Photos from UAB in Antarctica group on Flickr
  1. What tall ships, the Chilean Navy, and Bill Gates have in common

    When I left Birmingham to begin my journey to Antarctica, I truly believed that although it would be some of the most amazing months I would ever experience, it might also be some of the loneliest. I imagined that since Antarctica is so isolated, I would feel isolated; as if its remoteness from the rest of the world would be a tangible thing. It made me nervous. I think it made my family nervous too; they had even less an idea of what I was getting into than I did.

         I couldn’t have been more wrong about how it would be to live on the Antarctic Peninsula at Palmer. The station is small – two main buildings with a maximum capacity of 44 people – but it might actually be impossible to feel lonely here. For one thing, there isn’t enough time in the day. Outside of work hours, there are always movies to watch in the lounge, people hanging out in the bar, and a hot tub at the foot of the bay where seals sleep on ice floes or make their hunting rounds, all in front of a huge glacier that sometimes calves in front of you, splashing water one hundred feet into the air.

         Palmer also has a gym with a window overlooking the Bio building and the water, and yoga classes at different times of the day (times when the support folks are not working). There is a disc golf course in the rocky backyard and people have even formed a band. Most importantly, I have never met a group of nicer, more open-minded and interesting people.

        Another thing I was not prepared for is how much activity there is outside of normal station life. Despite its physical remoteness, Palmer station is a very dynamic place in the summer. Bill Gates and his family stopped by a week and a half ago. He was taking his son on a birthday trip to Antarctica and they wanted to see Palmer Station. They ate lunch with us and talked to each and every science group about the work we are doing. Kate and I told Bill Gates about algae and algal endophytes. He was pretty into it! And believe it or not, these sorts of surprise “VIP” visits are not uncommon. For example, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin visited station just a few months ago.

        Cruise ships also routinely stop by in the summer. The travelers come ashore to tour the station and hear about the research we do here. We show them fish, marine invertebrates, and algae in the aquarium. Other ships that are in the area stop by as well, just for a friendly visit. In only the few weeks I have been on station, we have met a family who built their own yacht and sail it to Antarctica yearly, entertained an Australian TV crew filming a travel and exploration show, and had pizza with the officers of a Chilean Navy ship. After the pizza on station, we took the zodiacs over to tour the Navy ship and to hang out for a while.

         The Chilean ship employs divers mainly for maintenance and for ground truthing to make topological bottom maps. I learned some new Spanish words: A scuba dive is “un buzo” and to dive is “bucear.” I got to talk with some of the “buceadores” and see how they rig their dive gear. Sometimes they dive down here in just wetsuits!

        One of the most exciting visits occurred when a tall ship, the Bark Europa, anchored in the harbor  a few days ago. A tall ship is basically a really tall sailboat whose sails are rigged traditionally, using rigs and rig materials that have been used for centuries. This means that the sails on a tall ship are generally more complex and less lightweight than modern sailing rigs. Types of tall ships include brigantines, schooners, brigs, and barques, or barks. These differ in the number of masts and types of sails.

        The Europa is a bark because she has 3 masts (the tall spars, or poles, that support sails), with fore-and-aft sails on the aft mast (closest to the stern, or back of the boat) and square sails on the other masts. Fore-and-aft sails run parallel to the length of the ship while square sails run perpendicular to it, spreading out from the boat like elephant ears. The horizontal spars that support square sails are called yards.

         The Europa was originally built in Hamburg, Germany in 1911 to be a light ship on the Elbe River. A light ship is a ship that acts as a light house in waters where the construction of a light house is unfeasible (deep water for example). Light ships don’t really exist anymore; with advances in construction techniques and technology, lighthouses or large automatic buoys can be used instead.

         In the 1990s, the Europa was rebuilt into a tall ship in the Netherlands. At 184 feet long and 108 feet high, the bark has been making trips across the Drake from Ushuaia, Chile, to the Antarctic continent ever since. Having crossed the Drake during relatively calm weather in a 250 foot ice breaker, I cannot imagine making the crossing in a sailboat during a storm.  It is interesting to imagine 30 foot waves crashing over the Europa’s deck.  

