LARISSA - LARsen Ice Shelf System, Antarctica, a NSF-funded project.

LARISSA - LARsen Ice Shelf System, Antarctica, a NSF-funded project.
We are conducting an integrated, multi-disciplinary field program to address the rapid and fundamental changes occurring in the Antarctic Peninsula region as a consequence of the abrupt collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in the fall of 2002. A profound transformation in ecosystem structure and function is occurring in coastal waters of the western Weddell Sea. This transformation appears to be yielding a redistribution of energy flow between chemoautotrophic and photosynthetic production, and to be causing the rapid demise of the extraordinary seep ecosystem discovered beneath the ice shelf, providing an ideal opportunity to test fundamental paradigms in ecosystem evolution.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


3/20/12 – 3/23/12 - In the days since our team’s return from Robertson Island, we’ve been blitzing through a plethora of sampling! With fresh samples of macroalgae from Robertson Island, we quickly went to work isolating, identifying, and preserving our algal specimens for stable-isotope food web studies, taxonomic identification, molecular genetics, and other analyses. As soon as most of the preliminary work with the macroalgae hit the shelves, we arrived at our first benthic sampling station, Station K, by the 21st of March.

Dave Honig of Duke University with a collection of macroalgae from Robertson Island. Image courtesy of Amber Lancaster.

For the time being, heavy sea-ice has prevented the Nathaniel B. Palmer from reaching our primary target area within the Larsen B ice shelf. Thus we have initiated plan B, in which our benthic ecology team will address seafloor community response to ice shelf collapse in the Larsen A embayment, which sustained a major ice-shelf collapse in 1989. We have begun benthic (or seafloor) sampling at our outermost location, Station K. . Here we deployed an instrument called a Blake trawl, which collects lage benthic animals and (and lots of mud) from the seafloor for a defined distance, and then is later hauled on deck for sample processing. We also repeatedly deployed an instrument called a megacorer, which quantitatively samples seafloor sediments and mud-dwelling organisms using twelve tubes (i.e. “cores”) each 10 cm in diameter. Thus, each tube contains many epifauna and infauna (animals that live on the sediment surface, and within it, respectively) with many that are often new to science. Last but not least, our team is also using a system called a “yoyo camera”, which systematically takes pictures of the seafloor and the animals on it by being raised and lowered on a cable, taking a picture every time a weight contacts the seafloor.

Pavica preparing the materials needed for “mud busting” at Station K

A megacorer being deployed off the stern at Station K.

The first Blake trawl was deployed in the wee hours of the 21st of March, and marked the beginning of a slew of sample processing (or “mud busting”, as well call it) on the ships back deck and wet lab. In sub-freezing temperatures and equipped with forceps, the members of the Hawaii team quickly went to work heaving hundreds of pounds of sediment sludge onto a giant sieve table (which is made up of nested sieves with meshes ranging from 2 cm to 2 mm) to separate the megafauna (animals greater than or equal to 2 – 3 cm living on the seafloor) from the rest of the mud. After hours and hours of work, in conditions in which the spray from our wash hoses froze solid on our Mustang suits, encasing us in ice, we finished processing to trawl megafauna. Despite the lack of sunlight and a tropical climate, that night the Aloha spirit could be found persisting near 65º S, 57.8º W.

Mike with a giant sea cucumber, Bathyplotes bongraini, from the Blake trawl.

The following day our team collected another successful Blake trawl, capturing even more animals than last time. Fortunately, we had a few extra hands and worked in the daylight. The trawl sampling was sandwiched between processing of magecores, five of which were collected at Station K. This “mud busting” of megacore samples occurred round the clock for 3 days . Anytime after a megacore deployment is retrieved and placed back on deck, the 12 individual tubes are separated from the megacorer and carried carefully into the processing lab, an aquarium room open the deck. The sediment (mud) in each tube is carefully sliced into precise vertical intervals of 1 to 5 cm and very carefully transferred to sample bottles or plastic bags. Thus, we spend hours very précising cutting “mud pies” from our samples, taking great care not to lose any of this precious deep-sea sediment (no mud fights allows!). These samples will allows us to understand geochemical processes (such feeding by mud eaters) within the sediments, and to quantitatively describe the benthic fauna (i.e. infauna in this case) at various sediment depths. With muddy hands, hair, and clothes, and after multiple days of repetitive processing, our team finished our sampling at Station K happy and satisfied, albeit exhausted.

The Hawaii team picking megafaunal organisms from the table sieve.

