Saturday, December 26, 2009
I am excited to begin a blog in order to share my experience documenting climate change in Antarctica. Tomorrow I will embark on a 6 week scientific expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula. I will be part of a group of oceanographers from the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory documenting physical and ecological changes to the marine environment near the Antarctic Peninsula. I will be collecting and analyzing seawater samples for their bacterial abundance and growth rates. As some of you may know my background is in paleoclimate and ocean biogeochemistry, and I have very little experience with microbial ecology so I hope I will learn quickly!
I will spend 4 weeks at Palmer station, the smallest of the US Antarctic bases. You can read more about it at http://pal.lternet.edu/. January is the height of the austral summer so the station will be at capacity - 40 people. About half of these will be scientists and half will be support staff. I hear that the weather is very similar to January back in Providence - the average temperature is 35F with frequent cold rain and fog. So I'm not getting away with anything by leaving home! But still you may surprised at how mild the weather will be - why no blizzards and subzero temperature? Palmer station is at 64 degrees south latitude, which is pretty far north by Antarctic standards. In addition, the station is on the coast, where the ocean moderates temperatures (just think New England winters versus North Dakota winters). The station is also north of the Antarctic circle, which means that there is never a day without night (or a night without day). Still, the sun will rise at 2am on the day I arrive!
Palmer station is located on Anvers Island midway along the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula although this information may not have gotten you any closer to an idea of where I am going! The Antarctic Peninsula reaches north from the main continental mass and almost brushes the tip of South America. We will sail south from Tierra del Fuego to Antarctica through the Drake Passage, crossing some of the most treacherous waters in the world's oceans. Here, the Earth's rotation creates winds that blow from west to east along parallel lines of latitude. With no land masses to slow them down, the winds whip around the Southern Ocean at high speeds. Anyone with sailing experience can think of this area has having an infinite fetch. The circumpolar winds also isolate Antarctica from the heat the sun delivers to the tropics. In fact, Antarctica's separation from South America and the initiation of the circumpolar winds about 30 million years ago coincide with the appearance of the Antarctic icecap.
I will end the earth science lesson there before I get more carried away with the Coriolis effect and the Miocene deglaciation of Antarctica. My next step will be to fly to Santiago, Chile and then to Punta Arenas in Patagonia (which if you're wondering is a region of Chile, not a separate country). There the US Antarctic Program will issue me lots of warm clothing and outdoor equipment before I leave on a research vessel with my scientific party. The crossing of the Drake Passage takes four days, two of them in open waters. Let's hope it's not too rough!!