Searching for a sea change: A closer look
The sun didn’t set the night before and it didn’t rise that morning.
In the white-blanketed sky, it began another 24-hour rotation around the scientists working at the National Science Foundation’s Barrow Arctic Research Center (BARC) in the Northern-most point of the United States: Barrow, Alaska.
ASU biochemistry graduate student Kyle Kinzler woke and readied himself for the day ahead after a night fighting to sleep with the sun shining mercilessly outside, even at midnight. Kinzler slipped on his large winter coat complete with fur-lined hood, over layers of wool and thermal gear. He stepped out into the biting air and surveyed the landscape.
He wondered if they would see any polar bears.
Kinzler joined a team of fellow researchers, assistants and “bear guards” as they readied the equipment for the journey out to sea.
After hitching the sleds to the snowmobiles, the team ventured out over the ocean. One and a half meters of salt-water ice separated the team from the ecosystem thriving below. Kinzler stood on one of the sleds as the driver carefully navigated the entourage over the slippery surface.
In 20 minutes, the team reached their sampling sight for the day. The snowmobile slowed to a halt and the team disembarked.
Before unloading the equipment, the bear guard observed the situation for any threat of disturbance from wildlife. Behind the caravan, one could see the faint tracks of polar bears leading off into the distance traversed by the tracks from snowmobile and sled.
They’re out there somewhere.
But Kinzler’s concern that day was a much smaller organism.
Kinzler traveled to Barrow in May 2013 as part of the Neuer Lab in ASU’s School of Life Sciences. Headed by associate professor Susanne Neuer, the lab expands her research of phytoplankton its role in maintaining the global environment.
“We use our knowledge of phytoplankton and how they are connected in a food web, to investigate what their role is in taking CO2 from the atmosphere,” Neuer says. “And [also] how much is available for organisms that are living in the deeper ocean that are dependent on that food that falls from the surface.”
The bulk of Neuer’s research is based in the warm equatorial waters of the Sargasso Sea. Now, she has expanded her focus to include the frozen waters of the Arctic Ocean.
Kinzler is part of the team, funded by the National Science Foundation, that studies ice samples to understand how phytoplankton function beneath the frozen Arctic surface.
While in Barrow, Kinzler ventured out across the barren tundra and took samples of snow, ice and algae.
In this environment, phytoplankton grows in long strands of algae along the bottom layer of the ice on the surface of the Arctic Ocean.
“We would drill holes and we would either send cameras down to look at the ice, or we would actually drill a whole core,” Kinzler says. A core is a round block of ice, which they would store and bring back to the lab for analysis.
Within the cores, Kinzler says they found that extremely nutrient-rich water flowed into small brine channels within the ice. As the water freezes, the channels remain filled with salt from the seawater. These “high-salinity” channels are the perfect place for organisms, like phytoplankton, to live.
However, phytoplankton also needs sunlight.
Kinzler explains that the snow sitting on top of the ice can block the amount of sunlight reaching the algae. This, in turn, inhibits its ability to photosynthesize and grow.
For weeks, Kinzler alternated between collecting data and samples from the frozen field and analyzing them in the WWII Quonset hut that serves as a research lab. He spent hours with his eyes glued to high school biology-like microscopes as he searched for organisms in the samples of ice and snow.
The expedition ended and Kinzler packed up his specimens to return to the Arizona desert.
He arrived back in the ASU labs with coolers filled with water samples and frozen cultures of phytoplankton. Using higher-caliber microscopes, Kinzler studies the communities of phytoplankton by focusing on diatoms.
Diatoms are one of the most common types of phytoplankton. They are unicellular “producers” within the food chain and are responsible for 45 percent of total oceanic primary production, according to a study conducted by Andrew Yool and Toby Tyrrell, of the National Oceanography Centre Southampton.
There are two types of diatoms present in the Arctic samples. Pennate diatoms have long shells resembling pea pods that surround the cell of the diatom. Centric diatoms have round, cylindrical shells. Kinzler researches the diatoms’ growth process because of their crucial role in the oceanic food chain.
“We look at environmental stresses, what does salinity do as far as growth rates, what does temperature do, light availability, how does it affect growth rates,” Kinzler says.
Back at ASU, Kinzler’s work focuses on counting the amount of each type of diatom in a given sample.
“There’s so much that is changing dramatically up there every year,” Kinzler says. “So we’re trying to get a baseline of what does this community look like over the course of a bloom, are there certain diatoms that really grow a lot faster than others or are there some that don’t.”
In a darkened room in the Life Sciences building, Kinzler sits in a low chair, his eyes fixed in the eyepiece of a microscope and his hand hovering above two rows of metal counters. He alternates between turning the knob to move the slide and clicking on the counters. A warm, chemical smell floats between rooms and bluegrass music plays in the background.
“I really didn’t know anything about diatoms until I started my masters program [and] I didn’t ever really think about algae,” Kinzler says. However, through his work in the Neuer Lab, he has developed such a keen interest that he hopes to turn it into a career. He says his dream job would be to get his pilot’s license and work on planes that fly over bodies of water taking photos of algae blooms growing beneath the waves.
This story is a companion to "Searching for a sea change," published earlier this week. Read it here.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @mmccreary6.