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March 4, 2011
News Article: Consortium for Ocean Leadership

A Virginia Museum of Natural History scientist is involved in research that she thinks shows the Earth's climate is changing.

(From Martinsville Bulletin) - Tiny Antarctic marine creatures collected 110 years ago by explorer Capt. Robert Falcon Scott are giving an international team of scientists, including Judith Winston, the museum's curator of marine biology, new clues about environmental change at the South Pole.

The team compared recently collected colonies of bryozoans - animals that live on sea beds and look like branching twigs - with specimens from Scott's expeditions.

"The ocean bottom is just covered with these creatures," Winston said.
In doing so, the team discovered the first conclusive evidence of increased carbon absorption and storage among Antarctic marine life.

In the scientific journal Current Biology, Winston and the team recently told how they examined annual growth bands in skeletons of bryozoan specimens collected from the Ross Sea of Antarctica by researchers from more than 80 nations during the Census of Antarctic Marine Life.

The census was a 10-year project aiming to assess and explain the diversity, distribution and abundance of ocean life. After analyzing samples of a marine creature collected during Scott's 1901 expedition to the South Pole and ones collected during later expeditions, the scientists determined that instances of carbon sinking to the bottom of polar seas may be increasing.

Winston said the bryozoans grew consistently until 1990, when their growth doubled.

"We don't know why exactly," she said, "but something is different in their environment" now.

The findings offer insight into how carbon dioxide is being stored on the seabed and could help geologists and environmentalists forecast climate change, said Winston.

"This is one of the few pieces of evidence that life in Antarctica has recently changed drastically," she said. "These animals are taking more carbon dioxide out of circulation and locking it away on the seabed.

"Thus, the amount of carbon being buried on the seabed is increasing, while globally we are becoming more aware of the need to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," she added.

The study helps reveal the challenges of understanding how climate change, the ozone hole and other large-scale environmental processes are affecting the Earth, according to officials with the museum in Martinsville.

The bottom line is that the study is "another canary in the coal mine that says the climate is changing whether we like it or not," Winston said, and perhaps we should try to find ways to control it "before it bites us."

Other scientists at the museum are excited about Winston's and the other scientists' work.

"This is a perfect example of the value of museum collections," said Jim Beard, director of research and collections at VMNH. "They provide windows into the past that would otherwise not be accessible to scientists."

Although more research is needed to understand how big a role bryozoans plays in the environment, the researchers believe it probably is a small one.

Experts from the Virginia Museum of Natural History, The British Antarctic Survey, the Institute of Oceanology at the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Natural History Museum in the United Kingdom, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History contributed to this study.

 

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