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Private gift supports Antarctic research

  • The research team
    The research team  Top row (L to R): Professor Deborah Steinberg, PAL-LTER outreach coordinator Beth Simmons, post-doctoral associate Kim Bernard, and W&M undergraduate Sarah Giltz. Bottom row (L to R): Marine technician Joe Cope, and graduate students Kate Ruck and Lori Price.  Courtesy photo
  • RVIB Laurence M. Gould
    RVIB Laurence M. Gould  The Research Vessel Ice Breaker (RVIB) Laurence M. Gould docked at the U.S.Antarctic Palmer Research Station.  Courtesy photo
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A private gift from Adrian G. "Casey" Duplantier Jr., matched by 1st Advantage Federal Credit Union of Newport News, will support another season of Antarctic field research for two W&M students -- graduate student Kate Ruck of W&M's School of Marine Science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and W&M undergraduate Sarah Giltz.

Ruck and Giltz join VIMS post-doctoral associate Kim Bernard, marine technician Joe Cope, and graduate student Lori Price for 6 weeks of field study in the coastal waters of Antarctica. The team left Virginia in late December and will return in early February, taking advantage of the brief polar summer to conduct their research. Their study is part of the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program at the U.S. Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Professor Deborah Steinberg leads the VIMS component of the Palmer LTER program. The program is headed by former VIMS professor Hugh Ducklow, and funded through competitive grants from the National Science Foundation.

Annual winter temperatures along the Antarctic Peninsula have increased by 11°F during the last 50 years, five times the global average warming. Researchers with the Palmer LTER program have monitored this change since 1991, and are now focusing their studies on how the rapidly warming climate is affecting sea ice and marine creatures in the region. In the 35 years since researchers first started counting Adélie penguins in the area, the number of breeding pairs has declined from around 35,000 to 5,600, a drop of more than 80 per cent.

The VIMS team will spend most of their 6-week field season aboard the U.S. research vessel Laurence M. Gould, studying how climate change is affecting the microscopic animals that form the base of the Antarctic food web.

"We're interested in zooplankton for two main reasons," says Steinberg. "First, changes in their abundance and species composition ripple up the food chain to affect fish, penguins, and whales. Second, they play an important role in the  ‘biological pump,' potentially helping to move carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the deep sea where it doesn't contribute to global warming."

Ruck, a first-year Master's student in Steinberg's Zooplankton Laboratory at VIMS, will use the Duplantier/1st Advantage gift to support her study of how changes in body fat among Antarctic zooplankton may affect penguin nutrition. This will be her second Antarctic field season.

Giltz graduated from W&M in May 2009, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology. She has previously worked in a VIMS Fisheries laboratory, studying ear bones to help age juvenile shad and herring, and aboard a NOAA research vessel, assisting with a bottom trawl survey. The Duplantier/1st Advantage gift will support her first visit to Antarctica.

The Duplantier/First Advantage gift has allowed one VIMS graduate student and one W&M undergraduate to conduct research at Palmer each year since 2007. Previous gift recipients are VIMS graduate students Glaucia Fragoso, Heidi Geisz, and Noelle Yochum; and W&M undergrads Miram Gleiber, Erin Morgan, and Julian Ma.

The Palmer LTER is one of more 26 LTER research sites located throughout the United States and its territories; each focused on a specific ecosystem. The Palmer LTER studies a polar marine biome with research focused on the Antarctic pelagic marine ecosystem, including sea ice habitats, regional oceanography and terrestrial nesting sites of seabird predators.