Dis-Aleutianed Where the Wild Winds Blow
"But the question I was asked most frequently still haunts me; 'Why?' "
This is An "Act of Leadership" logged by The Xylom's Founder and Editor Alex Ip as a Climate Reality Leader. He has been trained by former US Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore in Atlanta, GA, March 2019.
Writers note: This story is dedicated to the late Dr. Umi Hoshijima and all of our colleagues who set the bar ever higher. We’re privileged to stand on the shoulders of these giants.
A foggy, salty, heavy to the point of being oppressive, chill-you-to-the-bone, kind of cold; it’s a wet cold, and it permeates. It’s so foggy sometimes you can’t see across the six-meter-wide deck of the research vessel we’ve been calling home for the last three weeks. But when the heavy marine layer does clear, the horizon is swallowed up by imposing volcanic peaks capped in snow, towering into infinity. And then, there’s the wind. It doesn’t start with an innocent gust, an innocuous puff. When the wind blows, it hits you like a freight train, driving salt and spray into your eyes, chafing any exposed bits of skin.
The Aleutian Archipelago, of course, is known as “The Birthplace of the Winds”. Truer words have never been spoken. This island chain, spanning roughly 1600 kilometers, crosses the globe from Alaska to western Russia, dividing the north Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea. Infamous for violent winter storms, the weather in the summer can shift from dead calm and foggy, to clear, sunny and downright pleasant, to gale-force “victory at sea” conditions in a matter of minutes. But over the course of the two summers I spent with my labmates living and working on a research vessel in this remote corner of the world, the weather was mainly cold, calm, and foggy. Perfect conditions for SCUBA diving.
It doesn’t start with an innocent gust, an innocuous puff. When the wind blows, it hits you like a freight train, driving salt and spray into your eyes, chafing any exposed bits of skin.
The most typical response I got from people when I told them I would be spending nearly a month during the summer 2016 and 2017 diving every day along the entire archipelago was a glassy-eyed stare. Not one of admiration or envy mind you. Sometimes this look was followed with, “you must be crazy” or, “well, you have fun with that”. But the question I was asked most frequently still haunts me; “Why?”. Why go all that way, why spend all that time, why spend all that money?
Why even bother in the first place.
Let me provide some context. In November 2014, I found myself in the office of San Diego State University professor Dr. Matthew Edwards. In my bid to impress this “would-be” advisor (for graduate school), I began a rambling monologue about kelp forest ecology and climate change and, and, and...
“Let me stop you right there, Pike,” said Dr. Edwards, “I just received word that we’ve been approved for a National Science Foundation-funded grant to explore the loss of kelp forests across the Aleutian Archipelago. I’m taking students into the lab for this project. I need divers. Can you dive in a dry suit, every day, in 45 degrees water (about 7 degrees Celsius for those of you outside the States; we’re still stuck in the Stone Age with Imperial units), without seeing the sun or even land for a month at a time?”.
I nearly fell out of my chair. Here was the opportunity of a lifetime. A chance to dive in some of the world’s most remote kelp forests with a crack team of phycologists (algal scientists) AND I’ll get co-authorship on whatever papers come out of this? I knew I’d regret not going for the rest of my life. The why didn’t matter yet.
Flash forward a year and a half and here we are, suiting up in the “mudroom” of the RV Oceanus in endless layers of undergarments, long johns, puffy jackets, wool socks, and on top of it all, drysuits. Specifically designed to reduce exposure to the mind-numbingly cold water, only our hands and heads are left exposed. For that, we use traditional (albeit thick) neoprene. The Oceanus was our home, our laboratory, and our transportation for both years of our study. And we came to know it like the back of our hands.
Our goals were simple in conception. Starting back in the 1970s, the now legendary Dr. James Estes first began to study the impacts of sea otters on sea urchins (their prey) and kelp (their food source). After a Herculean research effort, and thoughtful synthesis, Dr. Estes came up with the now staple of textbook trophic interactions: orcas eat sea otters, sea otters eat sea urchins, sea urchins eat kelp. No otters, too many urchins, no kelp.
Obviously then, no kelp, no urchins, right? Well, turns out it’s not that simple.
Among the many phenomena observed by Dr. Estes and his colleagues (among many, many, many others), one of the most striking is the persistence of “urchin barren grounds”. These urchin barrens are areas of a rocky reef dominated by sea urchins. Sometimes with densities exceeding hundreds per square meter. Over nearly three decades Dr. Estes studied sea otters in the Aleutians, once hunted to near extinction, and documented their recovery. Of the many noteworthy observations that came out of this lifetime of work, again the most disturbing is the persistence of urchin barrens in the absence of otters.
Orcas eat sea otters, sea otters eat sea urchins, sea urchins eat kelp. No otters, too many urchins, no kelp. Obviously then, no kelp, no urchins, right? Well, turns out it’s not that simple.
