Introducing Rainer Amon - From the Gulf Stream to the Arctic

bridges vol. 23, October 2009 / News from the Network: Austrian Researchers Abroad

By Juliet M.  Beverly

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Rainer Amon

Rainer Amon spent a good portion of his childhood on a farm while growing up in Obervellach, Austria, where Amon, now an associate professor of marine science and oceanography in the Department of Marine Science at Texas A&M University at Galveston (TAMUG), got his first examples of "real life biology." "I think spending the better part of my growing up on a farm had a big impact on what I chose for my career," said Amon, describing the happy days of his childhood - going to school, then coming home and playing outside with friends or one of his four siblings until it was time for dinner. Although all the real life experience led Amon to a career in biology, a couple of opportunities crossed his path for marine biology. These would eventfully land him in Texas - The Lone Star State - where he concentrates on biogeochemical fluxes in aquatic environments, the global carbon cycle, and interdisciplinary research in Arctic Oceanography.

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Great expeditions

Before Amon took his current position at TAMUG, he made his way through several research expeditions. After receiving his master's degree at the University of Vienna, Austria, in 1990, Amon attended the University of Texas at Austin for a postdoctoral fellowship, then accepted another fellowship at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, in Germany, during the mid-to-late 1990s.  Amon has been on several scientific expeditions on boats and vessels, taking him to places like Manaus, Brazil, to do research on the Amazon River system, or Russia's southern Kara Sea.  But perhaps the vessel with which he became most familiar is the Research Vessel (R.V.) Polarstern , during his postdoc at Alfred Wegener Institute, researching the outcomes of terrestrial organic carbon.  

The R.V. Polarstern.
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Long shadows across the Arctic ice.
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Polarstern breaking the ice.

Custom-made in 1982 for working in polar seas, the Polarstern, a German icebreaker vessel, has completed more than 30 expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. It spends almost 320 days a year at sea:  November through March sailing in and around Antarctic waters, and the northern summer months in Arctic waters. The ship contains nine research laboratories and is equipped for biological, geological, geophysical, glaciological, chemical, oceanographic, and meteorological research. The Polarstern has a crew of 44 at most, and offers work facilities for an additional 50 scientists and technicians.

"There can be all types of scientists working on the ship at one time, so everything has to be highly coordinated. The thing about Arctic research is that it's pretty expensive, so we have to be as efficient as possible so that everyone gets his or her samples. Which most of the time means working 24/7," said Amon about life on the ship. "Every morning we get together to figure out our game plan.  Being in Arctic conditions, things are very unpredictable and you might go to bed with one plan and wake up to another because you're stuck in the ice and cannot go any further." Besides some of the drama that can happen in the coordination meeting - mostly due to crankiness from sleep deprivation - the real drama of being on an icebreaker is being present while it does what it does: breaks the ice. The ship is a double-hulled icebreaker that can operate at temperatures as low as -50°C, which enables the ship to overwinter in the polar seas' ice sheets. The Polarstern can break through ice 1.5 meters thick at a speed of approximately 5 knots. Ice thicker than this is broken by good old-fashioned ramming.

"There is a lot of moving and stopping and moving and stopping. Being in the Arctic in the summer means that you have light 24 hours a day. The angle of the sun is low and casts very long shadows and you just stand on the deck in awe: You're in the middle of ice not believing where you are," said Amon, saying that his first experiences on the Polarstern are very well documented - the first 100 pictures are all of sea ice.

Attention to the Arctic

The Arctic contains the world's smallest ocean, yet it's one of the largest indicators of global climate change. Slightly less than 1.5 times the size of the US, the Arctic is experiencing thinning of the polar icepack - sea ice, permafrost, and glaciers have all been melting at an unusual rate in the past ten years. Warming in the Arctic has worldwide implications. Sea ice and snow, more specifically, the "white" of ice and snow, helps keep the Earth cool by reflecting the solar energy - also known as albedo . The less ice and snow, the more intense warming becomes because there is more "dark" area to absorb the solar energy. The combination of melting Arctic ice, increased precipitation, and freshwater from rivers in the region can also add to the freshwater in oceans that can potentially affect the ocean currents in the North Atlantic.

This map shows the pattern of thermohaline circulation also known as "meridional overturning circulation". This collection of currents is responsible for the large-scale exchange of water masses in the ocean, including providing oxygen to the deep ocean. The entire circulation pattern takes ~2000 years. Click image to enlarge.

