World Federation of Science Journalists

Amundsen - Antoni Pou Pujadas

Antoni Pou Pujadas
Science writer, magazine El Temps

Blog (Catalan)
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Blog (Spanish)
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My name is Toni Pou, I am a physicist and science writer from Barcelona. I am very interested in science communication because I think science is one of the most important kinds of knowledge that we, humans, have achieved. Scientific knowledge shouldn't be a privilege. That's why my goal is to explain science as correctly as if I was a scientist and as well explained as if I was a writer. I am now working in a very innovative project that will launch soon science digital books for students (Digital-Text), and I also write science articles for magazines and newspapers. I have been selected by the World Federation of Science Journalists to spend three weeks in the Amundsen, a scientific research icebreaker that sails the Arctic sea in the north of Canada. During the next three weeks, I will try to explain what I see up here and what the scientists do in this remote place.

July 10, 2008

Treasures in the mud

72º 25’ North, 129º 10’ West. The sea bottom is covered by treasures, we all know that. In a scientific vessel like the Amundsen, though, the idea of treasure should be redefined, keeping those boxes full of gold and jewels away from our minds. At the bottom of the Beaufort Sea, there is, essentially, mud. A brown and slippery mud that no old Spanish galleon would carry along the Caribbean. But there are some peculiar treasure hunters in the Amundsen that are interested in that mud: Heike Link and Mylène Bourque, both PhD students at the Sea Sciences Institute of Rimouski.

With the help of the crew, Heike and Mylène get ready to study the benthos at the front deck. Benthos is the scientific word for sea bottom, which at this point in the Beaufort Sea is only 46 meters deep. To do that, they drop a cubic, metallic and baseless structure into the water. When this structure reaches the bottom, it penetrates in the mud about half meter. Then a simple mechanism slips a door that closes the base of the structure and gets the sample of sediments ready to be pulled up. Once at the deck, the sample looks like a cube about 40 cm wide and long and 50 cm high. Protected with proper gloves that reach their elbows, Heike and Mylène stick several plastic cylinders in the mud. With a great effort, they retrieve the cylinders full of mud while mud itself makes a funny sucking noise. Once at their lab, in order to know the activity of the inhabitants of the mud, they will fill the cylinders with water and measure at what rate oxygen disappears.

Next operation at the front deck consists in deploying a closed net until it reaches the sea bottom. Once there, it will be pulled along the bottom for five minutes in order to trap superficial mud. Back on the deck, the content of the net is put down to the floor, forming a muddy square where the search for treasures can start. Some catches are found: sea stars, anemonys, sea cucumbers, and the jewel of the crown, an almost 20 cm long Mesidothea sp. -a kind of beatle with a jointed exoskeleton. The two treasure hunters explore carefully all the mud and keep gently what they find. At the end, all the place and people get muddy. The goal of this second sample is not just playing in the mud, but measure the diversity of the animal benthic community.

All those creatures that live in the mud play an important role in the ecosystem. They feed on the dead plankton that sinks from the shallows. So they eat the plankton and expulse wastes, transforming the organic matter into inorganic nutrients that will be pulled up to the shallows again by the winter storms. Those nutrients will feed the phytoplankton bloom during spring and summer time. And it's mainly because of this fundamental recycling task that Heike and Mylène are interested in the differences in this community when there is ice and when there is not. This knowledge may lead them to understand how could the fact that the amount of ice is decreasing year after year affect these muddy and important creatures.

July 9, 2008

Zooplankton fishermen

71º 28’ North, 133º 55’ West. 7:00 am. If we were in moderate latitudes, I would use the trick of the rising sun that makes the shadows of the men preparing their fishing nets long and long. Above 70 º north, this trick is useless. So I will just say that the sun is already high and shining. Although not having the dramatic effect of the sunrise, it’s still time to fish in the Amundsen. Stephane Thanassekos and Gerald Darnis, two PhD students from the University of Laval in Quebec, are setting up the fishing nets that will drop to 1.160 meters deep. Using these nets, they don’t expect to fish lobsters, octopus or giant squid but right the opposite: they try to get the tiny animals that form the zooplankton.

