Thursday, October 28, 2010

What It's Like

Hello from Antarctica! This is my (Edgar’s) first post, and I would like to introduce my world down here to you and answer some of the questions I have received:

The Station itself

You can imagine Palmer Station as a very nice college campus with all the usual amenities, just a little bit more plush. We have a leather-couch filled lounge, a tv projector with hundreds of dvds, a work-out gym, a sauna, a hot tub, and a high-quality mess served by professional chefs. It’s a fairly good life.

From Adventures with my Aunt Arctica
(Palmer Station!)

Weather and Surroundings

The weather on station isn’t too bad, usually staying between 25 and 35 degrees. The major problem is the wind. Antarctica is surrounded by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), or a massive ocean current that moves in an unobstructed circle around the continent, allowing it to reach high speeds. It becomes even worse when it narrows down to the small space – the Drake Passage - between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula where we are. The effect on us is powerful winds sweeping over the station, creating the fun if terrifying situation where in my short commute from my dorm to the lab I have to tightly hold the railings and just barely maintain balance as the wind picks up my entire weight and scoots me along the path. It’s pretty intense, and awesome.

From Adventures with my Aunt Arctica
(The ACC)

Palmer Station is located on a peninsula jutting out from a massive, glacier-filled island. The glacier rises up from behind the station to about 1,000 feet high and extends for miles in every direction. We are on a tiny oasis that fortunately never ices over. We are surrounded by islands that form perfect breeding grounds for penguins and other birds, a topic for later blogs for sure.

From Adventures with my Aunt Arctica
(Palmer is on the second peninsula, and the glacier rises hundreds of feet from our backyard)

The Work

Alice and I spend most days in the lab running water samples through a flow cytometer and then adding radioactive isotopes and measuring microbial growth. The exciting, if exhausting, days are when we head out on the water to collect the samples. The first site, Station B, is only a couple of hundred feet from the station and is still protected by islands from the open sea. Station E, however, is 2 miles offshore and is subject to high waves, brutal winds, and intense seasickness. It has earned itself “legendary status” in the lore of American climate change science, according to my boss, the lead scientist for my project. Here is his take on Station E:

"When it's nice out, E is incomparable. You don't want to leave. When conditions are marginal, E really sucks. At least it sure does for me. I have many instances (more than 10) when I knew on the ride out that I would start throwing up as soon as the motor stopped. I have probably been sick there more than I felt good. Even so, I treasure those memories too -- sitting on the deck of [the boat] Wonderbread with my feet dangling over the side and the waves rocking my boots down into the water. Priceless. We have also had memorable trips taking the route through the islands because of wind or ice. I love that route. My most awful experience was in Nov or Feb 2006 when the winds were about 15-20, just low enough that the [boating coordinator] let us go (already a bad sign), and after a bone-jarring ride out, I threw up violently 25 or 30 times. I spent the entire ride back with my eyes closed just concentrating on not being sick again."

(My boss vomiting over the side of the boat.)

And yet he loves heading out. Scientists.

I had my own unfortunate adventure out at E. Upon arriving I immediately started to feel queasy, but following the directions of my mates I kept my mind off of it. That is, until Alice asked me if I could tow in the rope. I thought about it honestly, reflecting on the turmoil in my stomach, and realized I could not. That was it. With my mind now in tune with my stomach, I dove for the side and immediately emptied my stomach into the water, feeding the fish a half-digested omelet.

Not feeling too great, I just sat on the boat as the work finished up, not moving and therefore slowly growing colder and colder. By the time I was dropped off I was mildly hypothermic, had quit shivering, and needed to be near a fire and under many covers to warm up. It was not fun, and slightly terrifying. Next time I will bring seasickness meds and several extra layers.

