October 27, a team of seven scientists set sail from Punta Arenas, Chile, and embarked on a two-month journey of discovery to the coldest place on Earth, the frozen continent, Antarctica.
After spending more than a week at sea and fighting thick ice surrounding the team's destination, the researchers' ship, the L.M. Gould, broke through the ice on Nov. 5 and delivered the team safely to Palmer Station. Since arriving, they have been busy settling into their home away from home and preparing to go to work.
The team lead by University of Alabama at Birmingham biologists James McClintock, Ph.D., and Charles Amsler, Ph.D., and by University of South Florida chemist Bill Baker, Ph.D. will spend two months diving in the ice filled, near-freezing waters off Palmer Station, investigating the survival secrets of a kaleidoscopic array of marine life.
The mission to Palmer Station, funded by the Office of Polar Programs at the National Science Foundation, continues research pursued by McClintock, Amsler and Baker. The scientific world, as well as the public, has followed their journeys and discoveries via the WOW.UAB.EDU Web site and through articles in American Scientist, Nature and the Wall Street Journal.
For the researchers, this is the second trip in two years to work in the harsh, snowy realm of Palmer Station, Antarctica. They will continue the work that began on their last trip, from March to May, 2000, studying predator defenses in a variety of marine macroalgae, sponges, echinoderms and nudibranchs plus the evolution of chemical defenses in general.
“We are looking at the chemical defenses of marine plants and animals and endeavoring to understand exactly how they use these chemicals to defend themselves how they wage chemical warfare, you could say,” said McClintock, dean of the UAB School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “This will allow scientists to understand the ecological structure of Antarctic marine life.”
“The work,” Amsler adds, “will be important not only to understanding marine life in Antarctica but, more significantly, to marine and terrestrial organisms all over the world."
While the project’s aim is to understand how these organisms function in the environments, the toxic defense compounds of the invertebrates could one day play a role in the prevention of diseases like heart disease, cystic fibrosis, cancer and AIDS.
“This is the only place on earth where some of the organisms studied can be found,” McClintock said.
Palmer Station sits on a protected harbor on the southwestern coast of Anvers Island off the Antarctica Peninsula. Palmer is the only U.S. Antarctic station north of the Antarctic Circle. The temperature at Palmer is mild for an ice-covered continent, with monthly averages ranging from minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) in July and August to 2 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit) in January and February.
The station, built on solid rock, consists of two major buildings and three small ones, plus two large fuel tanks, a helicopter pad, and a dock. Construction was completed in 1968, replacing a prefabricated wood structure ("Old Palmer,'' established in 1965) two kilometers away across Arthur Harbor.
About 40 people can occupy Palmer. The winter population can drop to as low as 10, although Palmer does not have a long period of winter isolation as does McMurdo Station, the team’s other research site. McMurdo, about 1,000 kilometers due south, is the largest research station in Antarctic, providing facilities for as many as 1,000 people.
McClintock said at Palmer Station macroalgae and invertebrate larvae are much more abundant than at McMurdo Sound, but as they search for these organisms they will have to be vigilant in spotting and keeping away from dangerous leopard seals, which are common in these waters.
“The waters off Palmer Station are an excellent area to work, in terms of marine life diversity” McClintock said. “We do have to be careful diving because of leopard seals but there are more than 120 species of marine plants, as well as numerous sponges and soft corals to study."
Part of what makes Palmer Station a good place to dive, McClintock said, is the islands off shore. The team will be working in waters that range from 30- to 130-feet deep and while the team won't dive from the islands, they do provide a good place to anchor the Zodiac boat.
“The peninsula supports luxuriant undersea forests of macroalgae [seaweed],” Amsler added. “And they literally are forests, with biomass levels comparable to the giant kelp forests you can see off the west coast of the United States. Coupled with the unique oceanography of the region, this makes the Peninsula an ideal place to pose the scientific questions we are working on in this project.”
Joining McClintock, Amsler and Baker on the expedition are UAB graduate student Kevin Peters, B.S.; UAB post-doctoral student Katrin Iken, Ph.D.; UAB researcher Maggie Amsler, M.S.; and Chris Petrie, B.S., a graduate student from the University of South Florida.