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).

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Polar Bear of the South

I have been looking forward to writing this post but other exciting events keep getting in the way. The first time that I became aware of Hydrurga leptonyx was in reading Endurance, an account of Ernest Shackleton’s struggles on the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. One of his men was almost eaten by this “polar bear of the South.” In fact several years ago, a British diver was grabbed and drowned by a leopard seal in a tragic accident. The leopard seal is the only seal that eats other mammals, and it is ferocious. It hunts seals and penguins with teeth designed for slashing and flaying prey. Its jaws open an awesome 160 degrees for maximum grip. This in addition to its technique of flailing its prey in order to break their necks makes me think of a combined viper/crocodile-like creature. And in fact it does look quite reptilian. This is no downy, big-eyed seal.

So you can imagine my excitement when I saw my first leopard seal lounging on an ice floe right next to the station. Its body was over 10 feet long but sleek and sinuous. Its back was dark gray and its belly was a lighter gray with spots, hence the name leopard seal. Amanda and I were no more than 20 feet away on the shore, and it could definitely hear our hushed amazement. It stretched its flippers, which are connected to its body with large flaps of skin such that they resemble bat wings. Then it yawned wide, showing its impressive teeth and pink mouth that was even spotted inside. How cute! Except not.

When others described leopard seals to me before I saw one, their description centered around the observation “And their heads are huge!” When I saw one for myself, all I could think was “And its head is huge!” Even on such a long body, the massive head is out of proportion. And there is something really creepy about their faces. Maybe the jaws are set high on the head, maybe it is just the size of the grin, but you can see for yourself that these are like no other seals. And it is hard to even think of them as seals. They seem to be unique creatures, part polar bear, part snake, part crocodile, part curious dog.

Another part of the mystique of leopard seals is how little is known about them. There is very little information about their lifespan or breeding habits, and in fact one of the leading leopard seal researchers has only twice seen a pup. Leopard seals are known to hang around zodiacs, checking out the passengers, chewing on the ropes and sometimes puncturing an air chamber. So for all their more sinister aspects, they could be called endearing. One was certainly interested in us as we collected water samples one day. It surfaced several times near our boat and I could see its nostrils set high on its snout like a crocodile. I felt so lucky to be sharing the water with this animal that was first in awe of as a child and never dreamed that I would see with my own eyes.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reaching out

I never expected that my first step onto a bona fide cruise ship would be in Antarctica. Actually it wasn’t really a step so much as a shimmy up a rope ladder. Before I came here, I didn’t realize that “outreach” is an important aspect of the United States Antarctic Program’s mission. I am for the busiest season, when two or more ships come to Palmer station each week. They range in size from a 45 foot sailboat housing a French family on their way around the world to the National Geographic Explorer to a 780 foot Holland America Line cruise ship. The sailboats and commercial yachts tie up in the harbor and come ashore for a tour, a visit to the station souvenir shop, and lunch or brownies and coffee. Any scientists who have time are encouraged to come to the galley and talk to the visitors about our work and life on station. This is actually a great public relations opportunity for the USAP, to show what they are doing with taxpayer dollars. And of course the visitors are excited to see real live Antarcticans. The question they all ask is “How did you get here?” often closely followed by “How can I get here?” For some, this is their first interaction with scientists. I was told that I didn’t look crazy enough to be a scientist (What, no googley eyes or Einstein hair?), to which I replied that I am still practicing.

However the cruise ships with more than 200 passengers, which are too large to enter the harbor don’t come to us. We come to them, on zodiacs that to them appear to have materialized from the icy hinterland. As the ship cruises around the nearby waters, we spend several hours giving science talks and question and answer sessions. It is a really fun opportunity to leave the station and explore the surrounding landscape. It is also a chance to get haircuts and enjoy the pools onboard! On our last Sunday at Palmer, the cruise ship Amsterdam visited and we took a ride down the Lemaire Channel. This narrow passage is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the continent, and for good reason. The entrance is marked by a black cliff thousands of feet high surrounded by gleaming ice. It seemed to me like an obsidian-dark version of El Capitan, rising from a watery valley floor. More mountains and glaciers stretching miles back from the shore continued to unfold as we made our way between the walls. According to Wikipedia, this area is called “Kodak alley,” and we were lucky enough to see it on the only brilliantly sunny day in over a week of fog and snow. We had to stop about halfway through because further on the channel became too narrow for the ship to turn around. In the spirit of Antarctic giddiness, the captain did a 540 degree turn, just for fun.

But seriously, the outreach at Palmer and onboard the ships was one of my favorite activities in Antarctica. I loved answering questions from “Why is the ice blue?” and “How is coal formed in Antarctica?” to “What food do you miss most?” (Answer: None, I eat better here than at home!) Explaining what I do here simply and succinctly, without using any scientific terms is a challenge and an exercise that I think every scientist should do frequently. It makes you really think about the significance of say, bacterial growth rates, without falling back on jargon. Other scientists are so devoted to their work and understand the joy of it so easily that I don’t have to justify myself as much to them. “Understanding biogeochemical pathways” is enough of an explanation. But the public is much more demanding because pinpointing chemical reactions is not a raison d’etre for them; they want to know the big picture. And in the end, both in the interests of integrated science and competition for limited grant money, the big picture is what every scientist needs to be able to explain best. I think that communicating science, either to the public or to policy makers may be a role that I am interested in pursuing further in my life. But first I need the science credentials to back it up, so bring on the biogeochemistry!

I have posted an exciting video on my Day of the Whales post, you may enjoy watching it. I've also added photos to Palmer Station, Palmer Science, Polar Plunge and Camping in Antarctica so check them out. And comment, comment, comment! If you like a particular post, please let me know! It will put a smile on my face and even if you can't see that smile, it's there - smiles aren't like trees in the forest.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Day of the Whales

Today was my last day at Palmer station before crossing the Drake Passage, and it was a great way to say goodbye to Antarctica. My first inkling of how special this day would be was when Amanda and I were wrapping up at our second water sampling station. The boating coordinator got on the radio and asked us about some visitors. I asked if he meant the sneaky leopard seal that was checking us out as we processed our water samples, but it was unlikely that he could see the seal from where he was, ¾ of a mile away. He meant something…bigger. We stopped and looked around for a couple of minutes but didn’t see our marine friends so we came back in for a long day of lab work. As we arrived on station, we saw several boats going out to look at a group of humpback whales who were hanging around the harbor. The station employees had today, Monday, off because they worked yesterday due to a visit by a cruise ship (hopefully more on that in a later post). However Amanda and I had a full day of time sensitive experiments to carry out, so it wasn’t possible for us to play with the whales. Around 4:30pm as I was just coming to the end of my lab work (except for the experiment I have to end at 10pm), the cook came looking for us. She said that the whales were still playing and asked us if we would like to come out with her and the station doctor. I want to thank Amanda for letting me post the photos that she took of the whales.

