Microcosm in Alaska: August 2015 Update

This guest post is by Michele Hoffman Trotter, SUST adjunct professor at Roosevelt University and director/co-producer of the Microcosm film project. Here Michele relates new developments on filming, research, and fundraising for this exciting interdisciplinary endeavor as of this summer and as the Microcosm team heads into the Fall of 2015.

Steller sea lions (M. Hoffman)

Steller sea lions (M. Hoffman)

This summer brought Microcosm to the great state of Alaska to meet with a dozen scientists from around the world who work in what is probably the most unique physical environment on Earth. With the state of Alaska covering a geographic range the size of Texas, California, and Montana combined, there is a vast and diverse coastal space to go along with it. Economically the Alaskan waters support one of the largest fisheries in North America and many lives and livelihoods depend on the biological productivity that the scientists at University of Alaska devote their lives to studying.

The Peterson Glacier in Alaska (M. Hoffman)

The Peterson Glacier in Alaska (M. Hoffman)

Water currents, temperature, and ice are the trifecta combination of variables that impact the size and distribution of many resident populations in Alaskan waters, but it is this third one (the ice) that really sets this environment apart. With ice cover creating a frigid and sunless environment, the species adapted to live there are highly specialized and many are extremophiles in the truest sense.  As ice cover melts, new areas of ocean become accessible to scientists, and new species are routinely discovered as a result.

Dr. Anne-Lize Ducluzeau examining Arctic bacteria, some of which are bioluminescent (M. Hoffman)

Dr. Anne-Lize Ducluzeau examining Arctic bacteria, some of which are bioluminescent (M. Hoffman)

Also profound is the intricate relationship between some of the microorganisms and the physical ice structures. During respiration, organisms that inhabit the ice (yes there are ice-cosms!) emit a sort of slime coat that actually helps facilitate ice growth! In addition, the presence of these living communities in ice helps divert ice melt because melt water must flow around them like the obstacles in a pinball machine.  When ice melt can flow in a straight line it tends to melt at a faster rate.

Another aspect of melting ice (and, yes, the seasonal ice cover is diminishing so no doubt about climate change up here, folks) is that species not previously found in Arctic waters are making their way in.  This is what they refer to as shifting baselines and although there will be winners and losers in the shifting economy of the Arctic ecosystem, it is really too early to say what the results might look like.  In other words, the science community is reluctant to label anything good or bad — rather, we speak in terms of changes, shifts, and the establishment of new baselines.

Dr. Anne-Lize Ducluzeau examining a carnivorous pteropod (M. Hoffman)

Dr. Anne-Lize Ducluzeau examining a carnivorous pteropod (M. Hoffman)

As filmmakers and researchers, we were so enthralled with ice that we decided we needed to spend some time in it!  For three days we went out into the Kenai Peninsula to camp and kayak among the glaciers and while it was beautiful, it was not easy! The rainfall never stopped!  This should not, however, be surprising as this part of Alaska is a rain forest, and while it was wet and freezing cold, it was beyond beautiful. In three days there was no sight of humans other than our party of four.  Our company consisted of harbor seals, Steller sea lions, humpback whales, puffins, otters — and, of course, the iconic glaciers.  Otherworldly is an understatement, and the challenge of this environment is humbling to say the least.

It also needs to be said that Ryan Trotter (8yr old son of Michele Hoffman Trotter and youngest member of team Microcosm) is the youngest person to have ever achieved a multi-day kayaking trip in the glaciers with Kayak Adventures Worldwide. Go Ryan!

Michele, Annie, and the crew at Microcosm
www.microcosmfilm.com

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