        The ship was beautiful inside as well. After the tour, we gathered in the bar and had cinnamon bread, coffee and tea. Many of us stayed for beer and dinner aboard the ship, and one crew member was enticed to bring out his ukulele and play a tune for us. We talked with crew and travelers and generally had a good time.

         My favorite thing about this trip is that there are so many moments when I stop what I’m doing and am struck by how crazy it all is: floating in a field of algae 90 feet under the freezing cold water; chatting with Bill Gates about seaweed; trying to explain in Spanish to a group of Chilean Naval officers how we rig our dive gear; looking out over Palmer Station, the harbor and the icebergs, with a massive glacier and the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula in the distance, from the deck of a beautiful tall ship…


    posted on 03/16/10 by Ruth
    Last comment on 03/16/10
  2. A Morning at Palmer

    “What is your day like?” That is a question we get asked by folks at home fairly often. So my post this time will tell you about how my day begins.  Perhaps in a later post one of the others in the group will do the same for comparison. I’m sure that you will be reading about the evening “ritual” kitchen clean up called GASH. And certainly about the different activities that go on throughout the day in between.

        Most mornings I wake up to the sound of songbirds.

        Yes, songbirds.

        No, there aren’t.  Although there are lots of birds in Antarctica, there are no songbirds here.

        Because I am the Station Science Leader this season, Maggie and I get to live in a dorm room that is a little bit bigger than the others and has a few more accoutrements. One of those nice accessory items that the room came with is an alarm clock. Since it was already there, when we moved in I decided to use it instead of the one I’d brought. (When Maggie sleeps inside she wakes up on her own earlier than I do; she does not need an alarm.) I didn’t notice that it was an “environmental” alarm which, in addition to the jarring buzzing noise I was expecting, has several natural sound settings. Unbeknownst to me, it was set to “songbirds.”

         At home in Alabama,  we live in a wooded area, and so I often wake to the sounds of songbirds there. But that first morning here when I woke to the sound of songbirds I was quite befuddled. I realized right away that this was not right but could not understand what I was hearing. Of course, it so happens the alarm clock sits in front of our one window in the room. So I got up and stared confusedly looking out the window.

        After a few moments, I realized what was going on. But that noise is so effective at waking me up by being so out of place – while being less jarring than the buzzing alarm noise – that I’ve kept using it. I still wake with something of a giggle each morning, remembering that first time.

        Even without the songbird surprise, looking out the window in our room is still pretty much the first thing I do every morning. That is because the first decision Jim and I need to make is what our dive operations (“dive ops”) will be for the day.

        The weather is relatively unpredictable here, and although we get a weather forecast each day for that day and the next, one really doesn’t know what the weather will be like until you wake up and look. Even if it isn’t windy, the height of the waves and the direction they are coming from makes a big difference in where we can dive.

        Although we often know what we’d like to do for dive ops the evening before, we really can’t make firm plans until the morning. And even then, things can change so much that afternoon dive plans might need to be canceled or changed.

        Maggie and my dorm room is one floor up from the galley (cafeteria) and my office. Normally I grab a glass of juice and head down the hallway to my office, stopping in the weather room. All the weather information is available on the internal station web site, but it is all there for display at once in the weather room. I can see what conditions are and have been, and along with information like the barometric pressure trends, that can give some clue as to how things might be going. I can also see what the cloud and barometric pressure patterns are like across the region and how they have been changing, which helps too.

        Even with all those data, there is no substitute for looking out the window. The main science office has a nice window view that allows me to see the harbor area right off station (Arthur Harbor to be exact) and some of the islands that we dive around. The ones that I can see from the window are part of the northern-most group that we refer to as the “north islands” (pretty clever name, huh?).

        One part of the north islands is not really an island, but rather a shoal called Killer Whale Rocks. It is a little further out than the bigger (real) islands and so has virtually no protection from waves in any direction. And because it barely sticks up out of the water, I can see the waves crashing on it from any direction. I call it my “surge-o-meter” because “surge” is the name for the motion a diver experiences on the bottom which is caused by waves.

        For the past few days, we’ve had an iceberg stuck in Arthur Harbor that blocks my view of Killer Whale Rocks from the science office. I can still tell a lot about the waves from the things I can see, but it is always nice to have the info from my surge-o-meter.  So even if it is the north islands where we’d like to dive, I need to walk up the hill to the top of the station building area to see it.

        That area at the top of the hill the station sets on also gives me a view of the other group of islands we dive on. We call these the “south islands” (again, very original, right?). I can only see the closest of the south islands from there, but it still tells me a lot, including how much ice there might be that will slow us up should we want to head that way.

        All that information in hand, Jim and I can finalize plans for the day’s dive ops. We need to get that done in time for our daily 8:00 AM meeting.

        Except for Sunday, when we meet to start the work day at 12:30, each day starts with a group meeting at 8 AM. Because our work, particularly our dive ops, take coordination from most – sometimes all – of the group, everyone has to start the day knowing what the schedule is.

        Breakfast ends at 8:00 so that is a good time to meet. We meet in the galley, and folks are often finishing breakfast as the meeting begins. Most of the group gets there early to chit-chat and work together on the New York Times crossword puzzle. Each morning, multiple copies of that are printed (the station has a subscription) and is a favorite morning activity for lots of folks here.

        The meeting usually starts out with the dive ops: who is diving, who is tending (helping the divers). Does that work for everyone’s research plans for the day? What time works best to start? (Sometime between 9:00 and 9:30 is typical). Then we talk about anything else that all or most of the group need to discuss that day. Then like a football team breaking huddle, we get up and head off in different directions to our “positions” for the day. And the “play” (work day) begins.


    posted on 03/13/10 by Chuck
    Last comment on 03/14/10
  3. Dr. Jo

    In her youth, Joanne Feldman, MD, never dreamed of becoming a physician. Rather, she grew up in Southern California and fell in love with the sea. She loved to teach, and figured that combining her enthusiasm for the environment with education was a good mix. Accordingly, Jo pursued both a BS and MS degree in Environmental Education and subsequently took a position as a Park Ranger Naturalist at Sequioa National Park in the Sierras of California. What she had not counted on was that her surroundings would foster in her an interest in wilderness medicine.

    To scratch this itch, she embarked on training to become an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). As such, in her second year as a Park Ranger she served as an EMT on the Search and Rescue team at Sequioa. Figuring that the medical needs of the public might be in even higher demand at other national parks, she targeted the one national park that has the greatest need for medical expertise. You guessed it, the Grand Canyon. Who hasn’t stood at the South Rim and read those warning signs at the trail heads, the ones that read “Beware! Dangerous steep trail. Heat stroke a real possibility!” Needless to say, when Joanne positioned herself at the base of the trail on the floor of the canyon, she had plenty of eager customers. Somewhat surprisingly, one of the most common medical conditions she treated was “hyponathemia”. OK, get out your medical dictionary. Essentially, this means low salt levels in the blood, a potentially dangerous scenario, and the result of simply drinking too much water. Joanne loved working with people and treating their ailments. She had fallen in love with medicine, despite her vow not follow in her father’s footsepts as an MD.

    Applying and gaining entrance to medical school in your mid-30s is not a trivial endeavor. I know this, as a Professor of Biology I have interviewed undergraduate students for entrance into medical school. Joanne had to return to college to take chemistry, mathematics, and physics. But her hard work paid off and she was accepted to medical school at the University of California at San Francisco. After accepting her mother’s invitation to hike with her to Mount Everest base camp (don’t we all want mothers like that!), she moved on to a residency in Emergency Medicine at Stanford University. Following the completion of her Stanford intership, she remained on for another year of training in marine medicine. Yes, that’s right, “marine medicine”. This is where one is trained in the medical treatment of injuries related to the sea, including barometric medicine, or the treatment of diving related illnesses.

