On a winter expedition to find out more about the secrets of the deep

Expeditions to the Arctic in the middle of winter are quite challenging. The researchers of the MikroPolar project are taking the opportunity nonetheless to travel to the Arctic sea in January.

By Camilla Aadland

Out at sea they will find out as much as possible about the smallest organisms in the sea, from viruses to small animal plankton.

“It’s a huge project where we will make several expeditions into the dark sea. It’s exciting but also involves a great deal of responsibility in managing a lot of money,” says Aud Larsen from Uni Research.

The Research Council of Norway is supporting the MikroPolar project to the tune of NOK 23 million over the course of four years. Larsen is the project manager together with Professor Gunnar Bratbak at University of Bergen (UiB).

Very pleased
The application was sent from UiB in collaboration with Uni Research, NIVA, University of Oslo and SALT. Earlier in the year the project managers heard the news that they had secured funding.

“I was almost sweating and very pleased when I found out,” recounts Larsen.

She will accompany the first expedition which starts from Longyearbyen in January. The expedition will progress in cooperation with a similar project called Carbon Bridge, linked with the University of Tromsø.

“We will travel on expeditions at different times of the year; in spring, summer, autumn and winter. A number of expeditions have taken place during the lighter months of the year but winter is a black hole, literally,” explains Larsen.

Professor Grunnar Bratbak at UiB and senior researcher Aud Larsen at Uni Research are project managers for the research project which will take place over four years. Photo: Camilla Aadland

From genes to organisms
The aim of the project is to understand more about the microbial part of the marine ecosystem in the Arctic.

“We will examine everything from genes to tiny organisms to the major systems. We know very little about this currently,” explains Aud Larsen.

Micro-organisms form the basis for all life in the sea and convert much of the nutrients.

“A change in the microbial part of the food network may have consequences for the creatures much further up in the food chain,” says Bratbak.

Climate changes
Their research is important in understanding how the ecosystems respond to climate changes.

“We will examine everything from genes to major systems. We know very little about this currently,” explains Aud Larsen.

“If there is a change in the food chain, the larger animals will have problems adapting,” adds Bratbak.

Not top down
Almost 40 people are part of the project and Larsen is very satisfied with the interdisciplinary cooperation they have received.

“This shows the weight of the marine cluster in Bergen. Our cooperation has come from ground level and not top down. The team is made up of people with important key properties and they have brought with them experts within their areas,” she says.

Six expeditions
In total there will be six expeditions from Svalbard and as north as the ice will allow.

At the kick-off meeting the various work groups of the project presented what they will be working with. Photo: Camilla Aadland

“We will be collecting DNA from micro-organisms, among others, living in the sea and there is a great deal you can then do with this. There is scope here for more research than we can manage in four years,” explains Larsen.

She believes it will be both fun and challenging to work in such a large collaboration project.

“I am pleased we can work together with the sister project in Tromsø. We complement each other well,” she says.

The Research Council of Norway received 21 applications for the scientific announcement within the Polar Research Programme in spring.
A total of NOK 96 million was shared among five projects. One of them was MikroPolar, which sprang into action at the kick-off meeting at the Vilvite Centre on Tuesday 8 October.

Written by: Camilla Aadland

Oct. 8, 2013, 9:11 a.m.

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