Women in Science: Secrets of the ice – How the toughest organisms on earth are responding to environmental change.
Dr Cath Waller is a lecturer in Marine Ecology at the Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences (CEMS) at the University of Hull. Originally trained as an architect Cath finally settled down to become an Antarctic scientist about ten years ago. She was hoping for a PhD somewhere warm and on a species she could eat at the end of the research. Instead she was offered PhD in Antarctica. Surprising herself, she took to the frozen continent like a penguin to an iceberg. Cath research involves studying small things living on or under rocks around the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands. This is one of the fastest warming places on the globe. She is interested in how invertebrates arrive and survive in this hostile environment and how they may cope under rapidly changing conditions. She has made several trips “South” and the “lure of the little voices” keeps calling her back to the ice. Cath took part in Soapbox Science 2013, on 5th July where she stood on a soapbox on London’s Southbank and spoke to the public about her work and to help promote the role of women in science. www.soapboxscience.org
Next year is the 100th Anniversary of the start of the Imperial Transantarctic Expedition lead by Sir Ernest Shackleton. When asked why he was heading back to the frozen continent he said: “Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden paths by the ‘lure of the little voices,’ the mysterious fascination of the unknown.”
Antarctic science started in the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” of the early 1900s. Apsley Cherry-Garrard and colleagues undertook a gruelling trek through horrendous conditions in the Antarctic winter of 1911 to collect Emperor penguin eggs. They hoped that they would provide the evolutionary link between birds and reptiles. (They did not). Most Antarctic research is much younger, born of international collaboration started in the International Geophysical year of 1957-8 and developed through the aegis of the Antarctic Treaty.
I am an Antarctic ecologist. I have, as Shackelton so eloquently put it, both a keen thirst for scientific knowledge and the urge to follow the call of the little voices. My science is a young science, being both Antarctic and ecology. The British Ecological society was founded in 1913 , the first of its kind, yet established much later than most scientific societies (The Royal Society was formed in 1660).
Superficially, ecology appears to be a relatively simple science. It is defined as “the branch of biology that deals with organisms’ relations to one another and to the physical environment in which they live”. Trying to understand how this actually happens is like trying to solve an incredibly complex three dimensional jigsaw of constantly changing patterns.
The complexity of ecosystems and the lack of a clear understanding of the underlying structuring mechanisms has led to the position of ecologists being likened to that of the inorganic chemists before the development of the periodic table. However things are changing and our understanding of the processes has advanced significantly over the last few decades, with the development of mathematical theories to help describe the complicated variability in ecological community structure.
One aspect of my research is to try to understand the Antarctic intertidal zone. What lives there and how it survives. Children all over the world play on the beach and interact with some of the amazing animals living in rock pools. Globally the intertidal zone has been intensively studied and has been the testing ground for many generally accepted ecological theories, proposed by some of the giants in ecological research. But south of the Antarctic circumpolar current it is virtually unknown and until very recently was considered almost lifeless (not true).
Surviving in the intertidal zone requires species living there be able to deal with marine conditions when the tide is in yet also be able to cope with terrestrial conditions when the tide is out (desiccation due to sunlight in summer, freezing air temperatures in winter) . Antarctic intertidal species have to deal with all of this and more. In winter the intertidal zone is encased in ice, in summer the ice melts and scrapes across the beaches scouring the rocks clean; and air temperatures can be well below zero degrees Celsius. But a much greater threat than this is the effects of climate change. On the Antarctic Peninsula mean air temperatures have risen by around 3°C over the last 50 years and sea surface temperatures by around 1°C. Iceshelves are collapsing and almost 90 per cent of the glaciers are retreating.
For marine animals that have evolved over millions of years to survive in temps of -1.8 to + 1.8oC this is potentially catastrophic. At the moment we don’t really know how the vast majority of Antarctic marine invertebrates will adapt to these rapidly changing conditions, or indeed if they can. And that is bad news for the rest of the Southern ocean ecosystem as these animals are key components of the food web which culminates in higher predators such as whales, penguins and seals.
Because intertidal species are the toughest of the tough they could be the ones that can tell us something about how this ecosystem may respond to a rapidly changing world.Tagged in: women in science
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter