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Chicago students help get fish spy camera underwater in Antarctica

The swimming pool at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood is not exactly an arctic environment. But a group of Chicago students last week tested the warm waters with a fish spy camera vehicle designed to study Antarctic icefish. The goofy-looking icefish are some of the many species at the poles who could be at risk quickly-changing temperatures due to climate change.

The spy cam vehicle is basically a metal cage that will attach to a ship with a rope and chains and drag through deep waters. Science teacher Paula Dell will take the contraption south later this month to meet up with researchers through a national program called PolarTrec that links up science teachers with field researchers.

The four students got involved with the fish spy cam because they were part of ROV (remote-operated vehicle) club, and they all like making things and using power tools. But when the spy cam vehicle dropped quietly into the pool Thursday, they weren’t happy with the result. It spun slowly through water; after some discussion, they decided it will need a rudder and started discussing materials.

Why spy on icefish?

Antarctic icefish have adapted in remarkable ways to living in some of the coldest water on earth. They have cute faces, huge eyes and smooth bodies, and they’re all-white. They have white blood and oversized hearts and veins because of a genetic mutation that several million years ago caused the fish not to have any hemoglobin. That means they can’t store much oxygen and have to be very efficient at using the oxygen available. They’re fascinating examples of adaptation in a situation of both very harsh climate and perhaps unlucky genetics.

Life for the various species of icefish on thin ice, so to speak. The fish are particularly sensitive to warmth, and they’ll need to adapt to rising global temperatures or potentially face extinction. Researchers Kristin O’Brien and Elizabeth Crockett, who are already in Antarctica, are exploring their capabilities for adaptation. They’re the ones who asked Dell to get her students involved in the spy cam. 

The Lindblom students aren’t the only ones in the Chicago area with Antarctic connections.

“In the 25 years or so that I’ve been going to Antarctica personally, I’ve seen changes that have not been seen in previous generations,” said Reed Scherer, a geologist at Northern Illinois University who studies Antarctica. He and a group from NIU were in Antarctica over the winter studying ice sheets and boring holes into an Antarctic lake far below the ice to take rare samples of the water. They’re also working on a high-tech ROV to be used in Antarctic waters.

Scherer’s research uses geological records to get a sense of earth’s long term climate history, which in turn helps scientists understand the significance of shorter-term climate developments -- like, for example, a rise of over four degrees Fahrenheit in Antarctic temperatures since 1958.

“You have to go back in some cases 3 million years to get to conditions that we’re already starting to see again in the Antarctic in certain places,” said Scherer. He says the sensitive Antarctic environment is a canary in the coal mine for global climate change. “Changes that are taking place there, pretty much by definition are of global significance. Whereas a change that might take place around Chicago may be part of a cycle that’s gonna change back and forth.”

Back at Lindblom, 7th-grader Miguel Limon says he worries about the big picture, too.

“Basically I think climate change is affecting everything,” he said. “Even the smallest temperature changes can affect the whole ecosystem.”

Lewis Wallace is a Pritzker Journalism Fellow at WBEZ. Follow him @lewispants.

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