My view from Antarctica

My view from Antarctica

In this myView blog post, Master of Science student Emma de Jong talks about her journey to Antarctica so far. She’s on the RV Tangaroa, a NIWA ship headed for the continent, all in pursuit of her master’s thesis.

Victoria University of Wellington student Emma de Jon and University of Canterbury student Luke Whitehead stand on the top deck of a ship in Antarctica in front of a mountain.
Emma de Jong with University of Canterbury student Luke Whitehead.

Kia ora, I’m Emma.

For most people, intrigue is enough to drive someone towards something—and Antarctica is about as intriguing as something can get! For me though it’s about so much more. I’ve been researching this mysterious continent for two years now, and for the last year it’s been my fulltime gig. I read about it, write about it, watch videos of it, study samples from it, make presentations about it—the list goes on.

But it wasn’t until two weeks ago that I saw Antarctica for the very first time.

When my supervisor called me to ask if I wanted to go on an expedition to Antarctica, my answer was an immediate and frantic: “yes, yes, yes!”

My masters is focused on phytoplankton. They’re tiny algae that float around in the ocean and grow through photosynthesis. For something so small, they play a big role in the function of our climate. They absorb carbon dioxide, produce half the world’s oxygen, and are the base of the food chain—none of our marine life would exist without these teeny tiny plants.

Naturally, it’s important to know how climate change might affect them. My research is looking at how phytoplankton have changed in the past so that we can make informed predictions about the future. They’re made up of biomarkers, which are molecular fossils, and often carried through the air and deposited on the Antarctic ice. They’re then buried when it snows again, and these layers of ice represent different time periods. The same thing happens in the ocean, as the phytoplankton sink to the seafloor and become buried under the sediment, preserving them.

This expedition means I get to collect samples of these biomarkers for the very first time.

On the RV Tangaroa, I am collecting a lot of atmospheric and seawater samples. We’re looking at what sort of particles are emitted into the air from the ocean, how big they are, and their chemical composition. We’re working with a team from the University of Canterbury to understand how the phytoplankton and microplastic particles produce clouds and the impact that’s having on our climate.

Researchers aboard the ship release a weather balloon in the middle of the Antarctic ocean.
The researchers releasing a weather balloon.

We also use conductivity, temperature, and depth sensors (CTD) to collect ocean samples. We send them down 500 metres into the ocean and decide where the most interesting depths to sample are, based on things like oxygen levels and salinity. The CTD collect over 240 litres of ocean water every day, and there are hundreds of samples within there. Lots of these samples are time sensitive, we don’t want the water to have been out of the ocean for too long. So, we have this thing called the “dance”, which is a group of ten of us running around to collect our samples as quickly as possible.

It’s a fascinating experience, but it is very tiring. I’m constantly trying to balance myself, which means you end up using a lot more energy to do simple things—let alone hauling around samples and trying to brave the cold. So, it’s a good thing that the food is amazing! We get cooked breakfasts, lunches, and dinner, alongside all the crackers and biscuits you can eat, and a fridge filled just with ice-cream.

Tonight, we went back to the coast, so I got to see the ice more closely. The night is so calm, and the water is barely moving. There are tiny little penguins jumping in and out of the water and the occasional whale blow. It’s 9 pm, but because of the angle of the sun it feels like the middle of the day. I can see Antarctica, the huge Transantarctic Mountains, and kilometres and kilometres of untouched earth.

It feels too complex and immense for our tiny little monkey brains to comprehend, but it’s one of the most special feelings I’ve ever had in my life. I cannot believe how lucky I am to not only be researching something so important but experiencing it in-person too. It’s an immense privilege, and I will cherish this moment for as long as I can.

Emma de Jong is a Master of Science student currently aboard the RV Tangaroa in Antarctica.

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