UAB in Antarctica
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Questions and Answers

TitleClick here to change to descending sortDate Posted
Question from Adam J. Woods2/12/2004 1:09:56 PM

Has there ever been psychological or neuropsychological research performed to ascertain the effects of extreme cold and isolation presented by the Antarctic? Such as increased depression, suicide, anxiety, induced phobia behavior, aggresion, etc. I am not aware of this research on the Antarctic to be specific, but have you noticed any variations in your behavior while in the environment, even in camp, after prolonged exposure. This would be interesting to know from the perspective of how extreme environments, such as x-treme cold, zero-g/space, etc. influence human behavior. If this is a common problem how do you attempt to counteract the negative effects? Thank you for your time.

Adam J. Woods

Answered by Jim McClintock on 2/12/2004 1:09:56 PM

Adam, Great question. Yes, I am aware that the National Science Foundation has taken advantage of the isolatory quality of life in Antarctica to study the effects on humans (NASA has also used it as a model to study space travel). Studies have not just been framed in terms of psychology, but also aspects of human physiology. I believe that the vast majority of these studies have been done at the very isolated south pole station (for obvious reasons), but that a number have also been conducted at McMurdo Station on the edge of the Ross Sea. Personally, I find that when experiencing periods of several months of isolation in Antarctica, it is very important for me to maintain a regular daily schedule of work, exercise and sleep. This can be difficult for scientists such as myself because the science is so exciting in Antarctica it is tempting to work very long hours. I force myself to get to the small gymnasium to exercise, and to get to bed at a decent hour. When working at McMurdo Station in the austral summer one has to learn to adapt to constant daylight. Thank goodness for the special curtains in our rooms that can darken the room completely. This is not a problem where we are working now, at Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. Overall, I have not experienced problems with isolation. However, comparatively, I am in Antarctica for short periods of time. Ask one of the "winter-over" personnel returning from 9 months at the south pole station this question, and you may get a very different answer! Cheers, Jim

Question from Jeff Keeton2/20/2004 11:34:07 AM

I used to live near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Ships from all over the world go through the bay on their way to ports along the eastern seaboard. Because the bay is relatively shallow, ships often dump some of their bilge water to decrease how deep they are in the water.

A lot of this bilge water contains animals like crabs and mollusks from foreign waters. These exotic species compete with the bay’s native species for food and resources and as a result, the numbers of native species have declined.

I was wondering, because more ships and people are going to Antarctica, have you seen any similar things happen with non-native species being introduced in Antarctic waters?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 2/20/2004 11:34:08 AM

Jeff -- Good question! Ballast water from ships is certainly an important vector for the transport of non-native species into aquatic communities. In fact Jim McClintock and I have a project in collaboration with Dr. Bob Peters in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department at UAB that is examining novel ways to treat ballast water to help prevent this. Fortunately, I know of no documented or suspected incidents of exotic species being introduced to Antarctica via ballast water. I think that commercial freighters, which have large differences in their cargo loads between ports and therefore need to take on lots of ballast water, are probably a bigger problem than cruise ships and research vessels (although these do use ballast water). There are almost no freighters coming into Antarctica. Thanks for the interest! -- Chuck

Question from Dee2/23/2004 7:47:45 PM

My students and I are especially enjoying all of the wonderful photos! We hope to see many more. Could you tell us what kind of digital camera you are using?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 2/23/2004 7:47:46 PM

Thanks! We'll do our best to keep them coming. Several folks in the group are contributing pictures. Maggie and Hla are using Minolta digital cameras, Kevin has a Kodak, and Anne shoots with a Fuji.

Question from Michelle Finley2/24/2004 10:13:44 AM

Do set up many different experiments or do you have mostly one big experiment you are working on?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 2/24/2004 10:13:44 AM

Hi Michelle! -- We have one big experiment called the "substrate experiment" that we've been working hard on setting up. I think that Anne is going to be writing about that later this week. We also have lots of smaller experiments that we do in the lab to test for chemical defenses that make an organism taste bad. We'll be talking more about those in future posts too. Stay tuned!!

