Science for Everyone

Travel Log: Caitlin Cleaver, "Cold Corals in Hot Water" – An Expedition to the Western Peninsula of Antarctica

Hurricane Island Director of Science and Research Caitlin Cleaver. 

You may be asking yourself how Caitlin Cleaver, HICSL Director of Science & Research ended up on a month-long research cruise to Palmer Station in Antarctica…. Well, let’s just say, I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! Basically, I am serving as “extra hands” to help with the field work and experimental setup for Dr. Rhian Waller’s project, funded by the National Science Foundation, entitled: “Cold Corals in Hot Water: investigating the physiological responses of Antarctic coral larvae to climate change stress.”

For some background – the Western Antarctic Peninsula, where we will be working, is experiencing some of the most rapid climate changes in the world which is evident from the retreating glaciers, snow and ice loss, and ice shelf collapses.

The two major questions this project seeks to answer are:

  • How will Antarctic corals cope with climate change?
  • Will coral larvae be able to develop normally under conditions predicted for the next 100 years?

To begin testing these questions, we will collect adult individuals of the species Flabellum impensum, a scleractinian coral that is solitary and found on mud bottom. We will spend three days trawling from the Laurence M. Gould (a 230’ NSF research vessel) to collect bottom water and the coral for the experiments. At Palmer Station, we will dissect the adult coral and extract their living larvae to be used in a month long climate change experiment – larvae will be placed in treatments replicating 1 to 4 *C increases of water temperature; these temperature increases represent the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predictions from three different possible climate change scenarios (B1, A1B, & A2).

The team includes: 

Dr. Waller: A tenure-track professor at the University of Maine, School of Marine Sciences based at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, ME. She specializes in deep-sea coral biology and has worked all over the world including Antarctica, the Arctic, Chile, and Alaska to name a few.

Dr. James “Jay” Lunden: A post-doc working in Dr. Waller’s lab. He received his Ph.D. from Temple University and spent three months at McMurdoh Field Station during the last field season. He brings important logistical experience having participated in a previous Antarctic field expedition.

Maggie Halfman: A senior in the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine. She is majoring in marine science with an earth and climate science minor. She’s worked in Dr. Waller’s lab for two summers and will analyze data collected during a biological oceanography transect on the Western Antarctic Peninsula for her senior capstone project. In addition, Maggie would like to explore the prominence and characteristics of a deep, warm water mass that contributes heat to the Antarctic shelf and may be facilitating glacial melt.

The team arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile after 36 hours of travel, which started on Saturday morning, October 17th. We drove from Brunswick, ME to Portland then caught a bus from Portland to Logan International Airport in Boston, MA. Flew from Boston to Miami, FL and then from Miami, FL to Santiago, Chile. We had an 8-hour layover in Chile before boarding our third plane for Punta Arenas. The landscape changed drastically as we flew south – Santiago is a large, sprawling city of 5.1 million - then we briefly stopped in Puerto Monte and finally reached Punta Arenas which looks to be windswept grasslands or scrub with vast ocean stretching to the south. When we arrived at our hotel around 7:30 pm (Chile is an hour ahead of the east coast), we got news that the Laurence M. Gould (affectionately known as “the Gould”), our vessel couldn’t dock due to high winds – it was sitting just off the pier waiting for the winds to die down.  Later that evening, while we were having dinner, we saw a number of people with Palmer Station t-shirts with logos of the US Antarctic Program and found out that the vessel had been able to dock and the crew able to disembark. Many of the crew had been at Palmer Station since the end of March having spent the last 7 months “on the ice.”

On Monday, we went down to the dock to tour the Gould, check to make sure the glassware and other science equipment that Maggie and Jay had shipped arrived in Chile in one piece, and pick up our issued gear. We spent an hour trying out out our issued gear just to make sure it fit. We were issued rubber boots, snow boots, flannel pants, insulated bibs, non-insulated bibs, a non-insulated rain jacket, a parka, fleece hat, fleece neck-warmer, rubber gloves with liners, glove liners, leather gloves, wool gloves, ski goggles with a spare lens. We were also able to get an extra pair of rubber gloves and insulated Carhart overalls. Really hoping all those layers will keep us warm while we work on deck to sort the trawls!

Issued extreme cold weather gear. 

The Laurence M. Gould is a 230’ ship outfitted with two wet labs, dry lab space, a computer room, microscope room, galley, laundry room, lounge, dorm space, the wheelhouse, an aquarium room with a grated floor, large door to the deck, and flowing seawater so you can rinse and sort catch off the deck if the weather is too rough to do the sorting directly on deck. Pretty excited to call it home for the next week and a half!

Tuesday we started moving on board and we’re shipping out by Thursday – stay tuned!

Our vessel: the Laurence M. Gould AKA “the Gould”.  

Subscribe in a reader