UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Spring 2008
[hot topic]
Tangled Up in Blue
Iceberg studies could have global warming implications
by Kelly Knufken
iceberg

There’s more to icebergs than meets the eye. Everybody knows that. But a team of scientists, which includes a USD professor, is delving into the rich development of life that icebergs attract in their wake and the role they may play in climate change.

The team’s research, first published in Science in July 2007, revealed the areas around icebergs as teeming with life. As the giant floating structures melt, they essentially fertilize the ocean, says Ron Kaufmann, associate professor of Marine Science and Environmental Studies, releasing material into the water that fuels more growth of algae, which attracts more and more animals.

“So they’re not just passive objects floating around,” Kaufmann says. “They’re actually changing the chemistry of the area that they’re moving through. Of course, if you change the chemistry, you have the potential to change the biology, and as a biologist I’m particularly interested in that.” Indeed, Kaufmann has his own research paper stemming from the project forthcoming.

The initial research paved the way for a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to measure how much carbon might be pulled from the atmosphere as a result of an iceberg’s presence. All the organisms living around the iceberg will inevitably convert carbon from the atmosphere into fecal matter, which falls to the ocean floor.

Kaufmann and his fellow scientists will travel to the Antarctic this May and June to begin measuring this effect. It’s an important question, as carbon dioxide accumulation is a hot topic of global warming.

Kaufmann, who has always taken USD students on his Antarctic research trips, comes to the work by way of his interest in how organisms interact with their ecosystems. His focus in the iceberg research is on Antarctic krill that are “really, really important ecologically.”

“In terms of the project we’re doing, they are major processors of food. So they eat a lot, and they are eaten a lot. They defecate a lot, so they are processing material.” Kaufmann is enthusiastic about Antarctica, where he’s been going for research projects for 15 years.

“Antarctica is a really, really amazing place,” he says. “Imagine a world where there is no red, there’s no orange, there’s no yellow. And everything is in shades of black, white, gray, blue and green. But the spectrum of black, white, gray, blue and green is just much more diverse than you’d ever get in this kind of environment. So there are shades of blue that you never, ever, ever see here — ice blues and things like that.”

And he’s passionate about the organisms he’s been studying for decades, which live in “very dark, very cold, very high-pressure” places. “I was interested in deep-sea animals and how they managed to make a living in this really — to me — sort of strange environment.”

Animals that toil away on the sea floor trying to eat and not be eaten might not sound riveting, but in Kaufmann’s office there are amazing keepsakes like spindly glass rods made by actual sponges deep in the sea. And his enthusiasm could charm anyone into wanting to spend time on a ship in the Antarctic looking for shy ocean creatures.