and NKOM who kindly worked with us to ensure our drone would not interfere with their sensitive observatory measurements.

A braided glacial river that made it very difficult to take discharge measurements using the drone.
Photo: Alanna Grant
Ice bergs in the fjord captured by drone.
Photo: Alanna Grant

After each day sampling from the boat (or on bike/foot if possible) we would return to the station with our bulk water samples to subsample and filter for the various determinands. This was no easy task, as each determinant required a specific sized acid washed container and also had different filtering requirements. This challenge was expertly handled by Nathan, who developed a specific organisational system that allowed him to keep track of each sample whilst spending many hours hand filtering with a syringe. Nathan’s many hours of toil in the lab gained him the affectionate nickname of Lab Ape. Which was maybe less cool than his field nickname, Black Rifle. A suitable name for the guy who was always the first to jump out of the boat to undertake bear watch; risking his life for the science. A true polar hero!

Nathan (Black Rifle) stands guard on bear watch as the team takes samples.
Photo: Alanna Grant
Nathan (Lab Ape) prepares bottles in the lab for the day’s water samples.
Photo: Alanna Grant

We were generating an impressive amount of samples each day and if we were to hand write each label it would have taken us several extra hours each day. This is where Printy Mcprintface came in. The ultimate label printer who became the fifth member of the team and saved us from a month of cramped, ink stained hands. This was, in my opinion, easily the best thing we bought for the project and I would highly recommend one to anyone undertaking a highly intensive field campaign.

Label printer, Printy McPrintface; Project MVP.
Photo: Alanna Grant

While Nathan toiled away filtering in the main lab, I was set up in the wet lab next door with a six-rig filtering manifold which I used to filter sample water for multiple determinands at once, with the purpose of keeping the filters rather than the water. This involved filtering anywhere from 50ml to 2000ml of water, depending on the sediment load of the sample, through a filter until it clogged or I ran out of water. At first it would take many hours to get through only three or four samples, but once I had a system going it was like playing a melody on the piano; my hands would do the work while my mind would wonder onto other things. After a few days I could get through around six samples in two hours. This would come in handy as some days we would be on the boat for the majority of the day, come back in the early evening for dinner, and then spend the rest of the evening filtering up to 12 samples. We wouldn’t stop until all of the samples collected that day were filtered so we could be filtering until 10-11pm. This was made easier by the 24 hour sunlight so it never felt late, and by our own music playlists that kept us entertained; some playlists more eclectic than others.

6-rig filtration manifold used for sample filtering (filter funnel #6 and waste water container not pictured).
Photo: Alanna Grant

Also during this first week, Alex deployed the algal growth experiment baskets that were designed by the freshwater team at UKCEH Wallingford. Here’s what she had to say about the experience: ‘The abundance and growth rates of algae communities in the Arctic are not well known.  In July 2023, we undertook a series of in-river experiments. Floating baskets were used to determine the growth rates of river algae within their natural growing conditions. At each chosen site, a floating basket was set up containing samples of river water and its associated algae within bags made from semi-permeable membrane tubing. The algae are trapped within these bags, but nutrients can diffuse into the bag from the surrounding river water. As the algae grow and take up nutrients within the bag, fresh nutrients from the river water diffuse across the membrane, maintaining constant water quality conditions. In total, four baskets were successfully deployed in rivers flowing into the Kongsfjord, two glacial meltwater streams and two non-glacial. A fifth basket was anchored in the fjord to assess the growth rates of marine algae, and to determine how river algae entering the fjord would grow in higher salinities. In order to keep the baskets in place in the fast-flowing rivers around Ny Ålesund, we had to be creative in anchoring the baskets in place, including pinning them to the underlying sediment and setting up rock anchors in tarpaulin sheets to prevent them from being washed away. After 9 days, the baskets were collected and brought back to the lab at the UK Arctic Research Station, where the bags were removed and sampled for algal flow cytometry and chlorophyll analyses, to determine how the algal communities within the river had increased and changed in community composition. Setting up these experimental baskets in Arctic rivers provided a unique challenge, far removed from our regular work in British rivers, which has so far provided us with greater insights into algal activity in the rivers of Svalbard. And it couldn’t have been accomplished without the help of Chris, Iain, Alanna, and Nathan in the field helping cycle the baskets and algae from site to site and back again’.

