‘Phytoplankton’ is possibly the most important four-syllable word in all of the Antarctic. It’s small, it’s green, it’s unassuming, and yet when it blooms it flourishes so spectacularly that it can seen from space. It’s at the bottom of the food chain, providing nourishment for the krill that are eaten by the whales and penguins, that are in turn eaten by orca and leopard seals. It makes oxygen, and started life on earth. And it’s the focus of the ‘Beneath the Blooming Ice’ exhibition, created by Otago University’s Science Communication students Lydia McLean and Ellen Sima.
Thanks to Lydia and Ellen, I had to chance to get up close and personal with real life phytoplankton during my visit to NZ IceFest. I mean real personal, because at the moment of my visit, one phytoplankton cell had just finished dividing into two phytoplankton. Our science communication guides had the microscope trained on the freshly separated cells as other, much wrigglier, specimens darted in and out of the frame. They explained that neither of our cellular stars was particularly energetic because, in layman’s terms, they were pooped. Fair enough, too. I’m sure if I had to photocopy my entire being, I’d be up for a rest before heading off on my merry way.
The satellite image of a phytoplankton bloom really brought home the extent of the unicellular organism’s annual cycle of proliferation, while the information panels on the wall helped the penny drop for me that this ‘cyanobacteria’ that so many of my colleagues have researched is in fact a type of phytoplankton. I’m not a scientist, but I am curious, and Lydia and Ellen did a great job at bringing phytoplankton to life in my imagination. From the green ‘phytoplankton’ baubles on the ceiling above, to the carefully stencilled food web on the back wall, the exhibition invited wonder and built connections.
That’s what I love about studying Antarctica – the interdisciplinary nature of so much of the research that goes on invites connections between researchers, between ideas, between Antarctica and a whole range of terrestrial and extra-terrestrial environments. We’re all focussed on the same geographical location, but we see it through so many different lenses: as a place for glaciology, biology, geology, atmospheric research, for stories. Beneath The Blooming Ice showed me a new way of looking, and I’m all the richer for the experience.