Pavica mud-busting!

While everyone was working on >12 hour shifts, with time off used to grab meals and sleep, that’s not to say that we weren’t having fun. In addition to finding some cool marine invertebrates and fish during our sampling, we also ended up running into some of the celebrated Antarctic megafauna. A group of three Emperor penguins off the NBP’s stern, and about 12 penguins off the port side, took great interest in the Nathaniel B. Palmer. Our three aft penguins approaching the ship to within 5 m (15 ft) of the main deck on a bridging ice-floe. Amazing!

Three curious Emperor penguins were spotted not far off the stern of the ship, and slowly approached.

The penguins approached the stern of the Nathaniel B. Palmer to the delight of the scientists and crew.

Monday, March 26, 2012

17-19 March 2012 - Throughout March 17th, we ground through heavy sea ice, making our way south into the Weddell Sea, heading for our work area in the Larsen B embayment. On the day before, we had moved rapidly through the ice-free Prince Gustav Channel to enter the Weddell Sea, one of the coldest bodies of water along the Antarctic continent. This is one of two regions cold enough to form Antarctic bottom water, the densest water in most of the ocean. On entering the Weddell, we quickly encountered sea ice, and our intrepid icebreaker, the Nathaniel B. Palmer (or “NBP”), ground its way through heavy sea ice most of March 17th. The ice was a mixture of new ice formed this late summer season (about 4-6 inches thick), one-year old ice form last fall (2-4 feet thick) and large floes of multi-year ice that can be more than 2 meters thick. Icebergs up to 50 m (165 ft) that had broken off the ice shelves and glaciers in the region loomed over the ship in some areas. The NBP can grind through new and year-old ice, but it is a noisy process, filling the forward parts of the ship, such as the galley were we eat, with a cacophony of roars, bangs, scraping, and thumps as sea ice grates along the metal hull. When the ship is breaking through ice, it is impossible to carry on a conversation in the galley with a ship mate seated next to you. As the ship hits a floe of multi-year ice, there is a loud band, the ship grinds to a halt, and then backs up and rams forward (the “back and ram” icebreaking), or simply circles around thick ice. We stay well clear of icebergs because they can protrude far out under the water, or drop large chunks of ice. Progress through sea ice has been slow, with the ship making 2-4 knots, and often being forced off our desired heading. Work in the frozen Weddell Sea certainly requires patience and flexibility because you often cannot get to a particular location targeted for study.

After a night of raucous ice-breaking, were arrived at the southwest tip of Robertson Island on the morning of 18 March. One of our goals in the LARISSA project is to figure out what food materials are reaching the seafloor in our Larsen B study area. One possibility is that large algae growing in shallow water around the edges of the Weddell sea sink to the seafloor floor to provide food for scavengers such as Antarctic shrimp and sea urchins. Thus, at Robertson Island, Craig and our collaborators from Duke (Dave Honig and Jamieson Clarke) went ashore by Zodiac inflatable boat to sample algae in the island’s shallows. We donned weatherproof Helly exposure suites, and filled a waterproof bag and buckets with sampling gear, drinking water and emergency food (you never know when you might become stranding in Antarctica!). The emergency kit in the Zodiac (a large plastic crate) included tents, more emergency rations, a satellite phones, and other materials. Our shore party also included geologists bent on sampling rocks and servicing an electronic observation station (collecting GPS and weather data) installed on the island two years ago. Our Zodiac boat was operated by two of our Marine Technicians, Buzz and Julian, who steered us through a mile of ice floes past seals and an occasional emperor penguin. We landed on a narrow beach caked with sea-ice and strewn with small icebergs. Most of the coastline of the island was barricaded by sea-ice and bergie bits (small icebergs) making access the shallow water along the beach very difficult

An ice armored beach on Roberston Island- C Smith

We spent four hours on shore, wading in the shallows collecting algae within arms reach, and using a dip net from the Zodiac to sample algae from 3-4 meters depth.

Sampling seaweed in the Robertson Island subtidal - E Hutt

We collected samples of four species of algae for stable-isotope analyses, which will allow us to trace this “food” into seafloor food webs. In the process, our exposure suites leaked, soaking our arms up to our shoulders with frigid (-1.8 C or 29 F), water and we experienced the extreme wind chill of Antarctic islands --- the wind chill was about -25 C (-13F) our entire time on shore, numbing our toes through two pair of heavy woolen socks. Surviving a year in these conditions as did Shackelton’s men on Elephant Island is difficult to imagine! After we collected our seaweed samples, we hiked to the top of Roberston Island (about 200 m, or 650 ft, high) to get the blood flowing back into our toes and fingers. We were treated to a spectacular view looking south into the Larsen B embayment. While extraordinarily beautiful, the view also yielded some disappointing news – our path south into the Larsen B region is blocked by very heavy sea ice and lines of icebergs. Our hopes of getting all the way south to our primary study area appear a bit dimmer!

