Tuesday, February 19, 2013

ASLO 2013 is Underway!

There is Super Bowl, there is Mardi Gras, and then there is ASLO 2013 Aquatic Sciences Meeting!!!

Greetings from New Orleans!

Chau, Amanda, Mike Kendrick (a PhD student in Alex Huryn's lab), Mick Demi (a PhD student in the Benstead lab) and I made the trip to New Orleans for the meeting on Sunday. This is my first time to New Orleans and I must say that I really like this city. It's got a lot of charm and there is great food on every corner.
Amanda with her crayfish.

We're having a great time so far but the real reason we are here is the science!

Amanda and I both have posters to present. You probably remember Amanda from previous posts. She was one of the REUs that spent the summer with us in Iceland. Amanda measured respiration rates of stream invertebrates in the lab at different temperatures. These measurements will be used to calculate threshold elemental ratios for the invertebrate species. Amanda was able to get great measurements on the freshwater snail, Radix peregra, from two streams differing in mean annual temperature by approximately 10°C.  She was able to test the metabolic cold adaptation theory which states that at a given temperature, ectotherms form colder environments will have higher metabolic rates compared to those of their counterparts from warmer environments. Amanda found partial support for the metabolic cold adaptation hypothesis with snails from the colder stream having higher respiration rates at 20°C than those from the warmer stream.

My poster provides some very preliminary data regarding the effects of the whole-stream warming experiment on invertebrate and algal biomass. After warming, we have seen an increase in the biomass of the green algae, Ulva. In contrast, total invertebrate biomass has decreased after warming. We'll see if this trend holds throughout the experiment and what this might mean for ecosystem function. Stay tuned!
Aside from these two terrific posters, Mick and Mike are giving talks on their respective projects so we wish them luck. I've already seen some great talks this week with more to come I'm sure.

Monday, February 18, 2013


No, not in our streams (more's the pity). Last week Team Benstead drove up to Grundarfjördur on the Snaefjellsnaes peninsula, where orcas congregate in numbers every winter to feed on herring that are schooling in their millions as they prepare to spawn. We went out with Láki Tours, who operate a small converted (and very open) fishing boat for whale-watching. We were joined by a large group of English wildlife tourists and everyone suited up in one-piece waterproof overalls. I grabbed mine but, wearing 7 layers already, elected not to don it immediately. This turned out to be a mistake. All was calm as we left the harbor and sailed up the fjord. No sign of whales, so we continued out to round the headland and try the next fjord. At this point, I was glued to the bow like Garfield, but conditions were rapidly going downhill and I was starting to get very wet from the spray. My eventual retreat turned out to be well-timed, as a huge wave came over the bow that would have had me flat on my back. Everyone got absolutely sopped. But this was just the start. Soon, it was so bad on deck that the first mate suggested Lillian get in the wheelhouse. This was all very well, but she couldn't see out and promptly threw up (one of the tourists had been chumming over the side for some time and there were green faces everywhere). There are no photos of this part of the day. Just at the point that I thought it could not get any more miserable, someone shouted "Whale!" We had found them. We headed into the fjord and things became miraculously calmer. Everyone cheered up as the whales started showing in numbers. 

There were an estimated 60 orcas inside the fjord, in several family groups. Everything from large old females to mere babies. They seemed to take little notice of the boat (we were the only one there) and carried on feeding and resting. The herring schools have been measured at 10 m thick and extend for hectares, so there's clearly plenty to go around. We watched them for 45 minutes, before heading back to the dock. And, yes, it was calmer on the way home.

The upper fjord has been the site of two mass die-offs of herring in the last few weeks. In total, an estimated 35,000 TONS of dead fish now litter the beach and sea bed. We stopped on the road as we left town, where we were able to watch the whales with binoculars (how many places in the world could you do that?). We also walked on the beach to survey the scene (this was ill-advised: perhaps not surprisingly, decomposing herring has the exact consistency of axle grease). It was very scenic, but the smell cannot be described. You can see what's left of some of the herring on the far shore.

At this point, the tide was going out. Photographs cannot do justice to the sheer numbers of gulls that were feeding downtide of the bridge. Apparently, a large proportion of the population in western Iceland has decamped to the fjord to feed on the dead herring. I would estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals were inside, stretching as far as the eye could see, but who knows. It was utter mayhem, and proof that there can be plenty going on in the subarctic in February. 

Just up the road, two white-tailed sea eagles were soaring - there for the same reason as the gulls. All in all, a great trip. And we saw an Arctic fox on the drive up! After the boat ride from hell, it also felt well deserved. I'll end with a shot of my brave little sailor, enjoying the whales only minutes after seeing her breakfast for the second time. She's a trooper.

February fieldwork

Alex arrived at the start of February for what turned out to be a difficult week weather-wise. Bad conditions up at Hengill kept us in town for most of his trip. We had one good weather day. We made the most of it by getting help from Sveinbjörn, who drove us to both OH2 and the Hengill valley in one of the Geology Department's tricked-out trucks. Even that was defeated by a particularly enormous snowdrift on the way into Hengill, however. We ARE on the road in the photo below. It's just that we're separated from it by about six feet of white stuff.

We had to walk the rest of the way. Getting into both sites in one day was key though. We were able to collect benthic invertebrate, algal and microbial samples from both streams, and set up loggers at Hengill. OH2 was almost completely covered in snow, precluding some of the regular sampling there. No such problem at Stream 7 in Hengill, thanks to the wonders of central heating. Guess where the warmed water goes into the channel in the photo below:

All in all, a very productive day. Just as well, given our luck the rest of the week. And we got a ride most of the way back to our truck. You never know who's going to turn up when you're off the road in Iceland. These folks from a local rescue team were scouting sites for a training exercise. With 38-inch tires inflated to just 7 psi and special low gearing, they had no problem negotiating the snowdrift that had beaten us earlier.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Team Hengill Meeting in London!

In the middle of December, Jim Hood and I (Wyatt) traveled to London for a Hengill group meeting with collaborators from Iceland, England, Scotland, Denmark, Germany, and the US.  The meeting was organized and run by Eoin O'Gormann and the Guy Woodward crew from Queen Mary University London. We had an excellent few days exchanging talks and ideas, and got to spend some quality time meeting new folks and building collaborative 'spirit' among members of the team. Although most of our time was at Queen Mary U, we did manage to enjoy a trip to 'Brick Lane' for some authentic curry, and a guided tour of Jack the Ripper's old haunts. We came back to the US even more energized and motivated to find ways (funding!) to keep our collaboration rolling.  Let's hope this meeting is one of many over the next few years.
A panoramic of the team discussing ideas for future collaborations

The London TUBE!
Jim Hood, a bit under the weather on the flight, but just
darn happy to have an iPhone to hang out with.