We piled into a zodiac and took off in search of humpies! We had been seeing their spouts all day from the galley windows but I wondered how we would find them in the whole expanse of the ocean. I needn’t have worried; there were at least five groups, about 20 individuals in total. We started out with a group of four who were bubble-net feeding. This is a technique in which the whales work in teams to hunt schools of krill. One whale will emit a sound that attracts the krill and the others swim in a tight circle trapping the krill in vortex and working them to the surface. We knew that the whales would be coming up soon when the surface of the water turned pale blue from all the bubbles. Then three or four huge beaky mouths would stick up above the surface, gulping hundreds of gallons of krill-filled water. The pleats of their throats would stretch, showing the white accordion bits. I could see the water slosh around and jiggle the surface of their pouches, which are more flexible than I would have imagined. Their jaws have barnacles in addition to natural bumps, and distinctive white and orange markings. The top-side of the beak is flat with nobs like the bosses of a shield. Sometimes I could see the pink roofs of their mouths. They would all rise up together and open their jaws, like a mound of mussels topping off a paella. Often I couldn’t really tell what I was looking at; it was jumble of gigantic blue, white and pink body parts. A fin would hang above the surface, white with dark scalloped nobs. The fins were incredibly long and huge, at least 10 feet long, 3-4 feet wide, and quite floppy. We were very close to them – at one point they were about 15 feet away and coming straight towards us, so we just sat tight and waited for them to pop out on the other side. When viewed straight on, their backs looked like the inverted hulls of small boats – wide and tapering to a ridge along the back. Sometimes the whales would arch backwards as they opened their mouths at the surface, swimming along on their backs with their blue and white striped bellies in full view. Then they would turn and show their dorsal fin before diving down and showing their flukes.

I have posted an album of photos by my friend Rex on picasa.
The flukes had incredible variation in shape and color from animal to animal. Some had a sharper angle in the middle, some tapered off at the ends more, some were completely white, some dark blue, some white, blue and orange. Some had scars or what seemed to be birth defects. It was really fun to see so many individuals, to follow one and learn to recognize its fluke or dorsal fin, and then to spot a new one and think, “Hello stranger.” I liked following a group, seeing the individuals separate and join new groups, or to see one who kept to itself the whole time. Amanda took some really great photographs of the whales we saw, which you can view on her picasa page. This is a video taken from one of other boats: Kyle's voice gets...very high when he's excited...

We heard them exhale puffs of mist every several seconds. One whale made a more nasal sound, like sucking snot or blowing your nose. The one really distasteful part of the experience was the whales’ bad breath. It smelled rotten, not like rancid meat or the sweet fermentation of fruit, but sour, like rotten vegetables. This would be the only air pollution that I am aware of that originates in Antarctica.

The last group we hung out with had a small, possibly juvenile member who would hang back behind the other three. Then this one decided to give us a show. About 40 feet away from us, the whale breached out of the water. It seemed to be in slow motion, the pointed head, stark white and black pleats and white flippers, streaming water. Then it breached again, higher and spinning halfway around in the air and landing with a big splash. Another adult jumped up and back showing its belly and flippers. I never thought I would ever see this sight in my whole life. It was invigorating, seeming to make my blood circulate faster; my fingers had been freezing even in my lined rubber gloves, but after the breach I didn’t notice the cold anymore. The whale disappeared under the water, leaving no trace and I found it hard to believe what had just happened. Think of it: a whole 30-foot, many-ton whale out of the water! Watching whales is kind of like being one of the three blind men who meet an elephant – you can see a fin lingering above the waves, a nose poking up, the pleats of the throat, and tails disappearing under the water, but you don’t get a sense of the whole body. The breach put all these disparate body parts together on one, strange-looking animal.

There hasn’t been another day like this all summer, and I like to think of it as Antarctica trying to keep me here, or entice me to come back!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Wasting away

In this post, I am going to take you into the world of a “wastie.” And no, I am not drinking away my days down here; wasties are the waste management employees here. As there is no landfill or solid waste dumping here, waste management is a really important aspect of the station operation. Glass, metal and cardboard are separated from solid waste and are sold to recycling companies in Chile. In fact, the based at McMurdo recycles 70% of their solid waste. However the changing economic climate has made it more difficult to sell recycled materials globally. All solid waste is packed into shipping containers called millvans and transported off of the station every two years.

Surprisingly, there is no chemical sewage treatment at Palmer station although plans for a new sewage disposal system are in the works. Instead a macerator breaks up large particles and the diluted effluent is discharged into the harbor. Drinking water is reclaimed from the ocean by reverse osmosis. This strips the water of all ions, so potash is added to it so that the “hungry” deionized water does not dissolve the pipes. Still, the water is relatively “soft,” meaning that it has few dissolved minerals. This makes it very easy to work soap into a lather, and hard to get it off! The toilets use seawater in order to conserve freshwater stores.

At the moment Palmer station is powered by a diesel generator although things change in the future. This year 10% of McMurdo station's power is supplied by a wind generator set up at a nearby New Zealand base. Hopefully Palmer will move toward a more sustainable power source as well.

Radioactive waste is tracked from cradle to grave: the facility knows how much radioactive material was issued to you, and you must record how much you use in each experiment. Then the radioactivity in all of your waste streams – liquid, solid, test tubes, etc must add up to the amount that you were issued. The waste that Amanda and I generate from our radioactive experiments is the most complicated and expensive waste possible: radioactive, caustic and flammable because it contains tritium, trichloroacetic acid, and ethanol. A 2L bottle costs about $5,000 to dispose of!

