Sunday, November 7, 2010

Scientists to study the Arctic with $1Million National Science Foundation grant

 — It’s 86 degrees Fahrenheit and marine scientist Ken Dunton is kicked back in shorts and a T-shirt discussing how he thinks organic matter such as bark, leaves and twigs is affecting coastal lagoons in the Arctic.
Dunton is part of a three-year Arctic study.  Photo
Dunton and co-scientist Jim McClelland, both of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, will spend three years and a $1 million National Science Foundation grant venturing to places where seals, polar bears, walruses and Eskimos will be their only neighbors.
Along the Texas Gulf Coast, scientists are well-versed in the fact that nutrients flowing off land into rivers and ultimately the gulf, enhance or hamper coastal food webs, depending on the input.
Historically, scientists have thought the opposite of the Arctic, because scientists were not finding evidence of such influences during summer research expeditions, Dunton and McClelland said. Both now say that science could be wrong.
“Above all we are hoping to gain a much better understanding of how coastal ocean ecosystems work in the Arctic,” McClelland said. “In some ways we have had a misunderstanding of how it worked for a long time based on early studies that pointed in a different direction. Science said stuff coming off land was not a major driving force. What we are arguing is that perhaps it is.”
Their destination is Kaktovik, a tiny Inupiat village along the Beaufort Sea in northern Alaska.

University of Texas marine scientist Ken Dunton is lowered into frigid Arctic waters to dive and take samples under the ice.
The scientists will stay at a U.S. Fish and Wildlife service camp near Barter Island, but will depend on the Inupiat for guide services on the Arctic ice, where they will study in August and April of each year, through 2013, Dunton said.
Dunton and McClelland will combine their talents — Dunton is a coastal specialist, while McClelland is a terrestrial and river expert — to try to prove their theory that organic inflows from spring melts are a critical resource for coastal food webs throughout the year, including in the frigid winter, when temperatures never rise above freezing.
The circle of life comes into play, because like the Gulf Coast, coastal waters are nursery habitat for microscopic species who feed other species such as shrimp, who feed fish.
“Arctic Cod are a prey species for ring seals, bearded seals and ribbon seals and seals are hunted by polar bears,” Dunton said. “(Lagoons) support a fisheries component that is used by subsistence hunters from Eskimo villages.”
Dunton, McClelland and University of Maryland marine microbiologist Byron Crump will take samples on land, in rivers and in coastal lagoons in April, which still is deep winter in the Arctic. They will take similar samples in August, the height of summer, when the warmest day still is like the coldest in South Texas, Dunton said.
Scientists will take underwater samples with a grasping tool. Dunton, who has spent time in the Arctic nearly every year since the 70s, mentions cutting holes in the ice and jumping through with a rope tether to guide him back to surface of the 28 degree water. He says it’s a good way to get different samples.
McClelland also has spent large amounts of time in the Arctic, but he plans to continue his work on top of the ice.
“There has not been much done under the ice, and he is one of the people who has dived,” McClelland said. “We may be able to get ahold of some things by dropping a person that we could not get with sampling.
And it’s warm compared to the air. The water is just below freezing, whereas the air at the same time could be negative 28 degrees.”

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