Alex setting up the algae dialysis bags to deploy on the floating baskets.
Photo: Iain Rudkin

Part way through our campaign we were joined by Simon Armitage, the poet Laureate, and Sue Roberts, BBC radio 4 producer.  Simon and Sue joined us for four days with the goal of creating three half-hour documentaries for BBC Radio 4 which will be broadcast in the autumn.  They joined us for some field work to gain a deeper understanding of what’s really going on in this important part of the world. They were even kind enough to help with some of the greenhouse gas sampling.

Back from a day on the boat. From left to right – Alanna Grant, Simon Armitage, Nathan Callaghan, and Alex O’Brien.
Photo: Alanna Grant

One day in particular stands out for me as being especially memorable. On this day, as we headed by boat towards our intended sampling site, we spotted a polar bear on the shoreline of Blomstrandhalvøya, an island in the middle of the fjord. It was particularly special as this was the first one we’d seen. It was a large male that was walking with pace around the perimeter of the island. We stopped a safe distance away and watched it walking for a while. This experience was elevated from memorable to unforgettable as we sat in silence and listened to Simon poetically narrate this encounter. What a pleasure to share the moment we saw our first polar bear with the poet laureate. Later that same day, we headed towards an area of new icebergs that had recently calved from one of the sea-terminating glaciers in the fjord. We slowly nosed our way into the field of icy boulders, some being as small as pebbles, others being the size of a small building; all in various states of melt. We sat in silence for some time as Sue recorded the sounds of the melting ice. The sound is louder than you would expect it to be and includes various popping, bubbling, and fizzing notes. I could have sat there for hours, happily hypnotised by nature’s playlist. But as mesmerising as it is to listen to, it is also the soundtrack to a merciless countdown to a potentially ice free world and a reminder as to the importance of the science that takes place up here.  I look forward to hearing Simon’s take on this when the programs are aired on radio four in October.

Polar bear on the shoreline of Blomstrandhalvøya.
Photo: Iain Rudkin

Two weeks in and we had said goodbye to Chris and Alex, and were joined by WP1 co-leads, Prof Kate Hendry from BAS, and Prof Bryan Spears from UKCEH. Unfortunately for them, the fresh food supply was running low and the delicious mangos, avocados, and salads were slowly being replaced with tinned fruit, frozen vegetables, and sliced cabbage. With the next ship not due until after we’d left, we had to make do for the next two weeks. Kate’s goal for the trip was to reach eight sites along a transect line down the middle of the fjord, and deploy a CTD at various depths at each of the sites. This involved lowering a CTD and a niskin bottle on a winch to depths of up to 300 meters and winching it back up, by hand. I’ve been reliably informed that, unfortunately for those on the boat, this happened to be the world’s squeakiest winch, which haunts those who had the misfortune to use it to this day. Nevertheless, the team persevered and Kate now has an impressive dataset that has already shown some exciting results.  She also collected water samples at these marine sites for some of the biogeochemistry determinands and collected sediment samples from the bottom of the fjord, over 300 m into the abyss.

Kate on the work boat launching the CTD in the fjord using the winch.
Photo: Iain Rudkin

Bryan’s main task for the campaign was to produce a sediment sample archive across our many catchments and deep-water areas of the fjord. He committed himself to this task with more glee and gusto than I have ever seen from a researcher before. He was quite literally like a kid making mud pies and absolutely loving it. I’ve never seen someone sniffing sediment as if it were an expensive cheese or a fine wine. In the end he was very successful in his task and we left with several kilos of dried marine sediment for use in process experiments back in the UK. This will be opened up to the wider community – hopefully it will save others time and money in their pursuit of the black (sometimes red, sometimes white etc.) gold. Bryan was also a great help to the team overall, always jumping in the help wherever he could, and always doing it with a smile (and even a cheery song on occasion). That is with the exception of when he was wading out from the beach with a bucket, hunting for the salinity gradient with a probe, and overtopped his wellies. Much to the amusement of a nearby curious seal, who he swears he saw laughing maliciously at his misfortune.