However for all the effort put into making a minimal impact on the ecosystem here, the base undoubtedly makes a mark. On a small scale, we have to collect our surface water samples immediately on arrival at the collection site or else the diesel exhaust from the outboard motor will contaminate them. Our presence makes an impact. This ecosystem would be more pristine if we weren’t doing science here. But maybe our documentation of an ecosystem responding to rapid warming justifies it. This is important to keep in mind here and everywhere. Can I justify my presence?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Watch the Bergy Bits

Well today I had planned to write about waste management practices but due to recent events, this post will be more exciting than I expected it to be. But don’t worry you waste junkies – I won’t forget about the macerator.

Amanda and I woke up early this morning to start a 12-hour experiment before we went out to collect water samples. There was a bit of wind forecast for today, but when we got on the water it was almost entirely calm and we were in high spirits. We hit heavy brash ice on the way out – floating chunks anywhere from inches to 15 feet long. According to the International Ice Patrol, pieces of ice less than 1 meter long are “Growlers” and pieces 1-5m long are called “Bergy Bits.” So we made our way through a mixture of Growlers and Bergy Bits, which are a pain because they can get stuck between the outboard motor and the back of the boat, hampering your ability to steer. Amanda slowed the boat to a crawl while I looked out for Bergy Bits. Ice constantly hit and crunched against the bottom of the boat. We finally reached open water before we got to Station E, the further of our two sampling sites. It was quite calm at E and we did our usual routine, lowering the bottles, tripping the closure mechanisms and hauling them back up. Amanda filtered the water for dissolved organic carbon and isotope measurements. I programmed the GPS unit and headed to Station B, which is on the way back to Palmer. I gladly sped over the calm water and Amanda wondered aloud “Where did all the ice go?” I figured that the wind had already moved it further out to sea. But we needn’t have worried about where the ice went; before long, it found us and wouldn’t let us go!

Half a mile from Station B, we entered the brash ice patch again. I drove in a sinuous path, which clears the area behind the boat and decreases the amount of ice trapped next to the motor. However it was difficult to keep the ice off, and the more it built up, the more difficult it became to steer and avoid still more. Finally I was trying to turn right and the boat just wasn’t responding. I asked Amanda “Isn’t this ridiculous that I’m turning as hard right as I can and we’re still going left?” It was just after that that I realized that we were on top of an iceberg. It seemed to be holding on to the bottom of the boat for dear life. I tried to kick it away but it meant business. That was probably the moment that I should have gone into reverse and backed off of it, but I didn’t realize how big it was. The boat has an oar, and although I think it’s intended for motor emergencies, the oar seemed like a pretty good tool for the job of escaping the grasp of an iceberg. I tried pushing it down and back past the boat. Although I was making progress, I wasn’t liking what I saw; the ice just kept coming and coming. I could see the air bubbles trapped in it, like the whites of its eyes. Amanda tried her hand, and we worked out a system in which she pushed on the oar and I pushed on her. In retrospect this was already going in the wrong direction, but we felt like we were close to success. Unfortunately, we weren’t.

Amanda slipped and hit her knee on a metal shackle. She said it really hurt, so I took over and she sat on the pontoon. My back was to her, and about a minute later she said that she wasn’t feeling well, that she was tired. Then she said that she felt like she was going to faint. At this point I realized that I had a bigger problem than a clingy iceberg. My first thought was to get her sitting down. She was quickly becoming unresponsive so I helped her onto the floor of the boat and stretched her legs out, trying to get her comfortable. I think the last thing that happened before she lost consciousness was me asking her if she wanted any water. Then her head fell back against the boat and her eyes rolled back. I was shocked, and what made the situation scary was that I still hadn’t made the connection between Amanda’s fall and her loss of consciousness. She hadn’t cried out or crumpled or done anything that would make her fall seem serious. The way she was slipping away was sudden and inexplicable. I felt very alone, in the middle of the ice with a person who to me, was unconscious for no apparent reason. After what seemed like a long time but was really probably a split second, I called Palmer station and said “This is the A Team and we have a medical emergency. We have an unconscious Amanda.” The doctor on station got on the radio and the ocean search and rescue team was contacted. I heard the station manager say “OSAR this is not a drill, I repeat this is not a drill.” Apparently I managed to sound cool as a cucumber on the radio even though I felt scared and helpless.

I was incredibly relieved when Amanda woke up. Although I didn't let myself articulate it, until that moment I wasn't sure that she would wake up. She said that if I hadn’t firmly sat her down on the floor she definitely would have fallen out of the boat, and we would have had a much bigger problem. The rescue team, made up of employees who we work and play with every day, did an excellent job of caring for Amanda. When Ryan arrived on the OSAR boat, he was calm and communicative. He didn’t rush in; he spoke to me respectfully and told me that he was going to step into our boat. I had total trust in him already as the boating coordinator, and he handled this situation perfectly. We returned to the station and the doctor checked Amanda out while I did some time-sensitive work in the lab. She was fine but thoroughly shaken up; what happened was that she fell on a particularly sensitive part of her knee and the acute pain caused her to faint. Afterwards the only trace of her injury is a faint pink spot and a general tenderness in her knee.

This experience was quite a reminder that although we have a great time in the boats, Antarctica can be a dangerous place. Luckily everyone worked really well together, and I am so thankful for how the search and rescue team and the doctor helped us out. And to all those lonely bergy bits out there, I have plenty of friends already thank you very much.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


With endless days inevitably come endless nights. The period during winter when supply vessels or aircraft are unable to access Antarctic bases is called “winterover.” At Palmer station, winterover is from April until August, and it is never dark for a full 24 hours because it lies north of the Antarctic circle. However at MacMurdo station further south and on the other side of the continent, winterover lasts from February to October with a significant period of total darkness. Rex, the research assistant for the meteorological instruments here, spent 12 months at MacMurdo. He described it to me as a magical ordeal: magical because of the beautiful phenomena he saw during the winter, but an ordeal for the mind and body. On a night (well day, but it was dark so night gives you a better mental picture) when the temperature was about -40F, a special thing happened. The air around him sparkled with miniscule ice crystals. They weren’t visible straight on, but through the corner of his eye he could see them catch the light, and then disappear. As Rex was recounting this phenomenon to me, his voice fell away and there was a silence. “The only word to describe it was….magical.” The aurora australis or southern lights, appear frequently as well. When solar particles collide with nitrogen and oxygen atoms in the atmosphere they “excite” them into a higher energy state. When the atoms eventually return to the unexcited, lower energy state, they lose the energy by emitting light. This light is what we call the aurora, with red and green colors emitted by oxygen, and red and blue colors emitted by nitrogen. Auroras are most visible at high latitudes because the earth’s magnetic field lines direct the solar wind particles toward the poles and increase the number of collisions there.

