Beaufort Sea, Blog, Boulder Patch, Field Season, Methods, Prudhoe Bay, Science

Lost and found: A tale of first-year folly, chance, and the nature of field work

So, funny story…
In summer of 2014, I had just finished my first year as a grad student at UT. I had spent the year coming up with questions and designing research projects to carry out for my PhD work. One of the questions I was interested in was “How does the community of algae and animals attached to the rocks in the Boulder Patch come into being? How long does it take for the community to develop?”.
Where did all this stuff come from???
This is a pretty classic ecological question (succession). In marine ecology, scientists usually place settling plates (usually squares of some hard material) in the ocean and monitor what grows on them over time and/or under different biological or environmental conditions (eg El Nino years vs La Nina years). Marine invertebrates and algae mostly have free swimming or planktonic larvae, which settle onto the plates when they are ready to metamorphose into their adult form. These experiments can tell us things like how quickly an ecosystem can recover from disturbance (like a massive landslide), or whether certain species help other species survive in an ecosystem.
So, I decided to deploy settling plates in the Boulder Patch. Because plates lying directly on the ocean floor are vulnerable to benthic predators (like snails) and falling sediment, I decided I wanted them to float above the bottom. I designed my arrays of plates based off of a project looking at coral settlement. Therein lies my mistake and my Arctic newbie naivete… more on that in a second.

Prototype of plate array. Note giant buoy.
That summer, we deployed 20 of these arrays across the Boulder Patch.
Meg and two (upside-down arrays). Again, note giant buoys.
In 2015, we went back to recover them and see what had grown.
We found 4 of the arrays.
You see, the shallow, inshore Arctic Ocean waters are not really like the deep waters of a tropical coral reef (YOU DON’T SAY!). In the fall, massive storms blow through, causing massive currents and ice build-up inshore that can tear (very floaty, kite-looking) things off the bottom of the ocean.
So I redesigned my arrays, tying them to very heavy weights, suspended (but not kite-like) just off the bottom. And they are working! I’ve now recovered two years of plates. ( things are growing very slowly… it is the Arctic after all). But I knew those arrays were out there somewhere, floating somewhere is the sea with the help of their GIANT buoys…
Arrays are now firmly anchored, but still suspended.
A sponge grows across a tile after 1 year in the Arctic Ocean
And three days ago, a boat caption staying at the same camp as us stopped me in the mess hall: “I think I found some of your equipment today. It’s in the back of our truck”.
It was an array from 2014. It had been found on Pingok Island, about 40 miles west of where it was deployed.
The recovered array, in surprisingly good condition
Quite the blast from the past, and a reminder of all the adjustments I have had to make to my plans since I was a first-year. But that is the nature of science! Trial and error, poking at a problem from different angles, and moving forward after a failure. Just maybe with smaller buoys next time.

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