Dr Michelle LaRue
This month I caught up with the fascinating and knowledgable Dr Michelle LaRue. Dr LaRue is a Conservation Biologist and Ecologist.
She has a Ph. D. in Conservation Biology from the University of Minnesota and has made six trips to Antarctica studying the impact of human activity on penguin and seal colonies.
She studies penguins, seals and cougars and loves coffee and dogs.
Can you describe a typical day (if there is such a thing) on a research trip to Antarctica?
I did most of my work out of McMurdo Station (US), which is the largest base in Antarctica – it’s like a small town. So a typical day – for example a day of visiting seal colonies on the ground – would start out in the galley for breakfast and picking up field lunches. Then I’d meet with my team and we’d get ready for the cold drive on snow machines – the key is to make sure to time your departure so that you’re not waiting around inside with all your cold-weather gear on because you don’t want to sweat.
We’d trek out to the sea ice right next to station where the snow machines are located, check them all out to make sure they are operational, and then the final “to-do” is to check out with the station. It’s a safety precaution so that the station knows where you are and when to expect you back.
Then the crew, anywhere from 3-7 of us, would make the ~30-40 minute drive by snow machine out to the nearest seal colony. After arrival, we might get off and walk around the colony, counting the seals, taking pictures and notes, and documenting what we see. We’d do this at each colony, stopping for lunch when we need to, warming our toes if a warming hut was available, and then return to the station to enter data.
A typical day can take anywhere from a couple hours to >10 depending on the weather and ice conditions. After warming up, cleaning up, and probably eating dinner, the most popular thing to do is to hit the wine bar to relax, share stories, and talk science. Then you do the same thing all over again the next day.
Was the reality of undertaking research in Antarctica similar to your expectations prior to first going? What did you find most surprising?
The experience of traveling to and doing research in Antarctica was beyond my wildest dreams, truly. I’d been told what to expect (cold, dry, windy, where to find the coffee shop, how to rent ski equipment) but nothing prepared me for the things you can’t learn unless you experience it for yourself: the smell of McMurdo Station, the genuine friendliness of everyone in town, the frustration of learning operations and planning as you go. It was a wild ride and each time I go back I learn something new and re-learn something I should remember!
I think the most surprising thing for me the first time I went to Antarctica was just how warm it was. I arrived on December 11, 2008 (getting into summer) and I remember doing my survival training in sunny, 20 F [-7ºC] weather. When you’re digging trenches, setting up tents, and cutting blocks of ice, 20 F gets to be really warm really quickly.
I've heard that Emperor Penguins live only on sea ice and never on land? If so, how will they respond to sea ice loss – can they just adapt and move onto land?
Emperor penguins do live on sea ice and don’t come on land, with the exception of 2-3 colonies out of the ~50 colonies known. We don’t really know how they will respond to the loss of sea ice but it’s possible they will be forced to relocate to areas farther south – where ice might persist – or they may be able to adapt by coming onto land, in a few cases.
In all likelihood if the sea ice extent continues to decline the way we expect, emperor penguin populations are likely to decline as well.
We hear a lot about climate change and sea ice being lost in the Arctic and Antarctic. Did you witness this first hand, and should we be worried about it?
It’s hard to really witness sea ice loss first hand because it’s a process that takes such a long time – years to decades. But I pay attention to the sea ice data sets that are collected by satellite each year and see how the sea ice is changing, especially on the Antarctic Peninsula and in the Arctic.
I also see how ice shelves in the Antarctic are disintegrating – for example, the Larsen C ice shelf is about to calve off soon. So those are the kinds of things I see and pay attention to and it’s very concerning.
What are some of the things we can do to help protect the Antarctic environment and the animals who call it home?
One of the easiest things we can do is avoid consuming krill oil! Krill are the base of the food web in the Southern Ocean – pretty much all the animals in the Antarctic rely on krill in some way – yet we fish for krill and use it in food supplements and it is also used as food for farmed salmon. So given the potentially competing factors of fishing and climate change in the Southern Ocean, if we can do our best to limit one of those negative effects (fishing for krill) that helps a lot.
I find climate change a harder issue to tackle because it’s such an abstract idea, it’s really hard to see in our day to day lives the changes – but even little things like turning the lights off, eating local food, and carpooling to work can really make a huge difference.