The greatest wonder Rex saw that winter however was something I had never heard of and occurs only in Antarctica. Nacreous clouds are formed in the spring when clouds of ice crystals high in the atmosphere are illuminated by the sun, which has not yet risen above the horizon. The ice crystals act as tiny prisms, scattering the light into all the colors of the rainbow. Rex said that he almost got frostbite because he was standing on a roof in rapt wonder for hours.

However, darkness and cold take a toll on the body. Apparently after living in such cold for an extended period of time, the brain stops making one of its neurotransmitters and actually slows down. It becomes difficult to focus, which gives Antarctic winter conversations a distinctive quality. People drift in and out and at any given time, there will be at least one person staring off into space. Looking back at the emails he wrote during that time, Rex can only conclude that he was in a different mental state. I am imagining a zombie-town Antarctic base with people wandering off across the dark ice, "frostee boy" soft-serve in hand. This is the reason that the United States Antarctic Program requires a psychological exam before wintering over, and employees are not allowed to stay on “the ice” for more than 14 months continuously.

One bright spot in all the darkness is the solstice, “Midwinter’s day,” when the bases from all 22 countries represented call each other, exchanging news and sharing group photos. However, trippy nacreous clouds notwithstanding I do not plan to spent a long night in Antarctica any time soon!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Marooned 5

So there are officially a big four hours without sunlight here now, and although it is still never dark, they do make it easier to go to sleep before 1am. But more importantly than that, it is much more appealing to sleep outside now that there is a short, dusky night.

Last night I went camping with four other people on an island near the station. It was a beautiful sunny day with very little swell so we threw a couple of tents and a stove and our sleeping bags in a boat. Some people who wanted to go out boating that evening dropped us off on Jacobs island. The first landing spot we looked at wasn’t protected from the swell enough so we chose a different one. Unfortunately, this one was even worse, and a large swell brought us onto the rocks and high-centered the boat. Standing in the unstable boat with the water surging around me, my heart got going pretty fast. Luckily we were able to get out of the boat safely, and one of the guys helped get the boat unstuck by wading out into the water. We all agreed to seal our lips about this debacle but Oops! I just told you. Can you keep a secret?

We had chosen this island to camp on because it has a flat campsite in an alley between two rock walls. We came upon what we thought was the place, and guess what? A female elephant seal had decided that this was a pretty nice spot too. She stared at us with her big beady eyes and and we got the point. Time to move on. But where? We scrambled over most of the island, getting shouted at by giant – and I really mean giant, over six foot wingspan – petrels and divebombed by territorial skuas. We stopped to watch a mama humpback whale pass by the island with her calf. Their backs rose so regularly that it was like watching a super slow motion carousel. Finally she spouted high into the air and we didn’t see her again. We eventually found a place to camp that was even better than the one occupied by the elephant seal, and set up our tents.

The island was made up of granite, cut by parallel sets of joints, and weathered into rounded lumps. There was no evidence of humans ever having been there before (although we know people have camped there before) and we felt alone with the seals, birds and whales. We climbed up to a high spot and watched the slow polar sunset. Pink washed over the snow banks on the adjacent island and highlighted the perfect peak and snow flutes of Mt Williams, towering over the cove. The waves appeared as wiggling black lines on the surface of a luminous silvery pool. Swallow-like storm petrels swooped around us. We shared a bottle of wine and lots of belly laughs. The sun sank imperceptibly and finally was a line hovering above the horizon that gradually got shorter and shorter until it disappeared.

I lost all track of time, so when we finally got too cold to sit around any longer and Rex said it was 12:40am I was sure he was lying to me. In any event, Amanda and I spent a cold night in our tent. But somehow the pebbles were in all the right places so I actually slept quite comfortably. When I got up to go to the bathroom, an Adelie penguin gave me a talking to on my way back. I was realizing that more than anywhere else, this place really feels like it belongs to the animals and we are just visitors. And in the morning the bossy penguin was gone.

After a tasty meal of breakfast burritos (remember this is like car camping – eat as well as you like!) we wandered over to a tidepool. Unfortunately the tide was too high to see much in the water, but a fur seal was sleeping nearby. I think she was planning to start her day at about the time we came by anyways, because she yawned, stretched and slowly lumbered over to the pool. Once in the water, she stretched her flippers and swam forward while turning her body like a corkscrew. She turned around and came back, doing another lap of corkscrews before finally exiting the pool through a chute filled with roiling water. It felt really special to see this fur seal go through her morning routine, warming her body up for the water like a swimmer might.

The wind had picked up overnight and the sky was overcast when our ride home approached. We threw the boat bags in and jumped after them before the zodiac could get caught on the rocks again. We had a rodeo of a ride back and circled a beautiful iceberg with a window in it, like the seastacks back home in California.

The opportunity to camp like this is unique to Palmer station and I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to experience it. I hope that by my description of this night out in Antarctica I have been able to share with you at least some of my feeling of wonder.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Now I do not generally identify public figures as heroes to model myself after. However as some of you may know, Ernest Shackleton is as about close to a hero as anyone can get for me. Thus is it is with pleasure that I am writing a post about him that I can remotely connect to my own experience.

