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Pop Goes Antartica



The waters of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica contain abundant amounts of the nutrients needed by ocean plants for growth. However, in many sections of this ocean, there aren’t as many of these plants (phytoplankton) as scientists expect to find. Why not? What is missing?

The scientists on this research cruise are hoping to solve this mystery. One interesting clue can be found in the part of the Southern Ocean between the southern tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula. When scientists travel by ship from west to east in this area, they see a sharp increase in amount of phytoplankton in the ocean water. This is very unusual. What could be causing this dramatic change?

To find out, scientists will spend a month of the Antarctic winter (July, 2006) on board the RV Nathaniel B. Palmer in the Drake Passage. They will be in the area above the Shackleton Fracture Zone (SFZ), a high ridge on the ocean floor. The scientists will study water currents, nutrients, and phytoplankton in hopes of solving the “Case of the Elusive Element”. When scientists solve this mystery, it will help us understand what may be happening in other parts of Earth’s ocean.


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The Hypothesis

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NSF Office of Polar Programs, Antarctic Sciences Section
This special report was made possible by the NSF Office of Polar Programs, Antarctic Sciences Section, Award Nos. ANT04-44134 University of California-San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography (B. Gregory Mitchell, Farooq Azam, Katherine Barbeau, Sarah T. Gille, Osmund Holm-Hansen); ANT04-43403 University of Hawaii (Christopher I. Measures, Karen E. Selph); ANT04-44040 University of Massachusetts Boston (Meng Zhou); ANT04-43869 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Matthew A. Charette),  for the study entitled "Collaborative Research: Plankton Community Structure and Iron Distribution in the Southern Drake Passage".