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  • Citizen Scientists in Antarctica: FjordPhyto Approach to Understand Climate Change Affected Environments.
  • Allison M. Lee

Many people dream of taking a bucket-list vacation to “the 7th continent”—Antarctica—to set their eyes on the extreme landscapes and charismatic wildlife. For the longest time, I did too, but I never thought realistically, for financial reasons, that it would happen for me anytime soon. Then, in 2013, I was given the opportunity to travel there, as a working scientist. I felt like I had landed on the moon!

Antarctica has no inhabitants, and no one country has a legal claim to the land. Through the Antarctic Treaty, the entire continent remains devoted to peaceful and scientific activities. Nowhere else in the world do so many countries recognize the need to come together to protect the unique wildness of a place. I felt privileged to be one of the few scientists able to walk around this icy lunar landscape—a place where less than 5,000 total researchers work on station during the sunlit months.

While typically thought of as a place for science, it also has a growing tourism community. Tourism to the peninsula is governed by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) and the latest counts for the number of visitors to the peninsula reached over 51,700 during the 2017–2018 season. Visitors outnumber scientists nearly 10:1.

Scientists constantly consider the broader impacts their work has in the world; it got me thinking: was there a way to engage this enthusiastic, explorer-minded community in Antarctic science? As an avid traveler myself, I often volunteered on international researcher projects masquerading as a tourist: biodiversity projects in the Amazon, macaw projects in Peru, and big cat projects in Africa. It became my preferred way to vacation. I later learned this style of eco-tourism is a form of citizen science—a method of data gathering and community engagement that can provide impactful experiences to everyone involved. Could we include citizen scientists in the legacy of Antarctic research? [End Page 21]

In 2016, I started a graduate program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, USA working in a lab dedicated to understanding Antarctic phytoplankton. Our research questions explore phytoplankton in relationship to glacial freshwater within fjord ecosystems. My advisor already had connections with a couple of the tour ships and conveniently, most of the landing sites tour vessels visit are concentrated along the fjords that line the coast of the West Antarctic Peninsula. We saw a real opportunity to engage these visitors in our research while expanding the spatial and temporal questions we could ask scientifically. Within a year, we worked with knowledgeable tour guide staff to develop the FjordPhyto citizen science project.

The FjordPhyto project currently operates along the West Antarctic Peninsula. This region of the world is experiencing the fastest rates of warming globally. With this warmth, glaciers melt. Melted freshwater from the glacier enters the marine environment through the coastal fjord regions. Changes in the water chemistry can change the types of phytoplankton blooming. If the types of phytoplankton change, the animals that rely on consuming specific species may also change—producing a cascading effect in the ecosystem. As an example, Antarctic krill are the key species of the Southern Ocean food web. Krill are known to eat a particular type of phytoplankton called a diatom. These krill, in turn, provide food for seals, whales, and penguins. If freshwater alters what type of phytoplankton we see, perhaps a reduction in diatoms, resulting in the krill food changing, what are the ramifications to the rest of the animals living in these marine environments?

Coastal fjords in Antarctica are very under-studied systems. Despite the large data gap that exists, recent research is revealing these fjords to be hotspots for biodiversity. Researchers compete through grants for time on the two US ships that operate in Antarctica, and often have to plan years in advance for the few weeks they’ll be able to go to sea. As the climate changes, conditions on the peninsula are changing. The timing of phytoplankton blooms could shift. In this remote region of the world, citizen science is enabling different...


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