The sun's energy is transported from the equator toward the poles through thermohaline circulation - the deep movement of waters in oceans around the world.   This movement is driven by differences in heat and salinity of the various ocean waters, hence the name thermohaline.  The Gulf Stream current that flows from the Gulf of Mexico keeps Europe warmer in winter than places in North America at the same latitude. As the water moves northward, it becomes colder, denser, and saltier. As a result, surface water eventually becomes heavier than the waters below it and sinks deep. This drives the globe's seawater in what is often referred to as the "conveyor belt ," pulling warm waters northward. Climate change could interfere with the development of the cold, dense water that drives ocean circulation, further influencing climate change.

Amon's currently funded NSF projects began with an interest in the carbon cycle , how much dissolved organic matter (DOM) is transported from the six largest rivers of the Arctic - the Yukon, Mackenzie, Kolyma, Lena, Yenisey, and Ob rivers - to the Arctic Ocean, and how much of the river DOM is transported out of the Arctic.

"Our research team was interested in how much carbon is coming out of the rivers and what kind of carbon is coming out of the rivers," said Amon. "The reason we did this is because if we look at the drainage basins of the six largest rivers in the Arctic, they contain a very large amount of organic carbon. About 40 percent of the global soil organic carbon is stored in the watershed of rivers that drain into the Arctic - that's about 700 giga tons of carbon, the same amount you find in the atmosphere as CO2."

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Dwindling Arctic sea ice.

Triggered by the research on the Arctic and the carbon cycle, Amon and his colleagues also began tracing riverine organic matter in the Arctic Ocean. In doing so, they have found that the maximum amount of river carbon was always associated with a certain water mass called the halocline - a vertical zone in the water column in which salinity changes rapidly with depth. The halocline layer acts as an insulator against the warmer Atlantic surface water. Without the halocline layer, there would be no Arctic sea ice. Amon and colleagues are now working on proving that sea ice formation is responsible for the very important halocline zone and pinpointing the gateway in the Arctic Ocean where this process of producing the halocline is taking place.

Practicing what you teach

"One thing I like about Texas is that people are pretty straightforward. They might not agree with you, but they say it to your face. And I appreciate that - it's better than trying to figure out what someone really means," said Amon of his southern experience. At TAMUG, the "ocean-oriented campus" of Texas A&M University, Amon looks forward to moving into a brand new Science Complex on the Mitchell Campus. TAMUG broke ground on the $50 million science complex in April 2008 and will be ready to move in by next summer. The Science Complex will provide over 100,000 square feet of research and teaching space dedicated to marine biology, ecology, comparative physiology, marine sciences, and the advancement of environment theory and policy.

Besides the prospects of a brand-spanking new Science Complex, Amon is truly looking forward to building on initiatives that he started shortly after arriving at TAMUG. Noticing a decline in the number of students in the natural sciences, Amon thought new approaches to teaching were needed to attract more students and rekindle the joy of discovery. His first initiative was to "coach" several undergraduate students to write articles about research projects on Galveston Island for Galveston County - The Daily News. The plan is for this initiative to become an article series called "Science on the Island" that will include research projects done at TAMUG and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

Amon's second initiative involves integrating undergraduate education with hands-on research by exposing students to core oceanographic disciplines during field trips and laboratory work. This initiative was developed under the concept that conducting actual research early in a student's studies will allow them to see what work would be like in a science career track. The third initiative, which Amon hopes to build on in the next year, is related to graduate students and providing them with international and multidisciplinary exposure. Through workshops held abroad, Amon will invite graduate students to participate in the meetings where scientists from multiple levels, disciplines, and nationalities would discuss their latest findings. The common denominator of Amon's initiatives is the fact that he applied his own experiences to envision projects that would help students become future researchers. "I didn't come up with the initiatives for positive feedback, praise, or status," said Amon. "I did it for the students.  And it's really a good experience to see how students will react to the initiatives and what programs benefit them the most."


This article is based on an interview conducted by the author, Juliet M. Beverly, with Dr. Rainer Amon, associate professor of marine science and oceanography in the Department of Marine Science at Texas A&M University at Galveston.


The Alfred-Wegener-Institut - R.V. Polarstern

The Encyclopedia of Earth

GreenFacts - Scientific Facts on Arctic Climate Change

Mrasek, Volker. "Point of No Return for the Arctic Climate." Spiegel Online International.,1518,594461,00.html

Texas A&M University at Galveston

US Central Intelligence Agency - The World Factbook - The Arctic Ocean