Is there plastic litter in the Southern Ocean? – A response to AMA

After I got used to solid ground again, I would like to come back to the questions that I got from the Ask Me Anything event. Those questions posed on Reddit are answered directly there and I replied to some questions directly in an email. There was one specific question left that I want to write more about:

Is there plastic litter in the Southern Ocean?

Global plastic production has increased by >500 times over the last 60 years (Thompson et al., 2009). People all around the world are becoming increasingly aware of the big problems that our plastic polution causes to the oceans and to the marine wildlife. Microplastic (plastics smaller than 6mm) comes either as a secondary source from breakdown of marcoplastic, or directly from personal care products like shampoo, soap or synthetic fibres from the laundry. Microplastics are found in their highest concentrations along coastlines and within mid-ocean gyres. The World’s Ocean contain 63 320 pieces per km² and the East Asian seas 1 720 000 pieces per km² (Isobe et al., 2015; Eriksen et al., 2014).

The Southern Ocean is so remote from the sources that it was thought to be mainly free of plastic pollution. However, there are studies that show that microplastic is also found in the Southern Ocean, mainly  in deep-sea sediments and the surface. It is partly transported across the ACC from other oceans and partly caused by ships and research stations in Antarctica (Waller et al., 2017). Especially microplastic can be transported far through the ocean currents as all world oceans are connected to each other.

In total, nobody knows how much plastic there is in the Southern Ocean, as it has only been measured at a few locations. But we know that there is no piece of ocean that can be completely save from plastic pollution. Also, it has not been measured yet how big the impact of microplastic is on Antarctic species; but in other oceans it causes reduction in energy reserves, ability of feeding and reproduction in marine biota (Cole et al., 2011).

Thanks and goodbye!

We had an amazing and unforgettable cruise to the Southern Ocean, but it is time now to leave RV Kronprins Haakon and say goodbye to everyone. Despite the fact that the heavy sea ice prohibited the science close to the ice shelf, we managed to find alternative plans and we got some interesting findings. I am very excited about the scientific papers that will come out of it and new projects. Personally, I learned a lot both about marine science but also about managing and planning a cruise.

I want to thank the crew and the other scientists for great work, collaboration and also an amazing time! During those 7 weeks I found a lot of new friends with whom I am enjoying the last days together in Cape Town now. In the end, I also want to thank my supervisor Elin to make this cruise possible for me, to find the funding and arrange everything!

With that I send you the last pictures of some penguins, whales, seals and ice bergs! GOODBYE 🙂


Photos: Rudi Caeyers, NPI


About RV Kronprins Haakon

Now, our expedition is over and we are docked onto the pier in Cape Town, where we will finally step onto solid ground again. Before saying goodbye here on the blog, I would like to tell you a bit about the ship that we have been working and living on for the last 7 weeks during our Antarctic adventure:
the brand new Norwegian ice breaker RV Kronprins Haakon.

Norway has a long history in polar research. The research institutes always make sure that they have the infrastructure to conduct fieldwork in rough conditions and heavy sea ice. Following the examples of “Fram” and “Maud” on which Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen wrote history, “Kronprins Haakon” has now started to cut through the ice for the new generation of polar explorers. During the last decades, “Lance” was used for polar research although she was originally built for fishing and sealing. However, now she is an old lady from 1978, who has already sailed to the moon and back in distance (860 000km) and has finally retired in 2017 from the duty for the Norwegian Polar Institute. “Kronprins Haakon” was built in Genova, Italy, and is now jointly owned by the University of Tromsø (50 %), Norwegian Polar Institute (30 %) and Norwegian Institute of Marine Research (20 %). On November 17, 2018, the ice breaker was baptized by the Princess Ingrid Aleksandra in a very symbolic way: with a sea ice core to symbolize the use of the ship in polar regions.

The 100 m long ship has room for 55 people including the crew, but most of the space is used for the 14 laboratories, a helipad, hangars for two helicopters and a moonpool to lower instruments into the ocean even with thick sea ice cover. In addition, it has a remotely controlled submarine that goes down to 6000 m depth, an eccosounder to measure the ocean floor and organisms in detail, and many other instruments. Here you can see a youtube video about the ship:

Our team in front of the beautiful ice breaker before going on board in Punta Arenas. Photo: Rudi Caeyers

My work on board: CTD measurements

There were so many exciting things happening on the ship that I almost forgot to write about the main work that I have been doing during this cruise: CTDs! The fact that the sea ice conditions didn’t allow us to deploy the mooring that I brought, doesn’t mean I could lean back and have holidays. CTDs are almost taken all of the time and our team was split up in 2 shifts. I always worked from 12:00 – 16:00h and from 20:00 – 04:00h, which means that we basically only got a few hours of daylight (it was dark from about 18:00 – 04:00 UTC). This can be tiring, but from the CTDs we can learn a lot about the physics, chemistry and biogeochemistry in the ocean, which again is important when studying oceanography and the ecosystem in the ocean.

