The Exciting Unknown

Laurel and Lucy’s behaviours are alright today. Well, thus far. It’s only 8:21 AM and there’s no predicting when their mood will plummet or when they’ll throw a tantrum. All I can do it love them and give them little pep talks or play some soothing classical music. I’ve only been working with them for about a month and I’ve already experienced how draining it can be, but I have faith in our relationship.

Laurel and Lucy are two VINDTA instruments, meaning they are Versatile INstrument(s) for the Determination of Total dissolved inorganic carbon and Alkalinity (emphasis on versatile…). They analyse the amount of dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) and total alkalinity (TA) in sea water samples. But first, when I start them up in the morning, they need to stabilise (which is something I can relate to). Once they give me good numbers (and I have had my coffee), we can have a go at the samples. You wouldn’t think an instrument could be temperamental, but if you don’t believe it and work in environmental chemistry, you’ve got another thing coming. You might think that it’s just me, a first-year PhD student who is still finding her ways (which is also true), but I guarantee you’ll get a similar response from any VINDTA-user.

The sea water samples we’re analysing at the moment have been collected by the marine team at the Rothera Research Station on the west Antarctic Peninsula. Next autumn, I’ll be analysing samples that I’ve collected from the Weddell Sea on expedition PS117. The reason Laurel, Lucy, and I are analysing DIC and TA is to study the role that seasonal sea ice has on the CO2 uptake by the Southern Ocean from the atmosphere. It’s a huge topic within this field, because the inaccessibility to polar regions, especially in winter months, mean that we do not have a whole lot of data to develop an unbiased understanding of the carbon cycle in sea ice covered regions and its seasonal drivers.

Sea water sampling using a CTD

One of the things that CO2 outgassing or uptake by the ocean depends on is the relative amount of CO2 in the surface ocean and in the atmosphere. For example, if the surface sea water has a much lower CO2 concentration than the atmosphere, the surface ocean may absorb CO2. The reverse is also true. There are many physical, chemical, and biological processes that affect the amount of CO2 in the sea water and the way it is exchanged with the atmosphere. If it weren’t for the ocean’s capacity to take up CO2 (and heat), changes in our climate would be much more rapid and extreme. The polar regions play a considerable role in carbon uptake and sequestration due to the higher CO2 solubility of cold water, phytoplankton blooms in spring, and sinking water masses to the abyssal. While sea ice was first thought to act as a barrier that inhibited any gas exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere, it turns out that it is actually a highly interactive matrix that affects the carbon content of the sea water below and is even thought to exchange carbon with the atmosphere as well. How? What are the drivers? How does it vary? How is it changing? Those are the big questions!

Besides keeping Laurel and Lucy happy, I’m currently in the exciting pursuit of finding my place within the ocean of opportunities within this research field, i.e. my “nugget”, with the overwhelming amount of information. My mind is slowly but surely taking on the shape of that of a chemical oceanographer and I’m starting to see ways of how I can approach the unknown.

Re-reading how I’ve described my work with the VINDTAs, I realise that some readers may question my sanity a bit (I sometimes do as well…). I’m not kidding when I say that I talk to Laurel and Lucy, and the other day someone severely judged me for naming my instruments by a name and referring to them individually as “she”. But I think that as long as the ladies and I are both happy, and we get good data on variables of the marine carbonate system, it’s fine.

This blog post was written by Elise Droste, a PhD student at the University of East Anglia. Her work is funded by the EnvEast DTP. For more information please contact her via email:



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