Archive for February, 2015

A New Frontier

Friday, February 27th, 2015
Aleutian islandsUniversity of Maine marine scientist Bob Steneck is part of an international team that has unlocked an underwater time capsule in the North Pacific that has been monitoring the climate for centuries.

The time capsule is the long-living, slow-growing alga Clathromorphum nereostratum that creates massive reefs in shallow coastal regions of Alaska’s Aleutian archipelago. These solid calcium carbonate structures have fine growth rings — similar to tree growth rings — which Steneck says contain historical environmental information.

The team used a cutting-edge microisotopic imaging technique to reconstruct 120 years of seasonal changes in ocean acidification (pH) in the region. The technique uses lasers to measure isotope ratios of the element boron at the scale of tenths of millimeters.

The technique, Steneck says, provides researchers with a detailed historical timeline, including rate of ocean acidification both seasonally and over hundreds of years. The scientists learned that since the late 19th century, the ocean has been acidifying at a rate that corresponds with rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

“The next frontier is to determine millennial records so we get a better sense of what was normal for ocean acidification in cold water coastal zones,” Steneck says.

The alga grows approximately 1 millimeter every three years, so plants collected last year that are nearly half-meter thick could easily be more than 1,000 years old, he says.

“These and similar types of coralline algae are living in all oceans,” says lead researcher Jan Fietzke of the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel in Germany. “Thanks to laser ablation techniques, in the future we can use other samples to look much further back into the past…”

In fact, UMaine postdoctoral associate Doug Rasher is currently in Scotland analyzing specimens that he and Steneck collected last year in Alaska.

The team’s seasonal analyses also indicated strong variations of pH in each year.

The researchers, who also hail from the United Kingdom and Canada, say the annual variation is likely due to large kelp forests in the region that consume large amounts of carbon dioxide in the spring and summer as they grow.  The kelp forests then completely die back each winter.

“In a sense, these ecosystems are breathing by inhaling CO2 each summer and releasing it every winter,” says Steneck, who is based at the University of Maine Darling Marine Center in Walpole.

Each year, more carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, some of which is absorbed by the ocean as carbonic acid. This, in turn, decreases the pH and increases acidity of the ocean, say the researchers.

Steneck says 90 percent of marine resource value in Maine involves shellfish, including lobsters, scallops, oysters and clams. Lobsters and other organisms depend on high pH to create limestone shells and it takes metabolic energy to make limestone.

When the ocean is more acidic, the metabolic cost necessary to make shells increases, he says. Some energy that would normally be allocated to organisms’ immune systems could be compromised, possibly increasing their susceptibility to disease.

Lobsters afflicted with shell disease increased fivefold between 2010 and 2012 in Maine; in southern New England during that time, scientists and lobstermen indicated that one in four lobsters caught was diseased.

Steneck says being able to determine if acidification in a specific coastal area might be affected by extreme rainfall events or sewage treatment, for example, could help create more localized ocean management policy.

To retrieve specimens for the research, Steneck dove in 34-degree water off the Aleutian Islands and used a jackhammer to cut off chunks of the Clathromorphum nereostratum. The chunks were loaded into cargo nets, airlifted to the surface, towed to the boat and lifted aboard with a crane. Onboard, Steneck cut the chunks into pieces for research.

A paper about the findings will be published Feb. 24 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Follow a Researcher

Friday, February 27th, 2015
Follow a researcherConnecting K–12 students in Maine and around the world with researchers in the field is the goal of a new program offered by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension with support from UMaine’s Climate Change Institute (CCI) and the Maine 4-H Foundation.

Follow a Researcher aims to give students a glimpse into a scientist’s world by providing live expedition updates and facilitating communication between the youth and scientist.

“Science isn’t just white lab coats and pouring things into beakers,” says Charles Rodda, a doctoral student at CCI and the program’s first researcher. In his case, science means putting on crampons, scaling glaciers and drilling ice cores in Peru and Tajikistan to conduct research focused on abrupt climate change.