    In 2006, Dr. Jo signed up as the MD about a cruise ship headed to the Antarctic Peninsula. Two back to back Antarctic cruises later, she was hooked on this frozen continent. But before returning, her path returned her to the family home on Malibu Beach where she landed a great job in the Emergency Room of the UCLA Hospital. She also doubled as the physician for a local Hyperbaric Facility. But when Antarctic came a knocking, she was quick to negotiate a leave of absence from UCLA and assume her current eight-month contract as the physician here at Palmer Station. She loves it here! (Check out her video tour of the Palmer medical clinic by clicking on the YouTube link in the lower right corner of this web page).  In addition to taking care of all of us, she also checks up regularly on all sorts of things including the hot tub water quality, refrigeration and food temperatures, eye wash stations, and the quality of our drinking water. If that were not enough she is in charge of the Trauma Team, a group of folks on station that are trained to respond to a medical emergency. They are the ones that would transport a needy traumatized patient to her clinic, assist her with IVs, contact specialist doctors in the US via a remote internet based live-video feed, and generally provide extra pairs of hands. Dr. Jo is also a member of the GSAR team (Glacier Search and Rescue) which trains regularly and provides a safety net for those out on glacier for science or recreation. Moreover, one of her goals is to also become a member of the OSAR team (Ocean Search and Rescue). Indeed, she seems to have boundless energy! I can vouch for that, because I see her in the gym every morning at 5:40 facilitating a physical fitness class!

    Outside of practicing medicine in Antarctica, Joanne enjoys it here because it has given her time to truly experience the ebb and flow of the Antarctic seasons. Her eyes twinkle when she describes the delight of watching the penguins arrive to build their nests, lay their eggs, raise their young, and then depart. She appreciates the luxury of walking slowly along the rocky shores, observing the behaviors of foraging leopard and crabeater seals. And there is joy in taking wildlife and landscape photos at her leisure. These sorts of experiences are far beyond the bounds of visiting Antarctica on a cruise ship, and they separate true Antarcticans from visitors.

    posted on 03/11/10 by Jim
    Last comment on 03/12/10
  4. One alga, two algae, red alga, blue alga…

    Naw, I don’t work with blue algae (or blue-green algae to be correct). But the red algae and the wee green and brown algae that live inside them are the focus of my experiment here in Antarctica. My work focuses on how these small filamentous green and brown algae, which we call endophytes, affect the growth rates of the red algae in which they live inside.   Previously work has been done in Antarctica showing that these filamentous algae grow on the outside of the red algae when there are no herbivores present, but are mainly present inside the algae when herbivores are present. The main herbivores of these algae are small crustaceans called amphipods, which live in the algal canopy here in Antarctica. This is a pretty neat community and different from other comparable near shore communities worldwide.  What I want to know is whether small filamentous algae growing inside the algae are detrimental to algal growth.

    In order to test for a relationship between growth rates and endophyte infection I have begun an experiment which includes transplanting algae with varying quantities of endophytes and watching them grow over a season. The way we go about this is more complicated than it seems at first glance. First we dive to scout out a location where the species in question is abundant and where we can deploy concrete substrates, onto which the algae will be transplanted. This can be tricky around Palmer Station because much of the coastline can be steep and quickly drop to over one hundred feet, leaving me no shelf on where I can place these structures. Also, algal communities vary with the location, so what you find a lot of at one place may not even be present at another.

    After we have found a good location we dive again to deploy the concrete substrates. These concrete squares have threaded stock projecting up at each corner and an eye bolt in the center. The eye bolt is clipped to a cable on a strong metal arm or davit enables the substrate to be carefully lowered into the water to the divers.  We attach lift bag is attached to the eye bolt once it hits the water. Lift bags are extremely useful in this situation because in diving, your buoyancy means everything. The air put into the lift bag counteracts the weight of the concrete and allows us to float the heavy object down to our site without exerting too much energy ourselves. All substrates are lowered to the bottom in this fashion and placed in secure, flat areas close to each other so can be found easily.  After we bring all the substrates to the bottom we collect over 70 individuals of the species in question. So far we have been able to work with Gymnogongrus turquetti and Myriogramme mangini, which unfortunately these tongue –twister Latin names have no common names. Any suggestions?   

    All algal collections are brought back into the aquarium building at Palmer Station.  They are sorted into groups based on quantity of visible endophytes (low, medium, and high) within their bodies. Selected individuals are weighed and photographed and then placed in a rope attached to a rack with a specific name (nothing like Jimmy, Mack or Buddy, more like 24C). I give the algae names so that I can track the individuals over time and compare photographs and weights after the growing season.  This is a long process (brrrrrrr…..) and needs to be done quickly so that the algae get back out into their natural environment as soon as possible. Redeployment includes diving down to the substrates, bolting the racks to the threaded uprights, tightening prefixed nuts, and then tightening the ropes with algae down using zip ties. Not too complex with bare hands but with dry gloves, oh brother!  Our first deployment went quite smoothly. We were definitely spoiled.