The CTD team gathered around the CTD frame. Left side up to down: Sebastien M., Thomas R.-K., Asmita S., Agneta F., Kristen F., me, Tore H. Right side up to down: Hanna K.. John Olav V., Melissa Ch. and Laura d.S. Photo: Rudi Caeyers, NPI.

But now a deeper explanation of the work:

CTD means Conductivity (Salinity) -Temperature-Depth. You can imagine a big yo-yo that goes all the way to the ocean floor and up again, measuring those three values throughout the whole water column. Since we already send down those sensors (which can takes about 100 min for 3000 m water depth), we can equally do more measurements on the way down. We had also an LADCP (Lowered Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler to measure velocity), a flourometer, transmissometer, Biospherical/Licor and an oxigen sensor. In addition, there are Niskin bottles attached to the CTD frame (the grey bottles on the picture), which take water samples at different depths. The water samples are used for calibration of the sensors, but also to measure biogeochemistry and chemistry in the water.

In total, we did 65 CTDs and took about 3800 water samples from the Niskin bottles to analyse them afterwards in the lab. Whenever the CTD came up from it’s yo-yo dive, we had to take the water samples, filter them and analyse. It was my task to analyse the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water samples, which tells about the age of the water and the biological activity. Super exciting! Sometimes we were just done with the tasks, when the CTD came on deck again to do it all over again at the next location.

I am sure, we will have interesting results, once we have looked at the data more closely!

Hanna and John Olav practicing how to take water samples from the CTD.
Winkler titration system “Relou” Metrohm Ti-Touch 916 that I used to analyse dissolved oxygen.

Ægir – observing life at the ocean floor

While most Norwegians associate Ægir with something else, did you know that Ægir is the jötunn (some kind of god) of the oceans? Here on board of RV Kronprins Haakon, we have an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) called Ægir which is some kind of robot that dives along the ocean floor filming and picking up whatever could be interesting to study. It is attached to a winch on the ship and can go down to 6000 m depth! While it films the ocean floor, we can watch the movies live from the ship. Like that, the biologists on board can tell the ROV-pilots which animals, corals, sponges or other plants should be picked up or sucked up with the ROV and brought on board for later studies.

The ROV Ægir6000 with the UiB-crew on board. In the back (left – right): Stig, Patrik; in the front (left – right): Nadine, Karoline, Tone, Anne Helene, Eyvind. Photo: Stefano Ambroso

It was very unclear to us, how the ocean floor would look like in Dronning Maud Land and what to expect, so it was very exciting to watch! Here is a collection of pictures that the ROV took of corals, fish, anemones, sponges, squid, sea stars and jellyfish.

Pictures taken at the ocean floor with the ROV Ægir6000 from the University of Bergen.

Ask me anything!

So far, I have been blogging about whatever I find interesting on our cruise to Dronning Maud Land.
Now it’s your turn to tell me what you would like to know!

There are two possibilities for you to send in questions:

  • I created an Ask Me Anything (AMA) – event on reddit, where you can drop questions
  • There is a google doc (link: AMA google doc)  to ask questions in case you don’t want to sign up for reddit.

    Your questions will be collected until the 12th April after which I will make a blog post with my answers!

Finally stepping on sea ice

Do you think it is possible to stand on an 18 cm thick sea ice floe without breaking through?

Just one week ago we almost got stuck with the ship in about 4 m thick sea ice further south. We couldn’t move south and not back north neither. This was scary and we already imagined how it would be to spend the whole Antarctic winter in the sea ice. As soon as the captain managed to break the ship free, he headed straight north to get out of the sea ice covered area. Although it was good to get into a safer area, we were disappointed that we didn’t get to do all the science we wanted to do closer to the ice shelves. And the most disappointing was that we didn’t get the opportunity to leave the ship and go on sea ice!

But suddenly before leaving the sea ice area for good we stopped for a sea ice station, because there was a perfect homogeneous ice floe that the sea ice scientists were eager to study. So four of the scientists were brought to the ice floe on a small boat and took sea ice cores to measure the thickness, temperature, salinity, phytoplankton content and chemical constellation. In the meanwhile, the rest of us sat in the day room watching them through the windows. We were very jealous at them who could get on the ice! At some point there was an announcement through the speakers: Everyone was allowed to go on the ice floe! This made us so happy that we all ran to get into the floating suits and to enter the small boat. Finally – after four weeks on the ship, we could get off and step onto a piece of ice! We were very excited, jumped on the sea ice, made pyramids, and took a lot of crazy pictures until our hands were frozen! It was amazing and a lot of fun also to see the ship from distance.

Scientists taking a sea ice core at the sea ice margin in Dronning Maud Land.
Having fun on the sea ice. Photo: John Olav Vinje
Having fun on the sea ice. Photo: Asmita Singh

Although the ice floe looked very fragile and dangerous to step on, it was stable enough to hold all our jumps. It was fun and only the penguins were missing, but we could live with that. It was a great pay-off after the disappointment of heading north earlier than expected.