Bryan measuring the salinity of the river using a conductivity probe.
Photo: Alanna Grant
The team beside a glacial river.
Photo: Alanna Grant

It wasn’t just seals and polar bears that we spotted, but a plethora of other iconic arctic species as well. We saw several arctic foxes, in their brown summer coats, darting about town chasing goslings, as well as many reindeer which seemed mostly untroubled by human presence. Whilst out on the boat we were treated to sightings of guillemots that weave like spitfires, puffins that look as if they’re perpetually struggling to stay airborne, as well as fulmars, kittiwakes, ivory gulls, arctic skuas and many more. But there was one bird in particular that really made the trip memorable; the Arctic Terns… Whilst being lovely birds to look at with their red lipstick and black cap, they are absolutely vicious. They seemed to take a particular disliking to me, and seemed to always go straight for me every time we walked or cycled past them, even if we were in a group. They did, however, provide endless entertainment as we could watch the unsuspecting tourists being attacked from the comfort of the station window, pleased that I wasn’t the target for once.

An arctic fox exploring our sampling site.
Photo: Alanna Grant
A reindeer in the Bayelva catchment.
Photo: Alanna Grant

With the month drawing to a close and the fieldwork component of the trip complete, we bid farewell to Bryan and Kate who made their way back to the UK laden with a large amount of aqueous scientific treasures. All in all we collected over 1500 samples including water, sediment, greenhouse gas, and eDNA samples which will make an impressive dataset. Nathan and I spent the next three days repacking the kit and equipment back onto the pallets and tidying and cleaning the lab spaces. There was a sense of quiet contentment around the station knowing that the job was complete and had gone as well as it could have. But there was also, for me anyway, a sense of sadness at having to leave this vibrant science community and head back to the real world. Being in Ny Ålesund felt very strange at first; remembering to take your shoes off in every building was difficult and getting used to the strangely early meal times even more so (dinner at 16:50?). But by the end of the month the thought of seeing paved roads and driving to Tesco for the weekly food shop felt absolutely foreign. I feel very fortunate that I was able to experience this place and meet so many talented and diverse scientist from across the world. The Polar Regions are experiencing some of the most rapidly changing environmental conditions in the world and the science that is done here is absolutely vital. This campaign wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication of those back in the UK; Amy Pickard, Mike Bowes, Stephen Lofts, Chris Barry, Justyna Olszewska, Rebecca McKenzie and many others. As well as without the crucial support from boat driving, James Bond stunt double and photography extraordinaire, Iain Rudkin. Thank you to all of the visitors that helped with our sampling throughout the month; Jenny Forster Davidson, Simon Armitage, Sue Roberts, and Jane Francis. It was a pleasure to meet you all and share a gin and tonic with you.

When asked by a friend if this trip had scratched my adventure itch, my reply was ‘it’s only made me itchier’. I think I may have just caught the Polar bug…

A scenic boat ride through recently calved ice bergs.
Photo: Alanna Grant
Testing the pH, dissolved oxygen and conductivity of the water as it melts from the glacier in the background.
Photo: Iain Rudkin

The author of the blog – Alanna Grant. Contributors Alex O’Brien and Bryan Spears from the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

