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Hunting iron in sea ice


Collecting data on sea ice requires a whole new perspective on research according to Dr Viena Puigcorbé Lacueva.
Collecting data on sea ice requires a whole new perspective on research according to Dr Viena Puigcorbé Lacueva.

Extreme temperatures, rapidly changing weather conditions and incredible isolation make research in Antarctica hugely challenging. But for Dr Viena Puigcorbé Lacueva those challenges are magnified even further.

That’s because the ship she travels on, her clothes, and even the equipment she uses to collect samples can contaminate her data.

Dr Puigcorbé Lacueva’s research examines the chemical processes at work in the world’s oceans and how they are affecting global warming.

The project team is sampling water from sea ice hoping to find out how increased levels of iron in the Southern Ocean could change the way plankton and other microscopic algae are absorbing carbon dioxide.

In collecting samples, they had to be as far away from the research team’s ship as possible to ensure iron particles from the ship’s hull didn’t taint their data.

“This is because the natural levels of iron in the ocean are extremely low and contamination can occur very easily while sampling,” she said.

“We also had to wear special clean suits on top of our polar gear, always use gloves, and the equipment used had to be suitable for trace metal sampling.”

That meant the team’s ice corer was made from titanium, knives from porcelain, and other parts of their equipment coated in Teflon to prevent contamination.

It sounds complicated, but Dr Puigcorbé Lacueva says Antarctica is still an easier place to work than the Arctic – the wildlife is a lot friendlier.

“When we go to the Arctic we have someone constantly on the lookout for polar bears,” she said.

Unsurprisingly Dr Puigcorbé Lacueva’s research involves spending a lot of time out on the ocean – sometimes up to three months.

But being cooped up aboard a research ship for weeks on end isn’t an issue for her.

“It’s really different when you’re out at sea; you don’t have working hours, you have to be ready when there’s work to do,” she said.

“I actually like it when the ship is moving in rough seas as it helps me sleep but you need to be really careful conducting experiments when the ship is moving.”

The incredibly low concentration of iron in the Southern Ocean limits the ability of plankton and microscopic algae to photosynthesise and absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Dr Puigcorbé Lacueva says the increase in melting sea ice could lead to greater absorption of carbon dioxide, potentially helping to better offset global warming.

“The oceans, just like forests, can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis done by the phytoplankton living in the surface waters,” she said.

“The overall goal of my research is to provide a quantitative estimate of the amount of organic carbon being exported to great depths in the open ocean, where it will remain isolated from the atmosphere for long periods of time.”

Dr Puigcorbé Lacueva was part of a team of scientists travelling on Australia’s icebreaker RSV Aurora Australis. The project was led by Dr Will Hobbs and Dr Delphine Lannuzel and included scientists from the University of Tasmania, the ARC-funded Antarctic Gateway Partnership, the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC, the Australian Antarctic Division, CSIRO, ECU, and universities from around the world.

For more information, visit Dr Puigcorbé Lacueva's profile.

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