University of South Florida


USF student spending the holidays aboard global research ship in the Antarctic

View from the ship | Photo by: Hannah Hunt

USF student spending the holidays aboard global research ship in the Antarctic

By: Cassidy Delamarter, University Communications and Marketing


Hannah Hunt

When Hannah Hunt signed on for a two-month global research project in the Amundsen Sea in the Antarctic, she knew that meant she wouldn't be spending the holidays with family and friends. She also knew she couldn't pass up the opportunity.

“I thought I would miss the holidays out here, but I don’t think I could ever describe somewhere as pristine until now,” said Hunt, a graduate student studying chemical oceanography at the University of South Florida. “It is completely untouched and beautiful, but very harsh at the same time.”

The USF College of Marine Science is collaborating with U.S. GEOTRACES, part of an international marine program, to investigate the distribution of iron and other trace elements in the ocean. It’s an area of research with scarce field observations due to freezing conditions in polar regions and the extremely difficult process of collecting samples without contamination. Although hard and laborious, the research is important because the elements provide nutrients for sea life, such as plankton, which help absorb carbon dioxide.

When she heard about the project, Hunt was excited by the challenge and immediately applied to collect samples aboard for principal investigator Tim Conway, USF associate professor of chemical oceanography. After several weeks of preparing the ship and loading it with gear, Hunt and several other researchers from around the country arrived in the Amundsen – an Antarctic coastal sea between New Zealand and Chile – before Thanksgiving.

"It is completely untouched and beautiful, but very harsh at the same time."

Hunt will continue gathering samples and field observations through the end of January. When Hunt returns, she will continue her graduate studies and work on a separate project, where she is researching nutrients in the Gulf of Mexico.

Back on land, Conway and Zachary Bunnell, another USF marine science graduate student, will collaborate with scientists at Texas A&M University and the University of Southern California to examine the samples to determine how the elements are entering the sea and how they provide nutrients for sea life, such as plankton.

“Plankton, a tiny plant in the ocean, are responsible for much of the transfer of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the deep ocean,” Conway said. “The elements are essential nutrients to the plankton growing, and the plankton impact the overall health of the planet and its natural processes.”

  • Penguins spotted on nearby ice sheet

  • Hannah boarding the research ship from Chile

  • View from the ship of the U.S. Antarctic Polar program ship, R/V Laurence M. Gould, at the U.S. Palmer Station base

The Southern Ocean plays a disproportionately large role in global carbon cycling, a process vital to life on Earth because it moves carbon between the land, ocean and atmosphere, regulating the planet’s climate and temperature. According to Conway, while the Antarctic accounts for just 10 percent of ocean surface area, it absorbs about 25 percent of the carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere. 

“This region of the ocean is iron-limited,” Conway said. “But the exciting thing about seas such as the Amundsen is that they experience seasonal dramatic plankton blooms that are thought to be fueled by pulses of iron and cause dramatic uptake of carbon. This project hopes to shed new light on this.”

The observations will be added into the international GEOTRACES dataset that is freely available to the public and used to improve global ocean models.

Combined with the information gathered from the additional researchers aboard the ship, the endeavor should create a bigger picture of trace elements in atmospheric dust, sea ice, sediments, particles and water within the Amundsen Sea. Conway expects several collaborative papers to come from this research over the next few years.

This project is funded by the National Science Foundation. View an interactive ship map for the U.S. GEOTRACES project

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