Our Second Field Season Begins

Eugene, Oregon, USA – Here we go again!

In just a few days B-195-M (our group’s identifier in the US Antarctic Program) will be beginning our trip back to McMurdo Station, Antarctica for the second field season of our National Science Foundation-funded project.

A lot has changed since last year. At this time one year ago we had designed the McMurdo Oceanographic Observatory (MOO) and worked out the major bugs in the system during initial testing in the lab. But the MOO had never been fully assembled under water and many of the components had never been subjected to such a cold, harsh seawater environment.

In early October 2017, while the MOO’s components sat boxed up in a shipping warehouse in California awaiting transport to McMurdo Station, we worried about a million unresolved details.

And, as Principal Investigator (PI), I was spending my nights lying awake, haunted by innumerable problems that might transpire: What could I do to prevent the MOO from being bulldozed by a passing iceberg? Floated away by a raft of anchor ice? Or, attacked by an inquisitive (or lustful) Weddell seal? Moreover, would the sensitive electrical components survive a multi-year deployment in freezing seawater without the possibility for human intervention or repair for months at a time?

One year later and we’re extremely pleased with the outcome. Since mid-November 2017 when, with frozen hands at 21 meters (70 feet) below the ice, we mated the final underwater electrical connections and brought the MOO to life, our groundbreaking scientific installation has actually been humming along just fine.

Under a 3-meter-thick (10 ft) cover of ice, the MOO has now spent almost a full year collecting unprecedented data from the southernmost accessible marine environment in the world!

 

The MOO, including camera, lights, seawater condition sensors and hydrophone was installed on the sea floor in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica in November 2017.

 

The MOO’s camera has been taking photos every few minutes at several-dozen orientation waypoints. Its ocean sensors have been dutifully recording seawater conditions every 90 seconds. And, the MOO’s high-resolution underwater microphone has been continuously recording the Antarctic underwater soundscape at higher resolution than ever before.

In total, about 20 TB (terabytes) of data are sitting on our hard drives at McMurdo Station waiting to be analyzed.

While the MOO’s datasets have already provided a phenomenal contribution to our understanding of one of the coldest marine habitats in the world, we’re even more excited for this coming field season.

Over our next three months spent at 78°S latitude, we’ll finally be able to use the MOO to support our scientific experiments. In providing a real-time record of seawater conditions in McMurdo Sound, the MOO will allow us to test questions about how the antifreeze protein-bearing notothenioid fishes survive the special challenges they face in inhabiting a freezing ocean: Under what ocean conditions do environmental ice crystals invade the fishes’ bodies? How many ice crystals do these fishes harbor inside their bodies? And, can they ever rid themselves of their potentially lethal internal ice burden?

 

A couple of Trematomus bernacchii fishes nestled among sponge-covered cobbles, under ice cover at our Arrival Heights dive site.

 

We expect that by getting a better handle on this particular risk factor, we’ll gain some insight into the challenges and consequences these unique Antarctic inhabitants faced in adapting to their novel, freezing environment.

I’m confident we’ll make some good progress on our science this year. We have a great team lined up for our frigid field season–a welcome mix of experienced old-timers who can get the job done, and fresh-eyed first-timers who’ll bring new insights and different skillsets to the table.

Besides working tirelessly on our science, we’ll do our best to capture some wonderful underwater video, photos and audio samples during our adventures. With these, we hope to help you better understand and appreciate the icy realm hidden beneath the ice in this remote, fascinating, and breathtakingly beautiful part of our planet.

Stay tuned–here on our blog, on Twitter @MOOAntarctica, and on Facebook. We have some special surprises in store for you this season.

Paul Cziko