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!!

Monday, January 11, 2010

The real last frontier

I have heard of Alaska referred to as the last frontier, and although I have never been to Alaska, I would say Antarctica is the last frontier on earth. I notice it right here at Palmer station, in the mentality of the people around me. There is a frontier sense of hospitality: when a ship comes by our base, we will invite them to have dinner with us, unless it’s a cruise ship with more than 200 passengers, in which case we will give a presentation onboard the ship about our research. The visitors usually bring an appetizer to share, and then invite us onto their ship or yacht for the evening. There are so few people around here that them showing up in the harbor is reason enough to socialize. Similarly, we all rely on each other for help if things go badly; our search and rescue team has rescued extreme skiers in the mountains near the station.

Safety is a huge concern on the station because help is several days away. As I wrote in a previous post, it seems that half of station employees are on the fire brigade, and there are frequent drills. Every several years, an Antarctic base goes up in flames and it could be us next time. If there were to be a fire, we would have to fight it ourselves, and survive until help could arrive. This is the reason for two main buildings: if one burns down we can shelter in the other one. There is also danger associated with the scientific research and chemicals at the station. I have never seen so many spill kits in a lab! Likewise with health and hygiene: there is a sink directly in front of the food table in the kitchen, and everyone must wash their hands every time they get food, even if it’s for seconds. In addition, the bathroom nearest the kitchen is for No. 1 only, to reduce possible contamination by fecal matter.

The sense of being on a frontier is even more strongly evident when you think about the landscape beyond our station. A google image search for maps of this area turns up few results, and none on a fine scale. The nautical chart seems to be the best respresentation, and it doen’t map more than a few miles inland. But who would need it? No one goes there. And some of the islands on the charts have little notes saying that they are probably not placed in the correct location. At the southern end of her scientific cruise, the Gould will attempt to circumnavigate an island that emerged last year when the Wilkins ice shelf collapsed. The captain is concerned because the waters that have opened up are uncharted. Uncharted! Who can say they have literally been to uncharted waters anymore? Actually I suppose it will become more common as the ice shelves continue to collapse.

Another important aspect of a frontier to me is a lack of state presence. True, the settlement of a frontier is almost always a political act, and it is here to some extent as well (the Chilean and Argentinian bases pointedly have children and schools). But the governing Antarctic Treaty, an agreement between 45 countries to protect Antarctica, remains an abstract concept to me. More than anything Antarctica is a place where anyone is free to come, with no borders and few rules beyond not disturbing the wildlife.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What am I doing here??

So what am I doing in Antarctica? I have been caught up in describing this fascinating place and haven’t explained why I am here! I am doing field and lab work as part of Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) at Palmer Station. The LTER network was founded by the National Science Foundation in 1980 and consists of 26 sites throughout the United States, including 2 sites in Antarctica. LTER research began at Palmer in 1990 and continues today, mostly centering on an annual 6-week research cruise along the West Antarctic Peninsula. I came down to Palmer on that cruise, although myself and another lab volunteer, Amanda are staying at the station to collect water samples while the ship continues southward.

The LTER team looks at many areas of ecosystem dynamics, from the microbial level (my research) to phytoplankton, zooplankton and krill, to larger animals like fish, seals and penguins. Physical oceanography is also documented. I think this is what science should be: people with different areas of expertise working together to try to understand a complex and changing system. There is a group from Rutgers University looking at phytoplankton and deploying rocket-shaped gliders that track oceanographic characteristics like temperature, salinity and chlorophyll levels. A group from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary studies zooplankton, of which krill is the keystone species here in the Antarctic. A group from MSU Bozeman studies penguin diet, foraging behavior and response to human presence. A student from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution/MIT is collecting data on particulate flux through the water column, and my group from Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is collecting data on bacterial abundance and growth rate, as well as chemical and nutrient cycling in the ocean such as dissolved carbon, and ammonium and other nitrogen species. Although there are specific aspects of the ecosystem that we are particularly interested in, LTER is a holistic study of an rather than a specific research question.

