Oceanography News

Texas A&M receives $14.4 million to study Gulf oil spills

COLLEGE STATION, Aug. 31, 2011 -- Texas A&M University researchers in the College of Geosciences and the Dwight Look College of Engineering are the lead investigators in a $14.4 million project that will investigate the transport and eventual fate of petroleum fluids that have erupted at depth, such as those that resulted from the Deepwater Horizon spill last year.



Geosciences team receives award for its Gulf Coast work

A team led by oceanography researchers Dr. Ann Jochens and Dr. Matthew Howard will receive a Gulf Guardian Award form the Environmental Protection Agency for their project to integrate ocean and coastal data sets from all over the Gulf Coast region.



DiMarco finds large Gulf of Mexico dead zone

The first of three scheduled cruises, oceanographer Steve DiMarco and his team have found a growing dead zone expected to be the largest on record.



Oceanography grad student seeing the world one wave at a time

Oceanography Ph.D. student Julia O’Hern's studies have taken her all over the world on 14 research cruises with more on the horizon.



Texas A&M researchers to examine scope and scale of Gulf ‘dead zone’

Oceanographers Steve DiMarco and Thomas Bianchi will be measuring the size of this year's "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, which is expected to be larger due to record flooding. (Read more)



Researchers find red-tide toxin trigger

Oceanographer Lisa Campbell and graduate student Reagan Errera have found a reason why Karenia brevis, the microscopic algae that make up red tides in the Gulf of Mexico, produce toxins. (Read more)


Cruising in the Gulf

Tom Bianchi is currently out in the Gulf of Mexico as chief scientist on a cruise funded by NOAA in collaboration with Steve DiMarco. (Read more)


Texas A&M oceanography professor Alejandro (Alex) Orsi is one of 40 scientists braving Antarctic weather and waters aboard the ice-breaker research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer. (read more)


Exploration of pristine subglacial lakes in Antarctica stirs debate over impacts

Feb. 26, 2011

Imagine the thrill of going to another planet and exploring for new life forms that no one has ever seen before. How would you prepare to do this without harming or contaminating the environment that you will enter to conduct your exploration?

A debate of this question is unfolding in Antarctica, our world's most remote and coldest region. Driven by some of humankind's most basic instincts to want to know and better understand the world around us, one of the last hidden environments on our planet is about to be entered for the first time. But there are serious questions raised: Does the value of the scientific knowledge to be gained outweigh the risk of irreversible alteration of unique and pristine environments? As with most ethical questions that face us these days, opinions vary considerably.

At the bottom of the world in Antarctica, a team of Russian scientists is going where no humans have gone before. They are in the final stages of drilling more than 2.5 miles through the ice attempting for the first time to enter a subglacial lake the size of Lake Ontario named Lake Vostok, discovered more than 30 years ago but only recently catching the imagination of scientists.

Subglacial aquatic environments remain one of the most cryptic environments on our planet, mostly because no one has ever seen or entered them — until now. What will be found is shrouded in mystery, but the scientific results could change our understanding of how life began and evolved on planet Earth and provide clues about where to look for life in our solar system and beyond.

The Lake Vostok project has taken many years to reach the point of lake entry and many suspected that it would happen this year, but the Russian team had to suspend drilling efforts because weather conditions have begun to deteriorate as winter sets in on the bleak Antarctic ice sheet.

But two other teams are moving forward with programs with similar goals and at widely differing locations in Antarctica, and the Russians have compared first entry into a subglacial lake with the race to be first on the moon. A team from the United Kingdomis trying to enter Lake Ellsworth and a U.S. team is probing the Whillans Ice Stream. The Russians are within about 65 feet of reaching Lake Vostok but will have to wait until the next austral summer to resume drilling and continue their quest to be first. The Lake Ellsworth and Whillans Ice Stream teams remain at least a year away from lake entry, so the timelines for all three projects are beginning to converge.

One thing is certain: First entry into these environments is not far off.

It is considered likely that life has taken hold in these icy environments that are pitch black and cold (27 degrees Fahrenheit). It is unlikely that life forms other than the simplest bacteria can exist in these environments, but any microbes present may have developed unique ways to live. Some scientists have compared these conditions to other icy worlds in our solar system such as Europa, a moon of Jupiter, and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Researchers have now discovered more than 300 lakes beneath the Antarctic ice and it is suspected that many more will be identified.

In addition, recent studies have revealed extensive river systems that stretch for hundreds of miles connecting these lakes isolated from the sun's warmth for millions of years. This interconnectedness has raised new concerns that contaminating one lake might well contaminate others downstream. Exploration of these environments will tell us much about these intricate sub-ice water systems and could provide vital information about how ice sheets interact with climate change and global sea level.

The dilemma: Are we taking adequate precautions to ensure that these environments are protected from harm potentially caused by exploring them? Recognizing that wherever humans go, they leave an imprint and "no impact" is only a theoretical concept, is the change that will occur during entry and sampling justified by the scientific knowledge to be gained? The Russians so far have followed international and national environmental protocols and procedures.

And yet much concern is still expressed that drilling into these truly pristine waters could irreparably harm them. Exploring previously unknown environments can never be without risk. Knowledge per se is not equally valued by all, and to some degree is intangible, so how do we balance competing opinions and interests? In Antarctica this is accomplished by a series of agreed conventions, and at the heart of the current debate is whether this framework of treaties and national regulations is effective in ensuring the protection and stewardship of Antarctica.

For the next 10 months, first entry in Lake Vostok will be on hold but we are inexorably inching our way into uncharted territories both scientifically and ethically. At a moment when we are poised to make history, might it not also be an opportunity to pause and honestly discuss whether the systems currently in place adequately balance risk and reward, and do they effectively accomplish the agreed protection and conservations goals in Antarctica?

Kennicutt is a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University and president of and U.S. delegate to the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR). This article contains the opinions of the author and does not represent the position of organizations with which he is associated.


Photo courtesy of http://usscar.tamu.edu

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