I can tell you, after this experience, I definitely appreciate the determination, fortitude, and bravery of earlier Antarctic explorers, who did not have the same high-quality, warm, water-proof and insulated equipment that I do.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Get your Extreme Cold Weather on

I arrived at the pier in Punta Arenas with hardly a scrap of warm weather clothing. How could this be, you may wonder. This girl is going to Antarctica!
Well at the pier there is a warehouse that holds the Extreme Cold Weather gear, which is issued to each scientist or support staff employee. Before deployment, everyone sends in their physical measurements so that the ECW staff can have ready a bag with the correct sized gear for you. However, the sizes are inevitably off, and you have to check for holes and make sure that all the zippers work correctly. This process involves trying on all the clothing to make sure it fits together, starting from the bottom layer of long underwear and working all the way up to outer parkas. You end up feeling somewhat like the von Hindenburg: a blimp that is burning up.
The work gear is generally carhartts and plaid flannel so one ends up looking a bit like a lumberjack. Eddie posed in his canvas and flannel next to a slim female mannequin outfitted in black goretex pants, a red US Antarctic Program parka and a tight-fitting fleece cap with earflaps. They made quite a pair.

I think what did me in was trying on endless pairs of the Sorrel boots (rubber feet with leather ankle support). Somehow, I swear, every pair of size 6 boots was slightly different and every time, I had to stamp them onto my feet, walk around, and then pry them off against a fearsome suction force. It’s a little bit like a standardized test: at first it’s fun to fill in the little bubbles, but by the end your mind is fuzzy and you just want to leave.

By the time all my gear was packed into big black duffels and I stumbled outside into bright light and wind, overheated and disoriented, I felt as though I’d been through a washing machine on the fast spin cycle.

In the end, my Extreme Cold Weather gear includes:
2 pairs thick tube socks
2 pairs long underwear tops and bottoms
fleece pants
fleece jacket
carhartt work pants
flannel-lined carhartt overalls
flannel work shirt (plaid of course)
down vest
carhartt work vest
lined carhartt parka
gore-tex ski overalls
gore-tex Antarctic Program parka
rubber fishermen’s bibs and jacket
fleece hat
fleece balaclava
2 pairs lined rubber gloves
2 pairs lined leather work gloves
2 pairs polypro glove liners
wool gloves
mittens with fleece inserts
rubber boots
Sorrel boots

And no, sadly I do not get to keep this gear; I will return it at the end of the season. However the US Antarctic Program may not miss a pair of wool gloves…

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

South, again

I was greeted by a biting wind when I arrived in Punta Arenas today. Celestially, it is spring here now but I wouldn't know it from the leaden gray sky, the dusting of snow on the surrounding hills, and the forbiddingly dark blue streak that is the Strait of Magellan.

If you are reading this you may know that I have managed to get myself (and Eddie) back to “the Ice” for a second season, this time for six months. I am pretty beside myself with excitement, both at returning to what I think of as a place close to heaven, and at the prospect of blogging again. I can already feel a rush of excitement as what began as a simple “Hello, I’ve arrived safe” email to my family has turned into the first post of a new phase in this blog.

The familiar faces began in the Dallas airport and continued in Santiago and Punta Arenas. Even the new faces are comfortingly scruffy, beards begun even before their owners have arrived in Antarctica. This time we are with the full season crowd, the cooks, carpenters, logistics coordinators and IT staff as they begin another season at Palmer station. There are other scientists: the intense birders, a “phytoplankton person,” but the rowdy Long Term Ecological Research crew I traveled down with last year won’t arrive until January, so the journey has begun sedately, that is to say I have only drunk one pisco sour so far.

Eddie and I will be doing very similar work to that which I did last year with Amanda: collecting sea water from a small boat twice weekly and measuring nutrient levels, bacterial abundance and growth rates. This year we will be working with an exciting new flow cytometer that can count the bacteria more accurately than I could by mind-numbingly tapping on a hand counter as I squinted at tiny green dots through a microscope lens. In addition this instrument can measure properties like size, the presence of a cell nucleus, and choloroplasts. I am looking forward to using it and explaining more about how it works and what it can tell us about bacterial populations in the Antarctic waters. I will live at Palmer station for the next five months until mid-March, while Eddie will stay on for another month to finish out the season.

