Into the Unknown: Expeditions to Extreme Environments
Jan Rines, Assistant Marine Research Scientist
Graduate School of Oceanography
Jan Rines received a BS in botany from URI and earned an MS and a PhD from GSO. Her research interests include phytoplankton systematics and the biological-physical interactions between phytoplankton and their environment.
Medieval man believed that the world was flat.
It was feared that anyone who dared venture too close to the edge would fall
off---and disappear into the unknown. But humans are curious. Driven by a quest
for knowledge and the thrill of adventure, the explorers pressed on. They sailed
around the world.
In the nineteenth century, a fascination with collecting and cataloging the diversity of nature prompted natural historians and explorers to venture far from home in search of flora and fauna unknown to science. They studied the geography and geology of the lands they visited and the characteristics of the sea. Among these men were Charles Darwin aboard HMS Beagle, Alfred Russell Wallace in the Indonesian Archipelago, and Sir Wyville Thomson on HMS Challenger. Far from the familiar European countryside, they risked the vagaries of the sea, hostile natives, injury, and disease for the thrill of collecting strange and marvelous creatures and plants from the ends of the earth and the depths of the ocean. What they discovered created a revolution in scientific thought.
Today there are few areas of the earth's surface that have not been explored or pinpointed with great accuracy by global positioning systems. A plethora of scientific instrumentation and computer systems has given us tools to gather data from remote or inhospitable locations without leaving the laboratory. But an adventurous spirit is integral to a scientist, and many of us take delight in the challenge of hands-on, often strenuous field work. Like those before us, we dream of discovering something so unique that it changes our view of the world. Sometimes there is even the allure of danger.
This issue of Maritimes ventures around the world and back in time: above the Arctic Circle with Brad Moran and John Smith to investigate the environmental legacy of nuclear testing conducted during the Cold War; beneath the sea floor with Steven D'Hondt and David Smith to look for buried life; and deep in the ocean with Karen Wishner to discover zooplankton living where oxygen is a scarce commodity. Witness the extreme, destructive power of a volcanic eruption with Steven Carey. Consider that not all seas are wet: David Fastovsky vividly reconstructs ancient seas of sand, an unforgiving environment once home to the little dinosaur Protoceratops. Scott McWilliams discusses a strategy commonly employed by songbirds (and people like me) who choose to avoid the extremes of a North American winter: fly south. I can personally attest to how strange it seems to encounter orioles and tanagers---summer residents of my Rhode Island garden---side by side with toucans and macaws in the jungles of the remote Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. It took me many long hours to get there by plane; these tiny bundles of feathers did it all on their own.
Life shows an amazing ability to adapt, and even thrive, in extreme environmental conditions. Examination of how this is achieved is relevant to understanding the origins of life, here on earth and perhaps elsewhere. There remains much to be discovered beyond the edges of the familiar world.
return to Contents