World Federation of Science Journalists

Amundsen - Maria Maggi

Maria Maggi
Science editor for L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's newspaper
Vatican City, Rome, Italy


July 28, 2008

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July 3, 2008

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June 25, 2008

On the Amundsen

It is a surreal atmosphere for me: the sun does not set, the compass does not mark the north (the magnetic pole is located apart from the geographic pole), the seascape sometimes is punctuated by ice blocks, sometimes is a vast expanse of ice, and sometimes is open sea. Then suddenly far in the ocean a white splash rises from the waves and a beluga whale takes a breath of fresh air. Or the middle of the ice you see a seal peeping its head out, then climbing on a slab of ice, and finally simmering in the sun.
I am on the Canadian icebreaker Amundsen undertaking arctic research at approximately 70 degrees North in the Beaufort Sea, cruising off Banks Island, between Franklin Bay and Darnley Bay.

I am here, in this incredible place so far away and so different from the panoramas of my homeland, to observe the arctic research underway as one of the winner of the Amundsen Competition organized by the World Federation of Science Journalists. A group of about 40 young researchers, coming from Canada and from several countries, actively works here even 16 hours per day to study the delicate arctic ecosystem.

On Saturday, a team of researchers went down on the ice (now full of water pools) for the last time and collects data and samples. It is really weird to walk on this thin crust of ice laid on the surface of the ocean and to cross broad extents of shallow water, twenty-to-thirty centimetres deep, without knowing if underneath the surface there would be solid translucent ice or just water. When we were at about five hundred metres from the ship the researchers started collecting data and samples. The scuba diver got into the cold water from a small opening in the ice, dipping tens of times to collect samples of zooplankton in different locations and to measure how much solar radiation penetrates below the ice pack in different conditions of thickness and partial melting. Some researchers extracted ice carrots in order to study the microscopic life within and others measured the solar radiation absorbed and reflected (albedo), in order to estimate its contribution to the melting of the ice pack. Sunlight, on the summer solstice, is actually much dazzling and I had to use a good sun protection cream, also under the tip of the nose, where it is easy to get a sunburn because of reflected light.

Once the samples are collected and the measurements completed on the ice pack or in the open sea, through special equipment like the "rosette" - a rack of 24 bottles that open and close automatically at predefined depths - or special nets for zooplankton and sediments, researchers work inside the scientific laboratories of the ship. These activities, in coordination with other studies already completed or under way in other regions of the arctic, aim at understanding the actual status of uncertain balance of this environment still vastly unexplored.

Stephane Thanassekos, PhD Student of Laval University (Québec) focusing on zooplankton, explains that he studies organisms of a few millimetres, like copepods, which eat microscopic algae and feed fish and larger marine organisms. He measures their concentrations at several levels of depth and solar light intensity in order to understand how they would respond to the reduction in the size of the arctic ice cap. He studies also the arctic cod, a not well-known species that reaches only 20 centimetres of length at maturity (12-13 years). Arctic cods are basically the most important link in the food chain between zooplankton, which they feed on, and the animals that live on the surface like gulls or other arctic birds, seals and polar bears that, in turn, eat them. It is a creature of slow movements and slow growth, well accustomed to cold climate as it takes shelter in tunnels dug into the ice pack. Knowing this fish well is crucial to understand if it will be able to adapt to a changing habitat and how this will affect the food chain. With the progressive shrinking of the arctic ice towards areas closer and closer to the pole, the arctic cod is expected to move north, because the areas without ice will be occupied by more competitive fishes from temperate zones that will probably upset its ecosystem.