Question from Jan, Nancy, and Julia2/24/2004 4:20:42 PM

We were curious about nutrition while you are on your expidition. Do you follow a special diet of any kind? Who is responsible for the nutritional needs of your research team? Does the extreme environment require special dietary supplements?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 2/24/2004 4:20:42 PM

I've often said that the most important person on station is the power plant mechanic. He or she keeps the lights and heaters powered! A close second are the cooks. We have two on station now although in the winter when the station population is smaller there will only be one. We are really lucky to have two wonderful chefs. Even with all our exertion in the field, it is hard not to gain weight with all the good food we have available. We eat pretty much the same kinds of foods one gets at home. No special supplements are required. However, most of the food is frozen or canned. We get fresh fruits and vegetables every time the ship comes in directly from South America. But that is usually only once per month (and will be longer than that before it comes back next). So fresh melon at breakfast and green salads at lunch and dinner are still available but won't be for much longer. Those are called "freshies" here and are greatly appreciated when they reappear with the ships from South America

Question from Nicole Howard and Erianna Hill2/25/2004 11:09:41 AM

We liked Anne's photo of Palmer Station. When was it built? Are there any plans to add any buildings? What do you wish would be added?

Answered by Maggie Amsler on 2/25/2004 11:09:42 AM

Hi Nicole and Erianna, There have actually been two Palmer Stations. The first one was built between 1964 and 1965. This very small facility served as a research station and a few years later as doubled as housing for Navy Seabees building the new Palmer Station a short boat ride away. Construction of the buildings now called Palmer Station began in 1967 and required three years to complete. Since opening in March 1970, the two main buildings that comprise Palmer Station, have undergone major renovations. A few smaller buildings have been added to our neighborhood over the years, including the aquarium building where we run experiments and maintain animals and algae in large seawater tanks. There is a new building being planned for move in sometime in 2005. It will replace two small buildings that now house air chemistry and atmospheric physics laboratories and incorporate a new air sampling lab for use by Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. I would love to add small sunroom to the top of either of our two main buildings. It would have windows on all sides and comfy chairs. I would go there when I want quiet place to read, write or simply reflect on the beauty of our neighborhood.

Question from Yousef Khaldi2/26/2004 10:30:48 AM

How close can you get to Antarctic wildlife? Are there rules that keep you at a distance? If so, can you let wildlife like a penguin come close to you if it chooses to do so?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 2/26/2004 10:30:49 AM

Hi Yousef! The rules about the wildlife are important and one of the first things one learns upon arrival here. This is their home, not ours (although it sure seems that way sometimes, and pleasantly so!). There is no set distance we can come to wildlife. Rather, we are prohibited from coming so close that an animal modifies its behavior. In other words, we can't come so close that the animal appears bothered by our presence. If we even think that might be happening, we must back away. But, if we are standing still and the animal comes to us, that is just fine. It is an obvious sign that it doesn't feel threatened by us. You asked about penguins in particular. They often will come close to us on their own, particularly if we just get down on our knees (so that we are closer to their height).

Question from Autumn Chapman2/27/2004 11:48:04 AM

Do killer whales eat mostly penguins or seals in the Antarctic waters?

Answered by Maggie Amsler on 2/27/2004 11:48:05 AM

Hi Autumn! Looks like you already know that orcas or killer whales living in Antarctica do indeed feed on seals and penguins. Evidence to date indicates that some orcas derive most of the diet from seals. I once watched a solo orca fatally attack a crabeater seal. Other orcas down here eat small whales, like the minke whale. I have also seen a pod of orcas pursue a humback whale, which is much bigger than a minke and attack it. From my vantage point on the bridge of a ship, this beseiged humpback thrashed around on the surface for about a minute before being dragged out of sight by the orcas.

Question from 3/1/2004 8:00:30 PM

My Mom, Jeannine Bailes (UAB Risk Management) says to tell you Hi, and hope you guys are safe and sound. I am 7 years old and I love to learn about the ocean. Are you having getting to have some fun while you are working? What do you do for fun down there? I really like the pictures of the penguins. Can you send more pictures of the baby penguins? Thank you.

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/1/2004 8:00:30 PM

I am 45 years old and I still love learning about the ocean. That's why I made a career of it! I'm glad that you also like the baby penguin pictures. In your honor, I've put up a picture of a gentoo penguin and two chicks on the top of the home page. Maggie took it several years ago. We do lots of things for fun. We read, talk, and play games or music. In addition to a library of books, there is a huge collection of video tapes and DVDs. Folks do dance classes (there is a weekly swing dance group at present) and all kinds of similar things. Many people hike or, when there is enough snow on it, ski on the glacier behind the station. We'll try to have a journal entry later in the season about all the recreational things we do to stay "sane" between all the lab and field work. Thanks for writing!

Question from Kelly Young3/2/2004 11:54:10 AM

What first got some of you interested in doing research in Antarctica? How has doing research in Antarctica changed over the years?

Answered by Maggie Amsler on 3/2/2004 11:54:10 AM

Hi Kelly! As a young girl I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist. I went to college at DePaul University and my advisor was a marine biologist. Guess where she worked? Yes - Antarctica! Her name was Dr. Mary Alice McWhinnie. She was one of the first females scientists to work in the Antarctic. She and another woman scientist share the distinction of of being the first female researchers to spend a winter in Antarctica at the largest U.S base called McMurdo Station. Dr. Mary Alice also worked many years at Palmer Station. She would often take her students as assistants. I feel so privledged to have been one of those lucky students. The Palmer biology lab is named for Dr. McWhinnie in recognition of all her contributions to Antarctic marine biology. The dedication plaque hangs in a busy hallway and serves to remind me how fortunate I am to have had Dr. Mary Alice in my life. As for the second question... Whew! Antarctic research has changed in many ways since my early trips in the 1980s. Perhaps one of the most significant changes is that Palmer Station is now accessible by ship year round. The first vessel that supported science here was a wooden ship and it could only work in the peninsular waters during the sea ice-free summer months. Ice breaking research vessels now allow for year round access to the station. Scientists can come and go all months of the year. Other major changes involve improved computer technology and telecommunications. It is mind-boggling to think I am sitting at a computer in Antarctica that is linked to a computer at UAB. I am typing out this response which will apppear on the website as soon as I click on "approve". Scientists can stay in touch with their home laboratories with just the click of a mouse. Too coool!

Question from ben shelley3/4/2004 12:46:13 AM

How do killer whales adapt to the harsh climate of antarctica?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/4/2004 12:46:13 AM

Hi Ben - Whales do very well in cold waters and killer whales, or orcas, are one of several species that inhabit the area. I guess with all that blubber for insulation, the waters here may not seem so cold! We see killer whales sometimes, although I have only seen them from the research ship that brings us to and from the station and never right here at Palmer. We do see humpback and minke whales around station. I've also seen southern right whales, but only from the ship. There are blue whales in the area, which as you probably know are the biggest animals on earth, but I've never seen one. They don't come close to ships very often but whale biologists hear them on special underwater sound receivers that they use to monitor whales by their vocalizations. Thanks for writing!

Question from Jo Lynn Orr3/4/2004 2:39:37 PM

What type of environmental research are you conducting while in Antarctica and what will you be doing with the results of that research? Thanks!

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/4/2004 2:39:37 PM

Wow! That is a big question. For specifics, stay tuned on this site for the rest of the season as we'll be talking about our research and its goals throughout. For a preview, if you have access to back issues of the UAB Magazine or UAB Arts & Sciences Magazine (accessible via the "publications" link on the left column of the UAB home page), they have run several beautiful articles on our work in the past. In brief, most of our research is what one would term "ecological" in that we are focusing on the natural interactions between organisms in the marine communities we study. "Environmental" often (but not always) has a human-impact component. This year we are putting a great deal of effort into an experiment that will test how human-induced reduction in ozone over Antarctica (the "ozone hole") might be changing seaweed defensive chemistry. That in turn could make plants relatively less palatable to some herbivores but not others and so have community-wide effects by changing feeding patterns. Anne is talking about those experiments (the "substrate experiment") in her journal.

Question from Josh Plourde3/4/2004 2:51:32 PM

What are your favorite marine animals or plants that you might see during a dive?

Answered by Kevin Peters on 3/4/2004 2:51:32 PM

My favorite animals would be the nudibranchs, also called sea slugs. They are often very colorful and have small extensions off of their body that make them very beautiful. My favorite plant would be Desmarestia menziesii or Demarestia anceps. The reason is that these are often found at areas of my safety stop and I know that if I need to stay in one spot, I can usually hold on to one of these and it will be an anchor for me. Thanks for the question.

Question from Reese Hovater3/5/2004 11:54:28 AM

Do you see any big icebergs around Palmer Station? If so, do you see any animals like penguins or seals on them?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/5/2004 11:54:28 AM

Reese, we certainly do see big iceburgs around the station. Some years more than others. Last year a big, unusually blue berg (a lot of the glacial ice is blue although it doesn't photograph well) was grounded not far off the season for well over a month (maybe more than two) and lots of others were around all season long. This year there have been far fewer although we have seen some huge ones that must be 100s of feet tall off in the distance. It is not uncommon to see penguins on the icebergs although usually on ones that have cracked and rolled around a lot. They have more "platforms" on them for the birds to get up on. I don't recall ever seeing a seal on a berg, but they are very common on ice flows (smaller, flat pieces of ice that aren't nearly as high).

Question from Jayde Moore3/9/2004 10:30:56 AM

Is there a time difference between Birmingham and Palmer Station?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/9/2004 10:30:56 AM

Jayde -- Yes, but it is only 3 hours and will get less soon. We use the same time as Chile. Right now, that is three hours ahead of Birmingham (is I type it is just after 1:30 PM here but 10:30 AM in Birmingham). But this coming Sunday, Chile will go off of daylight savings time. So we will only be two hours ahead of Birmingham. Then, next month when the US goes on daylight savings time, the difference will only be a single hour (it will be the same time as the eastern time zone in the US). Thanks for writing!

Question from Steve Peters (Kevin's Dad)3/9/2004 8:34:48 PM

Hi KJ:
From our discussions I know Antarctica is still very pristine, and many of the world's countries have agreed to keep it that way.
Are there any rules about discharging smoke and/or fumes from combustion into the air of Antarctica?
If not at Palmer Station, are there any such rules at other Antarctic stations?

Answered by Kevin Peters on 3/9/2004 8:34:49 PM

Dad, the exact rules and regulations for that are hard to come by. The Antarctic Treaty (which was signed by all the countries that currently have work ongoing in Antarctica) is the final governing legislation for all actions down here. The idea is to keep this environment as close to how it was when we got here. I know that the United States takes great care to do its best and set an excellent example for the other countries to follow. I am sorry I cannot give you a more definite answer. Thank you for the question and sorry it took so long to even get this answer, but I wanted to ask as many people as possible before I replied.

Question from Victor Gomez3/10/2004 1:41:02 PM

Are you seeing many penguins or leopard seals near Palmer Station? Do you see any when you look out the windows of the buildings?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/10/2004 1:41:02 PM

Hi Victor -- We certainly do see penguins regularly. In fact, I just walked by a gentoo penguin a few minutes ago when walking between buildings. We see penguins a lot when we are out in the boats. From my window I rarely see leopard seals unless they are hauled out on a bit of ice taking a nap. If there is ice in the harbor as there was this morning, that is not uncommon although not something that we see most times. It so happened that there was a seal visible from my office window on a small flow when I came in this morning.

Question from Chance Watkins3/12/2004 11:46:29 AM

What do you do for fun outdoors?

Answered by Maggie Amsler on 3/12/2004 11:46:31 AM

Hi Chance! Although it is work, I have fun being outdoors when we are diving and/or boating to our dive site. When I am outdoors and not working, I like to ski on the glacier, hike around the station or visit the nearby islands to watch the wildlife. One year I brought orange golf balls and clubs so I could play snow golf on the glacier. This year I packed my bright green stunt kite to fly on (the many) windy days. I also like being outdoors at night to sleep under the stars or clouds in a bivy sack with my very warm and cozy sleeping bag. Thank you for your "fun" question.

Question from Ryan Buchanan3/17/2004 10:20:19 AM

My name is Ryan and I am in second grade. My class is learning about Antarctica. I would like to know how many penguins live in a penguin colony. Do different kinds of penguins live together?

Answered by Maggie Amsler on 3/17/2004 10:20:20 AM

Hi Ryan! I have been in a penguin rookery with an estimated 60,000 penguins. It was very noisy- not to mention smelly! There are reports of colonies exceeding 100,000 individuals. Penguins don't want to be lonely I guess. Generally such big colonies are made up of mostly the same kind of penguin. It is not uncommon though for several different species of penguins to share space in the same area. In pockets of one adelie colony I visited there were also smaller numbers of chinstrap, gentoos and even a few beet-red eyed macaroni penguins! Have a great time studying Antarctica- it is such a coooool place.

Question from Britton Clough, age 83/17/2004 1:11:47 PM

Have you seen whales breaching? What kind of whales have you seen? Do they make noise?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/17/2004 1:11:47 PM

Britton, I haven't seen any whales breaching this year but some of the folks did on our way into station last month. The only ones I have seen breaching (and what folks saw last month) were humpbacks. They make a very loud splashing sound when they land. I have also seen minke whales, orcas, and southern right whales in the region.

Question from Molly Gay, age 73/17/2004 1:16:35 PM

How do you get electricity? What do you miss the most about being in the United States?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/17/2004 1:16:35 PM

We have a pair of big diesel generators that supply all the electricity for the station (one is running all the time and the other is held in reserve as a back up). Right now what I miss the most is not being able to watch my beloved Duke Blue Devils and UAB Blazers in the NCAA tourney!

Question from Billy Kane, age 83/17/2004 1:21:57 PM

We read that Crabeater seals do not eat crabs. What do they eat? How did they get their name if they don't eat crabs?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/17/2004 1:21:59 PM

They eat krill, which is a very plentiful, shrimp-like animal (a crustacean) that is very, very important as a food item to many of the birds and seals. Crabeaters pretty much only eat krill. There are virtually no crabs in Antarctica. But the early explorers didn't know that and when they saw the scat from crabeaters, it looked like the remains of crabs to them. So that is how the seals got their name.

Question from Hunter Kelley, age 93/18/2004 3:08:34 PM

I am interested in the leopard seal. It sounds really fierce. Is it? Why do they call it the leopard seal? Do they ever attack people?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/18/2004 3:08:35 PM

Hunter -- Leopoard seals have very, very rarely tried to attack people and there is only one record of a diver being attacked. However, we always treat them as dangerous animals. Kevin has a journal entry posted last night that talks about an encounter he and I had the other day. They are called leopard seals because they have spots and because they are predators of penguins and of other seals. Still most of the year a majority of their diet is krill.

Question from Tristan Clements, age 73/18/2004 3:16:04 PM

How did the wingless fly get all the way to Antarctica if it doesn't have any wings? How do you stay warm?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/18/2004 3:16:04 PM

Tristan -- The short answer is that I don't know for a fact about the flies and don't have any literature handy that can help me find out. However, wingless flies are common in high, mountainous areas and in wind-swept coastal areas (places where flying around is likely to get an animal carried away from their habitat). I presume that these species or groups of species evolved from winged flies several times. Antarctica had a more temperate climate millions of years ago so my *guess* is that winged flies here then were the ancestors to the wingless ones now. As for staying warm, we have lots of great cold weather gear issued to us (called "ECW" gear meaning Extreme Cold Weather). Kevin did a journal entry on that several weeks ago. The clothes work really well!

