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Released January 27, 2003

By Judy Isbell

STENNIS SPACE CENTER — University of Southern Mississippi marine scientist Vernon Asper returned to the Antarctic Monday in a quest to unravel some of the mysteries of Earth's climate changes.

Asper, a professor of marine science specializing in marine geology and particle dynamics, has been traveling to the remote Ross Sea in the Antarctic each year since December 2001.

In research funded by the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs, Asper and graduate students from Southern Miss's Department of Marine Science have worked with Dr. Walker Smith of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences in deploying sophisticated equipment to monitor both environmental and climate changes of this frigid region.

The National Science Foundation project, called "Interannual Variability in the Ross Sea," or IVARS for short, is a five-year project to see how the environment, and biological interactions with the environment, change from year to year in this region of the Antarctic.

Team member Joe Tegeder, a marine science graduate student in Southern Miss's Department of Marine Science, based at Stennis Space Center, was making his fourth trip to the Antarctic with Asper.

"My main job is to collect and filter the suspended particle samples," Tegeder said. "In addition to that, I also assist Vernon with the mooring deployment, and help the other scientists with their sampling."

Just getting to the Ross Sea, where all that science can begin, is a challenge.

"Logistics are difficult," Asper said. "In December, we flew from Gulfport to Atlanta to Los Angeles to Melbourne, Australia, to Hobart, Tasmania." In Hobart, Asper boarded the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker ship, the Polar Sea. It then took about eight days to sail through the ice-choked waters to the study area in the Ross Sea.

Monday, Asper and his party flew to Christchurch, New Zealand. From there, they were to fly to McMurdo Station in Antarctica, where they will meet the ship that will take them once again into the waters of the Ross Sea.

Once in his research location each December, Asper establishes two mooring stations in the sea where he deploys sampling equipment fastened to a long tether to monitor chemical processes and biological organisms. The equipment is withdrawn in February after collecting water samples for analysis. Asper and the team from Southern Miss spend about a week each trip in their research location taking water samples and deploying or retrieving equipment from the mooring stations.

One of Asper's primary interest areas is algal blooms — high concentrations of microscopic marine plants called phytoplankton. The foundation of the marine food chain, phytoplankton depend upon certain conditions for growth and are a good indicator of change in their environment. For these reasons, and because they also exert a global-scale influence on climate, phytoplankton are of primary interest to oceanographers and earth scientists around the world.

The equipment deployed into the Ross Sea can tell Asper a great deal about phytoplankton — how many are there, how fast they are growing, and whether they are getting the nutrients they need from the environment.

Despite temperatures on deck at around 20º F, Asper said he doesn't mind the cold.

"The National Science Foundation provides clothing appropriate for the environment," he said. Wool socks, long underwear, several different kinds of gloves for any working condition, mittens, hats, jackets, fleeces and a parka are part of each crewmember's wardrobe.

While scientists are well provided with clothing for the cold, there is still no escaping the danger inherent in the work they do from the deck of the ship.

"We work right on the edge with no safety harnesses or railings," Asper said. "If we were to fall in, we would very likely not survive."

The risks, however, are worth the payoff for Asper and his team.

"These environments are very important in monitoring climate change, imprinting deep water as it's formed and as a sink for carbon dioxide," he said. "The more we know about these processes, the more we'll understand observed changes in them."


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM