Photos from UAB in Antarctica group on Flickr
  1. Wrapping up the Season

    In some ways it feels like we just got here. In others, it is as if we’ve been away from home for very long. I always look forward to coming to Palmer. And when the team’s season is coming to a close, I always look forward to getting home. Next week, we’ll be on our way home to summer from a station becoming more and more wintery as each day proceeds.

       We’ve had a very successful season here. Kate’s outplant experiments (described in her “One alga, two algae, red alga, blue alga…” post) are done and she is spending a lot of time analyzing the data along with continuing some related lab experiments. We successfully recovered all of the concrete substrates that her plants were attached to. It is the second time we’ve used the same substrates for an experiment out in the field (also once in an aquarium experiment).  The facilities folks here did an excellent job building them for us in 2004!

       Ruth is still keeping busy making her algae glow in the dark. She’s learned a lot about “Oxygen as a chemical weapon.”  She has also prepared a fair number of chemical extracts and has flash-frozen fresh algae for experiments she’ll be doing back at UAB. As all good science does, her season has answered important questions and raised new ones.

       I’m sure that Maggie will never lose her “Passion for Pods” even as she is winding down her experiments with them for this season. She has been spending a great deal of time with a project involving Paradexamine fissicauda, or as she told you, “Paradex” for short. It is a species we’ve worked on very little before and it turns out to be able to eat some, but not all, of the chemically-defended red algae. Story to be continued in the marine biology literature.

        Jim has been home for a while now but his time here was well spent. And he was able to represent the team with the news media in Birmingham when we spoke to them from here via Skype and after our virtual field trip with Alabama high schools (Maggie’s “Fun with Technology” and my “Reaching Out and Pulling Up” posts).

        And oh yes, Kate’s “iceberg friend” Harrold Bergman is still grounded out in Arthur Harbor, the body of water that is off the station. He’s lost some weight though as pieces have broken off and he has occasionally rolled over.  But he’s still blocking my view of Killer Whale Rocks (my “surge-o-meter”) from the window of the science office. So I still have to walk up the hill to see it as a gauge of how rough the surge will be where we want to dive that day.

         It has been a great season of diving. Kate, Ruth, and I have all talked about different aspects of our preparations for diving here and about the actual “dive ops” themselves. We have videos up on the YouTube channel that cover pretty much all aspects. If you haven’t had a look, click on the link to the right or directly here on and scroll down through the offerings.

       Of the seven times our chemical ecology project has been at Palmer, we have only made more research dives in two of the seasons. In both of those, however, we had a dive team come in 5-6 weeks before the main group to get started on collections. So those were much longer seasons overall. Personally, in the 12 of my trips to Antarctica that have involved diving, I’ve only made more dives once.  

       The sad part of leaving, of course, is saying goodbye to our USF colleagues Alan and Jason after we all get to Chile, and also to our friends who will stay here for the winter. There are 18 folks who, when we sail north next week, will not see anyone else until the ship comes back in September. Some are old friends from previous seasons, many are new friends we just met when their Fresh Faces arrived with the Fruit and Fish. They are a great crew, and I’m positive that they’ll have a wonderful winter here.

       I’m just as positive that Maggie, Ruth, Kate, and I will have a wonderful summer and autumn back at UAB. And that we’ll all be looking forward to heading back here to Palmer when the time comes next February. As you’ve read so many times in our posts, it is truly an exceptional place, filled with special people. Thank you for letting us share some of our experiences here this season with you. Now, though, it is time to head north – towards home.

       Sweet home Alabama...


    posted on 05/25/10 by Chuck
    Last comment on 05/27/10
  2. The Tradition of Antarctic Cooking

    I have heard it several times: “the most important person on station is the cook.” Although in a station as small as ours, everyone is pretty important to making the station run smoothly, there is truth to this statement.  Food is important- we need to eat every day.  The chefs are very central to the morale of a community like ours. 

                It isn’t easy being a cook here. With so little fresh food, the cooks have to be really creative. They are kept on their toes by other events as well. Due to the earthquake in Chile this past February, an entire container - the kind 18-wheel trucks tow - of frozen food thawed when power was lost at a quake damaged Chilean port, and the cooks had no choice but to roll with the punches.

                So let me introduce our cooks. During the summer there were two cooks, Diane Curran and Stacie Murray. Stacie left with the summer crew and we miss her a lot. Diane, who came in with Stacie last September will be leaving on the LMG with us.  She has been cooking in Antarctica since 2000, beginning with 2 seasons as a cook at South Pole Station, and still sometimes considers herself a “Polie” first and foremost.

    She then worked a season at McMurdo serving the Midnight Rations, or “Midrats” meal. This is the meal served in the middle of the night for those on the night shift. It was also the most personal of meals at McMurdo, serving between 1 AM -3 AM rather than 800-1100 during the day.

                 This is her third season and first summer at Palmer. She says that because Palmer Station is so much smaller and more intimate than the others, the cook’ position suits her much better. Not only is she and fellow Plamer cooks always trying to find out what we like and dislike, but the fresh food goes much further between 40 people than between 1000.  

                 Diane has been cooking all her life. In fact, she grew up in a restaurant. She worked at her parents’ fresh fast food restaurant in the South Side of Chicago until she was 16. Her favorite thing to make is really good bread, pies or other pastries. She has baked at several family-owned bakeries and even opened her own in Maine between stints in Antarctica.

                 Keith Reimink is the winter chef. Since station population is so small during the winter months, he will be the one and only. His favorite food both to make and to eat is chicken cordon bleu.

    Keith grew up in Michigan but began his cooking career as a chef at an elder hostel in Alaska. He then began to take jobs cooking on cruise ships sailing up and down the East and West coasts of the United States and to places like the Virgin Islands and Mexico.

    He is not new to Antarctica either. He spent 3 summers cooking at McMurdo Station and one year cooking at South Pole Station before taking this winter job at Palmer.  He discussed the good and bad aspects of cooking at each of his former stations.  There are so many people are McMurdo, for instance, - the summer population reaches 1,000 – that it is a huge task to feed so many cold and hungry people. But now he knows how to cook a meal for 1,000 people.  

    While Palmer Station only holds around 40 in the summer and 18 in the winter, the fact that the cooks are part of such a small intimate group creates a completely different sort of pressure. They are always trying to please, and they succeed every day.     

    The way to the heart of a community living in extreme isolation and often extreme cold and weather, really is through food. This is not only because hard work in cold weather drives a very hearty appetite, but because eating is a social activity; a medium for conversation and memories, a chance to take a break and relax with friends.

                Eating is not only a necessity but a ritual here. We look forward to Waffle Wednesday, Mexican Friday, and Swedish pancakes on Tuesdays. Monday lunch is leftovers, and every day there are fresh cookies. People sneak to the back of the kitchen to steal them off the cooling racks while they are still so soft they fall apart in your hands. Employees meet in the galley during morning and afternoon break to have cookies and a hot drink, and the scientists are often drawn up from the labs by the cookie smells that waft down at some point during the afternoon.

                Food brings everyone on station together every day. It brings the sailors over as well. Every time the ship docks, the people on the boat come over for a “crosstown” dinner, usually pizza. And we share meals in another way as well; we all take turns cleaning up afterwards.

     There are no janitors here, as you know from Chuck’s post about House Mouse. Once a week after dinner, each station member will work with a team to do GASH (Galley and Scullery Help- it’s a US Navy term), which basically involves putting away leftovers, washing dishes, sweeping and mopping while listening to loud music and joking around with each other.

     It never ceases to amaze me that Diane knows what everyone likes to eat for breakfast, and even though the buffet is completely full of delicious food - eggs, sausage, French toast, pancakes, potatoes, oatmeal, yogurt - she cooks omelets, breakfast burritos, and eggs to order.

    Keith gives the personal touch too.  He has been re-creating a dessert that research associate Neal’s grandmother used to make.  On Cinco de Mayo, he made a huge Mexican feast that we ate in the lounge. If there is going to be an event in the bar or the lounge, the cooks will often go completely out of their way and make appetizers or snacks like nachos and pizza.

            The first thing I heard about Palmer Station was: “You will never eat as well as you do at Palmer.” I guarantee it will be one of the first things anyone who has been to Palmer mentions about the station. As my friends and family can attest, it was one of the first things I told them about - before the penguins, the diving, and the icebergs, I told them how amazing the food is.



    posted on 05/23/10 by Ruth
    Last comment on 05/24/10
  3. Ride of Silence - Palmer Station

       17-22 May is Bike to Work week in the US. Were I at home I would be commuting to UAB on my bicycle. It is a great way to start the day! In keeping with that spirit, this week my normal early morning gym visit has in principle been my bike to work. I saddle up for a long ride on the stationary spin bike in Palmer Station's small gym. Tailored tunes on an I-pod help recreate the long flat stretches on Highway 31 and the endless long climb up and over Shades Mountain on Columbiana Road.  

       Were I home this week I would have also participated in the local Ride of Silence (ROS) held Wednesday night.  This event began seven years ago after Dallas cyclist Larry Schwartz was struck and killed by a vehicle while on a training ride.  As a way of honoring and memoralizing Larry his friends came up with the idea of a ‘funereal bike ride'.  That ride attracted over 1000 riders!  Intended to be a one time only ride, it is now in its seventh year as an annual event held not only in Dallas, but worldwide. The mission of the event is to honor lost and injured cyclists and also to educate the motoring public on the roadway rights of cyclists (see for additional background.)

       A few seasons ago here at Palmer Station, I was granted approval to contact the ROS director and inquire whether an indoor, stationary ride qualify for participation.  The ROS director was thrilled with the concept and whole-heartedly endorsed Palmer as an official event site.  (See Chuck's UAB in A 2007 entry  This one time ride in Texas has blossomed into not only a national event, but an international event and one of few events that can lay claim to occurring on all seven continents!  Also, many health clubs now sponsor indoor Spin for Silence rides based on Palmer's version of the event.

       Turnout for ROS Antarctica, was overwhelming with twelve station folks signing up.  Of the dozen ‘registrants' several were dedicated cyclists, all were dedicated to support the intent of this event and help spread the word.

       Twelve riders on 2 stationary bikes for one hour meant each had a ten minute pull.  Most of the folks showed up a few minutes before the hour, as requested.  There was just enough time to briefly brief, review assigned interval and bike, distribute black and a few red wrist bands and ride out at 7PM (6PM CST).

       Leading off the night were Chuck on the spin bike and Juan Carlos (JC) Zabala, from Spain, a member of Northeastern University fish group on station.  Each wore t-shirts from the Birmingham 2009 ROS that Chuck and I participated in since we were home last May.  Chuck's version was black, like the armbands, serving as a memorial to those cyclists injured and worse on roadways.  JC wore a black wrist band, plus a red one and I had him slip the red shirt on over his jersey.  The red indicates a survivor of a bike-vehicle accident.  Ten years ago, while in residence at Stanford University, JC was hit by a car while riding near campus.  He sustained numerous broken bones and is quick to point out the scar atop his head, a permanent reminder of that accident.  His injuries did not dissuade from getting back on a bike once healed and just last December enjoyed a multi-day bike ride through the Alps!

       Taking over for Chuck and JC were Kate and David Barud, one of Palmer's logistics/cargo czars.  Like all of the riders, Kate and David had had a busy, crazy day at Palmer.  Kate and I had tended Ruth and Chuck on two dives near station.  David spent much of his morning in the cold - shuttling the station's frozen food from a temporary freezer out on the pier back into the now renovated kitchen walk-in freezer.  Much of the station turned up in the dining hall to help unload the bucket of the heavy vehicle which was perched onto the deck off the dining room and piled full with cold boxes. The community bucket brigade made it a quick effort.  I hope David mentally transported himself back to New Zealand where twice after his winters on the ice pedaled Kiwi-land for several weeks.  How enviable.

       Laura Pfaff and Michael Blachut were on next.  Laura, like Michael recently arrived on station and in her few weeks here will be evaluating all sorts of environmental health and safety issues.  A runner by background, Laura is branching into triathlon and shortly after returning home to Colorado in June will participate in the MS 150 ride as part of her training.  Michael is a man of many interests, admittedly not a cyclist, but wanted to help the ROS cause.  One of main jobs at Palmer was to renovate the kitchen walk-in freezer.  A success!  As he cycled along, he was probably thinking about his retirement condo in Arizona - how appropriate for a refrigeration expert!

       At the half way point, Robin Solfisburg and Clair von Handorf took to the pedals.  Robin is in logistics with David and played a key role in moving the frozen food.  Lots of cold, heavy work for Clair too.  She is the station waste specialist and also oversees the weekly refueling of the station each Wednesday.  Both took time to mellow in the gym with us for the hour, Robin walking the treadmill before her interval, Clair doing mat based strength work and yoga.  Both intently read the Ride of Silence poem taped to each bike's handle bars. 

       Administrative coordinator Kerry Kells arrived just a few minutes before her ride.  She had requested a late ride as she had kitchen cleanup duty that night.  In addition to black Kerry informed me she needed a red wrist band too.  While bike commuting to work a few years ago, she was hit by a vehicle leaving a parking garage.  She was bruised, but ok but had landed in a mud puddle!  Yuck...  I thought we may have to have a fill-in rider to join Kerry.  Kyle Hoppe is one of Palmer's FEMC (facilities, engineering, maintenance, carpentry) and was involved in both the food shuffle and the station refueling.  Additionally, he had the stress of working with his team to repair one of the station's generators and return full power to the station.  For several hours in the afternoon, once the refueling was complete, all non-essential power was shut off and much of the station was quite dark.  (sunset was about 3:30).  

       As with the leading riders, the final riders slipped the one size fits all Birmingham ROS tshirts on - Lisa Trotter in black, me in red.  Lisa, like Kerry had after dinner kitchen cleanup and by nature of her leading position as station manager, was involved in all the Palmer action described above and no doubt much more! 

       Palmer Station's ROS is not unlike any other ROS I suspect - well most are outside on roads with bikes that move.  But all, even if indoor, more than likely bring together people from many different walks of life to pedal for awareness, to pedal in memory, to quietly reflect on the joy of pedaling and the right to pedal safely.  All have probably had a crazy day somewhere, yet make time to saddle up and head out in silence to promote this mission.  "Let the Silence Roar!" 


    posted on 05/20/10 by Maggie
    Last comment on 05/22/10
  4. The Wonders of Natural Products

    Many of the products that we use in everyday life are made with components of marine organisms. For instance, in face creams green algae is used as a detoxifying agent. Many food products contain carrageenan, a polysaccharide (chain of sugars) extracted from red algae, that’s used to firm ice cream. We call compounds or chemicals that are extracted from organisms natural products. In Antarctica we’re studying natural products as well, though we call them ‘secondary metabolites’ (more on that later).

       A ‘metabolite’ is a molecule which is a product of metabolism; the process of breaking down molecules and creating new ones. The definition of a molecule is a group of at least two atoms which are chemically bonded together. To understand metabolism think about the digestion of food. When you eat sugars, these are broken down from being large molecules to small ones plus energy for your body to work. This energy goes to creating new molecules which aid your body in natural functions. In order to create molecules there is a process of reactions called a biosynthetic pathway and the end product is called a ‘metabolite’. So why do we call the molecules studied here secondary metabolites?

       A primary metabolite is a molecule that is needed in the basic functioning of a body. An enzyme in your mouth is a good example of this. An enzyme is a molecule which aids in a reaction allowing it to take place faster, so that when you eat a cookie, metabolism of the sugars occurs within hours rather than days. Secondary metabolites are molecules which are not needed in basic functioning (i.e., primary metabolism) of your body. These could be chemicals that help in chemical communication or defense of an organism, and we are most familiar with drugs like caffeine which are produced by plants.

       As Maggie and Chuck previously mentioned, Alan and Jason are chemists from USF.  They both study the secondary metabolites derived from the Antarctic invertebrates and algae found around Palmer Station. How do they go from sponge or algae to secondary metabolites? A secondary metabolite is isolated by freeze-drying the algae or invertebrate then removing the water (these are very wet organisms to begin with). Then the organisms are immersed in various chemicals to extract two types of molecules: lipophilic (fat-loving) and hydrophilic (water-loving). The resulting extract is then used in many analyses which include feeding experiments with amphipods, testing by various agencies against common diseases as Maggie mentioned, or a variety of techniques which can determine the structure of the molecule they’re looking at.

       Jason is primarily working with feeding assays to determine whether chemical compounds from the tunicate Synoicum adaraneum are active against its herbivores. He is trying to determine the role this chemical plays in protecting the organism, rather than the role it may have in protecting us.

       As you know from Maggie’s posts, the most common predators in this marine community are amphipods and they need to shed their hard exoskeleton, or molt, frequently. Because of the similarities between structure of the chemical used by amphipods to instigate molting and the chemical produced by the tunicate, it is thought that if the tunicate was eaten by the amphipod it would stop the pod from molting or make it molt before it was ready otherwise, thereby killing it. Good defense.

       Alan is currently working on two projects here at Palmer. The first deals with an alga called Gigartina skottsbergii. Although it is probably really a different species from the one we have here, a species by this name is commonly farmed in Chile for its carrageenans and also is used as a component in over the counter flu medicine. His studies have discovered that a protein in G. skottsbergii is active against the influenza virus including the notorious H1N1.

       Alan’s second project deals with a common nudibranch (a type of shell-less mollusk) found around Palmer station, Austrodoris kerguelenensis. This nudibranch is common around the continent of Antarctica and has no known predators. Having no external shell like other Gastropods (snails), reason expects that this animal must have some other means of protecting itself. Also interesting about this animal is that it comes in a range of sizes and hues from different sites around Palmer station.

       So, thanks to the chemists we have insight into how organisms are defending themselves and evolving that both parallels biological methods and makes the ecological story much more interesting. This involves a lot of lab work, which you may not expect when doing ‘field work’ but provides invaluable insight into the communities here at Palmer.


    posted on 05/18/10 by Kate
  5. Cool Florida Chemists

    Throughout this season's writings, we UAB Blazers have casually dropped the names Alan and Jason.  Perhaps we have embellished their reference with the descriptor "our USF colleague". It was decided that we should dedicate not one entry but two entries about our Florida-based team members. Kate will follow my writings with more detailed look at the chemistry this cool pair is pursuing.  Her entry will serve as part of her PhD qualifying written exam ;-)

        Allow me to introduce Texas born, bred and schooled Alan Maschek.  Now residing in Tampa, Florida where in the USF lab of Bill Baker he is nearing completion of his PhD in chemistry.  This is his third season ‘on the ice'.

        Alan did not dive his first season but in his subsequent years has become quite the dive animal.  He is a very expressive person and as such I must say he is a gifted communicator underwater.  He is also often better at finding and identifying sponges underwater than us biologists.  On one dive, I motioned him over to a sponge I thought might be one we needed to collect.  He swam over, inspected it briefly, looked at me in the eye while shaking his head no and through his regulator clearly announced "too mushy".  The sponge we were looking for had similar appearance but much firmer tissue.  Not only can Alan talk clearly underwater, I will testify that I have heard him singing underwater! 

        A talented musician above water too Alan picks guitar.  The Palmer band that Ruth and Kate debuted with earlier in the season lost several string players when the summer crew sailed north.  Alan stepped in the fill in the riff rift.  I look forward to another Open Microphone Night with Alan joining songbird Ruth and saxxy Kate.

        Devotees of a certain long running tv series will automatically ‘friend' Alan after seeing his birthday cake, pictured on the side panel.  Notice the Dharma symbol as a cake topper.  This hardcore fan of the series Lost frequently hosts showings of the latest episode over in the lounge.  Last week was the start of Alan's 33rd episode as the cake banner announced.

        It's Superchemist!  Alan's projects include investigating the exact chemistry of compounds of interest from three particular organisms.  One is a red alga with the scientific name Gigartina skottsbergi.  At the right is an image of Alan and Kate holding an especially huge specimen of this alga.  Alan joked about it being a superman cape!  As a phycologist, or seaweed specialist, Kate will tell you more about this study. 

        The other two organisms Alan focuses his chemistry insight on are the cactus sponge Dendrilla membranosa and a certain nudibranch - a shell-less mollusk and relative of snails, clams, etc.  The name of the latter is Austrodoris kerguelenensis.  Both of these critters served as birthday mementos.  The background of his birthday card was an image of this sponge.  I'll let Kate tell you about the gift which she handcrafted.....

       Another creative outlet of Alan's is making videos.  He has a long list of fun shorts to view on  Check them out - this cool chemist is a fine videographer!

       Lately though, it is Alan's USF mate Jason Cuce who has been taking trips.  Jason, a native Floridian and PhD student of Bill Baker's, has been sailing away on the Laurence M. Gould for multi-day fishing trips.  The other science group on station works on fish and they have been making short trips to trawl deep waters for the fish needed for their work.  The  trawls, which scrape the bottom of the ocean  for a short time, collect the sought after bottom dwelling fish plus bycatch goodies like sea stars, urchins, sponges, nudibranchs and tunicates.  Some of the very same organisms we collect by scuba but also a lot of new and different material. 

        Jason came back from his second fishing cruise with many of Alan's nudibranchs plus some cool deep sea amphipods and isopods for me.  At right Jason shows off treasures he saved for me.  Ironically, in my last Passion for Pod entry I wrote about Paraceradocus miersii, the largest amphipod we see here.  Jason picked out of specimens of that very species from the bycatch which are easily twice as big! 

        Additionally, Jason brought several very large serolid isopods.  Though a different species that the teeny I wrote of the deep sea species are much bigger than the biggest we see in shallow water.  These are two good examples of the gigantism phenomenon that has been observed amongst organisms living in the very deep, cold waters of the world's oceans.

        When not a salty sailor, Jason, like Alan is delving into the chemistry of a particular Palmer benthic organism.  He is sleuthing the chemical details of a tunicate or sea squirt with the latin name Synoicum adareanum.  Previous USF work on this apparently simple orange blob of tissue has led to isolating unique compounds which the Baker lab officially termed Palmerolides (in honor of Palmer Station). 

        All compounds derived from organisms, natural products in short, are sent to various government agencies, like the National Cancer Institute, for screening against all sorts of diseases.  One of the palmerolides ranked very high in efficacy against human skin cancer or melanoma.  Trials with this compound on mice with melanoma are now underway in several labs around the country but it will be many years (if ever) before human trials might be conducted. 

        Jason's particular angle on this natural product is pursuing whether other compounds produced by Synoicum adareanum can affect crustaceans (shrimp, crabs, amphipods).  The chemical structures of these natural products from the tunicate are very similar to compounds in crustaceans which are involved in the molting, or shedding of the exoskeleton.  So I have had the pleasure of tutoring Jason about amphipods and helping him with his experiments.  His deep sea booty suggests to me that has caught pod fever! 

        When not in the lab or out on deck, Jason can be found underwater.  At home in Florida he likes to cave and cavern dive. He was my buddy on a recent shore dive when we collected a very big alga for use in our video outreach teleconference that Chuck wrote about.   He is an absolute trivia wizard and is ‘The Man' to have on your team for Trivial Pursuit - heck he is the team!  He is also a regular participant of the pre-morning meeting brain trust puzzling through the New York Times crossword.

       Tomorrow morning Jason sails away again.  This time he will fish waters south of Palmer Station.  This cool chemist is one true southerner.


    posted on 05/16/10 by Maggie
  6. Birding

    Earlier this month Ryan Wallace, the boating coordinator, approached me in the lab and asked if I wanted to come birding. I wasn’t involved with dive ops that day so I quickly layered up, and grabbed my dry bag (a waterproof bag to hold my camera and extra clothes  in case I got cold or in the unlikely but nevertheless possible event that I somehow ended up in the water). I put on a mustang suit, the huge, warm, waterproof orange jumpsuits we wear in the boats during the wintertime, and met Ryan and Jeff at the dock.         

       We pushed our way through the brash ice to Humble Island, sandwiched between Litchfield and Amsler Islands. “Birding” for me that day meant hiking along after Ryan and Jeff and recording data as they weigh giant petrel chicks.

       Giant petrels are named so because they are huge. Adults weight between 7 and 17 pounds and have a 6-foot wingspan! The chicks of such large birds are similarly large. They are truly giant baby birds, and they are covered in fluffy gray down.

       Giant petrels lay a single egg in a ground nest on land. They sit on the egg for about 2 months before it hatches. The hatched chicks are brooded for a few weeks, and after that they are left on their own while the parents hunt and scavenge for food. The parents return to the nest every so often to regurgitate food for the chick, but other than that the baby petrels just hang out in the nest alone, growing. The chicks fledge after about 4 months. This means that they lose all of their baby down and fly away.

       Part of the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) group focuses on seabird and penguin populations. They monitor and census seabirds and penguins every year so they can investigate long-term changes in populations and try to find out what causes those changes. They do this by comparing their population data with other data sets; things like temperature, sea ice coverage, and human activities such as tourism.

       The giant petrel chicks on Humble Island hatched this past January. The LTER “birders” kept track of each and every giant petrel chick on Humble. When the chicks were very young and growing fast, they went out every other day to measure beak-length, feather-length, weight, etc. The goal is to collect data on each of these petrel chicks from hatching to fledging. The petrel chicks are fledging right about now, May, yet the LTER scientists are only on station for the summer season, ending in early April.

       So how do the birders get their complete data set every year? They ask the wonderful Palmer station science support staff for help. Ryan Wallace and Jeff Otten, the IT specialist, have been the winter birders for the past 3 and 2 years, respectively. It’s not easy to weigh a huge baby petrel chick, but these guys really have a way with gigantic baby birds. 

       When I went birding, right at the beginning of May, all 25 of the original petrel hatchlings were still nesting on Humble. None had fledged yet, but I got to see all of the different stages of chick maturity. Some of the chicks were still completely covered with their fluffy gray down. Some only had chunks of down here and there, and some had hardly any at all. Some birds had lost all of their down and looked exactly like adults, but hadn’t yet learned to fly.

       In the 2 weeks since then, 21 of the 25 fledgling birds have flown the nest to begin their seafaring lives. Ryan and Jeff are still going out twice a week and will continue to do so until the last bird has fledged and the data set is complete.



    posted on 05/13/10 by Ruth
    Last comment on 05/16/10
  7. House Mouse

    There is a Palmer Station brochure that is made available to passengers on the cruise ships that call here at the middle of the summer. I have a copy of it taped up on the door to my laboratory at UAB. The title is “Palmer Station: A Community for Science.”

       I have always loved that brochure title. I find it to be very appropriate description of this wonderful place. You’ve read some about this in other of our posts. Palmer truly is a community of people – of friends – working together to support scientific research.

       Part of being a member of the Palmer community is taking care of our shared home. With a normal maximum of 44 people on station, there is no room for someone dedicated to clean up after the rest. We all pitch in to clean up after ourselves.

       I am writing this on a Monday evening. Monday is Maggie’s and my night to help clean up the kitchen and dining room (“galley”) after dinner. Everyone signs up for this one night a week. It is called “GASH” which is a Navy term, actually an acronym for “galley and scullery (dish cleaning area) help.”

       The other thing we do once each week is general clean up around the station. It is called “House Mouse” for reasons that I do not know.

       Every Saturday the station stops other work at 2:00 PM and everyone gathers in the galley for House Mouse. If a science project needs to be in the field on Saturday afternoon, they do not come in for House Mouse but rather get cleaning jobs assigned that they can do later in the day when they are back.

       There are lots of House Mouse jobs. Some easier and some harder. Some take more time and some take less. There is a general station meeting at 3:30 every Saturday, so none of the jobs take more than an hour and a half.

       At 2:00 the station Administrative Coordinator briefs everyone on anything special going on that day. Right now, our “Admin” is Kerry Kells. Kerry has already prepared half-sheets of paper with the jobs listed on them along with a list of tasks that each job entails. She folds each in half, mixes them up as completely as possible, and puts them into a brown pottery container.

        After the briefing, Kerry holds the pot up in the air and everyone takes turns pulling out a job. Whatever you draw that day is yours. You are not allowed to look at it and put it back. You are allowed to trade jobs with someone else if they are willing. It is completely egalitarian. Regardless of your role otherwise on station, you are as likely to be cleaning a bathroom as anyone else.

       Most of the jobs have more than one person assigned. The job that has the most is kitchen clean up. This involves much more detailed cleaning than happens every night during GASH. For example, shelves are emptied of their contents and thoroughly cleaned. Toasters and the juice dispenser are disassembled and cleaned. Lots of other specific jobs that the cooks want to be done that week get done. Even though the kitchen always has more people assigned to it than any other task, it is always the thing that takes longest. Usually right up until the station meeting. Pulling kitchen duty is my least favorite House Mouse chore because of the time involved. Most of the other jobs take 45 to 60 minutes.

       I won’t list all the other jobs because it would take too long and I’d certainly forget some. Pretty much every public space has one or more folks assigned to clean it. The labs, the hallways, the bathrooms, the storerooms, the gym, and the lounge. Most jobs are done every week while others (often called “deep clean” jobs) do not need to be done that often and are only assigned every few weeks. I’ve put photos of people doing a few of these jobs on our Flickr site with the thumbnails of them over on the right of this page.

        There is a job called “mash and grind” where you help the waste technician put trash into the industrial size trash compactor and, one-by-one, put glass bottles and other glass trash into a large grinder device that turns them into tiny bits which compact together efficiently for transport north. That is actually kind of fun!  Another job where you get to use (somewhat less unusual) power tools is to pressure wash the floor mats from the kitchen. Unfortunately, the photos I took of these did not come out well so I have not put them up on Flickr.

       Regardless of the job one gets, all are pitching in equally to keep our community a clean and healthy place to live and work. Working together for these communal tasks definitely helps build the sense among us all of being a true community and not just a group of people who happen to be living in the same place at the same time. We are taking care of our home away from home.

        In most places you wouldn’t think that cleaning a bathroom or mopping a floor would be a social activity. Palmer is a special place, though. And everyone pitching in together for many things every day, including early Saturday afternoons, is part of what makes it so.



    posted on 05/11/10 by Chuck
    Last comment on 05/11/10
  8. There’s a time and place for Weather; you like it or not.

    Reading the technology.

    As Chuck mentioned in an earlier post, weather is a huge part of our daily planning. Here at Palmer Station we have two ways of evaluating weather conditions and whether they are good for diving and boating. One is the weather forecast, delivered every day by forecasters from the SPAWARS weather facility located in Charleston, South Carolina. This forecast predicts the weather and is right, mmmmm, most of the time. But weather changes quickly, so we also use the weather instruments here on station which will give you real time readings of wind, temperature, precipitation, humidity, horizontal visibility and light levels (Image 1). Using this and our eyes we can see what is really happening outside, and then plan our diving/boating.

       Looking at the readings from weather on station we can tell which direction the wind is coming from, how strong its sustained force is, and what the wind is gusting to. We can also look at the wind levels for the past twelve hours to look at trends. Knowing this we look to the sea.

       Using our eyes, important factors to consider are swell, which is basically wave height, and how the wind is affecting it. Diving and boating require the least amount of swell and wind we can manage. When looking at the swell you want to consider which direction it is moving and whether the wind is running with it (moving in the same direction).

       When the winds are high you get white caps on the tops of waves (white caps should only be seen on breaking waves in good conditions, i.e. a beach) and if the wind is moving against the swell, you get a large amount of spray which makes it harder for the boat captain to maneuver. Wind drives swell too so when the two are combined, it may result in a significant increase in wave height. Diving should always take place in the lee of weather, which means in an area protected from weather. This is not only important for divers underwater, but for the tenders in the boat, and essential for picking up of the divers.

       Rain, snow and fog conditions should also be factored into planning because they can hinder visibility during boat navigation. Here with the use of geographic markers, like islands, and a Global Positioning Device (GPS) these conditions can be worked around if they are mild.

       The reason I say that the daily forecast is right, mmmmmm, most of the time is because it’s just an estimate of conditions we will experience made from afar. If you wanted to be your own meteorologist there are a few tools available to you for use. One is an isobaric analysis which is made by compiling barometric pressure readings taken at sea-level into a grid or map. The result is contour lines called isobars, which outline areas of equal pressure and are closely related to the intensity and direction of wind movement (Image 2). Low pressure is associated with warm air and storms, whereas high pressure is associated with cool air and clear skies. Where there is a quick change in pressure there is sure to be wind, no matter whether we are changing to a high or low pressure system.

    Reading the sky.

       So where would we be without the technology of forecasts, isobaric analyses, and weather monitoring instruments? When you look up, the most common thing you see is a cloud or a lack of clouds. Clouds are characterized by their shape and altitude and their movement is telltale of wind patterns. They may characterize what is called a ‘front’, which is a zone of interaction between cold and hot air (high and low pressure systems). A warm front may draw the clouds down in altitude, something called ‘lowering the ceiling’ and clouds will change shape, eventually becoming storm clouds. You may recognize this as a time when winds change direction and speed along with the temperature, the calm before the storm. If you had a barometer you would also notice the air pressure changing significantly.

       Cloud shape can change, vertical development being the most dramatic. Clouds that do this are generally Cumulus type clouds, the small white ones often “fair weather” clouds. However if these clouds grow taller, they may turn into large stormy demons called cumulonimbus clouds. High winds will flatten the tops of these creating an anvil shape. They are often associated with heavy rain, snow, hail, thunder and lightning storms, and tornados. Helpfully the anvil points in the direction that the storm is heading, so if you see it from afar you can gauge your chances of missing it, or it missing you.

       To wrap it up there are a lot of tools we can use to plan our diving and boating here at Palmer Station. My personal favorite is reading the clouds on my own, but technology often proves to be right, mmmm, most of the time.  Here are descriptions of cloud shape.  There is a great illustration of them and more information on the Enchanted Learning website.

    High clouds are generally above 18,000 feet. These include cirrus, cirrostratus, or cirrocumulus clouds.

    Cirrus clouds are the most common of the three and look long and wispy. They generally travel with the wind and are also called mare’s tails, as they curve upwards. These are fair weather clouds but if you watch them, they are travelling with the wind and will tell you which direction weather is approaching from.

    Cirrostratus clouds are sheet-like, covering the entire sky. They usually approach about one day before rain or snow and sun and moon shine reaches through them.

    Cirrocumulus clouds form in lines of small round puffy clouds, and indicate fair, cold weather. In the tropics this may indicate a tropical storm or hurricane because of the cold ‘front’ hitting warm tropical weather.

    Clouds at a medium altitude, between 18,000 and 6,500 feet, are called alto clouds. These are used to predict weather changes that may occur in the next 6-12 hours.

    Altostratus clouds cover the entire sky, and are generally gray-blue in color, creating a lens obstructing the sun or moon shine. These generally form before storms with a lot of rain or snow.

    Altocumulus clouds form in groups and are grayish-white, with their heavy bellies darker than their tops. These are a sign of thunderstorms, mostly preempted by sticky, warm weather.

    Low clouds are generally called stratus clouds. These range, in thick sheets or layers, at altitudes below 6,500 feet.

    Stratus clouds are gray and encompass the entire sky. They are often associated with mist and drizzle, very characteristic of temperate rainforests and coastlines.

    Stratocumulus clouds are lumpy, low and gray often associated with precipitation. They form rows and often have blue sky peeking out amongst them. These don’t predict weather, unless they are associated with a front.

    Nimbostratus clouds are dark gray and have a jagged looking under belly. These are always associated with rain or snow.




    posted on 05/09/10 by Kate
    Last comment on 05/11/10
  9. A Passion for Pods part 2

    The term “pods” to most people more than likely conjures up images of those popular outdoor storage units.  Savvy readers of this UAB  in A website know that it is our short-speak for amphipods.  But to other biologists I know, it refers to another type of crustacean and close cousin of amphipod called isopod.

        Odds are really good that you are familiar with isopods.  You know those roly polys found in and under decaying vegetation out in your backyard?  Those are terrestrial isopods.  You may also know them as pill bugs or wood lice. 

        The name isopod dissects to mean “same footed”.  All seven pairs of isopod legs are of the same size and shape.  (Sorry, there are many exceptions to this rule…)  This is in contrast to cousin amphipod whose name you may recall means “other footed” and in my previous pod entry I introduced you to some of the different types of amphipod legs (gnathopods, for instance). 

        Amphipods as you know are flattened side to side.  Isopods are flattened top to bottom or in bio-speak dorsal-ventrally.  This body form results in a more benthic, bottom dwelling lifestyle than that of the amphipods which are more capable swimmers due to their more streamlined body shape.

        At the right are images of two types isopods that are often bycatch, accidentally gathered in our seaweed collections.  One is the diameter of a pencil eraser, a serolid isopod.  This tiny guy is so cute!  Look at those eyes peering out at you!  Don’t be deceived, those eyes take in a huge field of vision such that the serolid does not need to move its head.   I like watching these guys walk across the bottom of the dish because every now and then, the antennae (now hidden) will sweep across the body like windshield wipers.  This apparently in nature, and not under a microscope, keeps the dorsal surface of the isopod clear of sediment. 

        The serolid body is not completely flattened to the bottom but raised up in the center in part to keep the gills out of the sediment.  Opposite the eyes is a clear area, sort of a vent out which the water exits the body after crossing the underside gills.   Serolids are sort of like roly polys in that they are scavengers. 

        The raised off the bottom body plan of serolid isopods not only keeps gills from getting clogged with sand, it also helps mom keep her incubating eggs free of sediment.  Yup, the serolid at right is a mommy-to-be incubating half a dozen teeny tiny eggs I did not want to disturb by trying to get her upside down to photograph.

        At the extreme size to our small serolid requiring a microscope to photograph is the palm-sized spiny Glyptonotus antarcticus.  The image at the right includes a quarter-size limpet (type of snail) for a scale bar.  This trilobite or cockroach-looking critter is the largest shallow water isopod in Antarctica reaching 4-6 inches long!  It is a predator and may fill the ecological role of crabs in warmer ecosystems.  During the day it hides under rocks or at the base of algae, coming out at night to feed on whatever it wants, it is an omnivore, chomping and crushing its prey with hefty mouthparts.  I am glad we are not night diving!

         I have to admit, isopods do not fuel my pod passion with equal interest as amphipods.  So in keeping with good, parallel construction writing style, I will introduce you to a pair of bycatch amphipods of extreme sizes.  Wandelia crassipes, has a sweet, puppy dog of a face – albeit small and not so clear in the image at right.  My apologies.  Kate and I found vast numbers of these critters, less than an eighth of an inch long, merrily tunneling along the edges of one of the red algal species she used in her substrate experiment. Wandelia is a lignivorous pod and is specially equipped with its ‘other feet’ to burrow into tough algal (not quite lignin or woody as the term suggests)  material. 

        I have yet to see the largest shallow water polar amphipod, Paracerodocus miersii  in the wild.  It is hard to believe that we have not sighted this 4 inch chestnut brown amphipod with  paired white racing stripes down it back while diving.  According to the limited scientific literature available on such a  handsome species, it is a detritovore which means it feeds on detritus.  P. miersii  burrows itself amongst stones and makes a home in the surrounding sediment.  I will really have to fine tune and narrow my underwater focus if I want to see this one while I am swimming about. 

        In the meantime, I am an equal opportunity podist - welcoming pods of any flavor into collections and subsequently Palmer Station’s sorting seawater table.   Stay tuned for my next installment of Passion for Pods... 


    posted on 05/06/10 by Maggie
    Last comment on 05/07/10
  10. Oxygen as a chemical weapon Part 3: Glow-in-the-dark algae

    Now that you know what reactive oxygen species (ROS) are, i.e. highly oxidizing and therefore toxic molecules derived from molecular oxygen, and that they are produced when oxygen is “partially reduced” by stealing an electron, I can tell you about what I’ve discovered about the production of ROS by Antarctica macroalgae and we can theorize about what roles they might play in Antarctica ecosystems.

       First of all, how do I look for ROS in Antarctic seaweed? It would be nice to be able to just see ROS being produced, but unfortunately that is impossible. ROS are normally invisible to the naked eye. Luckily, I can make them glow in the dark!

        To make ROS glow, I use what we call a probe. This probe is a liquid that I drop into the seawater containing the algae I am working with. The molecules in the probe then enter the cells of the algae. Once they are inside algal cells, there are cellular enzymes that break the probe molecules in two. One of these pieces fluoresces, or glows, bright green when it is oxidized by strong oxidants such as ROS. The more strong oxidants, the brighter green the algae will glow. By putting the algae under a special microscope (called an epifluorescence microscope) and looking for the areas that glow bright green, I can see where ROS are being produced.

        There are many reasons that Antarctic macroalgae might produce ROS. For one, they may generate it when they are wounded to prevent infection. Another reason for production might be to kill an endophyte spore that is trying to settle and germinate inside its tissue.  So far I have surveyed about 9 species of macroalgae for ROS production upon wounding.

        I wound them by lightly scratching their surface with a needle. This is the best way to simulate the wound that would be made by a small grazer like an amphipod. Then I add the probe and look to see whether the wound glows and how brightly.

        I’m finding that some species of algae release ROS all the time, or “constitutively”, even when they aren’t wounded, while others do not. The dominant brown algae here do not release ROS constitutively.  If you were to look at a picture of the brown alga Desmarestia anceps, you would see that the glow is so pale that it hardly registers on the camera. It almost looks like it is a picture of nothing! (There is such a picture on our Flickr site but not linked directly to this blog because, well, it really looks like a picture of nothing!)

        Now look at the picture of a red alga I am studying called Myriogramme smithii. Look how brightly the cells glow. They are producing strong oxidants all the time. Most of the red algae I have looked at produce ROS constitutively while all of the brown algae I have studied do not produce ROS constitutively.

        The browns I have looked at produce ROS upon wounding, but not nearly as much as the reds do. Compare a picture of a wounded Desmarestia antarctica (brown) and a wounded Palmaria decipiens (red). This is a huge difference.

        I want to know whether these differences in ROS production have ecological effects. That is, do ROS affect other organisms in the environment? Amphipods are very small. To them, algae are like huge trees or fields. Do ROS affect amphipods? If so, the fact that some algae produce a lot of ROS while others produce very little may be ecologically important.

        One thing I know is that amphipods can sense micromolar concentrations of hydrogen peroxide in seawater. Remember that hydrogen peroxide is an ROS. A micromolar concentration of hydrogen peroxide is 34 molecules of hydrogen peroxide for every billion molecules of water, or less than 1/10 of a drop of pure hydrogen peroxide per million drops of water.

        When you add small amounts of hydrogen peroxide to seawater in which amphipods are living, they don’t eat as much food. So there is some sort of direct physiological effect of hydrogen peroxide, an ROS, on the amphipods that live on macroalgae.

        We have to remember, of course, that in the ocean water moves around, or circulates. The hydrogen peroxide being produced by seaweed is certainly close to 100% at the site where it is being produced, but it probably diffuses fairly quickly as water moves around the site of production. Maybe it diffuses so quickly that the amphipods aren’t normally bothered by it. Or maybe the benefits of living on the macroalgae far exceed the physiological cost of living in a highly oxidizing environment.

        I’d like to see if amphipods eat less food when they are in the presence of an alga that constitutively produces lots of ROS. Maybe amphipods have evolutionarily adapted to certain levels or types of ROS. We know that some amphipods chow down on certain types of red algae that produce lots of ROS. Do these amphipods produce antioxidants in their guts? I wonder.

        One big question I still want to investigate is whether algae use ROS to kill endophyte spores. Remember how Kate is studying whether endophytes, the small string-like algae that live inside bigger algae, are parasitic to the macroalgae they live inside. If she finds that endophytes are bad for the macroalgae they inhabit, it would make sense for macroalgae to have evolved ways of avoiding colonization by endophytes. Some algae in other parts of the world use ROS to kill endophyte spores. Maybe some Antarctic algae do as well.

        This is how science works. You learn one thing and instead of finding a conclusion you get 100 more questions! I will keep working and if I am really lucky, maybe I will answer a few. At least I won’t get bored anytime soon…

       So that ends the saga of ROS for now. Thanks for sticking with it. I hope you learned something new!



    posted on 05/04/10 by Ruth
    Last comment on 05/08/10
  11. Reaching Out and Pulling Up

    Our UAB in Antarctica web site has always been about reaching out to folks at home to share our experiences here. We know that we are exceptionally fortunate to be here and that few people ever have the chance. It is a truly a privilege to be able to share our Antarctic world through these entries. We hope that we inspire some of you to follow in our footsteps here in Antarctica and that we inspire many of you who are students to look to science as a career. It is a great life!

        This past week we had the opportunity to reach out to and interact with many high school students. On Wednesday, we were able to talk live with students at 24 high schools throughout Alabama via two video teleconferences.

        The videoconferences were coordinated by Alabama Public Television (APT) as part of the Alabama ACCESS (Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, & Students Statewide) network. The Alabama Supercomputer Center played a large role in bringing it all together.

        APT has a web site with a lot of information about the event and a “scavenger hunt” with questions about past posts on our UAB in Antarctica web site. Their website for the videoconferences is at Although it is not online at the time I’m posting this, sometime soon they will have recordings of both 50-minute videoconference sessions available at that site.

        The videoconferences were set up as “virtual field trips.” Since we could not take the teleconference video system out into the field with us, we prerecorded three videos showing our field work.

        The longest of the prerecorded videos showed what our diving operations look like on the surface from the time we put the boat in the water until the time we get back from the dive. Sometime soon I will edit that into a somewhat shorter form and put it up on our YouTube site. The other two videos showed underwater footage of Kate and Ruth diving on one of Kate’s outplant experiments (detailed in her “One alga, two algae, red alga, blue alga…” post) and a narrated version of part of the “Invertebrates at Palmer Station” video that is up on YouTube now.

        Although those videos were part of the 50-minute sessions, most of the time was spent with us taking questions from students in each of the schools and answering them as best as we could. We got great questions from some really bright students. It was a lot of fun for us and from all we have heard back since, it was for the folks at home in Alabama too.

       Until APT has the entire videos of the sessions up on their APT Plus web site (the link included above), we have put video taken from this side of two of the questions and answers on our YouTube site (link below the photos to the right). We also have a couple photos of ourselves getting ready for the session in the Flickr photos on the right.

        These teleconferences took a huge amount of preparation by the folks at APT, ACCESS, the Alabama Supercomputer Center, and the University of Alabama System office. It also took a huge amount of preparation here. Of course our UAB in Antarctica team had a lot to do, but even more, our Information Technology (IT) folks had an immense amount of preparation and testing to do.

        The head of IT in residence at Palmer now is Jeff Otten. You may remember Maggie talking about him in connection with the Skype video sessions we did a few weeks ago with news stations across Alabama. Those Skype sessions were nothing compared to what Jeff had to go through to get all this set up. And particularly in the final phases, he had a lot of help from our station Satellite Communications Technician, Bede McCormick. But Jeff is really the “man of the (two) hour(s)” for getting everything ready.

        All these preparations paid off wonderfully. Although what appears to have been a brief satellite interruption caused a short delay late in the first of our two videoconferences (each conference was set up to go to 12 schools), it all worked out very well.  We had a great time!

        That was not the end of our broader service for the day, though. Every year our project is here on Earth Day, we put on dives to pick up objects which have been lost over the years off the station pier. In several past years we have picked up hundreds of pounds of stuff. Our efforts have paid off and there is not nearly so much junk there anymore, but we can always find something if we hunt hard enough, which we did that same afternoon.

        After finishing with the videoconference, we started getting prepared for the afternoon Earth Day dives. If you are thinking “wasn’t Earth Day the week before last?” the answer to your question is “yes”. But the ship was at the pier most of that week so we couldn’t do the dives there. Shouldn’t every day be Earth Day? 8^)

        For the dives, our USF colleague Jason dove with Kate while Maggie and Ruth dove together. I put on my drysuit to help them into and out of the water off the pier and our USF colleague Alan helped as a dive tender too. 

        Each of the dive teams went in with a large collecting bag to fill with junk they found. At three places around the pier, we had ropes going to the bottom with empty collecting bags attached. When the dive team had filled their bag, they dragged it across the bottom to one of the ropes. They took the empty bag off the rope and put the full one on. Then they yanked on the rope to let folks on the surface know that there was a bag of junk there.

        We had lots of folks from the station out on the pier to help pull up the bags. A photo of the group and the (fortunately small) amount of junk that was there for us to retrieve is on the right. So it truly was a station-wide effort to help clean up our home.  Even beneath the surface of the sea that no one but divers ever sees.



    posted on 05/02/10 by Chuck
    Last comment on 05/11/10
  12. We’re getting dark and snowy

    Nandor, the recycling technician who sailed north five days ago, has an arm like a bazooka. The days before he sailed home cleared up a bit and left  perfect powder snow… makes for an alright snowball. 

        But Nandor manages to fire them off one after another almost always meeting his targets while the rest of us shoot puffs of snow in his direction. He left on a fishing trip at the beginning of last week and built an arsenal on the research ship’s (Laurence M. Gould’s) deck, which he pelted people on shore with as the boat pulled away. Many people have been hammered by this guy throughout the season, especially recent times. One day he got me in the face knocking my glasses off. I felt like the boy in a Christmas Story, “My eye, my eye…” though no harm done.

         To make it fair, we decided to mount an attack as a group rather than individually, after the fishing trip came back to station. First I cleared the walk way of snow between GWR and Bio (the one feature in the video for “Who runs this place anyway”). Then we organized, regrouped in strategic locations and built a stock pile of snowball ammunition. After a bit we called him to GWR on the radio and requested his assistance.

         This man loves to work, so he was promptly out the galley door onto that walk way. Unfortunately Nandi  is savvy too. As he stepped outside and the door locked behind him he knew what was up, ducking behind the grill as a barrage of snowballs pounded the wall. No matter what we did we couldn’t hit him, he caught our snowballs and threw them back at us. In a last ditch effort we started shoveling snow on top of him and dumping it from the rooms above. I think I hit more of my cohort than I did him.

        The past week has been bitter sweet with all the familiar faces leaving, as Maggie described in her last post. Seems like there have been an onslaught of activities going on that we’ve been meaning to do for ages. Snow ball fights, photos, and dancing.

       The activity that has been most memorable to me is re-learning how to print and develop black and white film with Zee, who has been the summer coordinator for the facilities (FEMC) crew. We were roommates in the beginning of the season and have been meaning to work in the dark room together for a long time.

         Finally we got together this week and Zee took the new head cook (Keith) and me on a short tutorial of the stations Dark Room. She is the only person I have seen using the facilities, but it is set up for everyone with instructional books, photo paper and all the chemicals and tools needed to develop and print black and white film. There’s even a radio with a tape deck (yippee) so we can listen to music and books on tape while working.

         This continent seems to be the perfect place to work with black and white film. Considering landscapes here are already set in the hue they will be printed in, contrast is easy to figure out. I feel like using film here is much more exciting and gratifying than a digital image. Going through all the motions of developing and manipulating your exposure to get to get the perfect image is quite unlike photo shop. You feel an attachment to the results, albeit they may not be the best, and something about the image makes you feel that you’ve captured a moment, made history. Of course this could just be me; I am still fond of tapes.

        I’m attaching some of the prints I have made to this blog, photos of photos which were taken during the good bye week, most of them of our group working or people around station. This also happened to be the only week of our season that Dr. Bill Baker from University of South Florida joined us. He’s in one picture, the grumpy guy in the bow of the Zodiac jokingly saying “NO photos!!”  With him he brought good weather and loads of diving.

        This week our version of the continent has gone back to its normal state. But the days are getting shorter. More black than white.



    posted on 04/29/10 by Kate
    Last comment on 05/03/10
  13. The Winter Begins

    I think it is safe to say winter is here to stay!  Air temps have been remaining in the 20s allowing the recent snowfalls to accumulate rather than melt.  Palmer and vicinity is so pretty now adorned in their polar parkas.

       The sailing of the Gould with the summer crew marks the beginning winter according to the Palmer calendar as the winter crew now is in residence.  It was a partly cloudy morning as we hugged and shared farewells with the summerovers in the frigid air, the rays of beaming sun beckoning them to the north in search of warmth, longer days, and new adventures.  Their final days, the turnover, outlasted some of the freshies the new crew arrived with and about which I last wrote.  The single case of bananas for 60-some people went fast!  At least we still have some fresh salad greens. 

       That night was a stellar clear 16 degrees Fahrenheit and it was much too calm to resist my desire to sleep outside.  The moon out-beaconed  technology and I did not use a flashlight as I trudged through the now deep snow to my long neglected outdoor room.  As I mentioned in an earlier entry, Mother Nature had been busy redecorating my room with boulder-to-boulder powder white ‘carpeting.’  This was by far the coldest night yet for my new bag and me but I stayed quite toasty watching the twinkling of Sirius, the brightest star in the southern sky and counting the stars in the Milky Way rather than sheep. 

       Predawn I awoke to the sight of a giant candle glowing white against the black sky.   Well that’s what my groggy brain first thought seeing a far-off iceberg, straight-sided - sort of like a rounded capital letter L.  The upright portion was spot lit by the burgeoning east light.  All was calm, crisply cold and I so hoped the winds would remain calm and greedily hoped too for a sunny day. 

       Since we seem to be in the habit on naming icebergs this year, I christen that far off candle berg Aladdin. My gazing at it must have rubbed some magic somewhere as my wish of a calm AND sunny day was granted!

      Chuck and Kate were scheduled for a dive in the early afternoon.  Before heading to the divesite Alan joined tender Jason and me on a brief detour to photo a stunning iceberg grounded between two islands a brief boat ride from Harrold Bergmann, Arthur Harbor’s resident berg Kate introduced in a previous entry. 

       My images at right do not due justice to this massive masterpiece of ice – polished and gleamingly smooth in spots like onyx chess pieces I’ve played with – one spot on the top one of the walls even looked like a rook.  Maybe I was predisposed to imagine that form as Alan had dubbed this beauty Castleberg.  The hues of blues and whites were endless as were the carvings of projections suggesting gargoyles in the sculpting, freeform arches and windows, down to the massive round toes at the base manicured into shape as the ice heaved up and down with the tide or surge and the water channeled off. 

       We zoomed back to station to pick up divers Kate and Chuck and off we were to Cormorant Island, one of the most distant sites from station but still within our allowed boating range.  Flat calm, super clear water greeted us. Though mostly in the shade of the island, at times the tenders did find themselves squinting into the glare of the sun to follow the divers’ bubbles.  An unusual addition to tending as of late, but it was not really unwelcome having the sun on our face! 

       Back on station awhile later, a pretty sunset framed Castleberg just as the still nearing full moon began to peek above the glacier behind the station.  It rose to full gleaming glory against a pastel sky.  Breathtaking!

       Clouds rolled in later in the evening, maintaining temps in a balmier 20 degree range.  The morning sky behind Harrold shimmered silver as the moon set behind a veil of clouds.  A gentle snow drifted down as the morning light seeped through and it was obvious that we were not in for a day of sunshine but another more typical winter day at Palmer Station.  That in and of itself is just typically perfect for me. 


    posted on 04/27/10 by Maggie
    Last comment on 04/28/10
  14. Oxygen as a chemical weapon Part 2: Meet the ROS

    Last time I posted I told you about why oxygen is a great terminal electron acceptor in aerobic (oxygen-using) organisms. It is very electron hungry, meaning it releases large amounts of energy when it takes electrons. Remember that this is good because we can then harvest all of that energy and use it to live. If oxygen weren’t so electron hungry, we would get less bang for our buck so to speak.

        At the same time, oxygen is a strange molecule- it naturally has a kinetic barrier to accepting an electron pair. Consequently, oxygen can be used in a more controlled way and doesn’t go around randomly exploding.

        However, electron *pair* is a key point. Although oxygen needs two electrons and it is barred from taking an electron pair, sometimes oxygen does grab one electron at a time. Remember that when you take electrons you are called an oxidant. When you are an oxidant and you take an electron, you become “reduced.” The thing you take the electron from is “oxidized,” because it has been used and abused by an oxidant.

        When oxygen grabs just one electron, it turns from Mr. Hyde into Dr. Jekyll –  because the partial reduction product (oxygen is only partially reduced since it still needs another electron) of oxygen and the molecules that it produces are the Reactive Oxygen Species, ROS for short, and these are a chemical weapon.

     Meet the ROS

        When oxygen grabs an electron, it turns into a molecule called SUPEROXIDE (see picture). That is a cool name. Superoxide is a free radical. Before I started this project, I kept hearing about free radicals and how bad they are, but I never had the faintest idea what they were or why they are bad. What IS a free radical – and why is everyone obsessed with those things called “antioxidants”??

        A free radical is a molecule that has one unpaired electron. A molecule with one unpaired electron will do almost anything to get another one to match. Molecules do NOT like unpaired electrons. So free radicals are often dangerous because they can and will react with almost anything to get another electron.

        And when free radicals react with another molecule, stealing an electron, they not only damage that molecule, sometimes irreparably, but they often just go and create another free radical since the victim of electron theft is usually left with an unpaired electron itself. This is how a free radical chain reaction begins.

        The chain reaction only ends when two free radicals combine (resulting in one complete electron pair) or when the free radical meets an enzyme or molecule called an “antioxidant.” Antioxidants quell free radicals simply because they either have an electron to give, or facilitate the donation of an electron to the free radical.

        So what happens to superoxide, these free radicals that oxygen can produce? Well, superoxide in turn generates other ROS. It spontaneously and catalytically (catalyzed by a special enzyme that is) dismutates into hydrogen peroxide and water.

        Hydrogen peroxide, while not a free radical (see picture), is still extremely reactive and cytotoxic (toxic to cells). Have you ever cut yourself and cleaned the wound with hydrogen peroxide? That is because it kills microbes and thereby prevents infection. This is why organisms make ROS – to kill pathogens or invaders like endophytes – and this is what we call an oxidative burst.

        The wild thing is, we humans do this too. And I don’t just mean by pouring peroxide on a cut; I mean we do it internally. Our white blood cells use almost the exact same oxidative burst defense to kill pathogens. The machinery may be a little different, but the products and the goal are exactly the same.

        ROS are formed in small amounts all the time in living organisms, as oxygen is accidentally reduced near sites of electron transport. Oxygen likes to live on the wild side. However, our bodies have evolved ways of controlling the damage caused by oxygen’s recklessness.

        Incidentally, the failure to control ROS damage contributes to many human diseases, like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart failure. It also causes oxygen toxicity which is a concern for scuba divers who dive deep.

        However, ROS are not simply toxic byproducts of metabolism. Evolution is way too amazing for anything to be that simple. ROS are also important cellular messengers; they can act as signals to induce changes in cells.

        And as you now know ROS can even be created on purpose. You know that organisms sort of shoot these molecules out of their cells to destroy microbes and invading pathogens. But you’ll have to wait until next week to find out why and how I’m studying this defense in Antarctic macroalgae…


    posted on 04/25/10 by Ruth
    Last comment on 05/03/10
  15. Spineless Creatures!

    We’ve talked a lot in our posts about the macroalgae (seaweeds) here at Palmer Station. But as we’ve also noted, there are many benthic (bottom-dwelling) animals too.

       Although there are a couple species of fish here that live near the bottom most of the time, all the truly benthic animals are invertebrates. The bones that make up your backbone are called vertebrae. The prefix “in” means “not” or “without.” So the name invertebrates means that these are animals without backbones. In the literal sense, they are spineless creatures!

       At shallower depths where macroalgae dominate, benthic invertebrates other than the amphipods Maggie has posted about or the gastropods (snails and limpets) are relatively uncommon.  But at deeper depths where the macroalgae begin to thin out because of a lack of sunlight, sessile invertebrates like sponges, tunicates, and soft corals begin to take over the bottom. “Sessile” means that just like the algae, these are organisms that are attached to one spot on the bottom and do not move.  (Or at least, they cannot move much.)

       The dominant sessile invertebrates here and, overall, throughout Antarctica are sponges. Sponges are pretty much the most primitive animals there are. In fact, although they have different kinds of cells specialized for different jobs, many people do not even think that they are so complex even to have true tissue-level organization. Or if so, only a couple different kinds. Tissues are groups of similar cells which work together for some function and which have a common origin in a developing, or embryonic, animal. Examples in your or me would be our muscles or nerves.

       Sponges in Antarctica can be huge! I’ve seen them as tall as six or seven feet and bigger around than me. I’ve seen photos of them that are so big around that an adult person could actually sit inside one. At depths we can dive to here at Palmer they do not get that big, but we commonly see sponges that are a couple or more feet tall.

       Another very common group of sessile invertebrates here are animals called tunicates. Tunicates can live as individuals or very tiny ones can live together in colonies. Like sponges, they eat tiny things living in the water and to do that they bring water inside them, filter the small organisms out, and then expel the water. Sponges usually have multiple water inlets and outlets. Tunicates have only one place where water comes in and another where it goes out per individual. These are called “siphons”. But a colonial form would have one set in each of its thousands of tiny individuals that make it up.

        Tunicates in which each individual lives by itself are called “solitary.” Solitary tunicates have the common name “sea squirts” because with many of them, if you pick them up out of the water, they contract. The water that they have taken in to filter then comes squirting out of the animal though its out siphon. Many a new invertebrate zoology student has been asked “do you know why they call them sea squirts?” just as some smart aleck points the out siphon at him or her. It is the biological equivalent of a squirt gun!

       Colonial tunicates do not make themselves into squirt guns. But they are very common here and an important component of the benthic communities. We find more of them than of the solitary tunicates. 

       You have read in our other posts about how we are here studying how the benthic organisms, both invertebrates and macroalgae, use chemical compounds that are called “secondary metabolites” or “natural products” in their ecological interactions with each other. Mostly, though not entirely, these studies look at how the chemicals can help defend the benthic organisms from things that might otherwise eat them. We team up on these studies with our colleagues from the University of South Florida lead by Dr. Bill Baker.  Bill is here with us now and you’ve read about and seen photos of his two students, Alan Maschek and Jason Cuce, who have been here with us all season.

       Although the invertebrates and algae make these secondary metabolites for their own purposes, they can be helpful to people too. About 60% of all pharmaceutical compounds (medicines) are based on natural products. When we discover new secondary metabolites through our ecological studies, we make them available to medical researchers to test for potential medical uses.

       One of the colonial tunicates we study, which has the scientific name Synoicum adareanum, makes a set of secondary metabolites that we have named “Palmerolides” after Palmer Station.  As with the other chemical compounds we have discovered, we sent these to the National Cancer Institute for medical screening. And guess what? They came back as excellent candidates for the treatment of melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer! There is a great deal of work to do to get them from where they are now (testing in mice) to treatments for human cancer, but it is exciting that our ecological studies might someday have such a direct benefit for people stricken with cancer.

       There are many other kinds of invertebrates here: soft corals, bryozoans (sometimes called “moss animals”), beautiful snails without shells called nudibranchs, very important sea stars that are a top predator, and the list goes on and on. Perhaps we’ll be able to come back later on with a post about those. For the time being, though, you can see video of many of those as well as sponges and tunicates here at Palmer Station by clicking on the YouTube link below the photos on the right and looking at our video entitled “Invertebrates at Palmer Station.” 

        Remember… If ever you are by the seashore and someone asks you “do you know why they call them sea squirts?” say “yes!” and prepare to defend yourself from a biological squirt gun!



    posted on 04/22/10 by Chuck
    Last comment on 05/28/10
  16. On Antarctica and its divergence from other continents

    "An ocean without its unnamed monsters would be like a completely dreamless sleep." - John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

        This is what draws people to the deeps of the sea and all across the globe. It haunts us in our dreams, our movies and sometimes in real life.  The ocean has been fascinating people for hundreds and thousands of years and this is what brings us to Antarctica. We come here to dream up ways of evaluating ecological relationships that are accentuated on this remote continent, do drug discovery with the chemicals some of these organisms produce, and more. Why is it that we have to come so far to do this?

        First and foremost, evolution and continental divergence apply because they are the driving forces that create unique organisms such as those found in Antarctica. Much of evolution was first discovered through something referred to as island biogeography, by biologists such as Wallace and Darwin. Speciation occurs when populations of one species become isolated in separate areas, for instance on two different islands. Suppose these areas are subject to different weather patterns and one is also home to a large predator. Each population will survive in the way that best protects it in its habitat and eventually they will adapt and become so different that they won't belong to the same species anymore.

        Genetic mutation of traits facilitates species adaptation or survival in their habitat. If you have heard of the 19th century Austrian monk Gregor Mendel and his peas, you probably remember that, genetic mutation is occurring with specific traits which can physically be seen in the color or texture of the pea. For humans an example of a trait would be eye color, for algae it could be a specific photoreceptor or chemical compound. The selection for a trait in nature is not done consciously, but because it allows or is associated with a trait that allows the species to survive in its habitat.

        The continent of Antarctica was created with others by diverging from the supercontinent Gondwana during the Devonian period. It was a warm continent with conifer forests and swamps, home to few dinosaurs and marsupials.

        Approximately 23 million years ago the Drake Passage opened at the tip of South America and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (or ACC) was created. This isolated the continent from the other world oceans and began its cooling. The cooling disallowed the forests and animals to persist, whereas on the neighboring continent of Australia, forests and marsupials still exist.  The ACC currents and the associated winds prevent movement of marine and terrestrial organisms in and out of the Southern Ocean, save few sea birds such as the Wandering Albatross.

        Isolation has allowed Antarctic species to evolve without introduction of new predators or competitors, and has led to a very interesting marine system. This is a system devoid of the abundance and diversity of mobile invertebrate fauna and fish usually found in temperate and tropical marine systems. There are no crabs, few fish, and definitely no sharks. The behavior of many of the common fish is exemplary of this absence of predators. They hide from seals in the dense seaweeds but can be caught easily in hand and have even snuggled with me on dives. 

        Most interesting for my research is the effect this has had on the density and diversity of the amphipod population in Antarctica. Maggie has already written an entry introducing you to amphipods.  These small but incredibly numerous crustaceans exert the most grazing pressure on marine algae here, which in turn may account for the prevalent populations of endophyte within many of the macro algae. This has been seen in other marine systems but here it is very extensive. It also may account for the prevalence of secondary metabolites, or defensive chemicals, that we find in the algae and invertebrates here.

        Lastly, present day Antarctica has distinguishing species which are found only here, we call these endemic species. These include some sea birds, seals, ice fish, species of algae and invertebrate. But as for the monsters of our dreams (leopard seals excluded)? This ocean is a new frontier that we have barely begun exploring. There are a myriad of organisms we have yet to find, nonetheless explore their specific properties (such as chemicals) and adaptations. Antarctica is a long way to travel, but if we were to select for a location that has been allowed to evolve without human disturbance, we couldn't find a more perfect place.


    posted on 04/20/10 by Kate
    Last comment on 04/24/10
  17. Fresh Fruit, Fish and Faces

    Friday was a busy day for Palmer Station.  The Laurence M. Gould arrived post-breakfast with a shipload of new support and science personnel, station supplies and freshly trapped fish swimming in temporary aquaria on the ship.  Fortunately, for a change, we had a calm morning weather-wise which would make offloading tons of cargo with the massive armed ship's crane, much safer and more comfortable for all involved.

        Science goes on, especially with a calm day.  Maneuvering the zodiac under and around the myriad of mooring lines the Gould laces to shore is always tricky but Ruth did a fine job at the tiller motoring divers Chuck and Kate, and fellow tender me off to a nearby dive site. 

       While Ruth and I watched Kate and Chuck's bubbles, a voice on the handheld radio we use to communicate to station when we are out in the field broadcast: "Freshies have been offloaded - all available hands to the hoist room".  "Freshies" includes milk, juice, eggs, and yogurt (!) AND almost fresh-picked fruits and vegetables. 

        Drat I thought, apologizing silently to cooks Stacie and Dianne - I love helping unpack and store the fresh food. The chance for a sniff of earthy fragrances is a real treat.  It is also an appetizing preview of what will appear at mealtimes: leafy greens for salads, aromatic herbs like basil, cilantro, mint, and fresh (not canned or frozen!) fruit. This shipment tipped the scales at 600 pounds so I missed a good weight lifting session too.  Well, I did get to haul heavy dive gear....

        Another 5000 pounds of dry food (flour, grains, pastas, canned food) were craned off the ship and forklifted over to storage.  Since delicate and quick handling is not so critical for these items additional assistance is usually not requested.  There should have been an entire freezer container, like the kind you see sitting on 18 wheels, full of frozen meats, fish, vegetables, ice cream (!).  The container was in a port in Chile during the earthquake which lost power and the entire shipment thawed. Yuck!  It will be awhile before the station enjoys steaks or hamburgers, but there still is some ice cream.

        The Gould also delivered liquid food for the station generators.  The Palmer Station logo'ed fuel tank was pumped up with 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel.  First thing Saturday morning a yellow boom was floated around the perimeter of the ship and some of the shoreline around Palmer.  This was to contain a possible fuel spill and I am happy to report would prove unnecessary.  Next a very long  4 inch diameter hose was spooled out of the ship's hold, down the gangway, across the pier and over to permanent valve at the corner of the boathouse.  From this valve, a fixed pipe travels the length of the boathouse-dive locker and up the hill to the fuel tank.  It took about five hours to fill 'er up.

        The Gould spent an extra day in transit from Chile to do some deep sea fish collecting for an onboard science group that will share Palmer's lab facilities with us. Dr. Bill Detrich from Northeastern University in Boston and collaborators John Postlethwait (University of Oregon) and Juan Carlos (JC) Zabala (University of Madrid, Spain) plus several graduate students spent many cold hours out on deck removing fish from the traps and trawls winched aboard and transferring them to temporary aquaria on the ship.  The group collected roughly 75 individuals of the three main species they plan to work with at Palmer.  At the right, John introduces me to one of his new fishy friends as he and JC net out the gilled group from the ship's temporary and mobile aquaria and into the large circular tanks in the aquarium building.

        In addition to the new science group, also aboard the Gould were many new staff members for the station.  Most of the support staff has been here since September and it is time for them to leave.  Their replacements will have an intense time learning the ropes from their predecessors before the ship sails.  This changeover or turnover as it is referred to marks the unofficial beginning of winter on station.  The new crew are called the winter-overs as they will spend the winter in residence, heading north sometime in September.

        Our project gained a new member - Dr. Bill Baker, the chemist principle investigator and is from the University of South Florida.  He is also the academic mentor of Alan and Jason.  In the midst of the craziness of offload and refueling, as each of us did during our first days, Bill enjoyed a dock dive check out off the rocks of the boathouse - but he had the added perk of refueling in progress.  He was happy to be back in the saddle/water collecting and did not even notice the bright yellow containment boom he swam by as shown on the right.

        The downside of the ship arriving with all these new faces, fishes and freshies is that it inevitably sails away with friends, the summer-overs.  Their departure is sweetened with thoughts that each is embarking on new another adventure.  But we have all to enjoy (hopefully the lettuce and bananas will last) for a week or two longer before the ship heads north. 

        In the meantime, if you recall from my previous post, the inhabitants of Palmer share a single T1 internet connection.  Our family, now including visiting 'cousin' LMG, has swelled to over 60 with busy fingers on keyboards drinking up water/bandwidth with outbound and inbound traffic.  I best get this message in a digital bottle and cast it off into the northbound stream.................


    posted on 04/18/10 by Maggie
    Last comment on 04/24/10
  18. Oxygen as a chemical weapon, Part 1: Oxygen is strange

    I think about oxygen a lot more than I used to. This is because I am studying a chemical defense that turns ordinary oxygen, the same old stuff we obtain from breathing air – the same stuff that is absolutely necessary for most organisms to live – into a chemical weapon.

       This weapon is referred to as an “oxidative burst,” and it is literally a burst of very toxic oxygen molecules that can be used to kill pathogens and prevent infection. I study the oxidative burst in seaweed, but this defense is especially fascinating because it is extremely widespread. A great deal of very distantly-related organisms use it in almost exactly the same way. In fact, your white blood cells employ it to protect you from diseases!

        If we want to understand how oxygen – that seemingly benign gas that we breathe – can turn into a deadly weapon, we must look a little more closely at what most of us take for granted: oxygen itself.

        Oxygen is vital to life in aerobic (or oxygen-requiring) organisms because we use oxygen molecules to generate energy from the food we eat through a process called cellular respiration.

        But why are we aerobic? Why do we need oxygen in order to create energy? Why is oxygen in particular so central to this process?

        Oxygen is so important to aerobic organisms because it has some very special characteristics; in other words, because it is a strange molecule.

        For one, oxygen is a very strong oxidant. An oxidant is something that steals electrons from other atoms or molecules. Oxidants do this because they are very electronegative, which is to say they are electron hungry. Oxygen is the second most electron hungry element known to man (the first is fluorine).

        Why does oxygen want electrons so badly? An atom of oxygen naturally has 8 electrons. Two of those are hugged very close to the atom’s nucleus and they orbit the nucleus in its first “atomic orbital,” or "shell.” Six electrons are hugged a little more loosely in the second atomic orbital. Since the second orbital has room for 8 electrons, oxygen has space for two more and it wants the complete set. So one atom of oxygen (see the picture – who knew that molecules were so incredibly good-looking?!) really wants 2 more electrons to join the two lonely unpaired electrons.

        A hydrogen atom is made of one electron and one proton, and by taking 2 hydrogen atoms, an atom of oxygen can become truly happy because now it is surrounded by 8 electrons and it has become a molecule of water (H2O, see picture). Oxygen loves turning into water; with those two electrons, it feels complete. However, we don’t usually see just one atom of oxygen. Under atmospheric conditions, oxygen exists as a pair of oxygen atoms (it is really called dioxygen, see picture). Dioxygen ultimately wants 4 electrons (or 4 hydrogen atoms), which will produce 2 molecules of water (see picture).

       Being very electronegative, or being a strong oxidant, isn’t what is strange about oxygen (many molecules are electronegative, like fluorine, chlorine, bromine, and nitrogen), but it is one reason we can use oxygen to generate energy from food.

        When oxygen, or any strong oxidant, takes electrons from another molecule, it releases a LOT of energy. If you have had chemistry you might remember that this is called an exothermic reaction. This exothermic, or energy-releasing, reaction is literally combustion.

        In order to burn anything, you need an oxidant, a fuel, and often a spark. It is strange to imagine, but giving electrons to oxygen is what makes fire. A campfire, for example, is the energy and leftover reaction products that are produced when an oxidant (oxygen) takes electrons from a fuel (wood, and sometimes lighter fluid to get it going!). So giving electrons to oxidants can be a big deal; it can make fire and even cause explosions.

        Organisms have evolved a way to harness the energy that is released when electrons from fuel (molecules formed from the food we eat) are given to oxygen. This harnessed energy can then be used for moving around and thinking and everything else we need to do in order to stay alive. After taking those electrons and releasing the energy we need to live, oxygen turns into regular old water.

        But if many other molecules are just about as electronegative or more than oxygen, why is oxygen the special molecule? Why can’t we use any of those other molecules instead?

        The reason oxygen is so special is because even though it wants two electrons so badly, there is something about an oxygen molecule that under normal conditions prevents it from taking those electrons. In other words, there is something called a “kinetic barrier” to oxygen accepting an electron pair to obtain a complete shell.

        When you think about it, it is obvious that there is a kinetic barrier to oxygen stealing electrons and releasing huge amounts of energy to become water. The air in our atmosphere is about 21% oxygen. If oxygen weren’t barred from taking electrons under normal circumstances, the very air around us would spontaneously blow up in a huge explosion! Organisms just can’t metabolically use a molecule that randomly explodes.

        Another reason that oxygen is special is because after accepting 2 electrons, it simply becomes water, and water isn’t toxic to living things. The oxidation product of, say chlorine, however, is hydrochloric acid (HCl). Can you imagine an organism that could tolerate cells flooded with this corrosive acid? Maybe such organisms exist, but the vast majority of aerobic beings could not tolerate it. These sorts of corrosive acids are not good for our DNA, our proteins, or other biomolecules.

        So the kinetic barrier to oxygen accepting an electron pair is what makes oxygen so special to aerobic organisms. It prevents oxygen from reacting explosively with everything around us, and it makes reactions with oxygen more controlled. Organisms have evolved ways to force oxygen into accepting electrons – a theoretical spark that causes the fire to burn, but it generally only burns an appropriate electron donor, and only when sparked.

        So how is oxygen used in biowarfare as a true chemical weapon among seaweeds, spores, humans, and microbes??

        Stay tuned to find out……!


    posted on 04/15/10 by Ruth
    Last comment on 04/24/10
  19. Planning Ahead

    Back in February as we were getting ready to leave Birmingham I wrote a short entry about how far ahead we have to plan to get all the things we need down here (“Preparing for Palmer: Scientific Supplies and Equipment”). One of the things I talked about was having to have a detailed list of materials and equipment ready the April before we leave.

        As you know, it is now April. So guess what one of the things is that I’m doing? Even though we are only about half way through this season’s stay at Palmer, I am already spending a lot of time at the computer in my office working via e-mail with Jim and our colleague Bill Baker on the list of things we will need next year. It is technically called our “Support Information Package” but everyone refers to it as the “SIP” for short.

        Our SIP for this field season was 86 printed pages long. The one we are working on for next season will be about the same. It includes a detailed description of what we will be doing in terms of the nuts and bolts kinds of things. Then it lists pretty much every nut and bolt. The longest lists are the things we will be using in the lab. Every single instrument we need from the station. That goes from microscopes to balances (for weighing things) to freeze driers for preparing our samples. Moreover, every piece of glassware, from beakers to flasks, has to be listed. Same thing with every plastic bottle for samples or experiments. Some of our chemicals are supplied from the station and we have to list exactly how much of each of those we will need. And the list goes on and on.

        For diving we have to specify how many divers are coming, who they are, and what their level of training is.  You’ve already read about the diving requirements in Ruth’s last blog (“How I became a polar diver”) as well as in earlier entries from Kate and from me. We also have to request tanks, weights, and weight belts. And a boat to go diving in!

       The US Antarctic Program is very concerned about environmental impacts of our work. There is an extensive section on this to make sure that any impacts are minimal. Some things that we do require special permits, and there is quite a bit of information there about those. We also have to detail any kinds of hazardous wastes we’ll be generating in the lab so that the waste specialists can be prepared to store it and safely transport it back to the US for processing and ultimate disposal.

        Then there are our cargo needs north and south, and needs for our samples going north, and any things we need to have constructed for us. That list goes on too, but you get the point. There is a lot of very detailed planning going on!

        All this planning I’ve been describing is for our next year’s field season that is already funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). As much time as that process takes, it is nothing compared to the time involved to secure grant funding to come down here in the first place.

        At the same time as I’m sitting here in the office working on the SIP, I’m also working with Jim and our UAB colleague, Rob Angus, on a proposal to come back in 2012 and 2013 to study the effects of ocean acidification and warming temperatures on the marine plants and animals here.  I won’t go into details of why that is important (we’ve written pages on just that in the proposal).

        Writing a NSF proposal that is good enough to be competitive for funding is a big undertaking. Jim, Rob, and I started working on it off and on back in Birmingham last fall. We have continued working on it and refining our ideas and that has gotten more and more intensive as we are approaching the deadline to submit it to NSF in about 10 days. Jim and Rob are spending a huge amount of time on it back at UAB. I’m taking a bit more of the SIP-writing load and Jim more of the proposal load, but it is a significant part of my days right now too.

         Why so much time? Well, the success rate for NSF proposals varies from about 1 in 10 getting funded to about 1 in 5, depending on the program. Having been on the panels that make the ultimate recommendations on them, I can attest that there are many more proposals that are worthy of funding than there are funds available. So to get funded, a proposal not only has to be for important science with a very strong case made for it needing to be done, but the proposal also cannot afford to miss any experimental design details or overlook any potential alternate explanations or problems. Otherwise, it will likely fall out of that fundable percentage.

         Detailed planning for a year from now. Detailed proposal planning for two and three years from now. All part of the job. And I really like my job! My job also had me in the water for two dives this morning, and I’ll be going back in about an hour for a short dive off the station. I really, really like that part of my job. But that would not be happening now if not for all the planning we did a year ago, two years ago, and even before.



    posted on 04/13/10 by Chuck
  20. Who Runs This Place Anyway?

    Palmer Station is one of three stations in Antarctica operated by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and is located on the Western Antarctic Peninsula. The other two stations run by NSF are South Pole and McMurdo, which you can see in the US Antarctic Programs website, NSF contracts out to Raytheon Polar Services to staff these stations, and Raytheon in turn contracts out to individuals or others such as a food services company called NANA for support staff.

        The people here, as Ruth has already attested to, are extremely talented folk with a myriad of personal histories. Most interesting to me is that most of them a polar people. For many of them this summer season has been one in many seasons that they have spent either here, at McMurdo or at the South Pole. Some people also have worked in Greenland, Alaska, Midway, Palmira and the list of remote field stations and exotic places keeps going. In any case when you sit down with people here there is no lack of storytelling.

       But, who runs this place anyway? Or more specifically how is it that we are able to stay alive on this harsh continent? To live out here we primarily need to stay warm. Then we need water and food, a place to sleep and next a place to work. Palmer Station is comprised of two main buildings, GWR and Bio. GWR (short for “Garage, Warehouse, and Recreation” building) contains the generators, stock shop, store, gym, bar, lounge and housing inside of it. Bio (short for “Biological laboratory building”) contains housing, the galley, offices, and all the labs and aquarium that we work in.

       Next to the dock there is a small building which houses the dive locker and boat house, while across the way there are mill vans (small versions of containers you might see being transported on a semi-truck) containing everything from consumable glass ware, chemicals, volatiles, the waste from the station, refrigerators and more. There are more mill vans up from GWR, as well as the Terra Lab building where there is a full time research assistant working year round on atmospheric and other physical science projects.

       The station is powered by two 6-cylinder 3406B Diesel CAT (Caterpillar) generators located on the first floor of the GWR building. These are used in sequence, so one generator is run for five hundred hours at a time and then the second is fired up while general maintenance such as an oil change is done with the first. There is a third emergency generator on the first floor of the Bio building which is smaller, a 6-cylinder 100kW CAT 333 diesel generator, and never used except to be tested in case it is needed.

       The main generators generally consume about 1,800 gallons a week, give or take. The coolant from the generators goes through a heat exchange and provides the heat for housing and workshops in GWR as well as the hot water. In Bio, boilers heat the building and the water. The man in charge of the power plant is Dave Ensworth, or in other words, kind-of a “god” since he provides us with heat, power, and as you will see, water.

       Dave is the power plant mechanic and is in charge of everything that requires fuel. This means that he fixes the 6-wheeler All Terrain Vehicles that are used for light transport around the station, the Skytracks, which are a cross between a small crane and a huge fork-lift and used for heavy transport around station, and sometimes the boat engines. He also is in charge of the desalinization process. Water is pumped up to GWR from the pump house which is located next to the Bio building, and ends up in a tank which the reverse osmosis unit draws from. Fresh water is then pumped from here to the Bio building where it is exposed to UV light to kill harmful material that may be in the water. This water is then distributed by the Facilities Engineering Maintenance and Construction department, which is in charge of everything that doesn’t run on fuel.

       Facilities Engineering Maintenance and Construction (FEMC) is an aptly named department who keeps the station running. Zenobia (Zee) Evans, the coordinator for FEMC, reinforces that her group’s job is to support science. In fact they support the whole station, from running the fire system, refrigeration, sewage, carpentry, fresh water and much more. There are five people working for this department on station, a supervisor, an electrician, a carpenter, a maintenance specialist, and then someone who does general support rotating through all the disciplines of FEMC.

       The pump house is operated by the maintenance specialist who hands the water off to Dave to put through reverse osmosis, then receives it back as fresh water and redistributes it among the buildings. He takes care of the machinery in the lab such as the autoclave as well as the sewage and the refrigerators in the Galley. He’s also a very skilled artist.

       The electrician, John Evans, is in charge of the fire system, the electricity, and generally supports everyone including Dave and the maintenance specialist. The carpenter works on everything from fixing windows to carving dulcimers (on his own time) and building the recreational shack out in the back yard for the station to enjoy. Needless to say the support man, Kyle Hoppe, is a jack of all trades, which applies to him musically as well.  And Zee organized the art show in which she showed many of her black and white photographs all taken and developed here on station.

       Most of our waste is solid and taken care of by waste specialists, but sewage is a different story. There is no way to deal with this easily as remote as we are, so sewage is put through a masticator and continually pumped to the dock where seabirds and other creatures can often be seen enjoying the buffet.

       The waste specialists George Ryan and Nandi Kovats deal with everything else. Nandi is actually a recycle technician but as opposed to McMurdo and the South Pole where 70% of waste is recycled, we aren’t able to recycle. Solid and hazard waste is collected and compacted for shipment off the continent once every two years. This job involves dealing with federal and international regulations on chemicals and hazardous materials, inventory of years of waste and spill response. It is much more complicated than you would expect from first glance, there is a lot of training needed before deployment to Antarctica. But fortunately, although we generate a lot of chemical waste in our lab, hazardous wastes and spills are few and far between here. In other stations like McMurdo where there is bigger machinery and operations, spills are more common and make up a bigger part of the job.

       This brings me to the nature of the station and the people who work here. Because everyone has worked in various places and the small size of Palmer Station, is there is a strong sense of cooperation and community here. It doesn’t take a lot of time to do the waste job, and much of Nandi’s time is spent helping clean the station and assisting people with their odd jobs. The same goes for everyone else.

       We all clean the station together, clean up after meals together and station workers have many opportunities to go out with science groups and assist with their work. Zee says that the best thing about working in Palmer as opposed to other places is the close contact with nature and the frequency at which they get to be part of the science. They are the support staff, but in other stations they rarely have the opportunities that they find here. 

       So who runs this station? We all do, we support each other and do what is needed to make this station work. As part of the only science group here right now I’m a bit overwhelmed by the volume of support we get from everyone, a bit humbled by it in fact. This is a truly unique place and well oiled machine, and I am making a short video of it to illustrate some of the things I’ve talked about in this blog. You can see the video on our YouTube channel if you click on the small link below the photos to the right.


    posted on 04/11/10 by Kate
    Last comment on 04/23/10
  21. Fun with Technology

    Palmer Station is as you know is relegated to the deep south, Antarctica – a remote and harsh continent.  On occasion this far outpost of temporarily displaced humans seems neither remote nor distant from ‘civilization’.  We are fortunate to have technological bridges to the real world (24/7 internet, WiFi, etc) plus all the comforts of home: recliner chairs, hand held remotes, a monster big screen tv AND a cinema-sized popcorn maker!

       Like most stateside homes nowadays, Palmer Station’s digital information flows through a T1 pipe.  Like your’s at home, our connection is direct and high speed, delivering its bandwidth at a whopping speed 1.5 Mb. Unlike your’s (probably) Palmer’s pipe needs to deliver water, aka bandwidth for massive science and logistic files not to mention personal computing use for 45 members of the household!  So as you can imagine, bandwidth is a precious commodity and tightly regulated. 

       That partly explains why the station does not receive television broadcasts.  However, viewers can stay abreast of their favorite shows if the program is available in legal downloadable format.  Usually the episode is available after the original tv airing which is often a day or two later.  Tough to not talk to stateside fans who may want to reveal the solution to a cliff hanger! 

       Our friendly IT guys insist that downloads of videos or music, which require a lot of water or bandwidth to deliver, be done late in the evening when the use and demand on the system is at a low.  And with special usage tracking software IT knows who is using the bandwidth when and how!

       On occasion, permission has been granted to use a good bit of the station’s bandwidth and receive a live broadcast over the internet.  This year such events have included the Super Bowl and the opening ceremony of the Olympics – both of which I watched in Alabama.  Earlier this week permission was granted for another major event to be streamed live: the NCAA basketball finals.

       You may recall from one our of group’s Flickr photos that both Ruth and Chuck are Blue Devils – both were undergraduates at Duke University.  With the assistance of IT wizard Jeff Otten, the big screen tv in the lounge was our live link to a stadium in Indiana.  Well sort of – despite numerous incantations and varied potions of software tweaking, Jeff could not make the video materialize smoothly in real time.  The glitch must have been on the broadcaster’s end.  We were able to get fine audio and see sporadic live action.  We consoled and resigned ourselves in our overstuffed recliners and sofa, Ruth made popcorn and we enjoyed a victory - mellowed by the less than exciting coverage.  Antarctica is a harsh continent after all!

       Peer to peer contact like Skype is not normally sanctioned by NSF for security reasons and as it also drinks up a lot of the station’s internet bandwidth. Use for outreach purposes is available but requires special permission.  UAB in Antarctica yesterday was granted such privilege and as such 7 April 2010 may go down in (our project’s) history as UAB in A Media Blitz Day! Three television stations in Birmingham throughout the morning hosted not only team member Jim McClintock in person but also, via the wonders of Skype, members of UAB in Antarctica live from a specially equipped laptop computer in Palmer Station science leader’s office.  Once again our digital deity Jeff Otten lent a powerful and present hand to divert much of the waterstream (bandwidth) and send forth our messages of greeting with viewers at home.  For a short time, videos of each network interaction are available for viewing.  The links are:


       The fourth and final Skype with a station in Huntsville took place in the afternoon.  That footage is not yet available but do see the image at the right of the Palmer Station ‘studio’ with Chuck, Kate, and Jeff sharing a laugh of relaxation before show time!

       Technology also greatly enhances our science at Palmer and recently our diving.  UAB in Antarctica Media Blitz Day was foggy weather-wise.  Going out on the water in fog is never a good idea.  By afternoon the fog has lessened but we still did not want to go far from station for a dive.  Alan had been curious to try a spot adjacent to one of our best collecting sites.  He based this desire on his study of a map of bottom depths generated by a previous Palmer science project. 

       The PRIMO Project in 2005 did extensive shallow water soundings using special sonor technology and generated a colorful map of the water depths or bathymetry, around Palmer Station.  A cropped and tailored portion of that map is shown at the right side of the page.  Alan noted a similarity in the way the water depth changed abruptly around our known site off the tip of Norsel Point and a spot further southeast, closer to Palmer.  On the bathymetry map notice how quickly the red band appears at the tip of Norsel Point – meaning that the bottom drops rapidly, forming a vertical wall and an ideal home for benthic invertebrates, not algae. 

       So off Alan and I with tenders Ruth and Rex zodiaced while Kate and Chuck Skyped with Huntsville.  At our new dive site, Ruth lowered the zodiac’s technology toy, a depth finder, and we confirmed the existence of a narrow ledge at about 40 feet that dropped abruptly to 120 feet.  In splash Alan and I and down we headed into the unknown - - -  paradise!!! A sheer wall extending football fields in either direction greeted us covered with waving pencil-thin soft corals, dotted with large vase sponges and in between a rich and varied assemblage of beauties!  At one point I looked upward, my gaze including a large vase sponge and I had a flashback to an incredible dive on the Bloody Bay wall in the Caymans – only colder.  ;-) 

       Alan and I are anxious for Chuck to see this with his own eyes and then share it with you with the station’s underwater video camera.  So check our website soon for video footage of this spectacular site.  My cliff hanger!   Yeah – fun with technology!!!


    posted on 04/08/10 by Maggie
    Last comment on 04/15/10
  22. How I became a polar diver

    Living, researching, and diving here in Antarctica is one of the most interesting experiences of my life so far. It took a lot of work to get here though, especially to dive. I got my open water SCUBA certification back in 2005 when I was studying at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina. Even though I spent a lot of time on the North Carolina coast in an area known as the “graveyard of the Atlantic” for the spectacular shipwrecks that can be dove (one famous example is Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge), I accumulated less than 20 dives between 2005 and 2009. Scuba diving is expensive if you don’t have your own gear, and gear is expensive too. But it was wonderful getting underwater, and I loved every dive- even my certification dive, which took place just after Hurricane Ophelia swept the East Coast of the US, meaning that we did our skills test with 3 feet of visibility and as a result I kneed a sea urchin – ouch!

       When I joined lab of Amsler and McClintock at UAB this past August, we weren’t positive that I could complete all the requirements needed in order to be able to dive this season. First, I had to become certified by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) as a scientific diver. This certification required 100 hours of training and a dive physical. Towards this training I took an advanced open water course through Alabama Blue Water Adventures in a freshwater quarry near Birmingham. We covered skills such as navigation, Nitrox diving (Nitrox is a breathing gas mixture with higher concentrations of oxygen than normal air), deep diving and night diving.

       I also took a Rescue diving course with the university’s Dive Safety Officer Mike Dardeau at Dauphin Island Sea Lab on the coast of Alabama. Mike taught me how to avoid and to deal with scuba emergencies; how to rescue conscious and unconscious divers and how to get myself out of potential emergency situations (for example, a free flowing Buoyancy Control vest inflator hose). I did my first scientific training dives taking sediment cores in 5 feet of water in Weeks Bay, Alabama, and I completed the exam to become an official AAUS scientific diver 2 days before we left for Antarctica.

       I also had to become certified to dive through the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). This required dry suit training with a minimum of 25 dry suit dives and 50 dives total. With only 16 lifetime dives, I had a lot of diving to do but I couldn’t have been happier. Pretty soon, Chuck, Maggie, Kate and I were going to the quarry every week to get in 4 or 5 dry suit dives a day.

       I was extremely nervous for my first dry suit dive. It kept me up at night. Dry suit diving, especially in the huge rubber dry suits we use, is so different from wet suit diving. First, the suit itself feels gigantic. It has to be large in order to fit the thick warm dive underwear we wear underneath. I remember thinking that there was no way I could fill that suit out. I was so surprised to find that the feet are actually the perfect size once you add 2 layers of thick wool socks and fiber-filled stuffed booties! Second, as you know from previous blogs, it’s a lot of work just to get into all the gear and it makes you extremely cumbersome and limited; more so on land, but underwater as well.

       And then the whole process of maintaining neutral buoyancy underwater is completely different in a dry suit than it is in a wet suit. When dry suit diving, you actually use the air inside the suit to maintain your buoyancy instead of using your Buoyancy Control vest (BC). To add air to the suit, you press a button on the chest, and you dump air from a valve located on the left shoulder. You simply raise your shoulder so it is the highest point on your body, and the air naturally rises and flows out of the suit. During my first few dives, I was hesitant to put enough air into my suit because I was worried about not being able to dump it fast enough and shooting to the surface too fast. However, as I got more comfortable I began to slowly figure out all the little quirks of dry suit diving- how air can get trapped near your feet and cause them to float higher than you’d like until you wiggle vertically to let the air move up to your torso; how to tighten your ankle weights high enough that they don’t threaten to push your fins off; how to not accidentally dump a bunch of air when you raise your arm to look at your dive computer…

       With the time and help of many patient people, I completed all the necessary dives and was cleared to dive at Palmer as a scientific diver through the USAP. However, as I found, nothing could have totally prepared me for my first polar dive.

       I spent a lot of time imagining what it would be like to dive in Antarctica. Most of the time, I imagined being extremely cold, to the point of suffering. I thought that it would be bone-chillingly cold; the way you feel when you stand outside in a winter wind with too few layers on, where the cold just eats at you. Interestingly, despite the anxiety I felt before my first dry suit dive in the Pelham quarry, the morning of my first Antarctic dive, all I felt was excitement to finally try it out.                                  

       The first thing that hit me was, yes, the cold. I was shocked in two different ways. First, the freezing cold water on my face was physically shocking. I wasn’t prepared for how cold it would actually feel, which is so cold that it stings all over. I got a piercing headache- kind of like an ice cream headache- for the first few minutes of the dive, which I found extremely distracting. I wear a thick neoprene hood to help keep from losing so much heat from the head and it really works. Your head still gets wet- you have to crack the hood and flood it so that there is water inside and around your ears. If you don't, the air trapped right outside your ear will become a vacuum as you sink because the pressure increases and causes the gas to shrink, and it will expand as you come back up. This is bad and can pop your eardrum. But anyway, our faces are wet, and there is no getting around it- it is cold. However, after a few minutes, my face went numb, the headache went away, and the cold ceased to be an issue.

       At that point, I was shocked by how NOT cold I felt! Since that dive, sure I have gotten chilly at times and yes my hands and toes have gone numb on occasion, but I can deal with that. That sort of site-specific cold is okay in my book - in small doses at least. I was so relieved to find that our polar diving simply is not the painfully cold, bone-chilling experience that I imagined. After my 3rd or 4th dive, I stopped getting the ice cream headache at the beginning of the dive as well. Maybe my body is getting used to that initial shock of freezing water.

       Despite the effort and preparation it takes to dive here, I love it. It is worth every minute of preparation, every pound of weight, every uncomfortable hood and numb finger to be inside this freezing underwater world; to see firsthand this place that is so inhospitable to human life and to be among the creatures who are adapted to live in this habitat that we spend hours preparing to share with them for 30 minutes.  



    posted on 04/06/10 by Ruth
    Last comment on 04/07/10
  23. A “Traditional” Antarctic Dinner

    Traditions can be lots of fun. And they can be tasty too!  My first trip to Antarctica in 1985-86 was as part of Robin Ross’ and Langdon Quetin’s krill research team from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Maggie’s third through twelfth trips here were with Robin and Langdon (that season I was along was her fourth). The Ross/Quetin team had a tradition of cooking a Mexican dinner for the station every year. They would even ship down special ingredients ahead of time some years.

        Every Sunday is a day off for the station staff, including the cooks. So for Sunday meals we all eat leftovers from earlier in the week. Also, from March through September the station is on what is considered the “winter schedule”  and on the first weekend of each month the staff has both Saturday and Sunday off. Although the food is wonderful both the first time and as leftovers, two days in a row of leftovers can get a bit dull.

       I really liked the Ross/Quetin group tradition of cooking dinner for the station, and when our UAB team started working here we established our own tradition of cooking a pasta dinner for the station.  Since we are usually here when the station is on the winter schedule, we wait until one of these two-day weekends and cook dinner for the station on Saturday night. That’s just what we did this weekend.

       We had really wanted to do our dinner for the two day weekend last month while Jim was here.  However, it turned out that that weekend was when we were able to use the ship for the dive trip in the Lemaire Channel that Kate wrote about in her blog on diving from the Tin Can. But Jim was here in spirit and before he left he cooked omelets made to order for anyone on station who wanted them one morning at breakfast.  (I’m not an egg eater but the folks who are still talk about Jim’s omelet mastery!)

       Joining Kate, Maggie, Ruth, and me with the dinner plans were our two chemist colleagues from the University of South Florida, PhD students Alan Maschek and Jason Cuce.  Unfortunately, Jason was not feeling well and so couldn’t participate. But the rest of stopped work at 2:00 on Saturday afternoon to begin preparing for the 5:30 dinner.

       Our “traditional” menu includes a couple kinds of pasta to go with red spaghetti sauces both with and without meat.  Sometimes we also make a white sauce, but not always and we didn’t do that this year. We also make fresh bread, a salad, desert, and usually some kind of hors d'oeuvres.

       Lots of things here require one to be somewhat flexible. Usually we make a big green salad but the last shipment of fresh food came in with us and there have been no “freshies” on station for weeks.  So Ruth planned a bean salad that turned out wonderfully, although not with all the planned ingredients. 

       We had not planned any hors d'oeuvres this year.  But some of the beans that Ruth planned for the salad got a bit overcooked. So she and Kate mashed them with spices and spread them over toast.  Some were served just like that, but for most were garnished with canned red pepper on the left, white goat cheese in the middle, and dried basil and other green herbs on the right. Edible Italian flags to go with our pasta theme.

       One of the meals I like to make at home is spaghetti and so I always make the red pasta sauces for our dinners.  Alan helped me.  At home I use ground beef for the meat but the station is out of ground beef.  The cooks suggested substituting raw Italian sausage that Alan diced up and browned on the stovetop.  At home I brown the meat with fresh green pepper and fresh mushrooms.  Those are long-gone here too but canned red and yellow pepper along with canned mushrooms worked fine.

       The one fresh vegetable that is left on station is onion and so that at least was like what I would use at home.  And as at home, I threw in a little bit of most everything in the spice and dried herb cabinet. I doubt that many people in Italy use things like salsa, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, or Vietnamese pepper sauce (just a dash) in their spaghetti sauce, but I’m not in Italy.  With the sausage instead of ground beef the result was different than what I’m used to, but it all worked.

       Maggie is a wonderful bread baker and she made four loaves of bread: two basilly loaves (bread flour with a fistful of dried basil) and a pair of mixed grain loaves both with dried rosemary but one was glazed with balsamic vinegar.  Kate made two delicious apple pies (the only fresh fruit left are some baking apples). Together they made small rolled pastry with fruit jam inside. Then we set the tables with red and white checkered table clothes and finally, boiled up angel hair pasta and spinach linguini.

       We transferred the pastas and sauces into the kitchen steamer table to keep them warm while people served themselves. The cooks always label each item in the steamer tables so that people will know what is what. That is particularly important for marking vegetarian options and anything that has something someone on station is allergic to. We named our dishes after the things we work with.  For example, the spinach linguini was named for a stringy green alga that grows here. 

       We opened several bottles of red wine for folks to have with the meal while Kate and Ruth served the hors d'oeuvres.  After dinner, pretty much everyone pitched in to help clean up.  It was a delightful evening, and now another special Palmer Station memory.


    posted on 04/04/10 by Chuck
    Last comment on 04/08/10
  24. The many faces of Harrold Bergman and his in-progress destruction

    Harrold Bergman moved into Arthur harbor in the beginning of March, the year 2010 (see photo: Harrold at the mouth of Arthur harbor). Since then he has been twisting and turning, turtling and calving, and showing us many new faces. He has been included in many of our photos for the UAB team in Antarctica, but seems to be shrinking day by day. I tried to take photos of him every day this past week to see if we’d notice a change in composure, composition, but perhaps the myriad of photos donated to this blog may show changes better.

        Ice bergs have a distributed mass above and below water; 10% above and 90% below. Because of this they run aground on the varied bathymetry of the harbors and inlets around Antarctica, scouring all the animals and plants off the bottom. Harrold is presumably atop a small ridge which is a rim in the bowl shaped Arthur Harbor. The berg turns the water around it an aquamarine color deceiving your senses into the expectation of rustling palms and sweet pina coladas (see photo harrold2). This color is present in the berg after a rain (see photo 3.27 close up) and turns it a blue shade which is accentuated by any snow fall. The sun and clouds often change the color of the mountains, glaciers and icebergs into an array of Easter-like hues on clear days around here, which are becoming few and far between. And still it is cold.

        Ice bergs are created by calving of a glacier, which is the weakening of the glacial ice by tidal fluctuations resulting in a separation of glacier and ice. There are many classes of iceberg. Harrold seems to be a medium sized iceberg meaning he is around 15-45 meters tall and 60-120 meters wide.  Other sizes are classified as small, large and very large (very scientific).

       The smaller bergs are called either “growlers” if they are less than 1 meter by 5 meters or are called “bergy bits” if they are from 1-5 meters by 5-15 meters (see photo hero to harrold). To describe the shape of the iceberg you first categorize it as either tabular or non-tabular, meaning that it looks like a plateau or it doesn’t.  If it is non-tabular then the berg can fall into the categories of a dome, pinnacle, wedge, dry dock, or blocky (which is the same as tabular but in the shape of a block). The iceberg sheds layers by calving itself, creating the growlers or bergy bits and brash ice we often see in Arthur Harbor (see ice water and brash photos).

        Harrold had a friend named Monty (see photo harrold and monty), who was a large dry dock, and he came to visit for three days. We could see him for two days past Norsel Point, and then he moved on east pausing at Killer Whale rocks to greet Harrold for a day (see boating map for a better track image). Now he is off somewhere to the South East I believe.

        Ice bergs are generally driven by strong subsurface currents, because most of their mass is below water.  Wind driven currents and strong winds that we see in Antarctica don’t have nearly as strong an impact on these large ice chunks as you may think.  It’s important to watch the track of an iceberg, especially in the North Atlantic, where they can enter shipping channels, and most famously sink boats (such as the Titanic). Icebergs are monitored for shipping and oceanographic purposes in the Antarctic by the National Ice Center ( and to track global change caused by shifts in iceberg production or loss of ice shelves (

        Harrolds bit-by-bit death, perhaps untimely because of his prolonged and sedentary stay in Arthur harbor, brings a slough of brash ice and a film of ice cubes on the surface of the water when the winds are right. This of course is not the only source of the ice, the glacier also calves regularly as Jim discussed in detail earlier this season. Icebergs can take anywhere from a day to four years to melt depending on the temperature above and below water, the sun, their movement and size. People prognosticate that Harrold will melt away, or ‘explode’ before the end of April. It will be a sad day when our friend who has been here as long as we have, takes leave of us and scatters across the sea.

        This blog was brought to you by Kate Schoenrock. Photos were generously provided by Stacey Murray and John Alan Maschek, and many more than are linked here are in our Flickr photostream. Much of the information from icebergs is from You can go to this link to learn more about Antarctic icebergs:



    posted on 04/01/10 by Kate
    Last comment on 04/08/10
  25. A Passion for Pods

    I admit I am addicted to amphipods.  I am obsessed with meeting and greeting each and every pod, short-speak for amphipod, we bring into the lab.  Since amphipods seem to be associated with everything we collect, there is no shortage of these little critters to welcome.

       Now you are probably wondering what exactly an amphipod is and why they would incite an obsession.  Shaped somewhat like fellow crustacean the shrimp, amphipods are flattened side to side so that they have a right and left side.  The name amphipod, when dissected (biologists will dissect anything!) into its parts translates into “both kinds” (from the Greek amphi) and “foot” (pod).  So amphipods are crustaceans that have both kinds of feet.  This refers to the fact that of their many limbs there are different kinds, some specialized for feeding, others for walking, swimming or even jumping. 

       Ever walk the beach and see sand fleas or beach hoppers?  Those are amphipods.  Some of their feet are modified to jump around and feed on tide washed in algae.  They do that at night so as to avoid being seen and eaten by birds.  During the day they burrow into the fine sand at the surf’s edge and are often dug up much to the surprise of bucket and spade wielding sand castle builders.  No sandy beaches to walk around Palmer Station so we do not see these amphipods.

       Other amphipods have limbs designed to swim all the time as they spend their entire life in the water column.  Organisms that lead a mobile existence like this have what is know as a pelagic lifestyle. Pelagic is derived from another Greek word (pélagos) and means “open sea”.  We don’t see many representatives of this kind of amphipod in our collections.

      If you have watched Chuck’s YouTube video (“Amphipods on Antarctic Macroalgae”) you know that we see many, many, many benthic or bottom-dwelling types of amphipods. Benthic (from a Greek word meaning bottom of the sea) pods seem live in and/or on just about every alga and most invertebrates (sponges and tunicates mostly) that we study.   In Antarctica alone there are over 700 different species of this type and I am like a bird watcher, obsessed with keeping a list of every new winged, now pod encounter.

       The amphipods I have meet in the waters of Palmer Station come in a myriad of colors, sizes and personalities and I find their endless diversity just fascinating.  One of the most common pods we collect goes by the scientific name Gondogeneia antarctica – we call it Gondo. Even though the color of this pod can vary with age and diet, it is easy to identify because its two pair of antenna are not much longer than the body and its behavior is very active! 

       Gondo is sort of a goat, an omnivore that eats almost everything although it does tend to favor a vegetarian diet, eating algae.  So we use this species in many of our feeding experiments.   Gondo is very active and can be difficult to handle in the lab with our modified slurp gun which is sort of like a large medicine dropper or turkey baster.  Gondo’s frenzied activity also makes it hard to photograph so the image to the right does not do it justice.  You must check out the sequel amphipod video on YouTube(“Up-close and Personal with Amphipods on Antarctic Macroalgae”) for better images and live Gondo action!

       Amphipods that feed mostly on algae and smaller plant cells called diatoms are referred to as herbivores.  One of the herbivores I have done some experiments with is Oradarea bidentata. Oh bident(!) for short has several relatives that look very much alike.  I have trouble telling them apart still.  Oh bident(!) is easy to tell though as it has two spines or teeth (bi as in two; dent as in dental) that you can see when the critter allows a profile view.  Oh bident(!) and its cousins have distinctive feeding appendages which help identify them. 

       All amphipods have special limbs near the mouth which help deliver food.  The limbs are called gnathopods (gnathos refers to jaw and you know pod already).  Oradareans all have long slender gnathopods unlike Gondo which has shorter and rounder gnathopods.  You can see Gondo’s gnathopods in action on the video but none of the Oh bidents(!) cooperated with a profile view to show their gnathopods.

      Prostebbingia gracilis  or Pgracilis  is a bright red amphipod.  It usually look racoonish- its dark eyes surrounded by white around where no pigment is for some reason.  We will not do any experiments this year with P gracilis.  Though cheery to look at it is not very active which makes it easy to photograph but sort of dull otherwise.  Lack of activity means very slow feeding so this year we will just admire it as you can do in the short video clip!

       The pod I have been spending the most time with is a red and white spiky/spiny critter with the long name of Paradexamine fissicauda.  Though we find it sometimes on brown algae, it is more commonly associated with red algae.  Of real interest to us is that Paradex not just lives on red algae as many other pods do, it also eats it.  Future website entries will address this peculiar twist in chemical ecology of algae and amphipods. 

       Paradex is really tough to collect as it sort of plays hide and seek, wrapping itself up in algae, the spikes on its body seemingly acting as pins to ensure the branches of the alga keep it hemmed in.  In Chuck’s video you saw me repeated dunking algae in seawater to encourage the pods to leave the alga.  No luck doing that with Paradex, I need to inspect the algae under the microscope and unzip its spikes to free it so I can use it in experiments.  See if you can find it in the video.

       So, you have met 4 different amphipods.  Watch the video and I think you will agree there is something addicting about amphipods and their antics.  Stay with our website over the months and I will do my best to introduce you to the remaining 700 plus pods of Palmer!  You too may become hooked on pods!





    posted on 03/30/10 by Maggie
  26. Antarctica’s Super #1 Top Hit Band

    I knew Antarctica would be beautiful to see, but I never thought about how beautiful it would be to hear. I could listen to waves lapping against the ice and brash ice brushing up against itself, rolling and clinking on the water, forever.

       Station is a musical place as well. We play music while we work in the lab, while we clean up after dinner, and sometimes we even sing in the dive locker while we put on our dry suits. But the best music you’ll hear on station is live.

       The current Palmer band was born when 3 summer station workers began meeting on Tuesday nights to jam. Brian, or “Rex,” played guitar and sang, Jon was on bass guitar, and Kyle played the harmonica. They met in the dive locker which they dubbed the Dive Bar and they could only play songs in the key of D, because that was the only harmonica that Kyle had.

       Rex, a research associate originally from the illustrious Akron, Ohio, has played the guitar for 20 years. He sings and writes his own songs and began playing the mandolin last year. He knew there would be a band this year when many of the summer employees met at the airport in Chile and several had guitars on their back.

       Jon, from Boulder, Colorado, was one of those people carrying a guitar. Despite playing the saxophone for 14 years, he decided to bring a bass and learn to play in Antarctica. He also sings; he does a mean cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Atlantic City.

       Kyle, from Thiensville, Wisconsin, played the clarinet in 5th grade and quit in the 5th grade. Despite having no musical background, he made the momentous decision to bring one harmonica in the key of D all the way to Palmer Station, Antarctica, and has been an integral part of the band ever since.

       Jo, or “DoJo,” the station doctor from Malibu, joined the band soon after its inception. She had played drums a little in elementary school and she took over the (very small) drum set on station. It really is a tiny drum set, but she does a lot with it! She says that playing drums for the Palmer band has really inspired her to continue taking lessons back in California.

       At this point, the station manager had a full set of harmonicas shipped from Chile and the band could expand into keys other than D. The opportunities were endless, and the band continued to grow.

       Tennessee born and Missouri and NY state raised, Bob was originally a drummer, but learned the guitar in 2003 at McMurdo Station. He added not only another guitar, but vocals and several original songs. A Logistic Coordinator who has worked in Antarctica for 10 years, Bob says the people he has met on this continent have been a big influence on the music he listens to, plays, and writes.

       Brian had been a percussionist since 6th grade. Working towards his PhD research affiliated with Rutgers University, he heard an announcement one day that there would be a Palmer jam session up in the earth science lab building, and he decided to go. A skilled marimbist, he actually switched to playing the harp in graduate school. He never expected to play rock and roll drums in an Antarctic band, and says it has been an amazing learning experience.

       Dan, a scientist with the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) group, is the keyboard player. He has played the organ for about 5 years and piano for about 7. He also plays violin, harmonica, and guitar. Music is a passion of his, so when he heard there was a band on station, he just started jamming.

       Paul, the Systems Administrator from southern Maine, has played the saxophone for most of his life, in high school jazz ensembles and lead alto in an all-state jazz combo. He has an amazing voice and musically directed an award winning a capella group, Spur of the Moment, during college (you may have seen them in 2000 on the CBS early morning show!). He had his tenor sax shipped to station and picked up a Soprano sax in Punta Arenas on the way.

       Our very own Kate is also a saxophone player, and was drafted almost immediately to play Paul’s soprano sax and beef up the brass section. I was lucky enough to sing a song with the band on a recent open mic night. There is a video clip on our YouTube site (link to the right of this). See if you can find Kate….

       Although the band goes by many names (“TerraJam,” “Tequila Rex and the New Years Eve All Stars,” “Changes Every Time”), one thing that remains constant is our amazement at the proportion of talented musicians that happen to be here. To have a band of 9 or 10 people out of the 45 people on station is pretty amazing, and hearing them blows me away. Maybe someday they will go on tour. Until then, enjoy the video.


    posted on 03/28/10 by Ruth
    Last comment on 03/30/10
  27. Getting Ready to Dive

    In my last post, I talked about how my day starts with planning for the day’s diving. So sticking with that “details of daily life” theme (while I let the others tell you about more exciting stuff and wax poetic), I thought I’d tell you a little about the nuts and bolts of getting ready to dive.

        Before anyone can dive, we need air in our SCUBA diving tanks. Pretty much every morning when I stop into the dive locker before our group’s morning meeting, I run into Brian Nelson, who goes by the nickname “Rex.” Rex is the Palmer Station Research Associate. The Research Associate oversees data collection for a large number of atmospheric and other physical science projects that are ongoing here at Palmer Station. And that is just the beginning of his many responsibilities. Those responsibilities include supporting our science by filling our dive tanks.

        At the morning meeting we decide who is diving and who is dive tending that day. Many days we have dives going on in both the morning and afternoon so someone can be a diver and a tender in the same day (for example, Kate dove this morning with Ruth while I dive tended with Rex; Kate dive tended along with Maggie this afternoon while I dove with our University of South Florida colleague, Alan Maschek).

        After our meeting, the morning divers generally get going pretty quickly on getting their gear ready. As I’ve said, we meet at 8:00, and it is usually sometime between 9:00 and 9:30 when we agree that the divers will have their gear ready for the tenders to load into the dive boat. Each diver has a personal dive bin (really big drawer) that we keep most of our smaller gear in. Our bigger/heavier gear (drysuits, drysuit underwear, regulators, buoyancy compensator vests, and weight belts) is stored in other places. Each diver gets their gear ready and puts it out on the porch of the dive locker for the tenders to load into the dive boat.

        We have a very short video of the process of getting the gear from the dive locker to the boat on our YouTube channel. Just click on the small YouTube link under the photos over on the right side of this page. Also there are videos of Kate getting into her drysuit before a dive and getting out afterwards.

        After the divers are suited up, they head for the boat. Sometimes they get zipped into their drysuits in the dive locker as you can see in the video and sometimes they wait until just before they get into the boat as in the Flickr photo over on the right. Either way, they get zipped in before getting into the dive boat.

        Once the divers and their gear are all in the boat, they and the tenders head out to the dive site for the morning or afternoon. And the scientific diving (and fun) soon begins.



    posted on 03/25/10 by Chuck
    Last comment on 03/26/10
  28. The Antarctic Problem

    Let me begin by laying the foundation of the problem out for you in a poem. 




    The essence of Antarctica

    is as elusive as the

    flutter of wings.

    Defying scale, stasis, especially prose.


    To imagine, even for a moment,

    capturing the emerald-green

    of vast frozen seas,

    the sublimity of sculptured

    glacial ice,

    the fragility

    of bounteous life.


    This would be nothing,

    if not arrogance

    in its quintessential form.


    James McClintock, February 22, 2010, Anvers Island, Antarctic Peninsula


        Ever since I first laid eyes on Antarctica some 27 years ago, I have tried to come to terms with the fact that it is simply not possible to capture the essence of Antarctica so as to share it with those that have yet to visit this remarkable, otherworldly, continent. 

        At first blush, one might imagine this task being as simple as arming oneself with a high-priced camera, equipped with all means of wide angle, short angle, and telephoto lens, along with various adaptors, filters, tripods, you name it.  But the bottom line is that when you point your camera at a landscape that rewrites one’s sensibilities in its utter grandeur and immensity of scale, you are reminded of a naturalist digging up a single teaspoon of soil and trying to describe the community of life in your backyard. 

        There have also been those that have attempted using narrative prose to capture the gestalt of Antarctica, myself included.  However, this approach also falls short.  While the English language does not want for adjectives, they do little to address the Antarctic problem.  For as adroitly as one describes the curvature of glacial ice, or the changing textures of an Antarctic sky, one is ultimately painted into the corner of inadequacy.  It is simply not possible to exploit narrative to tame the collective nature of the beast.

        No, I have decided that, quite frankly, there is no straightforward solution to conveying the essence of Antarctica.  As I have told others, the closest one might come is through its sheer poetry.  And so, the Antarctic problem lives on.  Ultimately, coming to Antarctica is the essence of capturing its essence.   


    posted on 03/23/10 by Jim
    Last comment on 03/30/10
  29. The Tin Can opening NSF live aboard

        There is a boat on the R/V Laurence M. Gould called the Tin Can. This boat is a metal flat bottom landing craft, the same kind that are used for military beach landings (think Normandy). The Laurence M. Gould, a 76 meter ice breaker leased by the National Science Foundation for year round polar services, carries this boat and two zodiacs for small boating operations. We normally use zodiacs similar to these for boating operations out of Palmer Station.

         The main differences between the Tin Can and the zodiacs are the metal construction of the Tin Can, the shape of the hull, and the strength of the engines. The zodiacs have 40 horse power engines and a v-shaped hull with inflatable pontoons. The Tin Can has two 90 horse power engines and a flat bottom which allows way more speed when you go full throttle. She gets on plane (meaning that it gets fast enough to be cruising on the top of the waves) easily and goes through the smaller chunks of ice known as “brash” much smoother than the zodiacs.  However, the boat operator has to watch out for the lower parts of the motors as he goes through it. It seems to me that if you hit the right chunk of ice you could shear the engines functionality right off.

        The other disadvantage of the flat bottom hull is obvious in big swell; because of the lack of shape, the hull can't cut through water and the boat ends up sliding down the wave face unless the skipper cuts it just right (we don't dive in those conditions though, so it's beside the point). For the most part though, the Tin Can is a gem in the fleet of dive boats that we have used while in Antarctica and it comes with two fantastic operators, Chance and Toby, marine technicians on the Gould.

         The genius of this boat lies not only in its speed and maneuverability.  The boat’s bow can lower, creating a ramp into the water. Instead of rolling over the gunnel of the zodiac, you just take a long walk off the short ramp. Make a picture in your mind of the boats in the beginning of "Saving Private Ryan". They land on the beach where the ramps drop and the troops flood the shore. That's us storming the seas off the Tin Can.

        Another aspect of this boat is the ease of getting back into it. When you finish your dive there is no need to take off your weight belt or pull yourself over the gunnel of the boat. All you need to do is writhe and undulate like a pinniped (seal) up the ramp. The ramp lowers beneath the surface of the water to make this easier for us and you can haul yourself and all of your accouterments into the boat within a fifth of the time it takes to enter a zodiac. Of course we lack a lot of the padding that a seal might have to insulate them from rough surfaces, such as those on the ramp, so we have to mind our whereabouts while doing this to prevent busting a hole in our dry suits.

    Our first "live-aboard" dive trip went to the Lemaire Channel, or Kodak alley as it is sometimes called. I call this dive trip a "live aboard" because we eat, work, and sleep on the Gould during these trips and the ship's crew facilitates everything we do. We had a 76 meter ice breaker as our vessel for exploratory scientific dives.

         In the Lemaire the sheer rock faces within the pass are particularly mind blowing. As you drive up to the walls in the Tin Can you slowly realize the magnanimity of their height and as you look straight up a shear, black rock face with snow and ice atop it maybe 2000-3000 ft in the air. I remember driving up in the L. M. Gould, and feeling completely subordinate and unworthy of these giants. I looked over to my friend Andrew and all I could say was "Wowowoowwowowowowowowowowow". He seconded that statement silently and that's when you know a place is powerful.

         But this feeling passes as you concentrate on diving, the magnitude subsides and then you hop into the seas to dive a wall of similar structure under water. The difference above and below water is in the flora and fauna, and this brings on a new sense of awe. The abundance of seaweeds and sponges that decorate the surface of the rock faces under water are like a million brightly colored taffies within topiaries of algae that sway in the current. Currents can give algal blades a more animated presence than the fauna in these locations. Community-wise the Lemaire sites varied in some ways from the areas we normally dive, mostly in the depth stratification of the invertebrates and algae, as well as the habitats of some of the fauna.

        It is safe to say that the Tin Can and Gould have expanded our diving opportunities and ability to study different communities. On our second trip we went to the Joubin Islands, closer to Palmer Station yet beyond the two mile radius for using Zodiac boats from station. On these dives, because we were so far away from glaciers and were diving alongside rocky islands, we had the best visibility yet. This area was less different in comparison Palmer than was the Lemaire, but there was an abundance of certain invertebrates and algae. Beautiful! At times we had better visibility below than we did above water because of snowfall or fog.

         After the diving was done for the day and we were ready to return to Palmer Station, the Tin Can was pulled back onto the Gould using a crane, and we departed for home. All this maneuvering of gear and launching of small boats off the Gould really let us see new areas and experience different diving conditions. It's hard to say whether I'll ever experience the luxury and exoticism of a "live aboard" like that again. When you dive and see what we get to see here in Antarctica - it's beautiful and incredibly interesting.  But the amount of work that goes into allowing us to do this is astounding and flabbergasting – it leaves you feeling indebted to all the wonderful support folks who make it possible.


    posted on 03/21/10 by Kate
    Last comment on 03/22/10
  30. Celebrate! Forty-two and counting

    It is rare to not have an event to celebrate here at Palmer Station.  This week is, as usual, busy with celebrations and gaiety.  A fellow scientist added another notch to his birthday belt and as is custom, requested a special dinner.  Dan asked the cooks to mimic offerings from an Italian restaurant he frequents at home including noodles alfredo, a red meat sauce and he contributed hand made crepes!  Happy Birthday Dan and keep the years coming, wherever they find you!

    Of course we did not overlook the 17th of March – St. Patrick’s Day!  Sure and begorra I danced a little jig and reel whilst no one was looking.  Overtly, I wore green, as did many others.  Fittingly, lunch was corned beef and veggies (the fresh cabbage supply was long ago exhausted).  The morning dive with Chuck and Jason was not exactly ideal as leprechauns warned them off both the first and second dive site choices.  Huh??  OK, standard operating procedure before diving is to do a reconnaissance of the area for leopard seals.  We shorten it to “lep re-con”.  Get it?? ;-)  The third site was not exactly charmed either, as once our intrepid lads were in the water, a seal magically appeared and the divers were summoned out of the water.  Obviously Chuck and Jason were not experiencing any luck of the Irish.  Palmer was blessed with calm winds for the entire day allowing an afternoon dive, which I tended and captained the zodiac.  A few rays of sunshine escaped from the clouds shining onto a seal-free dive site and productive collecting.  Our kind of pot o’gold.

    Two other celebrations this week will happen on Saturday.  20 March is the Equinox where the length of the night (“nox”) equals (“equi”) the length of the day.  This is due to the way Earth orients on its axis and twice a year (spring and fall) the earth is essentially sitting up straight, neither leaning toward nor away from the sun.  As such, at a particular time of day, the sun will be directly vertical overhead on the equator.  According to a NASA reference, the exact time the sun will be in that position is 1:32 Palmer time, which is 11:32 UAB time.  Here in Antarctica and all throughout the southern hemisphere, our event is the autumnal equinox, leading into the fall season and increasingly shortening days.  By contrast, in Alabama and the northern hemisphere, the vernal equinox will be celebrated for its promise of trading snow shovels for garden spades and longer, warmer days of spring. 

    The other celebration on 20 March will be to honor the forty-second ‘birthday’ of Palmer Station.  On that day in 1968 two buildings on a rocky outcropping on the southern end of Anvers Island were officially commissioned.  Presiding over the event was Rear Admiral J. L. Abbot, Jr., U. S. Naval Support Force, Antarctica, and Mr. Philip Smith, National Science Foundation representative.  This christening team arrived aboard the US Coast Guard Cutter Southwind.  The Coast Guard played a major role in the formative years of Palmer Station’s life bringing in construction materials and members of the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion Center know for short as SeaBees to build this marvelous station for science.  The two main buildings Biolab and GWR were complete and ready for science business in March 1970.

    Numerous Coast Guard vessels supplied Palmer Station during the late 1960s and 1970s.  Most notable for me personally is the Coast Guard cutter Edisto which supported operations here in the late 1960s.  Chiseled into a granite boulder in the backyard is the name of this vessel.  Four decades have not eroded the deeply scribed uppercase letters.  The boulder overlooks Arthur Harbor and boy if rocks could talk Edisto boulder would have quite the story to tell about the changes in its neighborhood over the years.

    I promised a friend of mine that I would send him a photo of Edisto boulder.  Ken Barclay, at the time I met him informally, worked at my favorite nursery – Myers in Pelham.  Though I had chit chatted with him on my many frequents I had no idea our lives shared a commonality, other than love of gardening.  One day I was wearing a fleece top with a Palmer Station logo on it.  Ken remarked “Palmer Station!? – Is that that little base south of Chile?”  I was stunned to learn that Ken served as a bosun on the Edisto and had been to Palmer as it was being built!  Small world isn’t it!  Ken is now retired from Myers, but has his own pond business and volunteers as a greeter at Children’s Hospital.  He visited me at UAB one morning and we swapped pictures and stories of Palmer.  A vivid memory of his time here was scrambling when the General Quarters alarm rang.  The wind was suddenly roaring down the glacier into Arthur Harbor pushing on the Edisto and she started dragging anchor.  Ken and his team put on harnesses, tethered themselves to the ship, and braved the fierce winds in order to pull up the anchor so the ship could be moved to safety.  Imagine, sudden high winds at Palmer, some things never change. 

    Palmer Station is named for the 1880s Connecticut sealer Nathaniel B. Palmer who is credited with the first  sighting of the Antarctic Peninsula, also known as the Palmer Peninsula.  Captain Nathaniel plied the peninsular waters in search of fur seals, their thick brown pelt a valuable commodity, in a 30 foot sloop called Hero.  I first sailed to Antarctica in 1980 on a 125 foot wooden research vessel of the same name.   I have included images of the R/V Hero docked at Palmer Station and a recent image of the station and our current research vessel the Laurence M. Gould taken from Arthur Harbor, perhaps near where the Edisto had anchored.  Comparing the images, you have to agree with the old slogan: “You’ve come a long way baby!”.  Forty-two and going strong supporting science in Antarctica.  That is indeed cause for celebration! 

    For an in-depth, jam packed Palmer history site maintained by a fellow oae (old Antarctic explorer) check out:



    posted on 03/18/10 by Maggie
    Last comment on 03/19/10

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