Question from Jenna Huerkamp, age 83/18/2004 3:20:14 PM

Have you climbed the mountains? What is at the top of them?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/18/2004 3:20:16 PM

Jenna -- No, I've never climbed the mountains and I don't know anyone who has. However, I would think that what is at the top is pretty much what is everywhere else around here: ice and rock. However, I would think that there is less life than elswehere on the land (for example, moss or lichens).

Question from Alana Ingram, age 73/18/2004 3:25:57 PM

I learned that there is a volcano is Antarctica. How can it erupt if it is so cold there?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/18/2004 3:25:59 PM

Alana -- There are actually a couple of volcanos that I know of and I've been near or on both. One is Mt. Erebus near McMurdo Station where our group has worked in the past. Another is Deception Island that is north of here and that we have sometimes visited. The heat comes from inside the Earth. It is so much hotter there than anywhere on the surface that I don't imagine that the difference between the surface in the tropics or poles makes much difference.

Question from Wilson Standeffer, age 83/18/2004 7:43:13 PM

If the weather is so cold there, how come the ocean does not freeze? Do you catch fish for your dinner?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/18/2004 7:43:13 PM

Wilson -- The water does freeze, but this far north in Antarctica there is open water most of the year. The wind and waves help break up ice formation a bit when it does start so it really takes a prolonged period of cold to freeze the ocean solid across the surface. As for fish, we do catch fish sometimes to use in our experiments but we do not use antarctic organisms as a food source. We study these communities but try to disturb them only as necessary for the research (which is very little). The entree at dinner tonight was fish but it was shipped frozen from California (and probably caught and frozen in Alaska).

Question from Lindsey Young, age 83/18/2004 7:53:14 PM

What do penguins feed their babies? How do they feed them? How big are they when they are first born, and how long does it take for them to grow to thier adult size?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/18/2004 7:53:14 PM

Penguin parents go to sea and feed mostly on krill, a small, shrimp-like animal. When they come back to the rookeries they regurgitate some of the krill directly into their chick's mouth. This is how many birds feed their chicks. They are about the size of a man's fist when they hatch from the eggs and it takes them a couple months to get to roughly the same size as an adult and fledge out into the sea although I do not think that they weigh quite as much as the adults then.

Question from Austin Taylor, age 73/19/2004 3:34:31 PM

The water is so cold there. Why doesn't the blood in the fish freeze?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/19/2004 3:34:32 PM

Austin, that is a great question to ask, particularly with respect to fish. The more salt and other things are dissolved in water, the lower its freezing point. With other marine organisms here (seaweeds, invertebrates, bacteria, etc.) the salinity of their body fluids are essentially the same as sea water. So if the water they are in isn't frozen, neither are they. But fish are different because as a group they arose in freshwater, not in the ocean. Their blood is less salty than seawater. Seawater does not freeze until it gets to -1.9 degrees C (about 28 degrees F) but fish blood will freeze at a slightly higher temperature. The fish have antifreeze peptides or small proteins (depending on the species) in their blood that inhibit the growth of ice crystals and their livers (I think) are able to remove the tiny ones that do form.

Question from Grayson McCreary, age 73/19/2004 3:41:06 PM

Can you tell me about the equipment you have? What do you use it for? Which piece of equipment is the most important?

Answered by Chuck Amsler on 3/19/2004 3:41:06 PM

Grayson -- We have to submit a form (in April of the year before we come down) that lists all the equipment we need. For this season, that document was 72 pages long. And it didn't include most of our dive gear or other things that we bring from UAB. So we have a *lot* of equipment! And it is pretty much all very important. There are no stores to go to if we forget something or don't have enough replacements for things that break. Even a seemingly "insignificant" little thing that breaks can keep us from using a large instrument if we don't have a replacement for it.

Note: This forum is closed for posting.

The researchers completed their expedition in May 2004. Feel free to search this site for their archived journals and responses to questions.

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