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ORONO, Maine -- A first-ever American collaboration with the Chinese government’s Antarctic science program is taking a University of Maine scientist to the edge of the southern continent’s seasonal ice pack this winter. Cindy Pilskaln, faculty member in the School of Marine Sciences, is spending Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s on a Chinese research vessel during a two-month trip to measure specific properties of the southern Indian Ocean and deploy an oceanographic instrument mooring to a depth of more than two and a half miles.
Pilskaln and Fei Chai, also of SMS, initiated the project with the Chinese government in 1997. Their research is supported by a two-year $368,920 grant from the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs.
In addition to deploying the mooring which was designed by Pilskaln, American and Chinese scientists will work together to collect data on temperature, salinity, algal production, nutrient concentrations and light transmission. Pilskaln will be joined by Vernon Asper, a biogeochemist at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“We’re looking at the role of the southern ocean in the global carbon cycle,” says Pilskaln. “It’s a very productive area with a high potential for strong drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide through primary productivity and carbon particle export. The U.S. has just finished up a big carbon cycling field program off Antarctica in the Ross Sea on the Pacific Ocean side of the continent. There aren’t any comparable data from the Indian Ocean side.”
Pilskaln has published extensively on the geochemical cycling of particulate organic carbon and biogenic silica in the oceans. She has conducted similar studies in the North and Equatorial Pacific, the Gulf of Maine, the Black Sea and other areas. Chai, an expert in numerical modeling, is an author of one of the mathematical models used to estimate the exchange of carbon dioxide between the ocean and the atmosphere as a function of nutrient and productivity levels.
The mooring which will be deployed consists of a steel cable equipped with current meters, sediment traps that collect sinking organic material and other instruments for collecting temperature and pressure data. An array of 51 glass balls will provide subsurface flotation for the mooring. The whole string will be anchored to the sea floor with railroad wheels, a type of weight which is commonly used by oceanographers.
“It’s a standard oceanographic operation,” says Pilskaln, “but when one stops to think about the costs, it’s like taking three or four Mercedes and anchoring them to the bottom of the ocean. Each sediment trap is worth $20,000. There’s over $30,000 worth of glass flotation. The current meter costs about $12,000. The Argos satellite transmitter is $5,000. There’s $24,000 invested in the two acoustic releases.”
After the mooring has been in place for about a year, Pilskaln and her team will return to retrieve it. Using an acoustic transponder, they will release the mooring from the anchor which will be left on the bottom. If all goes well, the mooring will float to the surface where scientists will pick it up, along with data and samples that have been collected by the instruments.
“This is the first time ever that a Western country has collaborated with the Chinese in the Antarctic on an oceanographic project in which American and Chinese scientists will work side by side,” says Pilskaln. “We had heard that the Chinese were interested in starting new collaborations with American oceanographers, and we were interested in working in the southern Indian Ocean. The United States is making significant efforts to engage the Chinese in many different ways. Scientific collaboration certainly represents one way in which we can develop a good working relationship that extends into other areas of interaction.”
Pilskaln left on November 19. She grew up in California and Massachusetts and received her master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University. Chai is a native of China and received his bachelor’s degrees at Ocean University of Qingdao in China and his Ph.D. at Duke University.
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