Craig modeling a Helly suit atop Robertson Island looking south into the ice-clogged Larson B Embayment with the NBP in the background - D Honig)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Thursday, Mar 15th Finally in Antarctica! Our first station is in the Antarctic Sound, a strait at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The working day for the science started early this morning; the first rosette with Niskin bottles and the CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth profiler) was in the water before sunrise to collect water samples to investigate the properties of the water column, such as nutrients, and to look at the pelagic microbes.

Laura and Jackie taking water samples from the Niskin bottles

Unfortunately, we were unable to recover the whale-bone lander yet due to some issues with the gear and poor weather. The thick fog that is engulfing the ship offers very little visibility to spot the lander once it rises from the seafloor to the ocean surface, so the principal investigators chose to postpone this operation until later in the cruise. The extreme climate of Antarctica produces fascinating ecosystems, but also often makes our oceanography sampling very challenging.

As we headed further south, the fog dissipated in the afternoon and we spotted the first iceberg of the cruise, and then many more! We are now sailing through the real polar ocean, with ice floes and icebergs everywhere! We watched Adelie penguins running over the ice floes and sliding on their bellies to run away from us; Minke whales inspecting the waters around the icebergs and skillfully navigating in between them; crabeater seals and the fur seals resting on the ice! What an experience on our first day in the Antarctic!

Adelie penguins on an ice floe

Crabeater seal

Jackie enjoying the view of the icebergs

Our second planned station is the Vega Drift, a rapidly accumulating drift of sediment on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, near Vega Island. The Vega “drift” is formed by current focusing, and is rich with organic matter (yummy to sediment microbes) and and layered sediments (good for reconstructing geological history). We will use a Kasten core to take a sample of sediment up to 6 m long and to give us insights into past processes and environmental conditions in the Antartic Peninsula area over the last 3000 - 5000 y.

Scientists getting ready to take samples of the sediments from the 6-meters long Kasten core (Photo A. Lancaster)

Map of the cruise track starting in Punta Arenas, Chile (at the upper part of the image) and ending on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula (at the lower part of the image) where we are now.
Wednesday, Mar 14th Today, principal investigators from the three science groups (Geology, Cryosphere & Physical Oceanography, and Marine Ecosystems) presented the main objectives and the interdisciplinary science of the LARISSA project. Since we all can get very focused on our own work, we can easily forget the bigger picture, where all the pieces of the puzzle come together to tell the story of the Larsen Ice Shelf glaciers, sediments, and ocean ecosystems; this meeting did a good job to remind us the exciting science behind our Antarctic adventure.

Chief scientist, Maria Vernet of Scripps Institution of Oceanography presenting the objectives of the Marine Ecosystem Group (Photo A. Lancaster)
Tuesday Mar 13th We are in the Drake Passage now, and the weather and the seas are nothing like we expected! It’s sunny outside, temperature 6°C/43°F (wind chill -2.7°C/27°F), with very calm seas and light wind. In fact, some are calling it “Lake Drake!” There is a large high-pressure system covering our entire area, bringing clear skies, 10-knot winds, and only 3-4 foot seas! This kind of weather in the Drake is pretty rare and doesn’t normally last for very long so we are grateful to Neptune to treat us this way! The winds are so weak that there are almost no albatrosses about; They like to glide on the lift provided by strong winds passing over the large Southern Ocean waves in strong winds.

To our surprise, we spotted a lone sailboat coming from the direction of Antarctica. That is the only boat we have encountered so far and could very well be the only one we see during our entire cruise; it would be interesting to know where she is coming from and what stories her crew has to tell.

A lone sailing boat in the Drake Passage

Our Captain Sebastian gives our ETA in the vicinity of the Antarctic continent as tomorrow night and with the first science operation on Thursday morning at 5 am! Everybody on the ship is getting pretty excited!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Monday, March 12th. The ship has been rocky a bit since we left Punta Arenas so many of us have been resting today and spending time up on the bridge, which is definitely the place with the best view on the ship. Today’s views included layers of thick clouds and the mountains of the “Land of Fire” (Tierra del Fuego) in the distance. The officers on the bridge are very kind to let us hang out up there and use the binoculars and wildlife guide books. They are also very knowledgeable about the wildlife of this region. So today we saw a few different species of petrels, such as the giant southern petrel and learned that the big, majestic birds that have been following us around and gliding above the waves are black-browed albatrosses.

