SD033 crew and science party at one of the sea ice stations

BIOPOLE Southern Ocean Cruise 1 Successfully Completed

British Antarctic Survey recently led the highly successful BIOPOLE Southern Ocean Cruise I (Nov-Dec 2023), which was the first ‘formal’ scientific voyage of the RRS Sir David Attenborough (SD033). Taking place over 10 days in an otherwise logistic-heavy six-week schedule, BIOPOLE I was the first funded scientific project undertaken on our new research vessel. The objectives of this cruise addressed a range of Tasks under Work Packages 1-3. It sought to understand the role that annual sea ice retreat plays in setting the conditions for the spring bloom and how this bloom acts to draw down carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the deep ocean. In addition, the fortuitous placement of the A23a megaberg allowed us to undertake opportunistic sampling of how the colossal chunk of the Filchner ice shelf, first calving in 1986, is modifying the physical and biogeochemical properties of the surrounding ocean as it moves northwards. This ‘encounter’ with the world’s largest iceberg and the associated drone footage also generated massive media interest across the globe.

BIOPOLE I was undertaken by an 11-person science team, including BIOPOLE scientists Andrew Meijers (Principal Scientific Officer, physics), Nadine Johnston (ecosystems), Gabi Stowasser (ecosystems), Alex Brearley (gliders), Petra ten Hoopen (data manager), and BIOPOLE PhD student Laura Taylor (biogeochemistry), brilliantly supported by BAS Antarctic Marine Engineering, IT, data and lab management personnel, during an intense 10-day period in early December. The small team was ably backed up by significant shore-based support, both for glider piloting but also troubleshooting, sample and data processing. The survey section stretched across the rapidly retreating ice edge from the northwest of the Powell Basin to well into the Weddell Sea and 100% pack ice; and back out again. Over 1640 individual water samples were taken from the more than 30 CTDs, along with 10 Mammoth and almost 30 Bongo net deployments. The voyage also deployed three autonomous gliders, including two capable of novel under-ice navigation. These presently remain in the water  following the development of the spring bloom and further retreat of the ice, and are providing greater spatio-temporal context to the ship-based process study.  Additionally, personnel were craned onto the sea ice to collect sea ice cores in support of BAS PhD projects, and a mooring rescued at short notice from the path of A23a.

SD033 crew and science party at one of the sea ice stations

BIOPOLE I’s objectives were to determine the dynamics, biogeochemical composition and structural change in the upper water column as the ocean moves seasonally from being fully ice covered to fully exposed, as well as determine the structure and composition of the spring phytoplankton bloom and associated mesozooplankton community, particularly the copepod Calanoides acutus. The emphasis on copepods is part of the core BIOPOLE objective of quantifying the lipid component of the biological carbon pump. Over the course of their development, C. acutus develop a large carbon-rich lipid sac, primarily to fuel their metabolism and aid buoyancy during their winter diapause (a form of hibernation used to survive low food levels and avoid predation) at depths of (potentially) up to 2500 m.  This deep diapause acts to transport carbon from the atmosphere to the deep ocean, but this transport has never been quantified despite the vast biomass that copepods represent.

Using a combination of respiration experiments together with investigations of their lipid sac concentration and size, population structure, distribution, and abundance, we can determine how much carbon this species is capable of transporting to the deep ocean, and its influence on nutrient recycling in the upper water column. The results of this cruise will be complemented by work carried out in the austral summer of 2022/23 onboard RRS Discovery (DY158) and a further BIOPOLE cruise in the austral autumn of Feb/Mar 2025 onboard RRS Sir David Attenborough where the late season condition of copepods will be assessed.

Despite fears of ‘first cruise’ teething issues the ship and personnel performed near perfectly.  The SDA demonstrated its great capabilities; switching speedily between logistics and science, and easily handling challenging ice conditions, all whilst providing an unprecedented level of comfort for expeditioners!  As ever a massive thank you must go to the officers and crew of the SDA, for delivering successful science with enthusiasm and skill, as well as to the science and support party who pulled together and supported one another at all times to produce some excellent and exciting new data.

