Duke Professor Leads Scientific Team On Antarctic Expedition To Understand Ocean Carbon Cycle

November 19, 1997

BEAUFORT, N.C. -- An oceanography researcher from Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment is scheduled to leave next week on a 10-week scientific cruise into the Antarctic polar front in an attempt to learn more about how global climate change may affect oceans.

Richard T. Barber, the Harvey W. Smith professor of oceanography at the Nicholas School of the Environment's Marine Laboratory, will be the chief scientist aboard the 280-foot Scripps Oceanography vessel, R/V Revelle, one of the newest ships in the National Science Foundation fleet.

The scientific party will depart Nov. 26 from Christchurch, New Zealand, head toward the 60th parallel and return Jan. 6. They will be heading toward a region named the Antarctic frontal zone where the polar ocean meets the temperate ocean. The team will post weekly reports from sea on the Nicholas School's web site at .

"There's a great front there where temperatures range from 0 to 10 degrees Centigrade," Barber said of the region. "There's a lot of activity on that front."

The scientists will collect data at 10 stations in weather conditions where one hand is used for science and the other for holding onto the boat. "If you don't pay attention, you might find yourself on the other side of the boat," Barber said.

The study is part of the U.S. Global Ocean Flux Study (US JGOFS) that seeks to describe, understand and model the control of the carbon cycle in the ocean.

"It's based on the assumption that the ocean food web -- the biological pump as it's called -- is an important process that takes up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and buries it in the ocean sediments," Barber said.

"We're attempting to find out how a healthy ocean works with regard to carbon recycling. This is very important in predicting how the ocean and atmosphere will behave if you disturb the system a lot by increasing carbon dioxide," he said, referring to increasing emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by the burning of fuels around the world.

"The underlying concern is that the models that guide the policies of the U.S. government have as a key feature the explicit assumptions that the ocean food web will continue to operate the same way they do now as we change the world. That's an optimistic assumption to make."

The best scenario supposes this assumption to be true, Barber said, allowing us to carry on "business as usual" regarding our global carbon dioxide emissions policy. The opposite end of the spectrum finds the ocean no longer capable of removing excess carbon dioxide, resulting in higher atmospheric concentrations than expected.

The JGOFS is a component of the National Science Foundation's U.S. Global Change Research Program, which grew out of the recommendations of a 1984 National Academy of Sciences workshop held in Woods Hole, Mass.

The global study seeks to understand the processes controlling the transport of carbon and associated biological and geological elements in the ocean and to evaluate related exchanges with the atmosphere, sea floor and continental boundaries. Researchers also hope to learn how to predict how climate change affects oceanic biogeochemical processes.

Barber's recent work on the Arctic frontal zone has roots in his long-standing research interests in El Nino, the Pacific Ocean weather phenomenon. Extrapolation from El Nino data points to huge differences in the way the ocean processes carbon dioxide as the ocean heat changes. El Nino insights may prove helpful in understanding how things might change under the scenario of global heat increase.

"When we gain an understanding of this undisturbed system, we'll be better able to go forward to global climate change models to assess future scenarios," Barber said.

The scientific party is among a group of JGOFS researchers participating in a global survey to collect a large-scale data set on how carbon dioxide levels are distributed and vary in oceanic surface waters as well as the CO2 exchange between the ocean and atmosphere.

Barber is a veteran of many marine scientific expeditions, having sailed in every major ocean. The Antarctic Ocean, known to scientists as the "southern ocean," is an area where wind-driven waves often reaching heights of 90 feet roll unimpeded across infinite fetch toward the calmer waters of the Antarctic.

Barber is accustomed to working in these conditions. "Every time I finish a cruise I swear it will be my last. But the next day I find myself working to find a way back to the sea," he said. "There are two things I like most about the ocean. One is the lack of obvious visual human intervention -- there are no street signs or visible pollution. Second is the family atmosphere of the shipboard community."

The 37 researchers and 22 crew will spend the Christmas and New Year's holidays together at sea.

Barber will be accompanied on the expedition by his wife, Elaine, and a team of scientists from Duke and other institutions. Other Duke participants include Lisa Borden, a Duke graduate and research assistant at the Duke Marine Lab, and Marta Sanderson, a Duke graduate who is now a researcher at the Bermuda Biological Station for Research, which shares an academic exchange program with the Duke Marine Lab.

Duke University

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