The Science Behind Ocean Acidification: Helen Findlay on Her Work in the Arctic Sea Ice (Interview)

Gathering water samples photo

All images by Martin Hartley for Catlin Arctic Survey

In the last week there have been some very sobering reports on the extremely degraded conditions of our oceans. The general gist is that it is much worse than previously thought, which is worrying since we already thought the situation of depleted fish stocks, plastic pollution and ocean acidification was pretty bad. Ocean acidification has been described here as a 'twin evil' with Global Warming and Mike reported recently that it affects fishes' sense of smell, poor Nemo. So who is at the front line of this science? Climate scientist Helen Findlay specialises in the subject and we talked to her recently about the important work she does on the Catlin Arctic Survey.

Making an ice sampling hole stage photo

Making an ice sampling hole
TreeHugger: Can you tell us about the area of science you work in?
Helen Findlay: My research focuses on how microscopic animals and plants affect the amount of carbon in the seawater and what that means for carbon dioxide exchange with the atmosphere and processes like ocean acidification. There is still so much to find out about the marine environment - there are a lot of dots we need to connect up to understand how marine systems work.

TH: How did you get involved in this area of work?
HF: I think I was 11 when I first decided I wanted to be a marine biologist. I grew up by the sea and it fascinated me. A lot of people told me that I would never make it. I suppose that's a part of what motivated me. I studied Biology at university and then did my Masters degree in Oceanography.

Breaking through the last layer of ice making an ice sampling hole photo

Breaking through the last layer of ice making an ice sampling hole
TH: What is your specialist subject?
HF: My specialist subject is ocean acidification, something that is occurring because carbon dioxide is being taken up from the atmosphere into the ocean and reacting with the seawater. I'm interested in how organisms will respond to these changes in carbon dioxide and pH levels. How will these levels change naturally through the seasons as different biological and physical processes change.

TH: What were you working on during this year's Catlin Arctic Survey?
HF: I was monitoring how carbon dioxide and pH change through the late winter - early spring period in the seawater below the sea ice. This is an important time because marine plants start to grow as light levels increase and they can affect the amount of carbon dioxide in the seawater. I'm interested to know how the sea ice influences these processes.

Catlin Arctic Survey Helen clearing the ice sampling hole photo

Helen clearing the ice sampling hole
TH: Was the Catlin experience different for you second time round?
HF: In this extreme environment there were things that didn't work last year that we've been able to do again this year with improved knowledge of our working conditions. Last year was difficult because I wasn't sure what would work and what wouldn't - so this year it has been a bit easier. But this year we experienced colder and windier conditions than we did last year so that's made it tougher.

TH: Were you building on the research you did on last year's Catlin Survey
HF: Yes. We were trying to answer very similar questions and the opportunity to come back for another year allowed me to put last year's data into context. We are gathering a base-line of information about this area of the Arctic Ocean, but we are trying to do that in a world that is in transition, so we need to make sure that we are understanding the processes correctly so that we can monitor and predict how things will change over much longer periods of time.

Catlin Arctic Survey writing up experiment notes photo

Processing water samples and writing up experiment notes
TH: What tips were you able to share with your fellow Ice Base team members who hadn't been before?
HF: Keep things simple, be practical and keep trying different things out, you'll always learn something new and improve a technique. Seems obvious, but a lot of things just don't work at -40C (one reason why there isn't a lot of data). So if you have an instrument that doesn't have electronics, compared to something which requires a complex battery set or computer system, choose the simple, yet effective option.

TH: What are the best and worst aspects of living for months in an Arctic environment?
HF: Best aspect: firstly the sunsets and solar phenomena. One night, for example, the sun set at about midnight (for just four hours), the wind was blowing snow along the ground so it looked like someone was pouring wisps of baby blue and pink dry ice across a vast cake of icing. Secondly, the people up here, either science colleagues or the support staff. It is difficult to live here, so everyone who comes tends to be like-minded and that makes a big difference.

Worst aspect: being covered in seawater in these cold conditions for the duration of the trip. We can't wash our outer gear and ever day it gets wetter and saltier - so while we can superficially dry out each night, the salt just keeps accumulating further into our outer layers, thermals and eventually on our skin, and salt keeps things perpetually damp.

Catlin Arctic Survey Waking up photo

Waking up on the Catlin Arctic Survey
TH: What was your most exciting moment on this trip?
HF: We are watching the changes in the sea ice and seawater, from the dark, cold winter period to the light, warm spring period. So when we first started to get phytoplankton and algae blooming in and under the ice, it was pretty exciting for us scientifically as it signifies the start of spring.

I also enjoyed our 24 hour sampling for zooplankton because lots of different microscopic animals come out at night compared to the daytime. We saw some amazing electric blue bioluminescent copepods, as well as a small Arctic Cod and a very large amphipod.

TH: What observations are you making in your work that have a significant impact on understanding our changing environment.
HF: My work here is just a small piece of a complex puzzle. The oceans are changing, especially here in the Arctic, but we still need more data about what the current state of the environment is or how certain processes work. So if we want to actually 'see' how the environment is changing we need to be monitoring it now and for long periods of time.

The data from the Catlin Arctic Survey, both last year and this year, will feed into our global understanding of how carbon levels change through seasons in and under sea ice - so this will help us to understand what might happen as sea ice melts. If we can keep up this monitoring it will allow us to see how quickly things change.

The Catlin Ice Base by night photo

The Catlin Ice Base by night
TH: How do you relate your work to our general everyday behaviours?
HF: As a scientist I simply have questions that I want to find answers to. But that's not to say these questions don't have meaning. The Arctic Ocean is not isolated, the ocean and atmosphere process that happen in the Arctic directly affect the climate of Europe, North America and the northern Asian Continent. Indirectly what goes on here affects the whole planet.

What we do in our every day lives - particularly in relation to energy usage - is causing changes in the Arctic. We can learn a lot by taking a step out of our home comforts sometimes. Here we have to melt our own water and we are constantly aware of how much fuel, food and waste we are using and producing because it has to be flown in and out every month. If there is any bad weather that could delay a flight and we have to survive with very little.

It makes me realise that we can live a lot more simply and less wastefully, if we are made aware of just how much things costs to make, to transport and maintain.

Catlin Arctic Survey ice fireworks photo

Catlin Arctic Survey ice fireworks
More on Ocean Acidification
Ocean Acidification Makes Clownfish Go Deaf (Poor Nemo Can't Hear Predators Anymore...)
United Kingdom Launches Projects to Study Ocean Acidification
Global Warming's Evil Twin: Ocean Acidification - A Present And Measurable Danger
Ocean Acidification Causing Some Shells to Grow Thicker
Ocean Acidification Changing Fishes' Sense of Smell, Predators' Scent Becomes Irresistible

The Science Behind Ocean Acidification: Helen Findlay on Her Work in the Arctic Sea Ice (Interview)
In the last week there have been some very sobering reports on the extremely degraded conditions of our oceans. The general gist is that it is much worse than previously thought, which is worrying

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