Shackleton was an early British explorer in the Antarctic. He was a member of an expedition that narrowly missed the Pole in 1909. After Roald Amundsen reached the pole in 1912, Shackleton set his sights on another first: a continental transect. Although he ultimately failed, this was to be his most famous voyage. The expedition set out in the the ship Endurance from England in 1914 and sailed south. The plan was to reach the Antarctic coast on the shore of the Weddell sea, just on the other side of the Antarctic Peninsula from Palmer station. However less than a day’s sail from land, the ship became stuck, frozen into the sea ice. For the next nine months, the ship was at the mercy of the slow clockwise revolution of the sea ice around the Weddell sea basin. In the end, the ship was crushed by the ice but Shackleton was able to lead of his men back to safety. He skillfully guided them past deadly leopard seals, through shifting ice, hunger, hypothermia, rugged glacier travel, and the greatest ocean crossing in a small boat. If you are interested in one of the greatest stories of courage, exploration, and leadership, I would highly recommend that you read Endurance by Alfred Lansing.

The bottom line is that Shackleton’s ship was stuck in the sea ice for almost a year, and that ships still get trapped in the sea ice today. In fact the research vessel that brought me here, the Laurence M Gould, was stuck in sea ice several years ago. She was halfway through a four-week scientific cruise when she became surrounded by sea ice which she could not break. It was mid-October, which is spring in the Antarctic, so there was no chance of being held as long as Shackleton was. Moreover, the Gould has a “stamina” of over two months, so there was no danger that supplies would run out. Even so, the scientists had no idea when the ice would release them because there is no timetable for the breakup of the sea ice.

Hugh Ducklow, the chief scientist for LTER, was on this cruse and recounted the story to me. Once it was clear that the vessel was trapped, there was nothing to do. All science operations ceased. Scientists and crew alike were forced to occupy the hours unexpectedly showered on them. Their only connection to the outside world was a satellite phone and limited email capabilities, no internet. So the ship became its own world. They set up a “radio station” that broadcast on an internal frequency. Volunteer DJs would play music and write news reports. There was a tacit agreement not to acknowledge the existence of the world beyond the ship, so the sports roundup detailed the progress of a multi-elimination fussball tournament, and the weather report was always what was right outside. People differed in their ability to cope with a situation they had never faced before. Most made themselves busy with whatever they could do but everyone was helpness in a way that a few people could never get used to, and they became irritable and unpleasant. There was no telling when they would escape the ice and return to their lives in the United States. This would be sense of limbo that I have never experienced and one that I suppose would be unusual for anyone to live through. Although I try to keep a balanced life I am sure that a forced extraction from the self-imposed treadmill of the modern world would be difficult.

I suppose that Shackleton coped with the boredom in a similar way to the scientists, trying to keep his men busy making rope, tarring the decks, training the sled dogs. Sinking morale was more of a threat to him than to the members of the Gould expedition because his chance for survival was much narrower, and rested on the hard work and cooperation of all of his men. He was eventually able to escape the Antarctic, as did the Gould. The ice broke up a month after trapping the Gould, and the expedition returned to Chile only two weeks late.

This story serves to remind me that Antarctica is still a land of surprises. I am keeping that in mind while the Gould is currently trying to circumnavigate an island exposed by the recent breakup of an ice shelf. The ice is still in place but broken into pieces separated by narrow stretches of water. The ship could venture into a lead in the ice which then closes, crushing it. Let’s all hope that they have a successful voyage!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Ice Cream Castles in the Air

Several days ago an iceberg that had been floating in the harbor for about a week suddenly “turtled,” which is to say, rolled over. I was upstairs in the gym and happened to be looking out the glass door. It had just rolled over and there were big chunks of ice falling off of it into the water, and circle of small pieces of floating ice was rapidly expanding around it. The (former) underside was deeply furrowed and in places pockmarked like a golfball. This event prompted me to write about a topic I have been looking forward to sharing with you: icebergs.

The first evidence of Antarctica that I saw was in the Drake Passage, with blue water in every direction. A large iceberg was visible about 10 miles away. It was a vision, proof of the frozen land ahead, but seemingly out of place as I stood on the deck in a T-shirt. There were others that we saw in the open ocean, and there was something both dignified and poignant about them. They move, but so slowly that you only know by comparing their position to that of several minutes before. They are so far from the glacier or ice shelf that they came from, alone and proceeding to a certain death, but still they move northward steadily, and seemingly confidently.

The tabular icebergs that I saw at sea were much bigger than those that hang around the harbor and inlets here at Palmer station. Each one has a unique shape and moves around, giving it a personality, a spirit. Icebergs are like clouds: they can be castles, mountains, amphitheaters, turtles, pulpits, hearts, tunnels. One was visible from our window, and we nicknamed it “the Three Musketeers” because of its three spires. It moved a little bit every day, sometimes up the inlet and sometimes down. Then last week a big wind blew the Three Musketeers out to sea. I wish it well in its future endeavors.

I frequently hear the booming sound of the glacier calving. In fact it’s so low that it is more felt than heard, and I look over to see a small trickle of ice falling from the wall. However there is nothing to mark scale on the wall of ice, so actually the “trickle” is not small at all. After a significant calving event, bits of floating brash ice 1-5ft long spread out across the harbor. When the small pieces of ice cover the water completely, the surface hardly rises and falls at all with the waves. Instead, the waves are represented by the pieces of ice rhythmically coming closer together and then separating, like a slow-motion earthquake wave.

Sometimes the floating ice melts into fanciful shapes. My favorites are the ones shaped like the little brown mushrooms you find in the forest, making me think of Alice in Wonderland. Spindles of ice with tilted caps reach up from a mass floating underwater. This shape seems so unusual that I was surprised to see so many, and in all different sizes. I thought about the melting process, and I have a hypothesis of how so many icebergs are shaped like mushrooms. Say an iceberg starts with fairly flat surface. Remember that 89% of it is still underwater due to the density difference between ice and water so most of its mass is submerged. Wave action begins to erode the ice at the water line. Then eventually the berg shifts balance and tips so that the once-flat top is now tilted. The place that was carved by the waves is now exposed to the sun, which continues to melt the ice. Eventually all the ice above the waterline melts away except a thin stalk supporting the original surface, which is now tilted. This hypothesis is just the product of musing while I was trawling for plankton, but the shape seems to be common enough that there must be some explanation even if this isn’t the right one.