In March, Rodda and fellow CCI graduate student Kit Hamley will travel to Peru to collect snow and ice from glaciers high in the Andes. During the summer, he will travel to Tajikistan to join an international team that will retrieve and research samples from the world’s largest nonpolar glacier.

While in the field, Rodda will interact with participating classrooms and students by sharing prerecorded weekly videos and live tweeting in response to questions.

“We’re interested to see what they’re interested in,” Rodda says. “We of course are focused on the science, but we’re hiking in some of the most beautiful regions on Earth.”

To interact with students, Rodda will use the inReach Explorer, a global satellite communicator created by Maine-based company DeLorme. The tool allows him to text or tweet directly to students from the glacier. It also will track his movements and generate an online map so students can follow his trek in nearly real time. To document his journey, Rodda also will take several cameras, including a GoPro; a solar panel and battery pack to charge electronics; an iPad; satellite receiver; and memory cards.

In advance of the weekly question-and-answer sessions, prerecorded videos of Rodda explaining aspects of the expedition and research will be released. The videos were created to spark discussion among students and are aligned with Next Generation Science Standards.

Rodda, who has participated in several outreach events around the state as a UMaine Extension 4-H STEM Ambassador, says having a science-literate society is important and getting students interested at an early age is essential.

“I think that’s the time — middle and early high school — when students seem to decide if they’re going to be interested in science or not. There’s great research happening here at the University of Maine and we want to make sure students know about it,” he says.

Several schools from around Maine, as well as schools in Iowa, Ohio, Rhode Island and Connecticut have already signed on to take part in the program, which is funded by the Maine 4-H Foundation. Rodda and Hamley plan to visit participating Maine classrooms after they return from Peru in April.

In Peru, Rodda and Hamley will look at signals that have been captured in the ice during El Nino events, or warming in the waters of the equatorial Pacific. They hope to see what El Ninos look like in climate records to determine if those events may be a trigger that shifts the climate system in Central and South America from one phase to another. Rodda completed preliminary research in Peru in 2013.

This summer in Tajikistan, Rodda will work with researchers from around the world to drill a long core that will be split among teams from the University of Idaho, Japan, France, Germany and Austria who will study a variety of the core’s characteristics. Rodda will focus on the ice’s chemistry makeup while others will focus on topics including physical measurements or biological signals, he says.

In advance of Rodda’s Peru trip, youth in grades six through eight took part in a UMaine 4-H Science Saturday workshop where they were challenged with determining how to keep ice core samples frozen and intact for research. Students were given ice and materials and were tasked with designing a container that would keep ice frozen under a heat lamp for a specific amount of time.

In reality, Rodda says bringing ice cores home from Peru is more like “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” It involves horseback riding, long car rides, even longer airplane rides, and a lot of dry and blue ice, which he describes as heavy-duty freezer packs.

“It’s a great way to get students on campus to sort of demystify the university and show them some of the cool stuff we do at the university and in the sciences,” Rodda says of 4-H Science Saturdays, which are offered by UMaine Extension.

“Follow a Researcher is part of a big effort to connect youth in Maine with current university students. It may be the first time a youth has contact with someone who is going to college, or their first connection to a university,” says Laura Wilson, a 4-H science professional with UMaine Extension. “STEM Ambassadors are working in areas all over the state, from an after-school program in Washburn to programs offered in urban areas of Lewiston and Portland.”

Organizers would like to continue Follow a Researcher after the pilot year, as well as expand it to other disciplines throughout the university.

“By connecting youth to campus, we may be inspiring them to explore higher education, and perhaps come to UMaine in the future,” Wilson says.

Teachers interested in following Rodda on his expeditions may call Jessica Brainerd at 800.287.0274 (in Maine), 581.3877; or email jessica.brainerd@maine.edu. More about Follow a Researcher is online.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747