Feature Story | 2-Jan-2024

USF-led research studies how iron, other elements, nourish sea life and aid carbon dioxide absorption

Scientists are working aboard a research vessel in the Antarctic coastal Amundsen Sea

University of South Florida

Media contact:
John Dudley

(814) 490-3290 (cell)

By Cassidy Delamarter, University Communications and Marketing

TAMPA, Fla. (Jan. 2, 2024) – When Hannah Hunt signed on for a two-month global research project in the Amundsen Sea in the Antarctic, she knew that meant she wouldn't be spending the holidays with family and friends. She also knew she couldn't pass up the opportunity.

“I thought I would miss the holidays out here, but I don’t think I could ever describe somewhere as pristine until now,” said Hunt, a graduate student studying chemical oceanography at the University of South Florida. “It is completely untouched and beautiful, but very harsh at the same time.”

The USF College of Marine Science is collaborating with U.S. GEOTRACES, part of an international marine program, to investigate the distribution of iron and other trace elements in the ocean. It’s an area of research with scarce field observations due to freezing conditions in polar regions and the extremely difficult process of collecting samples without contamination. Although hard and laborious, the research is important because the elements provide nutrients for sea life, such as plankton, which help absorb carbon dioxide.

When she heard about the project, Hunt was excited by the challenge and immediately applied to collect samples aboard for principal investigator Tim Conway, USF associate professor of chemical oceanography. After several weeks of preparing the ship and loading it with gear, Hunt and several other researchers from around the country arrived in the Amundsen – an Antarctic coastal sea between New Zealand and Chile – before Thanksgiving.

Hunt will continue gathering samples and field observations through the end of January. When Hunt returns, she will continue her graduate studies and work on a separate project, where she is researching nutrients in the Gulf of Mexico.

Back on land, Conway and Zachary Bunnell, another USF marine science graduate student, will collaborate with scientists at Texas A&M University and the University of Southern California to examine the samples to determine how the elements are entering the sea and how they provide nutrients for sea life, such as plankton.

“Plankton, a tiny plant in the ocean, are responsible for much of the transfer of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the deep ocean,” Conway said. “The elements are essential nutrients to the plankton growing, and the plankton impact the overall health of the planet and its natural processes.”

The Southern Ocean plays a disproportionately large role in global carbon cycling, a process vital to life on Earth because it moves carbon between the land, ocean and atmosphere, regulating the planet’s climate and temperature. According to Conway, while the Antarctic accounts for just 10 percent of ocean surface area, it absorbs about 25 percent of the carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere. 

“This region of the ocean is iron-limited,” Conway said. “But the exciting thing about seas such as the Amundsen is that they experience seasonal dramatic plankton blooms that are thought to be fueled by pulses of iron and cause dramatic uptake of carbon. This project hopes to shed new light on this.”

The observations will be added into the international GEOTRACES dataset that is freely available to the public and used to improve global ocean models.

Combined with the information gathered from the additional researchers aboard the ship, the endeavor should create a bigger picture of trace elements in atmospheric dust, sea ice, sediments, particles and water within the Amundsen Sea. Conway expects several collaborative papers to come from this research over the next few years.

This project is funded by the National Science Foundation. View an interactive ship map for the U.S. GEOTRACES project.

For more information or to schedule an interview, please contact John Dudley at 814-490-3290 or jjdudley@usf.edu.


About the University of South Florida

The University of South Florida, a high-impact research university dedicated to student success and committed to community engagement, generates an annual economic impact of more than $6 billion. With campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee, USF serves approximately 50,000 students who represent nearly 150 different countries.  For four consecutive years, U.S. News & World Report has ranked USF as one of the nation’s top 50 public universities, including USF’s highest ranking ever in 2023 (No. 42). In 2023, USF became the first public university in Florida in nearly 40 years to be invited to join the Association of American Universities, a prestigious group of the leading universities in the United States and Canada. Through hundreds of millions of dollars in research activity each year and as one of top universities in the world for securing new patents, USF is a leader in solving global problems and improving lives. USF is a member of the American Athletic Conference. Learn more at www.usf.edu.

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