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Miami scientists at the South Pole: Part three of four - Antarctic midge, to "freeze or not to freeze"

12/06/2011

Yuta Karawasaki, doctoral student in zoology (student of Rick Lee, Distinguished Professor of Zoology), and colleagues at Palmer Station, 2011.
This is the third in a four-part series on Miami researchers in Antarctica. December marks the 100th anniversary of the famous Race to the South Pole between Norwegian Roald Amundsen (reached Dec. 14, 1911) and Briton Robert Falcon Scott (reached Jan. 17, 1912). Part Four features Bill Green, professor emeritus of interdisciplinary studies, who took his first trip 30 years ago. Read Part One and Part Two.

Yuta Karawasaki, doctoral student in zoology working with Richard Lee, Distinguished Professor of Zoology, will spend February through June at Palmer Station. He is experienced at living for months in the Antarctic, having spent January through June 2011 at Palmer, which has a population of about 20 during the early winter months.

For a point of reference, the sun rises in the Antarctic in September and sets in March; the South Pole (90 degrees S) experiences 24 hours a day of either light or dark. Only the Antarctic Peninsula, on the north tip of the continent (66 degrees S) does not experience 24 hour day or night.

Karawasaki said, "The reason for my extended stay is because we are interested in studying the seasonal change (of Belgica larvae) associated with approaching of the austral winter. Our previous field seasons were limited only to the months of January and February. We have learned a great deal about physiological and biochemical responses of summer larvae to various stresses, including freezing and dehydration. Now, we are interested in extending the focus of research to larvae in early winter."

He further explained, "In particular, my research projects focus on overwintering strategies of these larvae. Larvae are freeze-tolerant and survive ice formation within their bodies. In addition to surviving freezing temperatures in winter by actually being frozen, our recent laboratory results suggest that these larvae can remain unfrozen to survive the same freezing-temperature exposure by getting dehydrated. Therefore, I am interested in investigating which one of these strategies, namely to freeze or not to freeze by dehydration, will be advantageous by comparing physiological responses of larvae employing these two strategies."

This trip will be Kawarasaki's third season staying in Antarctica.

"Whereas my first season was only for the month of January in 2010, my last season early this year lasted from January to June. Witnessing seasonal change in scenery, including wild life, was an extraordinary experience. For example, when I got there first in January, day length was 21 hours with three hours of dusk during which sun is barely below the horizon. Therefore, it almost felt like there is day light for all hours of a day.

"The day length shortens day by day and by the time I was leaving in early June, we had reached the period of the year during which sun does not rise above the horizon at all. Because sun still comes up just below the horizon, we still had some light, but it was only for four hours or so at most.

Although some people might think it is depressing to have such a long period of darkness and it did make my fieldwork more and more challenging, it did provide me with some breathtaking moments of witnessing amazingly beautiful sunrise, sunset, or moon hanging over the glacier or the southern cross in remarkably quiet and clear nights."

Kawarasaki follows in the footsteps of geochemist Bill Green, professor emeritus of interdisciplinary studies, who describes in his award-winning book, Water, Ice & Stone: Science and Memory on the Antarctic Lakes: “There are no colors here like those of the night. The mountains were plum with iron-rich stone. The glaciers had passed into liquid silver, the flat paving stones gathered in pathways and broken roads along the valley floor were golden. Red basalts floated from high above in the curved moat, drifted to the edge of the permanent ice.”

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