BIOPOLE also attracted extensive media coverage during this cruise. The opportunistic science carried out at megaberg A23a had a high media profile, with the article initially in BBC News online leading to a number of further interviews by the global press of a number of scientists on board. These included lengthy interviews with Andrew on the BBC news channel and news hour as well as CBS streaming news, Laura on CBC News Canada, and Alex on CNN’s Tik Tok channel! Nadine gave interviews on the BIOPOLE 1 cruise and A23a on BBC Science in Action, BBC Inside Science, and BBC’s World tonight. Nadine also participated in STEM learning’s 2023 Protecting Our Planet Day Protecting Our Ice Session which was led by BAS PhD student Rosanne Smith and broadcast live from the RRS SDA and Rothera Research Station, and viewed by 54, 696 people (51,600 young people and 3, 096 adults).

Cruise track of SD033, with the inset showing the location of BIOPOLE I science across the sea ice edge

The authors of the article – Andrew Meijers, Nadine Johnston, Laura Taylor, Gabriele Stowasser, Alexander Brearley, and Petra ten Hoopen from British Antarctic Survey

Meet the Team

Gabriele Stowasser

  • Please introduce yourself.

I am a Marine Ecologist working within the Ecosystems team at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. Over the last 15 years I have mainly worked on the trophic relationships in polar marine ecosystems and the marine ecosystems of the British Overseas Territories. I am interested in the spatial and temporal functioning of marine food webs and use a combination of biochemical analytical methods to identify key trophic linkages in the pelagic and benthic realms of the ocean. In recent years I have also been involved in work investigating the role of zooplankton and fish in the carbon cycling of the ocean. I divide most of my time between participating in cruises and analysing samples in the laboratory here in Cambridge.

  • What do you do within BIOPOLE and what have you enjoyed about BIOPOLE so far?

In BIOPOLE I am part of WP2 which focuses on biological processes that contribute to the carbon transport into the deep ocean. In November last year I had the good fortune to be part of the first BIOPOLE cruise. With a fantastic team on board, we set out to determine the dynamics, biochemical composition and structural change in the upper water column in the northern part of the Weddell Sea as the ocean moves seasonally from being fully ice covered to fully exposed. My part of the cruise was managing the deployment of our fishing nets to sample the meso-zooplankton community associated with the spring phytoplankton bloom.  

  • Tell us about a skill or trait unique to you that you would like to share?

When I am not at sea or in the office I like to go hiking and enjoy the music and theatre that Cambridge and London have to offer.  

Gabriele Stowasser from British Antarctic Survey

Draft infographic illustrating the range of modelling and observational activities being undertaken through BIOPOLE.

BIOPOLE Sets up Modelling-Observations Working Group

The Modelling-Observations Working Group (WG) was established following the first BIOPOLE annual meeting to enhance the links between the modelling work and observational campaigns. Regular meetings between modellers at NOC and BAS had been taking place since the start of the project to ensure a synergy in modelling effort across the institutes. However, there was a clear need for an equivalent forum for the exchange of ideas and information between modellers and observationalists in the BIOPOLE community, hence the Modelling-Observations WG was formed. The WG now involves 19 members from all four work packages with representatives from NOC, BAS, CEH, and Exeter University. Meetings of the full WG currently take place approximately every 6 months, with more focussed monthly meetings targeting specific work packages or work streams.

The main aims of the WG are as follows:

  • Identify links between modelling efforts and encourage collaboration.
  • Discuss data needs of modelling efforts and identify sources (databases or field campaigns).
  • Identify data gaps to inform targeted data collection and fieldwork planning.
  • Identify opportunities for integrating modelling efforts with observational data to inform interpretation of key processes.

Contributing to the last of these aims, collaborative work involving NOC modellers and biological oceanographers is ongoing to understand the processes involved in generating regions of de-oxygenation in the Chukchi Sea, which were identified in the recent Chukchi Sea cruise. Such regions may impact the regional ecosystem and dependent fisheries and it is important to understand the underlying physical and biogeochemical processes.

One of the key outputs of the WG so far has been the development of new BIOPOLE infographics that capture the range of modelling activities being undertaken and how they link to the observational campaigns. Drawing on Jen Freer’s creativity and mastery of PowerPoint, two draft designs have been developed; the first is targeted at a general audience (Figure 1) whilst the second provides a more detailed picture of the modelling work and is suitable for a more specialist audience. The draft designs may be found on the BIOPOLE shared drive in the Modelling-Observations WG directory, and we would welcome feedback from the BIOPOLE community. The intention is to produce infographics that broadly follow the design of the BIOPOLE concept graphic. The designs will be professionally produced and will be available for use in posters, talks, and other promotional activities.

Figure 1: Draft infographic illustrating the range of modelling and observational activities being undertaken through BIOPOLE.

The author of the article – Emma Young (British Antarctic Survey)

Communicating and Connecting to Our Science via Poetry

Back in 2022, I had the pleasure of attending a few poetry workshops at the British Antarctic Survey. These were hosted by the then poet-in-residence, Elizabeth Lewis-Williams. I soon learned that poetry was not only a great way to tell stories, communicate scientific research and inspire others. Poems can also help us to re-connect to our own research and the wonders of the ocean, something that is not always easy to do when the challenges it faces (and academic pressures we face) so often dominate our conversations. 

With Elizabeth’s encouragement, I wrote a poem, A Tale of Light and Fear, which tries to capture some of that wonder. It is set in the Southern Ocean and tells the story of vertical migration and the drivers of this behaviour: Light (creating food-rich, sun-lit surface waters and a darker, deeper twilight zone) and Fear (of being seen by a predator). The daily rhythm of the sunrise and sunset is mirrored by the rise and fall of the migrators, yet in the polar regions there is an additional complexity: extreme seasonality. When the sun departs, many polar species of zooplankton spend the entire winter at depth, surviving off of energy stores they have accumulated in the summer.  

Whether happening on a daily or seasonal scale, these movements by individual animals culminate in the transport of carbon to depths where it will remain locked up for centuries. Gaining a better understanding of this seasonal migration is one of BIOPOLE’s key objectives: can we better quantify this behaviour in the Southern Ocean? And what impact does it have on the global ocean carbon cycle? 

The poem is now published in the latest edition of Antarktikos, an annual art-science publication founded by the artist and explorer Esther Kokmeijer and is focused on Antarctica. This second issue has the theme of “Light and Shadow” and is divided into three parts “Into the Cosmos”, “On the Continent” and “Into the Depths”.  Continuing this collaboration with Elizabeth, and joining forces with JETZON, we are running a series of poetry workshops in early 2024. Developed for ECRs, we hope that these will be fun, friendly and inclusive spaces for more researchers to explore how poetry can be used both to reconnect with and to communicate science. 

The author of the article – Jennifer Freer (British Antarctic Survey)

A Tale of Light and Fear

Jennifer Freer

By September the Sun is rising.

As if returning from a long meditation

in Hawaii

or Greece.

Her gift is warm light

which thaws the old routine

to say the least.

Freed from an icy cell

the phyto-plankton

or floating fixers

fix new energy

inside their own glass shell.

Dawn is light and growth and death

sun up — inhale —

one more breath.

Dusk is darkness and safe respite

sun down — exhale —

out of sight.

Her rhythm echoes

hundreds of metres below

in bands of dwindling light

called isolumes.

These fall as She rises

and rise as She falls

minute by minute

shifting the limits

of light and fear.

A lightscape of fear

for the zoo-plankton

or floating wee beasties.

They fear eyes with teeth

lying in wait

for that one ill-timed move

Up

To the vital bloom.

To the deadly bait.

Dawn is light and growth and death

swim down — exhale —

one more breath.

Dusk is darkness and safe respite

Swim up — inhale —

out of sight.

Their ascent begins as the light goes out.

A migration of millions of millions.

Jellies drift

pteropods fly

copepods hop and worms writhe.

Fish and krill of all stages and size

arrive.

To feast and be feasted upon.

To live and to die!

To scatter Sun’s energy

far and wide.

The dead pass it on

the rest respire it below

a living-breathing-carbon-flow.

From sunbeam to seabed

via millions of millions of

invisible breaths.

Dawn is light and growth and death

sun up — swim down —

one more breath.

Dusk is darkness and safe respite

Swim up — sun down —

out of sight.

By March the Sun is leaving.

As if on her own migration

or pilgrimage North

to Alaska.

Her gift is cold silence

which they’ll thank her for

eventually.

For it’s in the dim of winter

when there’s no way up

only through

that they realise just what they’re made of

what riches

they never knew.

Meet the Team

Aidan Hunter

  • Please introduce yourself.