Well enough for now. In other news, a penguin jumped in our boat yesterday. It rocketed over the back of the boat, bounced in the bottom and then over the starboard pontoon and back into the water, all in less than two seconds. I think it was a mistake!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Adventure on the high seas

For the past week we have been experiencing a different side of Antarctica. My first week here was sunny and warm (30-40F) with very little wind. The dining room was filled with pink sunset light for hours every night and icebergs sparkled white in the distance. Our water sample collecting days were pleasant and straightforward. It was easy to sit on the platform of our boat and lean over the water a little bit to load the collection bottles onto the cable. Sometimes we didn’t even wear hats or gloves. We could do all our sampling in about 2 hours, and as we called in to say we were coming back to the station, the radio operator would remark on how speedy we were.

That all changed last week. Clouds moved in, the water became almost black and topped with whitecaps. The wind has picked up to 30 and 40 knot gusts, snatching my breath as I walk between the buildings. The wind whips the flags on the flagpole violently. Right now the sea is a gray green color and the sky is gray and the only difference between the two seems to be that the water is flecked with whitecaps and slivers of ice.

Our days in the field have changed along with the weather. We hoped to go out last Thursday but the wind kept us in. The next day we caught a weather window and were able to sneak out. I thought we were lucky to be out until we rounded the point and left the protected harbor area. Then we hit the swell that had built up over the last day – only about 3 feet but it felt big in our zodiac. Amanda was driving and I was sitting in front looking out for shoals and ice. I was very thankful for my rubber bibs as I would have been soaked almost instantly by the spray. The rocks straight ahead were getting bigger and bigger. I didn’t want to offend Amanda by warning her about what seemed to be an obvious obstacle but I finally shouted “watch out for the rocks,” and she turned the boat. She thanked me afterward, because she hadn’t seen them!

Once we got safely to our collection location, we to load the bottles onto the cable as the boat rocked violently. I started out sitting on the platform next to the winch and I realized that there was problem: I needed to hold onto the cable, the bottle and boat. You may notice that I just listed three things, but it is safe to assume that I only have two hands. So which one goes? The boat obviously. I had to load the bottles with only the 1/4” steel cable to hold onto, as the boat rocked out from under me. Eventually Amanda and I traded off but it was quite a harrowing experience. As wave after wave approached our boat I tried to make myself feel better by telling myself that these are the same waters that so many explorers braved - the wild sea, the Southern Ocean, and I was sharing in that history. It worked well enough but I was glad to be motoring back to the station by a longer but more protected route among some nearby islands. But it wasn’t over yet. Small and medium sized ice bits had been blown into the protection of the islands. Floating ice is deceptive because it can be beautiful, and if small it bobs up and down making it look unsubstantial. However it is as hard and sharp as a rock. Driving a boat through this scattered ice, called brash ice, is like driving through an obstacle course with floating rocks. And then of course there were real rocks, shoals with waves breaking over them. This was quite a challenge and I was amazed that I didn’t hit any significant pieces of ice. Several times I didn’t see a large piece of ice until I had just missed it, not a comforting feeling.

The ship that we arrived on and which is now doing research to the south of here, hit this same storm and was forced to stop all their research and sail in a holding pattern for 36 hours. Tomorrow is another field day but for now I am happy to sip my hot chocolate and look out to sea, at the icebergs drifting slowly along the horizon.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Goodbye Adelie penguins, hello Fur seals

Today a fog enveloped us as we collected water samples. Snowflakes fell silently and disappeared as they met the smooth gray-green surface of the water. The world was just our boat and the gray cocoon surrounding us. Icebergs were ghostly in the distance, like more solid bits of cloud. The stillness was calm and strangely comforting even though we couldn't see further than 100m. Maybe this is how ships feel just before they hit the rocks in a fog.

It is surprising to know that although there is so much ice here, the west Antarctic Peninsula is warming more rapidly than anywhere else on earth. Looking out at the ice-mantled mountains makes me shiver involuntarily. I think of this place as a landscape out of equilibrium with the present climate, a relict of a previous time. If this climate existed anywhere without a history of cold temperatures and large ice volume, the ice wouldn’t be here. Put a different way, if you plopped down a glacier in Rhode Island, it would stick around for maybe a couple of months but it would eventually disappear. While it still existed, it would be a landscape out of equilibrium with the climate. I think that this is similar except that over all it is colder here than in Rhode Island so it will take longer for the ice to melt completely.

When Palmer Station was built in the 1970s, ships would sometimes be blocked by sea ice even in the summer. Now, there is never sea ice in the summer and soon there may be no sea ice. The sea ice extent has declined by 80% since the 1978-1986 average. Winter air temperatures have increased by 6C since 1950, five times the global average. In a general sense, the climate is shifting away from a cold polar regime to a relatively warm and moist maritime climate. Most of the evidence of climate change on the West Antarctic Peninsula presented in this post has been documented by LTER. Keep up the good work, LTER!

The changes in sea ice cover are driving changes throughout the food web. Sea ice, if it does not stick around all year, can actually help to increase phytoplankton productivy. These are the base of the marine ecosystem, because they photosynthesize. Just like plants, they convert sunlight and CO2 to water and sugars for other organisms to eat. These creatures need light, and they thrive in an stratified ocean. If the top layer is mixed around a lot by wave action, the phytoplankton get dunked deeper than light penetrates, and they have a hard time surviving. Sea ice is really great for these organisms, because as it melts it creates a cap of freshwater that floats on top of the saltier, denser seawater. The stabilizes the water column and makes the phytoplankton very happy because they can photosynthesize all day long, which is all the time in the summer. This was the situation at Palmer until recently and is one of the reasons that the coastal waters around Antarctica are some of the most productive in the world. However now there is too little sea ice to stratify the ocean and keep the phytoplankton in the photic zone. In addition, winds have been increasing over time, possibly in connection with climate change as well, which mixes the plankton even farther down into the dark. So phytoplankton productivity has been declining in the northern part of the West Antarctic Peninsula.

However, further south the story is different, which helps illustrate how the ecosystem interacts with the sea ice. On the southern end of the West Antarctic Peninsula, phytoplankton productivity is actually increasing. Previously the ocean there was covered with sea ice year-round, which put a serious damper on photosynthesis. Now as the water is ice-free during the summer but still stratified by melting sea ice, the phytoplankton are having a ball. However this may be a temporary boon as the southern peninsula begins to experience as much as ice loss as the Palmer area has had already.

