Subarctic expedition provides cool summer research adventure

By Lynn Davis, College of Natural Resources

Immediately after earning his bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech in fisheries science and environmental policy planning in May 2006, Alex Miller departed for northern Labrador to participate in a summer research expedition along the subarctic coast of Canada.

Miller joined Walter Adey, his wife Karen Adey, a cinematographer, and a small crew for the seventh season of an eight-year project. Adey, a Smithsonian curator and research scientist for the National Museum of Natural History, is determining the subarctic/arctic distribution of seaweeds based on species biomass rather than their presence or absence in certain areas.

When Miller was a sophomore during the summer of 2003, he assisted Adey with season four of the project. For three months Miller and Adey’s crew occupied 20 subtidal stations across the core northwest Atlantic subarctic, from the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence through southern Labrador and across the northeastern coast of Newfoundland.

This past summer’s research focused on the northeastern coast of Newfoundland south to southern Nova Scotia and occupied 19 stations. At each of the stations, Miller and other divers endured water temperatures from 50 degrees F down to 28 degrees while taking digital photos and videos at predetermined depths. The divers also scraped or cut all of the seaweed biomass and placed the specimens in plastic bags.

The expedition’s main goal was to apply and verify a mathematical model representing seaweed distribution that Adey created in the late 1990s with his colleague Robert Steneck of the University of Maine. Their model was the first serious attempt to bring together the complex ecological and geological time factors widely accepted to be important in determining biogeographic patterns of benthis marine algae.

“Such biogeographic patterns hold the keys to the evolution of coastal benthic ecosystems and their contained species and are intimately tied to issues of biodiversity and conservation, such as ‘hot spots,’ species extinction, and invasives,” says Adey.

Once completed, the model will be invaluable in determining rates of climate change, species dispersion, exotic species introductions, and evolution in geological time. Most importantly, the model allows scientists in all fields to incorporate a theoretical model to further the understanding of how humans impact the environment. It will also provide policy makers, politicians, administrators, and consulting firms with information that can be used to better manage the environment.

Adey’s “Alca i” vessel made the trip up through Canada’s icy waters. The 64-foot, three-masted motor-schooner was specially created by George Buehler Yacht Design to withstand the subarctic climate. The solid-oak construction, from trees grown on Adey’s coastal Virginia farm, is equipped with a small research laboratory in the stern, inflatable dive boats, remote-location diving facilities, and living quarters for the crew.

Although a Bath County native, Miller has lived in Gloucester, Va., most of his life. He met Adey after receiving statewide recognition for his Virginia Junior Academy of Sciences project, a hands-on re-circulating aquaculture system still in use at Gloucester High School.

An active player in Virginia’s environmental agenda, Miller worked with the Louis Berger Group Inc. of Blacksburg and Gloucester and with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in the summer of 2005.

Miller is now back at Virginia Tech to earn a master of science degree in environmental economics in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. He is working with Associate Professor Kurt Stephenson on a project that will provide a scientific analysis of nutrient removal by cultivated oysters and examine the economic feasibility of using assimilation credits as a water quality management option for the Chesapeake Bay. His work will parallel the efforts of the Center for Environmental Restoration, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, cofounded by Adey, that works with academia, business, civil society, and government to research and develop solar and bio-based technologies for environmental restoration.

Alex Miller’s brother, Nathan, an undergraduate in geology and geophysics at Virginia Tech, also spent the summer conducting oceanographic research. Nathan worked with scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to develop and test seismic imaging techniques for imaging vertical geologic faults in the Earth’s oceanic crust. Vertical faults are common where tectonic plates meet under the world’s oceans. Imaging their structure allows scientists to better understand, for example, what controls earthquakes along these boundaries.

Alex Miller wades in a subarctic pool. View the photo at a larger size.

This thumbnail is a portion of a photo of Walter Adey's 64-foot, three-masted motor-schooner, the Alca i. You can view the complete photo at a larger size.

Alex Miller operates one of Alca i's inflatable dive boats.

Divers collect seaweed to help determine distribution based on species biomass.

Another view of the Alca i. You can view the complete photo at a larger size.

A portion of a photo of Alca i docked at the Bonne Bay Marine Station onthe west coast of Newfoundland. You can view the complete photo at a larger size.





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