More often scientists research a specific question because it’s what they can get funding for, but that imposes the arbitrary framework of funding on the natural world that we are studying. In reality, what you find out from research is often not what you set out to investigate. When you write a grant, you are guessing what the most compelling aspect of your research area is and you propose to study it. But how can you know what is most significant before you study it? LTER allows for a more measured exploration of a study area, to really understand relationships between the elements and species in an ecosystem. Each season of fieldwork becomes one data point, in a long timeseries. My research doesn’t have a specific punchline for this year; I am collecting the 7th year of microbial ecology data, and it may take 20 years of data to understand the dynamics of the carbon cycle at the microbial level. So it’s not sexy, but it’s how science should be.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Welcome to Palmer Station

I am writing this post from the combined lounge and dining room in Palmer Station! Through the big windows I can see the spires of brilliant white icebergs in the harbor, and snowy mountains over the water to the south. This isolated field station is situated on Anvers Island, on a rocky strip of land at the foot of a dome of ice called the Marr Ice Piedmont. I had never heard the term “ice piedmont” before now but it seems to be a small ice cap. This one covers most of the 38-mile long island. The station is only accessible by boat, and in summer is supplied roughly every month by the research and supply vessel that I arrived on.

There are 45 people on the station now in the summer, about half of which are scientists and half are science support staff employed by the United States Antarctic Program and Raytheon Polar Services. The scientists come and go through the season but the support staff members stay for 5-9 months. The science here focuses on the ocean and the small islands nearby: collecting plankton and krill, studying insects and birds on the islands, taking water samples.
The station feels like a combination of a small town/summer camp/youth hostel/co-op, but whatever you call it, the sense of community here is strong. There is a fire brigade, which consists of about half of the people on station, which drills frequently, as well as a glacier search and rescue team and a marine search and rescue team. The “store” is a closet filled with toiletries, souvenir t-shirts and duty free alcohol. There is also a bar that people stock themselves with alcohol from the store: if you buy a bottle of wine, you leave it in the bar and you can drink it yourself or share with others and drink some of what they have bought. It’s all on the honor system but it works well.

We have an FM radio frequency that broadcasts NPR from the US. In addition, everyone on station has a communication radio that we use when we’re out on the water but also to contact people when we’re at the station. It’s not unusual to hear over the radio that a seal is visible on an iceberg floating by. We also gather to listen to the band formed by station employees, or to hear tales of their travels during their time off. One night there was a “drive-in movie” projected onto the side of a white shipping container outside, complete with popcorn. Sundays are disc-golf days, played on a course in the “backyard,” the 300 meters of rocky land between the station and the glacier.

Art by employees, scientists and visitors adorns the station: watercolors, oil paintings, metal sculptures. The doors of the sleeping rooms are painted with a beautiful bird, each one different. In the main dining room there is a woodburning stove with a beautiful metal sculpture of a breaching humpback whale. Years ago, someone welded together a roasting spit that can accommodate a whole pig. Oh and the hot tub! Originally a fiberglass fish aquarium, it is now used on most clear evenings and is the spot to go after taking “polar plunge”!

This small society is incredibly organized and efficient. Everyone washes their own dishes, and once a week participates in Galley And Scullery Help: cleaning up the kitchen and dining room after dinner. And this is serious deep cleaning, not just sweeping the floor. On Saturday afternoons everyone picks a task out of a hat, like cleaning bathrooms or washing windows. Then we turn up the music and work! It’s like the co-op where I lived in college except that the tasks actually get done and the place is spotlessly clean.

Tonight we’ll also gather to listen to the lab manager compete on the NPR news quiz show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, which was taped several days ago. So my first week at Palmer almost over and the little community here has already enveloped me.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Land of Ice

When I woke up on the fourth morning of the journey, the fjords and mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula surrounded the ship. This is a new world, a wonderland of ice. Ice covers every non-vertical surface, topping ridges that drop off into cliffs, spilling over, carving new valleys, covering rises and making their summits into icy nipples, ice cones. The ice approaches the water’s edge, splitting into cracks parallel to the shore, each block stepping down further and revealing the pale but brilliant, glowing blue. The closest analogy I can think of is the glowing of coals within drab ash. This white and blue world is alien, inhospitable, inhuman. I understand now what the chief scientist meant on our last day in Punta Arenas when he said “Today is our last day in the real world.”

This place seems like it must have been made up, maybe in a dream. I try to find words to describe it but all I can think of is that words were never meant to describe what I am seeing. Language feels more comfortable describing agriculture, cities, emotions, politics, history, and it never had to describe Antarctica until recently. It seems inappropriate to use words to communicate my feelings. I imagine that an astronaut trying to describe space, or a deep sea diver might have similar frustration. I can take photographs, but again there is a problem that my camera was not designed to capture a white world so it also does a pretty poor job.

