OSC research team heading north

By David Sorensen

A team of Memorial University oceanographers will be heading north next summer on a once-in-a-lifetime research project.

Dr. Don Deibel, professor (research), and associate professor Dr. Richard Rivkin of the Ocean Sciences Centre, along with Robin Anderson of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, will be heading to the north coast of Greenland April 1 to Aug. 1 to study a phenomenon known as an arctic polynya. A polynya is an area of open water in the midst of sea that is otherwise nearly permanently covered in ice. These huge areas cover thousands of square kilometres and are ice-free longer than just a few weeks during the summer. Some are open year-round, but this can vary yearly.

Because the open water attracts large animals, primitive man frequented these areas in the search for food.

But Rivkin, Deibel, Anderson, two post-doctoral fellows and a number of graduate students who will travel north for this expedition are interested in much smaller organisms.

"We're specialists in studying carbon flow at what one would call the base of the food web," said Deibel. "So we're interested in the very smallest plankton, the microscopic plankton.

"My contribution to the team are the slightly larger plankton that eat the creatures he studies," said Deibel, indicating Rivkin.

"The question which we're attempting to answer is, how does the coupling or transfer of carbon from microscopic organisms - bacteria, protozoa, phytoplankton - how is that coupled to the larger organisms," said Rivkin. "How does this influence the export of carbon to the deep ocean.

"The very small particles don't sink, so they won't be lost from the system. (We) study these processes: How the carbon is taken from the inorganic and organic molecules and moved up the food web to the point where it can be either ingested by fish, or transported out of the system."

The research is based on the hypothesis that food webs within polynyas are unique, said Deibel, and therefore the transfer of carbon out of the system happens in a different manner than it would in other ocean waters.

There are three main arctic polynyas where research on the phenomena is concentrated: The North Water Polynya, on Greenland's northwest coast, the Northeast Water Polynya on Greenland's east coast, and the St. Lawrence Island Polynya in the Bering Sea. Deibel went to the east coast of Greenland in 1993 on a German-led research mission to the Northeast Water Polynya.

Next summer's trip to the North Water Polynya will be aboard the Canadian Coast Guard ship Sir John Franklin, which is being refitted for science for this expedition.

The expedition is funded by the Research Partnerships Program of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Non-university partners include the federal Department of Energy, Defence Department, DFO, Atmospheric Environmental Services and Natural Resources Canada.

There's a total budget of $4 million - half of which is going to refit the Franklin - that covers the entire four-year life of the project.

MUN has four berths on the Franklin , and Rivkin, Deibel, Anderson, the grad students and post-docs will alternate use of those four berths for the duration of the expedition.

The research doesn't end when the researchers leave the north, however.

"All the experiments are done on board, samples are collected, hundreds of pounds if not tonnes of water will be shipped back to Memorial, and we have funding for three years post-cruise," said Deibel.

Rivkin said a large component of the expedition is the training of graduate students.

Students completing graduate work at the Marine Sciences Lab are uniquely positioned, added Deibel. Because the Labrador Current passes right by the doorway of the Ocean Science Centre, students can study water, the headwaters of which are adjacent to the polynyas.

"The area of the North Water Polynya where we'll be working next year is really a major part of source water that eventually becomes the Labrador Current," said Deibel.

And while MUN's research projects are unique, the entire expedition is being coordinated to allow for all participating scientists to share data.

Rivkin said Canadian oceanographers have been trying since the 1950s to get funding for a study of this scale of arctic polynyas, and it's finally happening because of the kinds of partnerships that have been developed.

"This generation has now the opportunity to go and carry out research which was only dreamed about for the last 40 years," said Rivkin.

Each of the projects was peer-reviewed and funded based on its merits.

"For our team here at Memorial to have been recognized by being funded and to be able to be taking part in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, is a great recognition of our expertise and talents and a great opportunity and responsibility to do the best job we can," said Deibel.

MUN involvement is a strong recognition of the role of the Ocean Sciences Centre in Canadian oceanography.

"We're not just participants, we were involved since the early days," said Rivkin.


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