    My first site is near the shipwrecked Bahia Paraiso, right in front of Palmer Station. My substrates are around forty feet deep, and the most abundant algae found here is G. turquetti. My second site is on the south side of Norsel Point, along the western wall of a small cove. This is a ‘wall’ dive generally, but there is a small shelf between twenty and thirty feet where I placed my substrates. This cove is replete with M. mangini, but is also frequented by a large leopard seal. The day Chuck and I put out the substrates we were at our safety stop when the seal alarm went off.  Except, since we were so shallow instead of using the piercing siren alarm the tenders used the engine as an alarm.  I was not too scared but I definitely bolted to the boat after hearing it which annoyed my buddy Chuck (he wears one more layer of hoods for insulation on his head than I do and doesn’t hear quite as well as I do under water; he was not aware of the recall - oops).  My tender Jim says I’ve never gotten out of the water so fast. The next day we tried to deploy all the racks with my algae on them. We put in two and were working on our third rack when the real alarm went off. Holy moly, that thing is bone-harrowing and loud, quite different from a revving engine. I have to say that I was cold while diving that day, but I immediately warmed up when I heard that siren.  We had to go back the next day to put out the last two racks of algae which took two dives because of a glove leak (brrrrrr again) and rougher conditions. Field manipulations are never as easy as they seem.

    I hope to find and complete my next site shortly and then we will begin bringing in racks for reweighing and photographing soon after. This project seemed quite a bit simpler before we began deployment, but it has been gratifying to start this work and begin analyzing the weights and photographs.  I am ready and rested for site number three.



    posted on 03/09/10 by Kate Schoenrock
    Last comment on 03/22/10
  5. Antarctic Animal Collective

    It’s been a really interesting weekend. Yesterday I saw a leopard seal consuming a crabeater seal just off the coast. Birds swooped around above the seal, hoping to get a small piece. Later in the evening, the winds were gusting around 55 knots, which made it hard to walk between the two buildings on station. I had been planning to camp out in a tent in the “backyard,” last night but decided to save that for another day…

    Today, a group of people from the station ran a half marathon! They ran up the glacier, did a few laps around the top, came back down, and repeated this several times. I was diving, or I would have ran it, I swear :-)

    And guess where we are right now? Back on the Laurence M. Gould, the ship that brought us across the Drake to Palmer Station! The LMG is our temporary dive boat so we can investigate a beautiful area that is too far away for a zodiac to reach from station. Chuck and Maggie have been eyeing this spot for about 10 years, so it will definitely be an interesting trip. Incidentally, I am in the same cabin I slept in on the trip to Palmer. Good memories.

    We are in the lounge of the ship, watching movies in the big comfortable couches and chairs, and I thought I would take this opportunity to write a little bit about the wildlife I have seen here. Since Antarctica is such a hostile environment, the animals and plants that live here are extremely interesting. When I say Antarctica is a hostile environment, I mean that it is the coldest, windiest, and driest (yes, driest!) place on earth. Most of the freshwater on the continent is permanently locked up as ice. In fact, Antarctic continental ice contains a full 2/3 of the entire world’s fresh water. In the Antarctic summer, the sun is up almost all day long, and temperatures hover around freezing (even above freezing here on the peninsula), but in the wintertime it is dark almost all day long and temperatures can reach -15 to -25°C. So it is a pretty severe place most of the time, but if there is one thing that is true it is that life will adapt and exploit even the most extreme, harshest environments on earth.

    The continent has very few land plants (although you now know about the forests of underwater plants). There isn’t much space on the land for plants to grow- less than 1% of the continent is ice-free. However, even where plants can grow, conditions are so severe that only some lichens, mosses, liverworts and 2 species of flowering plants grow here. Imagine being an Antarctic plant. You need sunlight to eat, yet the sun goes away for almost half of the year! Amazing.

    As for land animals, the largest terrestrial animal is a wingless fly called a midge. I haven’t seen one yet. The rest of the animals are classified as marine, even though they may spend time on the islands or ice floes.