But why do we care so much about phytoplankton? Well, these microscopic plants of the sea are eaten by zooplankton, the microscopic animals of the sea, which are eventually eaten by the not-so-microscopic animals of the sea, the penguins and whales and seals that we all love. And the effects of ecosystem reorganization have already been documented in fish, penguin and seal populations. The Antarctic Icefish (very good eating apparently) is no longer found near Palmer station because the water is too warm for it. The Antarctic Silverfish is also becoming more scarce, causing penguin diets to shift from about half fish and half krill to entirely krill. This puts the penguins at greater risk if the krill population collapses, which may happen. Krill (large zooplankton) are being replaced by salps, jelly-like creatures that cannot be eaten by the animals that eat krill.

As I mentioned in my post about penguins, the ice-dependent Adelie penguins are being replaced by sub-antarctic Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. However, not to fear entirely for the Adelies yet, as they seem to be relocating southward, to Avian Island. This island is entirely covered with Adelie penguins, 65,000 pairs and growing. But where will they go as the warming pushes south? Eventually they will run out of room and this story may have a very bad ending.

The warming is very apparent here at Palmer station even without going out to count penguins for hours each day. The glacier behind the station is receding 30ft every year. The ice used to start right behind the buildings here but now there is a ¼ mile of bare rock exposed. You can even trace the melting of ice in the art displayed around the station. Oil paintings and watercolors painted over time unintentionally depict the rapid recession of the glacier. In previous years and decades, you could ski or snowmobile on the ice piedmont all the way to the base of the mountains eight miles away. Now we can only walk in a carefully roped-off area ½ mile in length because the ice is too unstable. The glacier has receded from small islands that used to be connected to mainland by ice, but are now surrounded by water. Some ice remains on the islands, but it is not connected to the main glacier so it is “dead,” just sitting there melting. It looks dirty and has deep cracks running through it. This image is particularly compelling to me because it reminds me of the glaciers I saw on Mt. Kilimanjaro that are also motionless, melting. More than what I have read in academic articles and the popular media, seeing the shocking effects of climate change in two places 9,000 miles apart makes me really feel what is happening to our planet.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Polar Plunge

Yesterday I passed a milestone in my Antarctic career: the polar plunge. And it really is a plunge, not a wade. A group of entomologists is leaving this week, so they chose yesterday to do a farewell plunge, which was an excuse for lots of people to jump as well. We went one by one, and everyone was watching and taking pictures. We jumped off of a big inflatable bumper attached to the pier, a drop of about 12 feet. Once in the water, you have to swim about 20 yards to a ladder in order to get out of the water. When my turn came, the first step was to leap out onto the bumper that was rising and falling with the swell. Once out there, I looked down and got scared. If the water were fresh it would be frozen but the salt lowers the freezing point so that the seawater is still liquid at 32F. Lucky me!

The not-so-secret here is that I really don’t like cold water. So this whole story can be explained by two words: peer pressure. And what got me out on the bumper to begin with is also what made me jump. Knowing that everyone was waiting for me, I just did it. Otherwise I probably would have stood there shivering for several minutes, agonizing and prolonging the ordeal.

Instead, I found myself underwater, feeling what the boating coordinator here calls “the icy fire.” The whole world was blue-green but it was lighter in one direction so my goal was to find that light. When I finally popped up on the surface, I realized that I had swallowed quite a bit of seawater. I was struggling to breathe and it only got harder as I got colder. I finally reached the base of the ladder, timing my approach to the rhythm of the swell to avoid getting smashed against the metal pier. As I climbed up, I was thinking “compose yourself, compose yourself.” I didn’t want everyone to see my expressive face, expressing how cold and desperate for breath I was. But don’t worry, it was captured on more than one camera, and made for some friendly bar-banter later. The best part of the whole experience was running over to the hot tub afterwards. And it’s lucky that the hot tub is a converted aquarium, so that it easily accommodated all 11 of us.

I hope to see another polar plunge as I leave on the ship back to Punta Arenas. It is a tradition for Palmer residents to jump off the pier after the ship to give it good luck for a safe crossing of the Drake Passage. But Palmer doesn’t need much of an excuse to take the plunge – say the second Tuesday of the month that ends in the number 7 could be a reason for everyone to feel that icy fire. If one person decides to go for whatever reason, they will be guaranteed to have some followers.

In the hot tub, I discovered that several of my fellow jumpers are members of the 300 Club. This is the tradition of a very select group of people at the South Pole, who subject themselves to a 300 degree temperature gradient. They wait until the ambient temperature (not counting wind chill) is -100F, and then wearing only boots and a scarf around their mouth they run naked around the geographic pole marker, a distance about about 75m. The sauna is set to 200F, making a 300 degree temperature difference. Even with the lung protection they hack for hours afterwards. Still, according to those who have done both the polar plunge and the 300 Club, the water is more painful. This statement prompted speculation from others in the hot tub about the convective properties of water versus air, but I won’t repeat it here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What do penguins eat for lunch?

Krilled-cheese sandwiches. Or maybe ice-bergers, I'm not sure.

Today is our first “weather day”: wind gusts of up to 40 knots have prevented us from going out to collect water samples. The water is almost black due to the over cast sky, and I can see squalls move across the inlet in front of the station. Many of the other scientists have gathered here by the wood stove in the dining room. Now that today’s New York Times crossword puzzle has been dispatched, I thought I would take this opportunity write about a topic that many of you have been eagerly anticipating: those well-dressed creatures of the South, penguins!

About 20 small islands lie within the 2-mile boating limit at Palmer station, and several of them host Adelie penguin colonies of significant size. Along with Emperor Penguins, Adelies are the only true Antarctic penguins because they breed on Antarctica. This is the same species that sustained the great Shackleton during his time on Elephant Island. I have been lucky enough to visit the colony nearest to Palmer station twice.