Plankton is formed by all the organisms that can't swim faster than the current, so they float and drift in the sea. Phytoplankton is formed by microscopic algae and other organisms that, using photosynthesis, produce their own organic matter from the nutrients and the carbon dioxide in the water. Zooplankton is in the next level of the foodweb and is formed by all the animals that feed on phytoplankton. These animals can measure from some thousand parts of a millimeter to some centimeters. For this reason, the holes of the net that scientists use are 50 thousand parts of a millimeter, so they will be able to catch every animal bigger than that.

The net drops down at 40 meters per minute for half an hour, stays at the bottom for a minute and is pulled up for another half an hour. The waiting time is not calmed. The curiosity of what will come up from a thousand meters deep is too strong. Finally the net gets on board and the fishermen grab their catches, which are concentrated in the recipients at the end of the net: a lot of zooplankton, the largest being some millimeters big, some shrimps of about 10 centimeters and a 20 centimeter black fish with a very big head. A poor catch for a hunter, but very interesting for a scientist. Once the net is clean and all the catches are in recipients that fit in a small kind of suitcase-fridge, the satisfied fishermen go to have lunch and get ready for the laboratory work waiting for them. Through their microscopes, in a few hours the dirty water they have just got will become the crowded world of the zooplankton.

The importance of being zooplankton

Lying on a sofa in the heat of july, some people may wonder if studying zooplankton in the Arctic makes any sense. Before asking this kind of questions, one should think that the world we live in is a net of relations between lots of parts, and that what happens to one of those parts may affect the others, even though they are far away. Polar regions have an important influence in the climate of the planet and the Arctic is one of the fastest changing systems due to global warming. If we are able to understand the role of zooplankton in this system, it might provide us information about some of the changes we might expect.

First of all, zooplankton is important because it feeds on phytoplankton and it represents food for bigger animals. So it's important to know the amount of zooplankton in the ocean if we want to figure out which part of the mortality of the phytoplankton is caused by zooplankton and which part is caused by other reasons, such as the excess of sun radiation caused by the reduction of the ice cover due to temperature rising. It's also useful to know how much food is left for the predators that feed on zooplankton, which are the base of the upper levels of the foodweb that ends up in the polar bear. The abundance of zooplankton is one of the parameters measured by the scientists in the Amundsen. They also study the taxonomy, which consists in figuring out to what specie the captured individuals belong. This knowledge will provide information to check if there is a rise of warm water species in the future, which will be a sign of water temperature rising.

But the zooplankton plays a role with a more global importance. It captures carbon. Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere have risen during the last decades due to fossil fuel burning. CO2 and other gases like water vapor and methane (CH4) in the atmosphere, water also traps more CO2. Phytoplankton captures this CO2 and uses it to produce its own organic matter, which forms part of the zooplankton when it feeds on phytoplankton. Once dead, the zooplankton will sink to the bottom of the sea. The global result of the process is, then, a carbon flux from the atmosphere (CO2) to the bottom of the sea (dead organic matter).

One of the questions that the zooplankton team in the Amundsen tries to figure out is its capacity to capture carbon and what may influence it. They are also interested in the changes in the Arctic and how they might affect this capacity. In a CO2 rising scenario like ours, that seems quite an interesting question to answer.

July 5, 2008

Flying pesticides

71º 13’ North, 134º 03’ West. In January 1992 the engine of a cargo vessel sailing from Hong Kong to America broke down in the middle of the Pacific. The sea was so rough that one of the containers fell off and everything inside it got into the water: yellow ducks, blue turtles, green frogs and red castors. Up to 29.000 bathroom toys. Some of them were spotted in Alaska a few years later and Curtis Ebbenmeyer, an oceanographer, said they might get to Europe drifting through the Arctic Ocean. This story was used in a very famous TV commercial and it shows that oceanic circulation connects parts which are far away from each other. Something similar happens in the atmospheric circulation, and that’s the reason why Fiona Wong, a PhD student from the University of Toronto, is in the Amundsen, getting samples of HCH’s.

Formed by 6 carbons, 6 of hydrogens and 6 chlorines, hexachlorocyclohexans (HCH’s) are the main component of the most heavily used insecticide in the world during the 70’s and 80’s. They were created in 1945 and 7 million tonnes have been used since then, 6 million of them only in Asia. They are now banned. HCH’s degrade, but there are still more than 10.000 tonnes in the environment, half of them in the polar regions of our planet. In a similar way than the bathroom toys, HCH’s made their way to the atmosphere and flew up to the cold regions where they sank. They are much more persistent here, and there are two reasons why. First of all, the cold water of the Arctic, just because it’s cold, admits an amount of HCH’s 9 times higher than a warm water. Secondly, low temperatures make HCH’s degrade slower, so they are able to remain longer in the cold regions.