You might be thinking, “Well, I’ve seen a mountain and a glacier before. Antarctica just has a lot of them. How is that so surreal?” It is the scale of the icy landscape that is so unbelievable. It goes on and on without any other color than blue. No green, no brown tucked away in a valley. Behind each mountain range are more ice-filled peaks and valleys, a far-off glacier shining white through a break in the clouds.

Another surreal aspect of standing on the deck of the ship that first morning was the menagerie of marine animals all around us. Minke whales were spouting left and right. Seals lounging on icebergs slid off into the water as we approached. Penguins jumped out of the water in groups like dolphins, their small plump bodies a flash of black and white. It was like an illustration of a forest in a picture book, with every animal showing itself.

I still can’t associate myself with the landscape around me, I can’t believe that my body is in the same space as the glaciers covering the land. Now that I am here, I still can’t imagine being here.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


So much for the most treacherous waters on earth! Crossing the Drake Passage was like skipping across a playground. No one on the ship had seen such a smooth crossing, except the captain who said it was in his “top three.” I think he just didn’t want to admit that it was the best. Always leave room for improvement, you know. I was hoping to tell stories about 65 foot waves, or how I was thrown out of my bunk but alas! now I’ll just have to make them up.

Our ship was named after Laurence M. Gould, a geologist and early science administrator. It is 230 feet long accommodates 22 scientists, 8 support staff (machinists, technicians) and about 10 deckhands. Our two days in port were full of preparations – loading containers onto the ship using the boom and securing everything for the crossing. It takes four days to reach Palmer Station, Antarctica from Punta Arenas: one day sailing east through the Strait of Magellan, two days in the open waters known as the Drake Passage and then one day along the fjords and glaciers of the Antarctic peninsula.
Drake Passage

I was surprised at how exciting it felt to pull away from the pier. I was excited about the general idea of leaving Punta Arenas on the ship, but I didn’t realize how intensely the anticipation would solidify at the moment that we cast off the ropes and set sail. Suddenly Antarctica seemed a lot closer. The port crew was standing on the pier, waving at us and whooping as we began our journey.

The ship has five decks in addition to the hold: a level with science labs and the galley, a level with the scientists quarters and the lounge, a level with the crew quarters, another which I’m not sure about, and the bridge on top. The bridge was my favorite place because it has windows looking on three sides, and the engine’s roar is very quiet. The swell was most sensible there, and the slow rocking was relaxing. The pilot explained how he uses GPS and compass bearings to steer the ship, and showed how he marks our hourly position on the nautical chart. There were bird and sea mammal books and binoculars as well. I saw penguins and dolphins in the Strait of Magellan, as well as seabirds: petrels, scua, shearwaters, and my favorite, the albatross.
The galley looks a bit like an old diner, with swiveling stools arranged around three long turquoise tables. Their metal rims to keep plates from sliding off are reminiscent of chrome piping. Another space of note is the lounge, with couches made out of huge lazyboy chairs and a big TV with lots and lots of movies. There is also a sauna and a small exercise room.

We could also go outside on the deck and stand at the bow, feeling the wind and seeing water all around. I have never seen such blue water in the ocean, because here there are so few of the photosynthetic plankton that make seawater green. It’s a deep color but luminous where the sun penetrates it. Maybe what you would call cobalt?

Standing at the bow and looking due south, I imagined all the great explorers who have looked ahead in this direction from the bow of a ship. It is inspiring to think that I am following in their footsteps, although in much greater comfort!

I loved watching the Dark Browed Albatross, which has a gray body and white wings, and a heavy black brow that makes it look very stern. It glides along just above the surface of the water, particularly in the wave troughs. When it turns it lifts one wing tip up while the other wing tip almost touches the water, and it pivots around that point. Its precision and grace are mesmerizing. One albatross flew alongside the ship, gaining on it and I ran forward along the deck, eye to eye with the bird. It was an intense moment that sticks in my mind. When I went back inside the ship, everyone asked me what I had seen because my face was so full of excitement and joy.

