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.