BIOPOLE in the Western Arctic Ocean

Polar oceans export nutrients to the lower latitudes where this export flux can be an important regulator of lower latitude productivity.  In the Arctic Ocean careful analysis of nutrient inputs and outputs suggests that the Arctic is a net exporter of phosphorous and silicate to the North Atlantic but intriguingly not nitrogen with nitrogen inputs to, and outputs from, the Arctic seemingly balanced. The result is a characteristic change to the nitrogen to phosphorous (N:P) ratio found in seawater which gradually increases as ocean waters flow from the Pacific through the Arctic and eventually out into the Atlantic Ocean. Despite considerable uncertainties and limitations of existing datasets nitrogen loss processes occurring in the Western Arctic, particularly within the sediments of the shallow Bering and Chukchi Seas, are known to contribute to the removal of nitrogen and enrichment of phosphorous reported in seawater nutrient measurements. However, the magnitude of this sedimentary nitrogen removal process is insufficient to account for the observed shift in seawater N:P ratios, with several competing explanations presented in the literature as to why this may be. One interesting possibility, and a target of BIOPOLE Work Package 2 (WP2) activities in the western Arctic, is the presence of an additional nitrogen sink operating within the water column.

To address this possibility BIOPOLE WP2 was tasked with measuring bacterial denitrification rates, collecting eDNA/eRNA samples to probe the makeup and function of bacterial communities present in seawater, and to deploy an automated water sampler to collect an annual cycle of seawater nutrient concentrations in water flowing across the remote and seasonally icebound northern Chukchi Shelf. These activities will contribute to wider programme efforts investigating how ecosystem processes can change elemental balances in the northern polar region and to project Milestones i and ii (new observations in polar environments and obtainment of seasonal measurements via autonomous technologies).

Access to the Western Arctic (from the UK at least) is non-trivial but through the supporting efforts of project partners based at the University of Maryland and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, a single berth was secured on the 2023 autumn Arctic ecosystem survey aboard the R.V. Sikuliaq, an ice-class research vessel operated by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Demand for berths was high and the cruise itself was a consortium effort supporting NOAA’s EcoFOCI program (Ecosystems and Fisheries Oceanography) and the NOAA Marine Mammal Lab,  the Distributed Biological Observatory (DBO) programme run from the University of Maryland (project partner), and the Arctic Marine Biodiversity Observation Network (AMBON) and Chukchi Ecosystem Observatory (CEO) projects both run from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (project partner).

The result was an enjoyable cruise with diverse scientific activities ranging from benthic trawls, benthic landers, water sampling, mooring recoveries/deployments, sea-bird and marine mammal observations, and detailed chemical and physical observations across this key Arctic region. Results from BIOPOLE activities will be made available in due course once samples have returned to the UK and have been analysed, but which is expected to be within 6-12 months.

Map of the survey region and sampling locations

Stuart Painter from the National Oceanography Centre 

BIOPOLE in Parliament

On 12 June 2023, BIOPOLE’s Geraint Tarling and Andy Shepherd gave evidence at a hearing called by the All-party Parliamentary Polar Research Sub-Committee exploring UK’s relationship to the Arctic environment. This parliamentary committee is considering the UK’s contribution to the Arctic through scientific research.

Inquiries of this sort start with a call for written evidence, to which BIOPOLE responded with a document submitted in April 2023. The document answered questions around the benefit to the UK of supporting Arctic research activity, how UK institutions can be supported to enhance the UK’s leadership in Arctic science, and what research activities concerning the climate and environment ought to be eligible for UK support through NERC.

Geraint and Andy were invited to the subsequent hearing to expand on this evidence and provide the committee with further insight into Arctic science and its pressing concerns, particularly with regards the scale and rate of Arctic environmental change and our capacity to study it. Among the main issues we raised was the need for UK led programmes making longer-term measurements in the Arctic – laying the foundations for such a programme could be a lasting legacy of BIOPOLE. The committee’s findings are expected to be released in around 6 months from the date of the hearing. 

The BIOPOLE inquiry report is published here.

Geraint Tarling (left) and Andy Shepherd (middle) providing evidence to the All-party Parliamentary Polar Research Sub-Committee (right)

The author of the blog – Geraint Tarling (British Antarctic Survey)

BIOPOLE Goes Live In-Land

One major question in BIOPOLE is whether nutrient delivery from land-based sources is sensitive to climate change? If nutrient loading changes in a warmer world, and importantly, the balance of nutrients entering the sea changes, then the impacts on polar marine ecosystems could be profound. To answer this question requires our research team to track nutrients as they travel from headlands, glacial meltwaters, through rivers and lakes, into estuaries and the sea. Along these paths, many important processes take place. Some may send nutrients to the bed sediments or change their form so that they become more or less available for aquatic life, including algae, bacteria and zooplankton. The BIOPOLE project is designed to harness facilities and expertise across the NERC Centres and our partners to design a monitoring programme capable of capturing these changes in remote Arctic and Antarctic locations. 

