Forty Days at Sea


It is the end of our second week in the Antarctic. We are in the Weddell Sea and there are icebergs in every direction! I’m taking part in a 40-day scientific cruise run by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) aboard their purpose-built research ship the RRS James Clark Ross. So far we have spent 3.5 days crossing the Southern Ocean from the Falkland Islands, a week undertaking a geophysical survey of Marguerite Bay on the western Antarctic Peninsula, and 2 days in transit “around the point” into the northwestern Weddell Sea.

The projects running on the ship vary from the ongoing survey of Earth’s magnetic field, glaciological and geophysical investigations of continental shelf topography, the oceanographic analysis of Weddell Sea deep water, and the project with which I am involved: surface-water diatom distributions (diatoms are unicellular algae). All these projects are funded through BAS and the Antarctic Funding Initiative from the National Environment Research Council.

The logistics of carrying out research in the Antarctic require a great deal of advanced planning and support structures. The ship’s valuable time is allocated up to 3 years in advance, and any onboard equipment must be in place before the ship leaves the UK at the beginning of each antarctic summer season. Personal preparation also takes forward planning. Mine began in July last year with a sea survival training course. This was followed in August with a week-long induction course run by BAS, a first-aid course, medical and dental health checks, and vaccinations.

My first introduction to the Antarctic came long before this, when I heard about the first antarctic explorers as a child. Hearing the epic stories and poring over maps of the continent introduced me to the vast wilderness of ice at the southern pole, often missing in public consciousness and even some maps. The opportunity to visit the Antarctic came about as a result of my PhD studies of antarctic palaeoceanography and is one that I have relished.

However, my route into science, and ultimately this cruise, has not been a traditional or smooth one! My undergraduate arts degree at Glasgow University, built on Spanish, Portuguese, Philosophy, and Geography, certainly wouldn’t have been an advised route into scientific research! But, opting for Geography in my honours years I unsuspectingly chose a “Quaternary Environments” course. Quaternary science refers to approximately the past 2 million years of Earth history. My eyes were opened to the science of reconstructing climate and environments. I was fascinated! Other “hard-core” physical geography options followed in my pursuit of the supplementary knowledge required for this topic, whilst field trips and expeditions added to my enjoyment of the subject.

During finals–before the modular system of current times–I discovered that, whereas my classmates were getting frustrated and depressed by revision, I was enjoying it. I was becoming increasingly captivated by climate change–modern and ancient–and the mechanisms used to study it. So, following this late start, I was keen to continue and learn more! A year after graduating I enrolled for the Quaternary Science M.Phil at Cambridge University and began searching for PhD opportunities throughout Britain. I visited BAS, where I was introduced to the projects run under the CASE awards system and encouraged to apply. I was accepted for a PhD studentship at Cardiff University looking at the structure and content of biogenic sediments from the Southern Ocean in order to reconstruct ocean and climate conditions over the last 20,000 years.

Improving our knowledge of past oceanic and climatic environments in the Southern Ocean is important for a number of reasons. Primarily there is relatively little known about the dynamics of major ocean currents and circulation and the role of the Southern Ocean. The Southern Ocean is unique in that it is comprised of the southern-most sectors of the major oceanic basins. As such it is the principal route for propagation and diffusion of temperature and salinity anomalies in the ocean. Its role within the global thermohaline circulation, which provides heat via the Gulf Stream to northwestern Europe, is therefore likely to be profound. Secondly, the climate of Antarctica was initiated by, and relies on, the isolation provided by the circumpolar ocean to prevent large-scale disintegration of the ice cap. In the current context of global warming it is important to assess the impacts that changes in ocean and climate may have on Antarctica, and reconstructing past climate fluctuations provides vital information on the responses and possible feedback mechanisms within the climate system. The raw data from palaeo-reconstructions provides modellers with essential boundary conditions to test and analyse the accuracy of climate models and predictions.

The aim of my PhD is to use the distribution of diatom species preserved in sediment cores across the Scotia Sea to reconstruct the position of major ocean boundaries and water masses through time. The project relies on the one hand on having a robust chronology to correlate the cores and to link the events with global climate histories, and on the other hand being able to quantify diatom assemblages in the sediment and relate them to oceanic conditions. During this cruise we are looking at the diatom species currently living in the surface waters in order to develop our understanding of their habitats. This will improve our ability to reconstruct ocean conditions from the fossil diatoms preserved in the ocean sediments.

Although at first the prospect of completing a PhD in an unfamiliar discipline was a little daunting I never doubted my ability to achieve it. In fact I believe that my Quaternary science helps me maintain the focus of the project within the broader context of global change and to appreciate the links with other disciplines. My supervisors (Dr. Jenny Pike at Cardiff University and Dr. Carol Pudsey at BAS) have been incredibly supportive throughout and have provided the extra backing I’ve needed to make my project a success. For example, they have supported my application for funding to carry out radiocarbon dating of my samples. They also arranged for and financed me to visit Amy Leventer of Colgate University in New York State, where I spent 6 weeks being trained by her in Antarctic diatom taxonomy. I have been encouraged and funded to attend conferences and meetings to develop my understanding of palaeoceanography and the climate system, as well as to practise presenting my work to the scientific community.

PhDs are necessarily specific and it is quite possible that even if I had studied biology, oceanography, and geology as an undergraduate I still may not have covered the details involved in my project, and the training I have had would have been necessary anyway. An advantage of my unconventional background is that I have not had preconceptions about the subject and have been open-minded to different aspects of the project as it has developed. An added bonus of my previous education is that I am able to read the Spanish literature also!

The novelty of the subject has, I think, helped me to remain enthusiastic and interested throughout the course of my doctorate. I find many PhD students become apathetic in the final stages of their PhD and are keen to branch out into new fields. By “branching into” my PhD subject I seem to have bypassed this disillusioned period … or at least postponed it! Changing subject area is a challenge but is mostly about reapplying skills you already have and remembering how to learn again. Given support and encouragement I believe that sidestepping across academic spheres can provide new perspectives to subjects, new approaches to problems, and has the potential to build bridges between disciplines.

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