Eva Alou Font, PhD Student of the University of Québec at Rimouski, studies the behaviour of phytoplankton, microscopic algae of various colours, whose abundance depends on the amount of nutriment dissolved in the water, which changes from place to place depending on temperature, solar radiation intensity, and depth. Phytoplankton is the base of the food chain and it is an important bioindicator used to monitor the health of the environment.
It is also important to understand with detailed analysis how much the arctic is capable of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Elizabeth Shadwick, PhD Student of Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia), explained me that a gas transfer between air and ocean is controlled by the pressure difference of the gas in the two atmospheres and by the boundary conditions at the air-water interface. As an example, if the concentration of CO2 is higher in air, CO2 will tend to flow into the ocean and waves, ripples, foam films or ice floes will determine the transfer speed. Inside of the ocean, CO2 concentration depends on all biological organisms, water circulation, temperature, and salinity. The arctic tends to absorb carbon dioxide because cold water dissolves more gas and the photosynthesis activity of phytoplankton in spring is usually faster then the respiration of marine organisms. In reality things are much more complex, because the arctic sea functions also as a link between two oceans, mixing the waters of the Pacific, older and richer of carbon dioxide, with the younger Atlantic waters. Here the thermohaline circulation closes the loop after crossing all the oceans and circling the planet in about a century. The research conducted during this mission should give the most detailed picture ever taken about how much carbon dioxide is absorbed in the arctic, with particular attention to the role of the superficial ice layer, whose function is still unclear. The sampling made through the "rosette" allows also the detection of viruses, bacteria, and various contaminants. It has been shown that at these latitudes there is still a great amount of viruses (about 3 millions in every millilitre of marine water), that can infect several species, both vegetable and animal, and modify in some way the ecosystem.
The progressive melting of the arctic ice pack, more apparent in this season, will result for example in the loss of part of the population of arctic bears, seals, and walruses, that need solid ice platforms on which resting, giving birth and bringing up the offspring. Moreover the delicate equilibrium among several species well adapted to extreme conditions is destined to change. This part of the world with such a wild nature and extreme weather, with perennial ice that is inevitably melting, must be studied before it is too late, in order to understand more about the ongoing climate change, which affect the polar regions the most, and to find ways to mitigate it.

Maria Maggi
Science Editor for L'Osservatore Romano
Vatican City, Rome, Italy


Application essay

A good journalist is able to speak to the hearts, more than to the minds, of the readers. Writing is not only about conveying knowledge. It is also about the lighting of a fire, a burning passion especially in young readers for learning more and contributing to a more humane and just world.

I am so interested in the Amundsen Competition because I have the matter at heart. For many years I have been collecting material about global warming and effects of climate change and, lately, I have been writing about these issues more and more often. In 2007 I wrote articles on the greenhouse effect (in January), various consequences of climate change (in February), drought (in May), glacier melting (in June), hurricanes, erosion of biodiversity, wildfires, alternative energy technologies (in July and August), sustainability in daily activities (in September): all interconnected issues related to global warming.

My main occupation has always been teaching in high school, but since over 30 years I write regularly on the pages of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's newspaper based in Rome. It is published daily in Italian and weekly in eight languages and distributed in more than 129
countries. I receive letters from readers around the world, including missionaries in secluded places and areas with low standard of living. This motivates me because my little work reaches out to an audience that has an important role in awakening public opinion to environmental issues, within catholic communities and in less developed countries where people are more exposed to environmental problems.

The effects of climate change have started to become apparent also in Italy, the country where I live, and we will soon experience the consequences of the progressive sea-level rise. People are not very sensitive to those issues yet; they are gaining awareness slowly, slowly, as environment has more and more space in mass media. A week aboard the Canadian research icebreaker Amundsen would be a life-changing event for me. I would get a first-hand experience of global warming where it is unfolding the fastest and this would certainly find room in scientific press and large-circulation magazines. As an educator, I wish that this experience would help me to tell people, especially the younger generation, how closely connected we all are with the environment on the planet that we share. I believe this is the first step in learning how to respect and conserve the Earth's resources and in realizing that everyone of us makes a difference everyday.

Thank you so much for organizing the Amundsen Competition and for promoting environmental awareness. I wish the initiative is very successful.