NIWA scientists set sail for Antarctic to study plankton

A group of NIWA scientists have set sail on a voyage to the Antarctic on a mission to study the world's most vital sea creatures. 

Plankton is essential for the food chain and helps produce more than half of the world's oxygen, but experts are concerned about the threat climate change poses to their survival.

"We really are trying to understand the food web and so if we understand the whole system there, we should be able to see changes," said voyage leader Joshu Mountjoy.

NIWA scientists left on Sunday afternoon for the Ross Sea on a six-week voyage to find out how our smallest sea creatures are being affected by climate change. 

"We are particularly focused on the plankton systems, so zooplankton and phytoplankton, which are microscopic that feed the whole food web," Mountjoy said.

Plankton also produce the bulk of the world's oxygen, and the Ross Sea, which is the world's largest marine protected area, provides the perfect conditions for them to thrive.

"We're deploying video cameras so that we can look at the sea floor and compare from what they were when they started the monitoring and to continue that over time," said NIWA marine biologist Sadie Mills.

As climate change accelerates, researchers are on edge about what they might find. The trip down is looking to be smoother than before as there is less sea ice in the way.

"While this plays out well for us, it's slightly concerning about what's actually driving that," Mountjoy said.

With some new technology, they'll get a close-up look at how the warming sea temperatures are affecting plankton.

"We're taking an Italian remotely operated vehicle with us, which is also really exciting because it means you can get up close and look at the details of the animals living on the sea floor," Mills said.

Because their survival is essential for all of ours.