I slept in the hold, in a “berthing van,” a small shipping container modified for sleeping quarters, which I shared with 3 other girls. Our bunks were cozy, with curtains and reading lamps. The rocking of the ship is less severe in the hold than anywhere else, which was good for us first-timers. The down side was that we had to go up a flight of stairs for the bathroom and two flights for the shower. Those stairs are very steep, and they seemed steeper in the morning as I stumbled up them. At first I had to hold onto the railings on both sides. All the spaces are pretty small, and it was almost painful to see some of the very tall crewmembers walking around almost grazing their heads on the ceiling. A ship doesn’t seem to be the best place for a tall person.

I settled in into a feeling of being calmly adrift. The almost continuous daylight and my lack of responsibilities on the crossing combined to eliminate my sense of time. In addition, the van was entirely dark if the light wasn’t on so when I woke up I had no idea what time it was. However I was very happy waking up whenever I wanted, reading, going up to the bridge, reading, eating a meal, and repeating. Sometimes I would stop by the blow-up NYT Sunday crossword puzzle pasted in the hallway and try to help out. I can imagine that so much unstructured time could be disorienting, but I loved drifting along.

Standing at the bow and looking due south, I imagined all the great explorers who have looked ahead in this direction from the bow of a ship. It is inspiring to think that I am following in their footsteps, although in much greater comfort!

Our New Year’s celebration was unusual. The first mate sent a prank email about a party in the sauna, but it sounded like a good idea to enough people that we made sure it happened. We dressed up in our “Extreme Cold Weather” gear and had a rockin’ dance party in the ship’s sauna. At midnight, when we were about to faint from overheating, we put on handmade party hats and trooped up to the ship’s bridge where we stood outside and banged pots and pans to ring in the new year at the bottom of the world. The cloud cover made the sky dark except at the horizon, where a thin strip of clear sky glowed pink from the lingering sunset. Even though there is no alcohol allowed on the ship some people felt hungover the next morning because of the dehydration of the sauna!

As we continued south, the energy of the scientists and crew alike seemed to increase. I could feel the excitement of the chief scientist building. Even on his 25th crossing of the Drake, he became more and more animated by the hour. I began to understand the draw of the white continent even before I saw it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Jumping off from Patagonia

My first post from Antarctica! My ship arrived on Sunday at Palmer Station after completing the Drake Passage. I know you want to hear all about Antarctica now that I'm here but before I do that, I want to describe the very beginning of my trip and our preparations in port in Punta Arenas, Chile. So for now it's enough just to say that I am safe and sound on the Frozen Continent.

I could spot Antarctic bound passengers on my flights to Dallas and then Santiago de Chile by their beards and general scruffiness. A tall, thin, taciturn man who reminded me a bit of the man in the painting “American Gothic” turns out to study penguins. Another with long curly hair is more like an overgrown kid – loud, happy-go-lucky and hard drinking. He also happens to be the leader of the group studying zooplankton.

We were in port for two nights and parts of three days. Aside from being fitted out with “Extreme Cold Weather” gear, I was free to explore Punta Arenas. The city is made up of mostly one-story houses with gabled roofs and brightly painted walls and corrugated metal roofs although the buildings bordering the central square are in a grand colonial style. From a hill behind the city you can see a panorama of the colored roofs and the Strait of Magellan. Apparently Punta Arenas was one of the most important ports in South America before the Panama Canal was built; ships from all over the world stopped here on their way through the Strait of Magellan, passing from one ocean to another. Now, Punta Arenas is not a sleepy town even though it has been marginalized by the building of the canal and it is thousands of miles from Santiago, the capital of Chile, and not even connected to rest of country by road. The sidewalks are busy with well-dressed pedestrians, numerous taxis clog the streets, and there are significant public buildings – a post office, city hall, military headquarters.

Rather than the language, I found that the biggest difference between Punta Arenas and the United States was that the days were 20 hours long. The sun rose before 4am, and the sky was light until almost midnight. It was quite strange coming from winter in the United States, when I come home from work in the dark. Almost as much as the length of daylight, I noticed a difference in the quality and the rate of change. It felt like midday from 9am – 5pm, and the fast-changing morning and late afternoon light was missing. This difference is because the sun's trajectory is oblique relative to the horizon line. At the latitude of the United States, the sun rises in a line almost perpendicular to the horizon, so it gets high more quickly, and then sinks more quickly. But at high latitudes like Patagonia and Antarctica (and Alaska in the northern hemisphere), the sun's path is at a low angle to the horizon and it takes a long time to rise and to set (and sometimes it never sets!).

Coming soon: the Drake Passage crossing!