I’m an ecological modeller working with the Ecosystems team at British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. After a Masters in mathematics I applied for various environmental research roles, including modelling the fluid dynamics of wind turbine arrays, but eventually landed a marine science PhD in fishery statistics and modelling. This involved researching fishery-induced changes to the growth and maturation of commercially important species and developing a novel fish stock assessment model. My work has since focussed on fish food: plankton, particularly in the polar regions. I’ve developed a range of marine ecology models including an end-to-end ecosystem model, trait-based copepod model, and Lagrangian (particle-tracking) size-structured phytoplankton model. As part of my work with each of these, I devised numerical methods of tuning model parameters to produce statistically optimum fits to multiple data sets – making the models match observed reality. My favourite way of doing this is via Bayesian methods.

  • What do you do within BIOPOLE?

Within BIOPOLE, I’m part of WP2, working to create species distribution models to simulate how polar copepod’s horizontal and vertical distributions respond to environmental conditions. Of particular interest is a natural carbon storage process called the ‘lipid pump’, that is, the vertical transport of carbon during seasonal diapause when copepods overwinter in deep water. My models will simulate present-day vertical carbon transport associated with diapausing copepod species and, with reference to high-resolution climate forecasts courtesy of the PolarRES project, predict changes to the lipid pump under potential future climate storylines. My work so far has involved finding and collating as much polar copepod data as I can and using it to estimate parameters useful for other BIOPOLE modellers. Though a necessary first step, data wrangling isn’t what I most enjoy. I’m really looking forward to getting properly stuck in to the actual modelling, and have been contemplating adopting Bayesian methods for this work.

  • Tell us about a skill or trait unique to you that you would like to share?

I spend (too) much of my free time in summer juggling – six balls on a very good day. If you’re in Cambridge and the weather’s nice we can take some paraffin to the park and throw fire clubs, catching is optional. I also enjoy much merriment in the many fine old pubs Cambridgeshire has to offer.

Aidan Hunter from British Antarctic Survey

Encouraging the Next Generation of Polar Biologists at Big Biology Day

On a sunny Saturday in October, BIOPOLE team member Jen Freer took part in the Big Biology Day at Hills Rd Sixth Form College in Cambridge. Along with others from the British Antarctic Survey, this exciting event provided a wonderful chance to engage with people of all ages, expertise, interests and backgrounds, as well as inspire young people to pursue careers in polar science and exploration.

Hosted by Cambridge Biologists, BBD has grown into one the largest free-to-attend festivals in the UK exclusively dedicated to the biological sciences. The event’s primary focus is to provide an up-close and personal experience with biology and for visitors from all different backgrounds to meet and interact with scientists.

We provided hands-on opportunities for visitors to learn about the incredible biodiversity of marine fauna in the Southern Ocean, from animals adapted to live around hydrothermal vents, to the mighty krill and the copepod crustaceans we are investigating for BIOPOLE. It was also great to share stories of our varied career paths, careers advice, the diverse activities we undertake as polar scientists, and the incredible experiences a career in polar science and operations can give you.

Thank you to the hard-working BAS team who volunteered their time, and to everyone who came out to talk to us. See you next year, Big Biology Day!

The author of the blog – Jen Freer (British Antarctic Survey)

BIOPOLE at Bluedot 2023

A team of around 20 plucky BAS scientists showcased our research, equipment, and facilities at bluedot, a family-oriented, science themed music festival held at Jodrell Bank telescope array in Manchester. Consistent rain throughout the long weekend turned the fields into a quagmire – I saw children sink past their knees in mud – but the conditions could not deter us nor 20,000 curious revellers keen to learn about polar science. Though perhaps some of them were more interested in sheltering under our big marquee! The fantastic BAS tent was a top attraction, giving headline act, Leftfield, a run for their money. Preparing our tent on arrival took a fair bit of work, but we all chipped and did it in jig time. The real work followed over the next three days speaking with the public about our exhibits, including models of Antarctic research stations and the Southern Ocean seabed; glacier ice containing bubbles from an ancient atmosphere; a large field tent and supplies for enduring Antarctic winter weather, with cosy clothing for children, their parents, and even some Galactic Empire stormtroopers to dress up in for photos; sophisticated gliders for autonomous sampling and an old-school net for hauling up zooplankton; and, at the polar ecology attraction where Laura and I presented the BIOPOLE project, seabird tracking tags and lots of preserved animals including krill and, the star of the show, a giant Antarctic sea spider.