The BIOPOLE team have worked over the past few months to develop an approach to measure the sensitivity of major nutrient sources to climate change, in both Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems. They embarked on their maiden ‘land-cruise’ to Loch Etive, Scotland, where the Scottish weather put them to the test.  

Preparing for the campaign. The campaign was designed to prepare the field and lab teams for deployment to our four polar research stations, later in the project. These stations are Ny-Ålesund and the Tana River, in the Arctic, and Rothera and King Edward Point, in Antarctica. The first job was to compile a list of determinants to be measured and to prepare field plans and analytical protocols, equipment and shipping logs. The team will ship most of the equipment they need from the UK to the polar research stations, and back again. So, it is important that we don’t forget anything, but also that we don’t end up with crates of equipment that the field team doesn’t need.

Day one of the Loch Etive field campaign saw discussions on logistics and practicalities of sample collection. The team had previously liaised with the NERC Polar Station Management Team at Ny-Ålesund (their first stop) to scope out the fieldwork. One central challenge is on reducing the volume of water and sediment collected from remote locations whilst maximising the data produced for the wider scientific community. There are, however, other reasons to consider reducing sample volumes that need to be carried across land. Where samples are to be collected on foot from rivers in the Arctic, we will be in polar bear country and will be equipped with firearms. [We have re-named the UKCEH RIB ‘The Sea Bear’ – Ursus maritimus].

Day 2 to 4. Three sub-teams deployed to collect samples from 21 stations around Loch Etive. These stations included major inflows, sampled by foot, and transects along a salinity gradient down the loch, sampled by RIB Sea Bear. This latter survey was interrupted as winds topped 40 MPH, making boat work unsafe. Before the winds picked up, we did manage to sample some of the upper loch, in the hour or two break in the sideways rain. This uncovered a stunning display of ephemeral streams in full flow, and indicated the short-lived nature of nutrient delivery under extreme climatic events – a problem to be covered in our sampling design. Day 4 saw a final outing for RIB Sea Bear on the loch survey. If we didn’t hit this window, the data set would be compromised. It was worth the wait. The team were treated to glorious autumnal weather, calm waters, sea otters, seals and, double rainbows, and, best of all, a full cool box of sample bottles.

Of course, science isn’t all polar bears, double rainbows, and ephemeral streams. The reality is often many hours in the lab. The lab sub-team were based at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), Oban. Samples were dropped off through the week by the field teams for processing. The lab team worked to create a protocol for preparing samples, filtering hundreds of litres of water, and labelling bottles and tubes. This has been captured in one of the finest spreadsheets ever created; to track sample collection, preparation and storage, through to shipping to analytical laboratories in the UK and internationally.

What information will we produce? Our samples will be shipped to various analytical laboratories to produce data on nutrient concentrations and tracers of nutrient sources so they can be tracked as they travel through the loch to the sea. Samples were collected for eDNA analysis, to capture snapshots of the biological communities across the loch. Field and laboratory experiments were trialled to assess interactions between nutrients and suspended sediments and algae, and the major processes acting to alter nutrient delivery from land to sea. In the end, we should know where the nutrients are coming from, how they are transformed as they travel through the loch, and how much of this makes it out to sea. 

What happens next? The team is now working hard to review, refine and revise the protocols, based on experiences from Loch Etive and the data produced, in consultation with our project partners. When everyone is happy, we will publish the protocols on this website. They will form the basis of the land-based field campaigns at the Polar Stations, later in the project.

The authors of the blog – Bryan Spears, Alanna Grant, and Nathan Callaghan from the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology