Dive Ops, part 1

CheckingDiveSitesScuba diving is a central part of our research here. We call it "Dive Ops" which is short for Diving Operations. All our experimental manipulations on this project are done in the lab but since the organisms we are studying live along the bottom of the ocean (described then as benthic organisms), Dive Ops are critical in order to collect them and their food. Today Julie and I needed to dive to collect food for the amphipods (shrimp-like animals) that she is working with in the lab and also some more amphipods for upcoming experiments.

It has been stormy the last few days and so this was the first day in three that we have been able to get out. Every morning that we need to dive and I think that we may be able to with the weather and seas, I head down to the station pier area to look at the swell (waves) and then walk up to the top of the small hill that the station is on where I can look out and see most of the islands that we would want to dive at. With binoculars I can get an idea of what the seas are like around them, which is what I'm doing in the photo at the top.

BoatLaunchAt our group meeting at 8:00 we discuss the plans for the day including both what has to be done in the lab (which always includes a lot of water chemistry monitoring every day in the experiments) and what dive collection needs we have. It was decided that heading out for a dive around 10:00 would work for everyone.

In addition to the divers, two dive "tenders" need to be in the boat to help the divers before and after the dive and to operate the boat before, during, and after a dive. Today's tenders were to be Maggie and volunteer tender Jon Olander. Jon is the station's hazardous waste specialist who is in charge of making sure that all lab and other wastes are properly packaged up and sent back to the US for processing and disposal.

Most days, we have someone from the station staff like Jon volunteering to be one of the two tenders. It is a great way for them to get off station and assist with science for a couple hours, and it allows our project to have one more person back in the lab tending to experiments. We will probably have a future post about what it is like to be a dive tender.

Between the 8:00 meeting and 10:00 departure, Julie and I got out to the dive locker between water chemistry measurements to prepare our dive gear. Because of the bad weather, Hannah Gray, the Boating Coordinator/Resident Marine Technician, had pulled our dive Zodiac boat from the water. So as Julie and I got our gear together we took it out and put it in the boat while it was still on land. That way, instead of having to load the boat in the water, all the tenders had to do was help Hannah launch the boat. The photo above on the left is Maggie and Jon helping Hannah, who is driving the Sky Trak tractor, launch the boat.

About 9:40 I headed up to our dorm room to get into my polypropylene underwear. I wear several layers on my torso and one mid-weight layer on my legs. Plus toasty warm wool socks with a polypro sock liner. Then I headed down to the dive locker to get into my really thick main dive underwear. It is a lot like a wearable sleeping bag. The main underwear with the underlying polypro is what keeps us warm. On top goes a dry suit that really does not provide a lot of insulation by itself but keeps all that toasty underwear dry so that it can.

JulieHeadedOutA few years ago Kate and Maggie made a great, funny video of Kate getting suited up in the dive locker before she and I headed out for a dive. You can see it imbedded here, above on the right. It has had over 55,000 views on YouTube, so a lot of people have enjoyed it. Although Kate and Maggie were joking around a bit during it, it is a very good representation of what we do to get ready right before a dive.

With the boat in the water and ready to go, Julie and I, now all suited up, walked down from the dive locker and the four of us headed out to Hermit Island for our first of two short collecting dives. The photo to the left is of Julie as we were leaving station. We plan to have a future post about the Dive Ops process as we get to the dive site and into the water. Until then, please send any comments or questions to antarctica@uab.edu.

The Times They are a Changin'

The change in seasons always includes a turnover from summer to winter station crews. Before ship sailing, KatePizzaboth the station and crew of the Laurence M. Gould gather together to share one last meal before roam apart. We call this cross town dinner, and usually it's a pizza feast with pies in all shapes and flavors as well as a contribution from the boat. Most summer crew people are ecstatic to head north, and they better start swimming or they'll sink like a stone, for the times they are a changin'.

One of the people leaving is a primary investigator on the Antarctic Peninsula based Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project, a penguin researcher named Bill Fraser. He has been coming down to Palmer Station since the early '70s to study the penguin and giant petrel colonies, most recently recording changes in avian communities along the western Antarctic Peninsula. His wife Donna Patterson joined in on the studies in the late '80s and over subsequent years they've been keeping their eyes wide open (because the chance may not come again), not speaking too soon for the wheel KateTimesGentoois still spinning. The dominant penguin species in this area has certainly shifted (the bug-eyed Adélie is being displaced by the orange beaked Gentoo - at left), no tellin' who that it's namin' for the loser now will be later to win. And the times they are a changin'.

Some writers and critics have prophesized with their pens that the global climate change will negatively impact the benthic and pelagic ecosystem in the oceans. Much of the work at Palmer Station seems to focus on how the climate will affect their various study organisms. Julie previously spoke of our experiment setup in the aquarium room, both microcosms and mesocosms. Our primary goal has been to examine how the benthic community of Antarctica will change in an environment with higher temperatures and lower pH levels. The community members we focus on are invertebrates like mollusks, amphipods, and red and brown algae.

Four researchers who are part of the LTER and have been focusing on how pelagic organisms will respond to lower pH in the oceans are also leaving on this ship, along with two of the fish scientists Maggie wrote about. Others voyagers include the cooks, mechanics, doctor, station manager, waste management and marine technician and...- the list continues because it takes a lot to run a station like this.

A good friend of mine, Yuta Kawarasaki, was a graduate student who studied Belgica antarctica (one of the KateTimesYutatwo insects that live in Antarctica) and how it would respond to warmer temperatures and shift in frost levels. In previous field seasons I helped Yuta collect in early April.  With spoons in hand we laid or sat on the cold ground shifting around the nearly frozen soils grains or turning over rocks in search of his bugs.(See insect biology in action right)  We would always get a bit fed up with the endless bad weather and ever shortening daylight hours. To commiserate/entertain ourselves we played back a clip from Madagascar where the penguins have finally landed in Antarctica and are shivering on the ice and so appropriately state "well this sucks". We are just beginning to see that change in the weather here, with rain or snow and winds up to 50 knots that are like a battle outside a ragin'. We have to admit that the waters around us have grown more violent and accept it that soon we'll be drenched to the bone. For the times they are a changin'.

Some may say "come senators, congressmen, please heed the call". But maybe he that gets hurt will be he that has stalled, and all of the research going on at the station (supported by the amazing support staff) may show that climate change will shake our windows and rattle our walls. Only time will tell, the present now will later be past, and in so many ways the times they are a-changin'.

No tellin' Kate's been listenin' to Mr. Bob Dylan... send a new verse to us at

antarctica@uab.edu

Palmer Station and its Interplay with Antarctic Tourism

Jim3CruiseShipBecause I have both conducted research at Palmer Station and been a lecturer aboard an Antarctic cruise ship that regularly visits the station, I have a unique perspective on the logistics, challenges, and inherent value of these station visits by citizens from around the world.

Each year, primarily during the summer months of December, January and February, about ten cruise ships are scheduled for visits to Palmer Station. Some of the tour ships that visit are very large, carrying up to several thousand tourists. These larger ships do not land their passengers at the station as it would simply not be logistically feasible. Rather, the large ships anchor in Arthur Harbor and are visited by the station leader and a contingent of well-trained outreach staff from the station. Once on board, the Palmer team heads to one of the huge auditoriums aboard ship to welcome the cruise guests and to make a presentation.

The ship-board presentations provide the visitors an overview of the history of the station and the role of the US National Science Foundation in providing funds that support the research activities and that fund a private contractor (Lockheed Martin is the current contractor) to handle all the logistics of staffing and running the station. The presentations also include a summary of the many cutting-edge research projects underway not Jim3Touristsonly at Palmer Station, but also at the other two US Antarctic stations, McMurdo Station and the South Pole. My sense is that the guests aboard ship come away very impressed with the US Antarctic Program.

The Antarctic cruise ship upon which I serve once a year as a lecturer – Le Boreal – is small enough (about 190 guests) to facilitate a visit that includes not only a ship-board presentation but also transporting all the guests to shore to tour Palmer Station. This of course greatly enhances the whole experience. It is impressive to see how all those working at the station go out of their way to enthusiastically accommodate and educate the visitors. The guests arrive in zodiacs at their appointed times and once on shore are divided up into tour groups of about 15 individuals. Various staff on station volunteer to be trained as tour guides and they do a great job.

Importantly, the tours are designed so as to not interfere with ongoing scientific research. As such, the research laboratories and aquarium facility are not entered. But there is plenty to see otherwise. By the time Jim3PalmerVisitthe hour-long tour is over the guests have peeked into the aquarium, and if lucky, had a researcher show them some of the marine life, seen the power generators, learned about the reverse osmosis process used to turn seawater into freshwater, viewed the outside of the building housing the living quarters and recreation facility, stopped off in the station store to buy a t-shirt or fleece jacket, and enjoyed a brownie in the galley where there are research posters displayed and station staff and scientists mingling to answer questions.

Despite my concerns about the risks of large cruise ships that do not have reinforced hulls visiting icy Antarctic waters, overall I have been impressed with the inherent value of Antarctic tourism. The tour companies generally have a strong environmental ethic and take great care to operate their ships and educate their guests accordingly. But I believe the greatest value of Antarctic tourism is that tourists return as ambassadors of this amazing continent and help promote its value as a global commons for science. Palmer Station and its inhabitants are playing a key role in making this happen.