Australia's Chief Scientist

Battling Southern Ocean swells in the name of science

Earlier this year, a team of researchers embarked on a scientific voyage to Antarctica, battling the brutal icy winds and hurling swells of the great Southern Ocean.

For 32-year-old Jodie Smith, the trip on the RSV Aurora Australis was her first to Antarctica, but Jodie hopes it will not be her last.

“I’m absolutely hooked, I’m hoping to get back down there as soon as I can,” Jodie said.

Working in collaboration with Australian Antarctic Division scientists and under the direction of survey leader Dr Steve Rintoul from the CSIRO Division of Marine and Atmospheric Research, Jodie was part of a marine science survey to the Mertz Glacier region. The survey studied a previously inaccessible area of the seafloor which was exposed after a 78 kilometre long section of the Mertz Glacier broke off in early 2010.

“We essentially wanted to investigate three things. The first was to find out what, if anything was living underneath the Mertz Glacier.

“The second was to look at areas scoured by icebergs, which can wipe out entire regions of the sea floor.  We wanted to know how quickly ecosystems could re-establish after being scoured by drifting icebergs.

“And the third thing was to study cold-water corals that grow in canyons along the shelf break below the depth of icebergs,” she said

By using an array of underwater cameras and sensors, the team made discoveries with implications for environmental protection policy and marine science worldwide.

The cold water coral communities, for example, were first identified in 2007 off the shelf of George V Land and were later identified as Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems.

This work has since been able to confirm that the corals are fuelled by nutrient-rich water as it cascades off the continental shelf.  This finding enables scientists to predict the likely location of other coral communities, and inform policy agencies, enabling them to take the necessary steps to help improve biodiversity conservation and fisheries management in the Southern Ocean.

On investigating the area uncovered by the Mertz Glacier, the team discovered that life did indeed exist on the seafloor in the area previously covered by the glacier and they gathered data in this area never before seen by humans. This data provides valuable baseline information of the area and will be used to see how ecosystems that were previously living under an ice tongue respond and adapt over time.

They also used satellite imagery and bathymetry data to predict where iceberg scours may have occurred and collected photos in these areas to see if there had been any recolonisation by marine life.

“Unfortunately, some very large icebergs prevented us getting to several areas of interest, but this is just one of those things you have to contend with when working in a place like Antarctica”.

For Jodie, the voyage opened her eyes to an exciting, mysterious world of Antarctic science.

“I’ve always been interested in Antarctic science, but never really pursued it.  It was only as I was finishing a project studying human impacts on nutrient cycles up in Darwin that the opportunity came up to join the Antarctic Geoscience Project at Geoscience Australia,” she said.

Since then, she’s never looked back and hopes to do more work in Antarctica in the future.

“It would be nice to be on land next time.  The cold I could handle, it was the Southern Ocean I was terrified of.  On the way home, we experienced 7 – 10 metre swells for two days straight, it’s almost impossible not to be sea sick in those conditions!”

Jodie commenced her career with a Bachelor of Environmental Science and a PhD at the University of New South Wales.

“My interest in science was sparked from a young age which I spent growing up on Norfolk Island. We spent a lot of time exploring the island, from beaches and coral reefs, to mountains and lush rainforest. I was always fascinated by the variety of landscapes and how they got there. Studying environmental science was a perfect fit for me. And I loved research and looking for ways to manage environmental problems so continuing on to do my PhD was a natural progression”.

Since then, Jodie has applied her knowledge of environmental geochemistry to water bodies around the world – from Vietnamese water supplies, to Darwin Harbour and now to the Southern Ocean.

As a woman in science, Jodie feels there have been few barriers to her career in Australia, and in her field there are plenty of women.

However she did face some limitations on what she could do as a woman during her time as a volunteer water quality officer in Vietnam, but she acknowledges this was due to cultural differences and was part of the experience of working in a foreign country.

“Being flexible and willing to try new things is definitely an advantage, and I have been fortunate enough to work in some amazing places around the world”.

To learn more about Jodie’s research on the Antarctic marine science voyage visit the Geoscience Australia news page.

Image: Copyright Geoscience Australia