My [now former] advisor, Dr. Edwards, and co-principle investigator on this project Dr. Brenda Konar (of the University of Alaska Fairbanks) both were students of Dr. Estes’. They’ve both spent countless days diving in the Aleutians over many years. This time around, Dr. Konar would lead her team of grad students on extensive SCUBA surveys of kelp forests, urchin barrens, and the transition between these two habitat types. For his part, Dr. Edwards, inspired by a project conducted by another lab at San Diego State University, designed a novel experiment to measure the amount of oxygen produced in each of these three habitat types. By using oxygen as a proxy for photosynthesis, and thereby generating an estimate of net community productivity, the idea was to quantify any differences, if present, between a lush and vibrant kelp forest, a harsh and bleak urchin barren, and the fragile transition zone as a kelp forest slips into a barren.
Here’s where we join the story. Some of the barrens we studied have been “stable” for decades, while some of the kelp forests are as ephemeral as the Aleutian summer sun. We know from historical data that the Aleutians should be home to dense, vibrant kelp forests. But, they’re not. At least not entirely. And very little is known about the transition between kelp forests and urchin barrens. Least of all levels of productivity (which impact adjacent ecosystems).
To attempt to crack open this remote, yet vital, system, our experiments required the use of tent-like chambers called collapsible benthic incubation tents (cBITs) secured to the benthos by a heavy chain. To carry out this project we deployed three replicate chambers, each with an array of sensors, in each of the three habitats each day. Twenty-four hours later we’d dive down, pack everything up, bring it back to the ship, and move to another island, sometimes hours away across a violent and stormy oceanic pass. We used the Oceanus’s small Rigid Inflatable Boats (RBIs) to “run” to our dive sites and to haul our bulky and heavy gear back and forth. After weeks of hauling chain, we got pretty good at it. And also earned the nickname “chain gang” (cue “Break the Chain” by Fleetwood Mac).
So, there you have it, the “why” of our expedition. Why go all the way to Alaska from San Diego on endless plane rides to catch our vessel, only to steam from island to island, to set up and breakdown these cumbersome tents in mind-numbingly cold water, in a maddeningly repetitive cycle? Well, to study what happens when an ecosystem slips away from one “stable state” to another. Because, to the best of our knowledge, this is our responsibility; our species caused the extirpation of otters from the Aleutians (and along much of the west coast of North America). Because urchin barrens are now a world-wide problem. Because maybe this will give us insight into the effects of a changing climate on kelp forests.
But, does that help you sleep at night? Is that the answer you want to hear?
Do our heroics in the Aleutians mean anything to anyone? Do our data better prepare us for the Anthropocene?
I won’t bore you with the details of our trials and tribulations. Of the heartbreak we experienced setting up this never-before-attempted study, of the extreme ice cream headaches, the frozen fingers, the storms, the swells, the once-in-a-lifetime vistas above and below the surface. Of diving next to active volcanoes looming over pristine reefs. I will, however, share one vivid memory.
Early in the summer of 2016 we finally felt like we had our act together. The work might be exhausting, but it’s not exactly brain surgery, and we were in the swing of things. But on one fateful morning, we woke up to large swells rocking the Oceanus. This was an experiment recovery day; our cBITs had been incubating for 24hours and it was time to pick them up. As we came upon our first site, we were greeted by waves breaking in our dive site. The once calm Bering had turned on us. We had to go into full overdrive to recovery the chambers amidst the surging waters, lest we let the waves destroy our equipment (and very expensive sensors) halfway through our first trip. Once more unto the breach, we went, acting on all of our training, taking every safety precaution imaginable. To pull this off everyone had to be “of one mind” working cohesively as a team. We would be dropped off by a small boat, dive down and recovery gear (from shallow enough water), surface, and wait for the boat to come to us.
Amid the turmoil and chaos, I’ll never forget surfacing from the water to hand up the gear to a labmate on the boat. As I reached up to hand over the gear, I heard the boat operator, the 60-year-old gray-haired bosun yell above the fray, “I live for this sh-t!”, as he masterfully maneuvered his boat and blasted us to safety.
It’s been two years since we completed our study. We’ve just submitted a manuscript to Science, with the intention of submitting more papers to other journals. This was the experience of a lifetime; our work in the Aleutians inspired my own thesis. You’ll have to dig into our paper(s) for the full story, but (spoiler) we found some really startling results about the processes that affect the persistence of urchin barrens. And because barrens are now a cosmopolitan problem, our results have tractable implications.
And yet, I’m still grappling with the “why”. Given the global political landscape, the ineffable near-daily loss of biodiversity, exponentially increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, the rise of climate refugees, ecosystems across the globe teetering on the brink of collapse, and the University of Alaska System (where the Konar lab is) barely avoiding a 41% budget slash, I find myself wondering, “How much time does knowledge buy us before it’s too late?”. Do our heroics in the Aleutians mean anything to anyone? Do our data better prepare us for the Anthropocene?
I’m eternally grateful to the Edwards Lab, the Konar Lab, the captain and crew of the RV Oceanus, the National Science Foundation and all of our partners and collaborators that made this expedition happen. This experience helped define my graduate career and shaped me as a scientist.
And yet, in spite of it all, I remain, Dis-Aleutianed.