There was lots of public interest in BIOPOLE, from children, parents, students, half-cut scallywags, and a few other marine scientists – everyone really. As BIOPOLE is such a wide-ranging project we could discuss many aspects of ocean science so, even though immediately grabbing people’s attention to a heavily diagrammatic poster wasn’t always easy, it never took long for our audience to discover something they were keen to learn about. The expeditions and in-situ sampling attracted some, while others were more enthused by ecosystem connections from nutrient inputs to the planktonic community, links to the larger animals that depend on them, and how environmental change modulates the whole system. A few people were most interested in how the project is funded – hmm, I don’t know why either. My stand-out memory from the three days of chatting about BIOPOLE, and ocean science in general, was getting schooled on marine zoology by a six-year-old boy! He knew it all and left me pretty much speechless. Each time I mentioned some animal or ocean process he leapt in to teach me a lesson about it. Well, after that humbling experience I was relieved to retreat into the music festival to dance in the rain late into the night. It was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend of science communication and festival exploits, a great mix of work and play.

The author of the blog – Aidan Hunter (British Antarctic Survey)

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.

RRS Sir David Attenborough Sea Trials and Media Trip

In early July the RRS Sir David Attenborough set sail from Edinburgh to the North Sea to conduct sea trials ahead of its maiden science cruise in Nov-Dec: BIOPOLE Southern Ocean Cruise 1 which will be led by Andrew Meijers! Hugh Venables (BAS) is part of the trials team for its duration (until mid-August), providing expertise on the CTDs and autonomous platforms (including gliders). Nadine Johnston (BAS) also joined for the first few days of the trials, taking the opportunity to step through some net deployment logistics (to collect zooplankton), including deployment of the mammoth net (which will be trialed through the ship’s ‘moonpool’).

These few days included the first ever media trip at sea to show journalists the science capability of the ship, to highlight the science it will do this season for BIOPOLE, as well as a trial of a new Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO). The ships officers and crew (and media) also came along to a presentation on BIOPOLE. Fortuitously, the officers and crew on board, ‘The Giants’ (named after an Antarctic dog sledging team), together with Captain Matthew Neill, will also be supporting our Nov-Dec cruise, so it was a fantastic opportunity to familiarize them with our programme and its goals. If the HVO trials are successful, there is a high possibility that our science cruise will be powered by HVO – but the decision is yet to be made – fingers crossed!

Coverage by the media (including BIOPOLE) include articles in Carbon BriefThe Times and New Scientist (these are both behind a paywall), and  Shipping Technology Magazine. There is also a New Scientist video on You Tube. Many thanks to everyone involved, great to see the BIOPOLE flag flying!

The authors of the blog  – Nadine Johnston, Hugh Venables, Geraint Tarling, and Andrew Meijers from British Antarctic Survey

Meet the Team

Petra ten Hoopen

I am a Scientific Data Manager at the UK Polar Data Centre at the British Antarctic Survey. Before joining BAS, I have spent ten years in fundamental science working in several countries on plant hormonal pathways and stress response and then moved to a data-focussed profession. For the last ten years I work with marine data, specifically genomic data at EMBL-EBI and environmental data at BAS. In my current role, I archive, publish and integrate UK-funded polar marine data, develop databases, collaborate with other data professionals on developing the data publishing infrastructure and engage with national and international communities, such as the NERC Environmental Data Service, Southern Ocean Observing System, Polar Data Forum or Research Data Alliance.

In BIOPOLE I am the data management lead ensuring that BIOPOLE data are FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable). I coordinate the development and implementation of a roadmap for long-term preservation of data from this large multidisciplinary project. I also take responsibility for the BIOPOLE data webpages, data management training and visualisation of BIOPOLE fieldwork for stakeholders and will support the BIOPOLE Antarctic cruise on the RRS SDA.

It is a privilege to work in the BIOPOLE multicultural community of friendly and highly skilled professionals and I enjoy getting to know people in the team.

I like plants, drawing their shapes, studying their physiology, learning about their impact on human history, taking care of them in my garden, simply having them around me, so won’t volunteer for a mission to Mars.

Petra ten Hoopen from British Antarctic Survey