Are glaciers on Jan Mayen a source of elements to marine ecosystems? (Jon Hawkings, Jacob Yde and Siri Engen)

This August, myself (Dr. Jon Hawkings) along with my colleague Siri Engen will be travelling with TOPtoTOP on Pachamama to carry out marine and land based water sampling on and around Jan Mayen island. Our project, SMerJM (Subglacial mercury cycling and associated export from Jan Mayen to the North Atlantic), looks to investigate the role of glaciers and volcanism on Jan Mayen for the mobilization of the toxic element mercury. We’re hoping to assess the fate of natural mercury derived from glacial and volcanic processes on Jan Mayen as it travels into the coastal region. By doing this research we will provide an insight into mercury cycling in pristine but climatically vulnerable systems and provide a view of mercury geochemistry across glacier outlets and natural water sources that have never been sampled. We are also collecting samples to characterize the “quality” of meltwater draining glaciers on the island to help assess the impact these waters are having on sustaining the surrounding marine ecosystems rich in wildlife – whether Jan Mayen has an “island mass effect” for this part of the ocean. For the curious out there, the “island mass effect” describes the increase in ecosystem productivity near to remote islands and highlights the importance of these islands as nutrient sources for marine microbes.

Crew: Sabine, Dario, Noé, Alegra, Mia, Vital, Jon, Siri, Ueli, Peder, Peter

Our work on Pachamama with TOPtoTOP will involve characterizing the properties of the marine upper water column surrounding Jan Mayen. To do this we will be using a CTD – a sensor package that measures the conductivity and temperature of the water column at a range of depths. This instrument is a workhorse of oceanography research and also includes sensors for chlorophyll-a (to measure the concentration of marine algae), the turbidity of the water (the density of particles in the water) and the oxygen concentration of the water (to help indicate how productive the water column is). We will also be deploying a niskin bottle, a scientific sampling device used to collect water at given depths. Our niskin bottle is rather special because it was built to avoid contaminating the collected water with metals (metals like iron and mercury are present in very low concentrations in marine waters so we need to be very careful not to introduce these into our samples) and is coated with Teflon – an inert plastic.

When the water makes it back onto the deck of Pachamama we will filter it to remove the particles and fill lots of plastic bottles for different types of analysis. This is rather laborious and time-consuming work when you’re not on a dedicated research vessel, and requires lots of patience! One of the most important things is for us to be as clean as possible while sampling. For this reason, we built a portable chamber in our lab for filtering critical samples on the Pachamama. This chamber pushes HEPA-filtered air (all atmospheric particles removed) over our samples to make sure we have a super clean environment to work in.

We’re incredibly appreciative of TOPtoTOP for helping to support our research. The most important thing for us is to make the most of our time on and around Jan Mayen by collecting as many samples as possible. The flexibility of Dario and the TOPtoTOP team has been fundamental in allowing us to do this. For example, it’s difficult to travel light as a geochemist – just one mercury sample requires 250 mL of water and one sample to measure metal concentrations in water can be up to 500 mL! We need dozens of these samples from both the boat and land work we’re doing. It’s going to be a lot of hard work (and for me personally I’m going to be bobbing around in the North Atlantic on my birthday), but the data will be exciting and important for understanding vulnerable and rapidly changing environments like Jan Mayen. We can’t wait to get started tomorrow!