Soon we will board the ship and begin our journey south, setting up a summer field camp for studying seals along the way. Thus I am facing a seven day boat journey in the Southern Ocean at a very different time of year than mid-summer when I crossed before. Spring storms can be serious in the Drake Passage, so I hope we cross without any terrible seasickness. As I glance at the time (after 1am), I realize that it is time to go to sleep, in my hotel room in a building that Ernest Shackleton inhabited. I think of it like being in a house where Washington once slept. Anyways, I know I will sleep well.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

New Horizons

Hello again,
I am posting again because I have a couple pieces of news! The first is that I am leaving for India tomorrow for an internship/extended traveling, and I have started a new blog to let you all know what I am learning: Passage Through India. I will be meeting my boyfriend, who has been living there for the past ten months studying primary healthcare in rural areas. I will first do an internship at an NGO called The Energy and Resources Institute, working on a new technique for water purification using geochemical processes. We plan to travel for about two months in India, and then go to Egypt where a friend of mine is living, and from there, who knows? Any suggestions are appreciated. When you get a chance, check in on my new blog and see where I am and what I'm up to!

My second piece of news is also very exciting: I am going back to Palmer! I will being working as a field and laboratory assistant, the same job I did before, but this time for the whole season: October 2010 through March 2011. And what makes it even better is that this year my partner will be my boyfriend Edgar! They say that people get stuck on Antarctica and keep coming back - we'll see...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Antarctica is our Paradise

It may not come as a surprise to you that sadly I am not actually in Antarctica anymore. Right now I am writing from my attic room in Providence, Rhode Island. As I look back, I see life at Palmer station as a little piece of a better world. You can have everything you want, and nothing that you don’t. There are no cars, no traffic, no cell phones, very few of the distractions of modern life. But you can be connected if you wish, by internet or landline. The food is the tastiest I have eaten anywhere. I thought of it as going to a restaurant all the time, but not just any restaurant – my favorite restaurant. Some highlights: moussaka, samosas, olive cheese bread, lamb stew, and not to forget the cinnamon rolls, baklava and flourless chocolate cake. The people are genuine because there is no reason to posture or put on a front in such a small community. One afternoon the boating coordinator announced that there would be a happy hour in the boathouse. I arrived, wine in hand, and joined about 10 people were sitting in chairs or on the rubber pontoons of a boat. When I asked what the occasion was, they looked at each other and someone said, “it’s Wednesday?” this story is not to illustrate that a lot of drinking goes on at Palmer, because it doesn’t. It’s just a really relaxed and welcoming atmosphere where no excuse is needed to have a social event. Hanging out at the bar isn’t a crazy scene at all, it’s just some guys playing ping-pong and enjoying each other’s company. People sit by the fire and read or write, or knit. It is a place where shy or quiet people who might not be accepted elsewhere are included and valued.

Another special aspect of Palmer station is the excitement inherent in its location. Everyone’s priority is to experience Antarctica. Given any opportunity the support staff are out on the water watching wildlife. They may drop what they’re doing, or get probably too close to a whale, but that’s the point – that’s why they’re here. But at the same time everyone works really hard to make the station run as smoothly as possibly; there are no bad attitudes or people avoiding work.

As Hugh said, “The real world will never be the same.” In the beginning I wondered why people live this life – 9 months thousands of miles from their family and friends, then back for 3 months without a real home, only to do it again. But now I see that Antarctica is a refuge from a lot of the ugliness of modern life. Someone drew a little sketch with the caption “Antarctica is our paradise,” and it truly is. Palmer Station is a little utopian community, a small piece of a better life. The natural world appears to mirror this almost like a frozen Garden of Eden, where penguins, seals, birds and whales abound and are fearless of humans. However this special ecosystem that is actually in a state of collapse due to rapid climate change, and that is what brought me there. I am so lucky to have been able to experience this place.

I want to thank everyone who has encouraged me in writing this blog - it has been a revelation and an unexpected source of joy for me. If you enjoyed reading this, please stay tuned for my travels in South Asia beginning in May!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Being a Duckling

When I arrived in Punta Arenas on my way to Antarctica, the scientists whom I met would ask me if I was a “duckling.” I learned that the correct answer was “yes,” because I worked for Dr Hugh Ducklow. It certainly seemed odd at first but over time I really came to appreciate what it means to work for Hugh.