Mike looking at the wildlife from the ship’s bridge

Sailing between Tierra del Fuego and Staten Island
Sunday, March 11th. We woke up this morning to rainy and windy weather with even some snow even though it’s still technically summer here! But a summer at 53°S, the latitude of Punta Arenas can be quite a different experience than a summer at tropical 21°N of Honolulu, where we come from. A low-pressure storm system brought overcast, strong winds and choppy waters into Punta Arenas and the Strait of Magellan, promising some pitching and rolling even before we reach Cape Horn at the tip of South America.

After finishing several days of fueling, we finally left Punta Arenas in the afternoon to sail eastward through the Strait of Magellan towards the South Atlantic Ocean. Most of tomorrow we will be sailing south along the east coast of Tierra del Fuego, protected by its land mass from the Southern Ocean westerlies. Once we enter the Drake Passage, the place where the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans meet and the westerlies can build seas for thousands of miles, we may expect much rougher seas.

Today has been a busy day for us. We had a megacore tutorial in the morning, led by the experienced marine technicians, Julie and Jeremy. A megacore is a sampling device that consists of twelve PVC tubes (‘cores’) that are used to collect very high quality samples of marine sediments. It is important that we learn how to remove the tubes from the megacore properly without disturbing the sediment-water interface so we could study the sediment fauna and the microbes living in the mud. As soon as we reach our research stations in the Weddell Sea, we promise to show you the photos of the megacore in action!

Megacore training (Photo by M. Cape)

Our first station will be in the Antarctic Sound, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, where we pan to recover the whale-bone lander that Craig (UH Manoa) and graduate student David Honig from Duke University deployed two years ago. To make sure we are all prepared and know our tasks for sampling the fauna that colonized the whale bones, we had a meeting in the afternoon in which David and Craig familiarized us with the sampling procedure and gave us information on the science behind it. We expect to find new species of bone-eating worms and other animals that require whale bones as a habitat and food source on the seafloor.

The lander consists of a metal frame to which the whale bones are attached; it dropped to the seafloor where it remains for 1-2 yr, attracting colonization by worms, crustaceans and microbes. The whale-bone-associated fauna is very specialized to extract the organic matter out of the bones and resembles the fauna of other chemosynthetic habitats, such as cold seeps and hydrothermal vents. This system is thus suitable to explore a number of broader scientific questions. But we will come back to this in more detail once we recover the bones and the associated fauna! It appears that even after two years at the sea floor, the whale bones could “treat” us with a quit unpleasant smell, but that is not going to distract us from doing science!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Meeting outside Verdemar Gym with our Punta Arenas friend, Juan Pedro Cuevas Cvetkovic, for a game of basketball.

3/8 – 3/10 -- Perhaps not everyone rubbed the brass toe of the Tierra del Fuegan. Our fuel issues have delayed our departure until the afternoon of March 11th. We have used the time for cruise planning meetings, and to have one last basketball game ashore. Pavica constructed her hula hoop, which she will use to maintain peak fitness while at sea! We had a last evening meal ashore; on our return to the ship in the evening, Commerson’s porpoises played around the ship in the moonlight, giving us a preview of the abundant marine mammals we should see at in the Southern Ocean.

Pavica busting out the hula hoop!

Getting ready for life aboard the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP)

Craig and Jackie (the two at left) checking in for their ECW issue. Good spirits all around!

3/5/12 -- Our UH team woke early on the 5th to a hearty breakfast in our hostal and a discussion of ship loading logistics. We then headed down to the USAP warehouse near the ship to be issued our USAP Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) clothing. Very warm clothing, including thermal underwear, insulated pants, down parkas with fur-lined hoods, balaclavas, multi-layered waterproof gloves, heavy woolen socks and steel-toed boots are absolutely essential (especially for thin-blooded Hawaiian residents!) for our work in Antarctica. We will be working during the Antarctic “summer” and “fall”, but in the Weddell Sea, the term “summer” is merely relative. We expect to be in sea ice and temperatures below – 10 C (14 F) for the whole cruise, with wind chill dipping below – 30 C (-22 F). The clothing-issue station was busy with 15 or more scientists trying on their ECW gear. Getting the right-sized gear is very important since we will be working in this garb for >12 h per day “on the ice.”

