Bangor University Researchers follow in the footsteps of Captain Scott

We have been fascinated by Captain Scott’s fatal expedition to the geographic South Pole for many years. Scott, along with four companions reached the Pole on 17th January 1912, only to find that a Norwegian party led by Roald Amundsen, had beaten them to it. The small party perished on the return journey in weather conditions that were exceptionally bad for that time of year.

A hundred years on we continue to be fascinated with the Polar Regions and their exploration. Many books, films and documentaries have focused on these regions, most recently, the hugely popular BBC series, Frozen Planet, narrated by Bangor Honorary Graduate, Sir David Attenborough.

Over the years, Bangor University staff and students have researched and studied the Polar Regions. In Scott’s day, it would have been unheard of for women to venture into such inhospitable terrain. Here we look at three women scientists at Bangor University whose research has led them to these regions.

Dr Yueng-Djern LennDr Yueng-Djern LennDr Yueng-Djern Lenn is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Ocean Sciences who researches the physics of the polar oceans. The Polar Oceans show the greatest changes   attributable to global warming. Our climate system is powered by solar  radiation, 90% of which is absorbed by the global ocean. This results in a warm upper ocean overlying colder denser water at depth. This heat is transported by great ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream from the equator to the polar oceans where much is lost to the atmosphere, creating cold dense water at the surface which sinks, resulting in an overturning circulation which acts to mix different water types throughout the ocean. It is the processes driving the mixing of different water types that interests Yueng-Dern.

Yueng-Djern visited the Antarctic Peninsula, in 2009. “The feeling of heading south is very special and the anticipation rises as the temperatures drop and the sea-bird species change. It is hard to put into words the awe one feels when encountering the magnificent white continent and easy to understand how Scott was drawn to explore it.  If you have the privilege to visit in austral spring and summer, you will be amazed at the variety and proliferation of wildlife both in the water and above. Although the landscape is mostly barren snow and rock, the long sunsets and sunrises paint the snow and ice many different colours, giving warmth to a cold continent. Your sense of isolation and separation from civilisation heighten every new experience and draw you back time and again."

Dr Nia WhiteleyDr Nia WhiteleyDr Nia Whiteley, a zoologist from the School of Biological Sciences is interested in  how Antarctic marine species are able to cope with life in the cold, and how they might be threatened by global warming. She has studied a range of animals from the giant isopod which looks like a large underwater wood louse to Antarctic fish. Nia and her colleagues have examined different aspects of their biology and found that at temperatures close to the freezing point of seawater, the giant isopod carries out its daily routine at a very slow pace, from growth and aging to simply moving around the seabed. It also appears that Antarctic fishes show a different stress response to all other vertebrates and have an unusual way of controlling heart rate and blood pressure. These specialisations suggest that Antarctic marine species are overly sensitive to the increases in seawater temperature caused by climate change; they would die at around 4°C, which is about the same temperature as a domestic fridge.

Nia has now turned her attention to shrimp-like organisms living towards the opposite pole in the Arctic, to more fully understand how specialisations for the cold can influence survival in a warming world. Comparisons can be also be made between species living in the Arctic with closely-related species living at more temperate latitudes, such as Wales.

Dr Paula RobertsDr Paula RobertsDr Paula Roberts of the School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography has collaborated with British Antarctic Survey on several polar research projects that focus specifically on understanding plant nutrient cycling in polar soils. Because of the extreme cold, plant and soil processes only occurs on the margins of Antarctica. ‘These climactic conditions mean that the numbers of micro-organisms and plant species are very much restricted and this relative simplicity makes it easier for us to understand the complex processes involved in recycling of carbon and nitrogen from large and complex molecules into simpler forms that plants and soil micro-organisms can use for growth,’ she explains.

‘Our research at both poles has helped us understand the microbial ecosystems that exist in these nutrient poor soils and has shown that plants living in these ecosystems can use much more complex nutrient sources that previously thought.’

Paula is currently involved in one research project on Signy Island in Antarctica and has research projects running at Arctic field sites. With her PhD students she is studying the effect that changing climactic conditions in the high Arctic has on the breakdown of complex plant residues.

Publication date: 17 January 2012