Fiona is interested in measuring the abundance of HCH’s in the Arctic and it’s evolution. She wants to know the levels of HCH’s and if they are raising or decreasing. To do that she uses two pumps named “Flux Queen” and “Ocean Queen”. These machines make air and water pass through very specific filters made of foam that traps HCH’s. After that, Fiona keeps the foams very carefully and preserves them at -20ºC. Once back to her lab in Toronto, she will analyse the amount of HCH’s trapped in the foams and she will be able to know the amounts of HCH’s in the measured points of the Arctic. Doing these measures again and again, will be very important in order to know the evolution of the abundances of HCH’s.

When a contaminant like HCH’s gets into the foodweb through the phytoplankton, it accumulates because the organisms don’t have any mechanism to get rid of it. We could say, in a simple way, that through seals that feed on fishes that feed on zooplankton that feeds on phytoplankton, HCH’s are able to reach every single level of the foodweb, including humans that feed on seals and fishes. Moreover, since they are not eliminated, the higher on the foodweb an organism is, the higher amounts of HCH’s it accumulates. For example, if a fish eats 5.000 individuals of zooplankton in its entire life, it will accumulate most of the HCH’s contained in all those individuals. If an inuit woman eats 2.000 fishes in 25 years, she will accumulate most of the HCH’s contained in all those fishes, being the levels of HCH’s in those fishes much higher than the levels in zooplankton, which are much higher than the levels in the phytoplankton. HCH’s are carcinogenic, they accumulate in fat tissues and can affect nervous and hormonal systems. If that inuit women that has accumulated HCH’s for 25 years gets pregnant, the breast milk she will use to feed her baby will contain high levels of HCH’s. And this fact has already been confirmed thanks to health reports carried on in the Canadian Arctic.

July 3rd 2008

Organization keeps science going

71º 32’ North, 124º 21’ West. I will live for the next three weeks in a comfortable double cabin. I will share it with Gabriel, a Master student from Montreal University interested in marine bacteria ecology. The desk in the cabin is big enough for both laptops, papers, books, cameras and a collection of tiny glass recipients ready to be filled with samples of water full of microscopic hyperactive bacteria.

Once we leave our stuff in our cabins, new Amundseners get a security course, completed with a visit to the vessel. We also pass an examination by the nurse. Next, as everyday, there is a science meeting in the officer's lounge. Since there are many new people, we present ourselves to each other. Right now, the scientific team is formed by 35 people, 35 young people, I would say. I guess the age average in the team is below 30 years old, which maybe is not a low mark for a football team, but it is low indeed compared to the classical image of the white messy haired scientist. A part from that, it's worth telling that in this leg 9, the scientific team is formed by more women than men. C. J. Mundy, the chief scientist, leads the meeting and makes a proposal of schedule for the next day which is modified until everybody agrees. The schedule is really exhaustive, so everybody knows what will be going on at any time. Since some of the measurements require important resources, such as the zodiac or the helicopter, organization is very important. Working like this allows everybody to take the maximum benefit of their activity.

While having dinner, I chat with Veronique, who, according to the schedule, is in charge of the MVP, a sensor that the vessel carries in the water while sailing. Tonight, the MVP measurements will last 12 hours, while the Amundsen transits northwest from the Franklin Bay to the Thesiger Bay. Veronique has to be checking that the MVP works properly during the whole measurement. She does so by watching a computer screen that shows the main data captured by the sensor and checking that they remain within a reasonable range. Fortunately, she can count on a mate to do this. Even though, it's hard to imagine a more boring task. Being in a scientific expedition to the Arctic may sound glamourous, but there are boring tasks in every job that need to be performed. Moreover, those tasks use to be fundamental to succeed. Science is not an exception, weather it is done in the Arctic, in the Antarctic, in the Caribbean or in a laboratory in any city of the world. Nowadays, a part from brilliant ideas that, obviously, are important and lead research towards one or other direction, those small and boring tasks are one of the most important engines that keep science growing.

