Monterey Bay expedition focuses on climate change, training future scientists

July 17 2007

An oceanographic research expedition, set to launch Sunday (July 22) from San Francisco, is aimed at better understanding the links between seafloor ecology and geologic records of past climate changes while providing hands-on experience for future scientists who may be called upon to address global warming.

The project, funded by the National Science Foundation, involves researchers and students from six institutions, including Indiana State University, the University of Florida and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The expedition will examine methane seeps 1,000 meters below sea level in Monterey Bay. Such seeps, where cold methane escapes from undersea sediment, provide a significant source of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and may be responsible for some of the major changes in past climates, researchers say.

Methane seeps also are important because they provide oases for seafloor communities that exist nowhere else. Although the hydrogen sulfide and methane produced by seeps can be toxic to most creatures, seeps provide habitats for a variety of organisms, some of which depend upon the seep’s unique chemistry and symbiotic microbes to survive.

Benthic foraminifera, single-celled creatures that secrete a shell-like skeleton, are among the inhabitants of seeps. The “shells” of foraminifera can be preserved in the fossil record, and are used extensively to assess climate changes of the past.

“Since the chemical signatures of the shells of foraminifera are thought to be reliable records of the environmental conditions in which the microorganism lived, it is thought that foraminifera might be used to reconstruct the temporal patterns of methane release,” said Tony Rathburn, associate professor of geology at Indiana State University, and chief scientist on the expedition..

But previous work by the researchers of the cruise discovered there was little relationship between the chemistry of the foraminiferal shells and the seep.

“Our previous research uncovered curious patterns about the chemistry and ecology of seep foraminifera. At present we know little about how and where living seep foraminifera calcify their shells, and if they are reliable recorders of seep activity,” Rathburn said.

“One of the primary goals of our project is to evaluate the relationships between living seep foraminifera and their environment. To do this will require the latest technologies and techniques so that we can examine the biology, ecology and biogeochemistry of foraminifera,” Rathburn said.

“Our project will provide a better understanding of seep ecosystems as well as more comprehensive assessments of seafloor biodiversity and adaptations to sulfide- and methane-rich habitats,” said Joan Bernhard, associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and a co-principal investigator on the expedition.

Undergraduate and graduate students will be actively involved in the research efforts, from ordering supplies to processing the samples on the ship, analyzing data in the lab to presenting results at national meetings, and conveying the excitement of their research experiences to local classrooms.

“One primary goal of the project is to provide the ability to more accurately assess past environmental and climate change,” said Jon Martin, associate professor of geological sciences at the University of Florida, and co-principal investigator on the expedition “Understanding past climates is critical for assessing the rate that modern climate is changing. We also will be providing hands-on training for future scientists, including under-represented groups such as women and first-generation university students.”

Cassie Gray, a senior geology major from Jasonville, is among three Indiana State students who will be participating in the research expedition.

“This is a huge opportunity that you would not typically expect to have in Indiana. It could be a huge step in advancing my education and my future career opportunities,” Gray said.

Also scheduled to take part in the project are senior geology majors Ellen Brouillette, Dave Bohnert of Jasper and Jason Waggoner of Robinson, Ill. Other participating students with ISU connections include 2006 gradutes Jared Kluesner of Linton, who is now a Ph.D. student at the University of California in San Diego, and Chandranath Basak, a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida.

Nearly 60 percent of undergraduates at Indiana State are first generation college students. Roughly one-third (32 percent) of ISU students are from families with incomes of less than $40,000 per year while 61 percent are from rural areas and small towns.

Contact: Tony Rathburn, associate professor of geology, Indiana State University, arathburn@indstate.edu

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3743 or dave.taylor@indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

Indiana State University is among six insitutions sending professors and studens on an oceanographic research expedition off the coast of California, beginning July 22. The project is aimed at better understanding links between seafloor ecology and geologic records of past climate changes while providing hands-on experience for futuree scientists who may be called upon to address global warming.

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