The USAP logo on an ECW parka.

After our ECW clothing issue, we went to the NBP to check and load our oceanographic gear stored in Punta Arenas from previous cruises. We also inventoried the long list of supplies shipped down from the USA specifically for this cruise. All seemed to be in order, so we then organized and labeled our lab supplies, and began securing (i.e., tying down) our lab equipment for the potentially rough crossing of the Drake Passage. We also set our watches: the Benthic group will work in 12 hour watches of 3 people each. Antarctic research opportunities and ship time are so precious that the ship must conduct science 24 h a day. Science never sleeps!

3/6/12 – We moved out of the Hostal La Avenida and aboard the NBP by 1400 h on the 6th. The rest of the day was occupied with loading and securing of gear and supplies, and buying personal supplies in town for the long cruise. You don’t want to run out of shampoo or toothpaste half-way through the cruise; there are no supermarkets in Antarctica! We finished the day with a pickup basketball game with our Punta Arenas friends. We need to get in shape for the physical challenges of Antarctica!

3/7/12 – The highlight of the day was our ship-safety meeting, where we donned our PFD’s (Personal Flotation Devices), extreme cold immersion suits (popularly called “Gumbi” suits) , and had an abandon-shop drill piling into the lifeboats. The covered life boats appear to be seaworthy, but are very cramped and stuffy. They certainly would bob around like corks so let’s hope we never have to use them!
To day’s lowlight was that our departure will be delayed some days due to fuel issues.

Paulo and Craig heading towards the NBP.

Michael D. (our benthic team member) and Mike McCormick (from Hamilton College) modeling their Gumbi suits during the NBP safety meeting. They are ready to leap into frigid Antarctic waters.


3/2 – 3/5/12 -- After more than a year of planning, we are beginning our second major research cruise of the LARISSA project to the Weddell Sea. We conducted our first major LARISSA cruise in 2010, but unusually heavy sea ice blocked our southward path into the Weddell Sea, just as it did for Shackleton long ago on the Endurance. Satellite image of the Weddell Sea region suggest that our luck with sea ice may be better this year.

The LARISSA cruise scientists hail from around the world; we have researchers and students from USA, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, South Korea, and the UK. The 6-person contingent from the University of Hawaii (Craig, Laura, Pavica, Michael, Jackie and Paulo), also called the “Benthic Group”, includes three of these nationalities, reflecting the truly international flavor of Antarctic research. The term “benthic” means “of or relating to the seafloor” which is the habitat-type we study.

It has been a very long trip for the “rainbows” from UH to Punta Arenas, Chile, our embarkation port for the cruise. The trip involved 29 to 42 hours of air travel, depending on the route taken, and invariably involves two overnight flights. If you want to work in Antarctica, you must relish long air travel and be able to sleep in an economy seat!

The Magellan statue in the Plaza De Armas of Punta Arenas. Tradition holds that all seafarers misth rub the shiny right big toe of the Tiera del Fuegan for good luck at sea. We all rubbed the toe to insure good luck for our crossing the Drake Passage, the body of water between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula. The Drake is known as the roughest body of water in the world.

The UH team arrived in Punta Arenas airport on March 4, and were whisked to our hotel, Hostal La Avenida, by agents from AGUNSA, the agency working with the U.S. Antarctic Program to support cruise logistics. The La Avenida is a typical Chilean hostal, with gracious hosts, a hearty breakfast (including “heuvos revueltos”, or scrambled eggs), and a lounge filled with well-worn antique artifacts. The owner is of Croatian descent, and as always enjoyed speaking Croatian with Pavica, our Croatian graduate student, and Craig, our Principle Investigator.

The "Hostal De La Avenida"

After a short nap and a stroll down to the pier to view the RVIB (Research Vessel Ice-Breaker) Nathaniel B. Palmer, our home for the next 40+ days in the Antarctic ice, we all met at the restaurant Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn) to grab eat and meet-up with fellow research cruise participants. After dinner, we returned to our Hostal, for a luxurious night’s sleep in a real bed!

Our research vessel, the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP) tied along the pier in Punta Arenas. This is a rare windless night in the Strait of Magellan.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Another long cruise ahead of us!

Satellite image showing sea ice coverage around the Antarctic Peninsula.
In order to plow through the ice to get to our sampling sites we have to rely on the Ice-Breaker Research Vessel NB Palmer.
We will bring news from another great adventure soon!