First of all, Amanda and I were at Palmer Station while Hugh was on the research cruise, so we did not have direct supervision. Hugh and his research assistant trained us as well as they could and then trusted us to do a good job – quite some faith! But it gave us confidence to know that they trusted us. In our training, Hugh showed a remarkable ability to remember what it was like to not know how to do the techniques that he has been doing for over 20 years. He still knows the mistakes that a beginner is likely to make. And when following detailed procedures, it is easy to become too focused on specifics and forget what the main objective is, but Hugh always has a sense of the big picture. He wanted us to see being in Antarctica as the most important part of our experience by making clear which science tasks were time-sensitive and which tasks could wait if there were whales to watch or freshly baked cookies to eat. As we stood on the pier under an overcast sky just before he boarded the ship, leaving us at Palmer, he said “Remember: mistakes will be made, but the most important thing is for you to have a good time.” And he really meant it.

As the chief scientist of Long Term Ecological Research on the Antarctic Peninsula, Hugh made an effort to bring the group together socially. This was admirable, because there were 23 scientists from 5 different institutions, plus the ship’s crew and it would be easy for the group to become fragmented. Hugh made sure that we all got drinks together in Punta Arenas before we left, and he participated in the New Year’s celebration on the ship. Although I wasn’t on the research cruise, I heard that he made sure that everyone had the opportunity to set foot on the Antarctic continent when they made a stop there. Hugh is serious about Antarctic traditions, and halfway through our time he threatened not to take Amanda home when he heard that she hadn’t yet taken the polar plunge (luckily she did, on the morning that we left). And Hugh has his lips sealed about the procedures of the ceremony that took place on the cruise when they crossed the Antarctic Circle. I suspect that he may play the role of “King Neptune” himself!

But my favorite aspect of Hugh is his excitement about Antarctica. On the passage from Chile, I could feel his energy increasing with each mile that we traveled further south. He became more talkative and animated, reminding me of descriptions of explorers who seemed to only “be themselves” when inside a polar circle. Some of the graduate students appeared to be somewhat jaded even in their second field season, but I think that Hugh will always be looking forward to the next time he is in Antarctica.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Science, science and more science

Although I study organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye, you may be interested in the other research currently going on at Palmer station. The groups on station shift throughout the season, I can only give you a snapshot of who was at Palmer during the six weeks that I spent there.

The scientists break down roughly into the “buggers,” the “birders” and everyone else. The buggers are from Miami University in Ohio, and they study the largest land animal in Antarctica…a 4mm long wingless midge. It has remarkable adaptations to the harsh climate here, including the ability to survive being frozen, dehydration to 35% of its body weight, large swings in pH and salinity, and even…4 weeks without oxygen. My bet is on these guys as post-apocalyptic climate change survivors. The entomologists are trying to pinpoint the genes that give them these amazing abilities. The scientists are also trying to figure out how these flightless insects happen to even be here. One possibility is that they floated over, because as the buggers discovered by accident, they stay on top of the water surface very well. Or they could have hitched a ride on migratory birds. Or, they could just be holdouts from when Antarctica was not the icy place it is now, who have gradually adapted to their changing world. However they got here, they have the run of the continent.

Then there are the birders. They are the most hard-core of any scientists on station, working over 14 hours per day, 7 days per week for 5 months. They are in the field about 10 hours per day, constantly on the move. Personally, I really don’t think that the data gained from working 7 days per week versus 6 is worth the stress of not taking a break. But anyways, they study penguins, petrels and skua, documenting population levels, reproductive stress, and health based on the physical measurements of individual birds. They measure the contents of penguin stomachs by forcing warm water down their throats until the birds vomit, and the researchers bring back the stomach contents to count each krill. While I was at Palmer, they visited an island that no humans except for themselves are allowed to set foot on, and that even they only go to once per year. Quite undisturbed!

Then last, there is everyone else. That includes our bacterial research and phytoplankton research looking at response to light conditions. In addition there is a scientist who studies the “visual physiology of zooplankton.” What that means in practical terms is that he sticks electrodes into krill eyes! He is looking at what adaptations krill have made to living in such cold water, and also how they handle being in total light for part of the year and total darkness for the other part. He gave a talk about his research, and on the bulletin board we all wrote funny phrases including the word “krill” as shown in the photo I’ve included here (I contributed "Kriller, by Michael Jackson"). There is also a group that I wouldn’t really count as a science group. Four divers are making a visual catalogue of the marine life in the Palmer area, both vertebrate and invertebrate.

These are a few of the grants that the National Science Foundation funds each year through the US Antarctic Program, and between all these groups the lunchtime talk is pretty exciting (because of course, scientists can never stop talking about their research).