June 26, 2008

Two flights to go

7:00 in the morning. The sun shines, the air is surprisingly warm. A hybrid of a van and a bus from de fifties pick us up at the McKenzie Hotel in Inuvik. It will take us to the Aklak Air twin otter that will fly us to the Amundsen. After a ride with some heavy metal music, we get to the airport. The vehicle drops us right next to the twin otter. While our luggage is carried and a mechanic puts some fuel in the aircraft, mosquitos strike back. Yesterday I got severely bitten all around my face. Today, it seems they know they already worked on my face and they choose my arms. Even through the clothes, they manage to bite me again and more aggressively than yesterday.

The pilot, calling us out, saves us from the beasts. Eleven people get in the twin otter. Scientists that are boarding the Amundsen, Lucy Calderon, the journalist from Guatemala, and me. The pilot has had to add another seat in the aircraft, because there was no place for the eleventh passenger. Propellers start to move and we smoothly take off. This is very different from a usual aircraft. Looking through the small window and feeling on my head the cold air that comes in through the edge of the window, I finally understand the romantic concept of flying that Saint Exupery tried to explain in "Vol de nuit", which I failed to understand some years ago.

We head northeast. Transition between land and water is smooth: first of all, some lakes, later on, more and larger lakes, finally, water crossed by fine stripes of land until we get to the sea. The Franklin bay lies underneath us. Surrounded by flat pieces of ice, a red spot, the Amundsen, waits for us down there. The twin otter continues and lands in Cape Parry. Here is where the cold strikes for the first time. After getting off the aircraft, we dress warmly as fast as we can. It's sunny and the temperature is not severe, 2 ºC, but the wind is too sharp and most of us shelter in a huge hole in the ground.

Some minuts later, the helicopter arrives. Inside this egg of glass, with the life jacket on, tied to the seat and wearing the sound protection, we move up, down and sidewards, and I have the opportunity to understand again, and this time maybe too deeply, the romantic concept of flying I falsely belived I had understood in the twin otter.

Application essay

Since I first read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the only novel Edgar Allan Poe left us, at the very age of 15, I was completely fascinated by polar regions. While I was a teenager I couldn't separate the mysterious end of the story from the whiteness and the ethereal atmosphere of the poles. And I think I haven't yet. Time passed by, always faster than I had expected, and I kept reading all kind of books about the poles, from novels to essays, and especially real adventure books from the first polar explorers. I was deeply impressed by the lives of Roald Amundsen, Robert F. Scott, Ernest Shackelton and Richard E. Byrd, all of them from that sort of men capable of risking their own lives to wide the horizons of the human kind.

During the last year of my Degree in Physics at the University I had the chance to work as a geophysicist in the Antarctic Survey SCAN 97. I worked with maps and real data from the Weddell Sea, giving my best as a technician and also letting my imagination fly all across the globe to the South Pole, where I could see whales and seals, the coldest air of the earth and those same million year old magic blue icebergs that Arthur Gordon Pym might have seen more than a hundred years ago in the imagination of a great writer. But that was nothing more, nothing less, than imagination. I never had the chance to travel to a polar region and see it with my own real eyes.

I grew up and started working as a science writer, which is a job I love. Trying to communicate the passion I feel for scientific knowledge and its intrinsic beauty, as if I was a scientist, using words in the most elegant, clear and beautiful way, as if I was a writer, is an everyday challenge I look forward to. Most of the issues I deal with are physics and environmental sciences topics, global warming being one of the most written. I write in Catalan, a language spoken by about 6 milion people in a region called Catalonia, in the northeast of Spain.

Translating books is important to any culture. Capital for a small culture like ours. It gets rich with new and different ideas and experiences. But the culture would maybe grow up more effectively if one of its members writes directly about those new ideas and experiences in the local language. The message would be closer to people not only because of the language, but also because the mentality is similar and easier to understand. Here, in Catalonia, we have some scientists that have written about the polar regions: Ramon Margalef, Josefina Castellví, Joandomènec Ros. If I was chosen to get aboard the Amundsen, I would see one of my dreams come true. But I would also try to transmit to the Catalan speakers community the human experience of seeing one of the most inhospitable, but magic and beautiful at the same time, places in the world. A place where, in spite of its remoteness, it is possible to hear the echoes of our far voices louder than anywhere else: we are able to find global warming effects, learn from them and try to fix the health of our planet. That is a thing what science is for. We all have adventure in our hearts. And someone has to tell.