My first impression came before I even set foot on the island: an overwhelming stench filled my nose. The rocks have turned pink with the krill-filled guano of thousands of penguins. However, after several minutes I got used to the smell and it didn’t bother me anymore. Groups of about 20-100 birds gather together in small patches, with stony expanses between. These areas are covered with small flat stones that fit perfectly together like a garden patio. They were placed there by penguins making their stony nests, and have since been abandoned. This colony has decreased 80% in size since 1974, just one of the effects of the rapid warming occurring here. Two species of sub-polar penguins have moved in: Chinstraps and Gentoos. Unlike the Adelies, these species are not dependent on sea ice for foraging strategies. The groups of penguins still living in the colony consist of individuals and pairs tending their chicks. Some adults lie down flat on the ground, often still trying to incubate an egg that sadly is not viable if it hasn’t hatched by now. The chicks are not yet ready to search for food on their own in the water, so their parents ingest krill for them and then regurgitate it into the chicks’ mouths. Very appealing! It is fun to see the chicks that are more than half the size of their parents try to burrow underneath when the parents trade places caring for the chicks. Large, menacing skua birds glide low over the island, looking for untended chicks to carry off.

Another memorable part of the experience is the noise the penguins make. They always seem to be squawking at eachother, especially their mates. They’ll quiet down and then 30 seconds later they’re at it again. It’s not uncommon to see one bite another as well. However these disagreements can’t be too serious because Adelie penguins often mate for life! Every square inch of space within the nesting groups seems to be spoken for, so if one bird gets jostled out of its claimed area, it will be squawked at by all the others, and generally gets so flustered that it desperately waddles around getting nipped until it finds its way out of the group. There are always individuals wandering between groups, tottering along. I have no idea why they move around. Maybe towards the water to find food, but certainly not all of them are going to or from the water because I didn’t see very many of them jumping in or out of the water. Their feet make little pattering noises as they cross the stones. The rock type seems to be slate, which rings out if they misstep.

This brings me to possibly the most important question of this blog post: Why are penguins so cute? I believe that it is because their way of walking is enough like humans for us to compare them to ourselves, but because their bodies are so different, they move in what seems like an awkward way. So they are comical little people. You wouldn’t think that a chicken walks in an adorable way because it is just too different from a person. But the penguin, with its flippers held out from its body like scarecrow arms, looks like it just hasn’t quite figured out how to walk yet, like a toddler. Except that this is how penguins walk. They have nothing more to learn. But they are still adorable. Their legs are so short and far apart that if they want to get up or down a break of more than about two inches, they have to stop, study the terrain and then jump two-footed. So regardless of my previous discussion of their walking, they do trip pretty frequently and it's incredibly entertaining to watch. I found myself just standing in one place and staring at the birds for minutes without being aware of any time passing. It was totally engrossing. I eagerly await the time when the chicks start molting as they get ready to strike out on their own. However, they will always come back here, to the colony where they were born.

You can find out whether penguins have knees (yes) and many other important questions at

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The A Team

Pffff…a loud noise startles me as I am preparing to lower an instrument into the water that measures conductivity, temperature and depth. About thirty feet to my left I see a smooth black surface with a large blowhole disappearing beneath the waves, and then a humped back rises behind.

A humpback whale visited me and my partner Amanda yesterday as we collected water samples in our zodiac boat. It circled and showed itself twice more in the next minute. It was very special to be near such a large animal, but it was also disconcerting because it was probably twice the length of our boat! At one point it looked as though it was coming straight toward us (although it was actually moving directly away) and my mind flashed to the story of the whaling ship Essex that was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in the South Pacific. Of course that was very different, but it didn’t seem so far fetched when we were out in our little inflatable boat. It was certainly a wildlife encounter that I will never forget.

The A Team, my partner Amanda and I, collects water samples twice weekly from two different sites, at five different depths: 50m, 25m, 10m, 5m and the surface. “Station E” is about two miles from shore and “Station B” is just off of a point near Palmer Station. When we go boating, we wear so much clothing that Amanda calls herself the Michelin man and it certainly seems so. Between the long underwear, fleece pants, fleece jacket, possibly a vest, rubber fisherman’s bibs, hat, balaclava, heavy Sorrel boots and our bulky orange “float coats,” the world beyond our bodies begins to seem far away. We also have a complicated glove system: there are leather work gloves that are good for dexterity but not waterproof, there are the lined rubber gloves that do not allow for a huge range of motion, and there are thin wool liner gloves, best for fine motor tasks but not good for cold protection. Then some of our fieldwork requires that we wear latex gloves, but latex gloves alone would probably lead to frostbite so we wear thin polypropylene or wool liner gloves underneath XL latex gloves. Quite a bit to think about!

For safety purposes, we also bring a drybag filled with extra clothing, and food in case we are stranded on an island due to bad weather. In addition there are marked emergency caches on many of the islands within the boating limits, containing food, tents and stoves. I am glad that the weather has been good so far!!

But back to work: once we arrive at our sample collection station, we attach cylinders with open ends to a cable that we lower into the water with a winch, and then we can close the ends of all of the bottles simultaneously. Once we pull the bottles back up, we take water samples for dissolved organic carbon and for ammonium concentrations. We take the rest of the water back to the lab and take more of it to count the density of bacterial cells using a flow cytometer.

In addition, we take small amounts of seawater and add a radioactively tagged amino acid to some and a radioactively tagged nucleotide to others. The significance of the amino acid (leucine) is that the bacteria use it to make proteins, so the rate at which they uptake it tells us about how fast they are growing. The bacteria use the nucleotide (thyamine) to make DNA, so their rate of thyamine uptake tells us about how fast they are dividing. We allow the bacteria in the water to take up the leucine for a specified amount of time and then we kill them, likewise with the thyamine. We remove all the seawater leaving just the bacterial cells. When we measure the radioactivity in the bacteria we can calculate how fast they took up the tagged leucine and thyamine that we gave them.

The significance of this is that from the rates of protein and DNA synthesis, one can model the rate of overall carbon uptake. Since bacterial are the recyclers of the ocean (and the land), they are a crucial link in the carbon cycle. If their abundance changes or if the timing of their annual bloom shifts, there could be major implications for carbon cycling and storage in the ocean. The West Antarctic Peninsula is a great place to study the effects of climate change on microbial ecology because this marine ecosystem is one of the most productive on the planet, AND temperatures are warming faster here than anywhere else on earth. I have arrived at ground zero for climate change and I’m holding a pipette!!