Paperclip in 6 Olympic swimming pools

27 Feb 2014
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Salut! I’m Johann Bown and I’m working at the NIOZ as a postdoctoral researcher. This is the second summer season that I spent down south at Rothera (British Antarctic Survey) as the main scientist working on the trace metals project.

Trace metals, besides being present at extremely low concentrations in the ocean, some of these elements are crucial for algae growth, the base of the oceanic food-web. Among these essential trace nutrients, iron is the most famous and it has been shown to limit algal growth in several oceanic regions. This is why I’m studying trace metal biogeochemical cycling in Ryder Bay, Western Antarctic Peninsula.
It is quite an exciting challenge to get seawater samples without metal contamination and to be able to measure extremely low metal concentrations accurately. Measuring iron is like looking for a paperclip in 6 Olympic swimming pools! would say Hein de Baar who leads the trace metal Rothera project. To achieve this, one of the “mini labs” of the Dirk Gerritz building has been specially designed for trace metal work, and I can tell that it is a nice functional facility where I have been processing samples and measuring iron concentrations for 2 summer seasons now.

Patrick Laan clean lab
Patrick Laan (NIOZ) processing samples in the clean “mini lab”

I’m also using a powerboat made of plastic, a titanium electric winch made by the NIOZ workshop, a Kevlar cable and ultra clean plastic sampling bottles to get seawater samples from different depths (from surface to bottom) and locations of Ryder Bay.

sampling Ryder Bay
Sampling for trace metals in Ryder Bay (Picture L. Jones)

Determining the concentrations of trace elements in these seawater samples will help me to further understand how algae are using them during summer blooms and to identify and quantify trace metals sources and sinks in Ryder Bay.

As I’m writing this blog this is the end of the season for us, two more sampling weeks on the schedule. It has been an interesting summer, really different from last year considering weather conditions, colder and much windier. Although I’m quite happy as I have reached most of my objectives, there are not that many empty sampling bottles left and I’m quite impatient to see how different/similar this season has been compared to the previous one regarding trace metals.

zeeijs Ryder Bay
Sea ice in Ryder Bay

People who might think that researchers spend all of their time in front of a computer or in a laboratory tweaking buttons on strange machines are not totally wrong. But they should also know that here, we are autonomous regarding the technical aspect of our field work. We are operating a crane to launch boat from the base quay and driving powerboats across the bay to reach sampling locations. This is totally different from being on a research cruise where instruments deployment is generally handled by the ship crew.

Stirring across sea and glacier ice

Working in Antarctica is an exciting experience, Western Antarctic Peninsula’s landscapes are just mind-blowing and the chances to experience meeting with wildlife are high.

Young leopard seal
zeeolifant DG
Gerritz Laboratory visitors

If you are lucky, the wildlife comes really close to you, seeing orcas swimming around and under the boat is quite breathtaking…
This said it is not the easiest environment to work especially when you are a marine scientist, weather and sea ice conditions rule our sampling plans, patience, flexibility and warm clothes are the key!


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