    There are penguins, of course. At Palmer, we see Adélies, Gentoos, and Chinstrap penguins. Penguins are as cute as you think, but smell worse. They smell very, very bad. Today we saw gentoos porpoising. This is when they dive in and out of the water as they swim. It’s amazing to see them shoot up out of the water. From far away, they look just like fish jumping. Check out the video on Flickr (the sound effects are people-made!).

    We also see lots of seals. Fur seals have flippers that allow them to sit up and move around reasonably well on land. Take a look at the linked video to see some fur seals moving around on Torgeson Island.

    Weddell seals are my favorite seal. They have a really large body and comparatively small head, like the dog I had growing up. Their faces are sort of cat-like. They have big dark eyes and are very placid and friendly. There was a Weddell seal hauled out on the ice near station for almost a week. 

    There are elephant seals and crabeater seals, which I haven’t seen up close, and then there is the infamous sea leopard. Leopard seals are top predators in this ecosystem- killer whales may be their only natural predator, and they exude confidence. They are called leopard seals due to the spots on their shoulders and sides, but really they look like a massive snake crossed with a puppy. Their eyes are alert and curious. They often come check out the zodiacs. The other day one followed us home for 25 minutes through the brash ice, popping up every few seconds on different sides of the boat. They do this thing called “spy hopping,” where they shoot straight up out of the water all they way to their muscular chests. They hang there for a minute, surveying the ice (or the zodiac!) before falling back into the water.  They have been known to check out divers as well. Since they are a huge (11 feet on average) predator with an enormous mouth full of sharp teeth that routinely feeds on large animals, we don’t take any chances with them in the water. One of the dive tenders is always scanning the water for seals, and if we do see a leopard seal we have a special alarm that we lower into the water. The alarm shrieks loud enough for the divers to hear and return to the boat. We have had several leopard seal recalls this season already. They mess up our diving, but they really are beautiful animals.

    I don’t know much about seabirds, although there are some amazing birds here, so I will just mention one. The Arctic tern, so named because it breeds in the Arctic at the top of the world, spends the northern summer in the Arctic then flies across the entire globe to the bottom of the world to spend the southern summer in Antarctica. Every year, it does this migration from pole to pole, travelling over 20,000 miles a year. In doing this, it spends almost its whole life in daylight, as the sun hardly sets during polar summers.

    With that, I’m going to get some sleep for our excursions tomorrow. Who knows what we’ll see.



    posted on 03/07/10 by Ruth McDowell
    Last comment on 03/10/10
  6. Bivy night of stars

    “Bivouac” : a short stay, usually overnight, often with minimum equipment.  This Webster dictionary entry defines my favorite sleeping alternative to my assigned room on station.  Rather than a comfy bed in a carpeted, heated room one floor up from the dining room and two floors up from the lab, on nice nights I elect to sleep outside. I enjoy nature directly rather than from my indoor perch overlooking the harbor.

    My outdoor room is a short walk up the road from the station buildings, followed by a brief clamber over rocks.  A plywood floor suspended over boulders nestled behind a rock wall on the station side defines this room.  Soon I know my landlord, aka Mother Nature, will provide snow white wall-to-boulders carpeting that will not need vacuuming, just a little shoveling.  In keeping with the minimalism of bivouacking, this room is furnished with a pallet resting up against the rock wall serving as my recliner and a bivy sac – a tent for one person that essentially encases my warm bag and two insulating camp pads.  There is a little space inside left to stash my jacket and boots.  Simple.

    Once cozied in my red/black bivy and glacier blue sleeping bag I can prop up against my recliner and watch the day close, as dusk obscures the distant peninsular Humphries Heights.  Nearby winged tenants entertain me with aerial displays and caw each other good night.  A flat rock across the inlet is a popular bivouac for seals that haul out for a short rest, relying simply on their blubber for warmth.

    Last week the station was treated to a glorious orangey-red sunset. At right is a view of the sunset from my indoor room with the station flagpole in the foreground.  That day the station had a visit from a yacht and as is custom, we flew the flag of our visitors’ home.  Can you guess where are new mates are from??

    On this night, many folks gathered in the ‘crows nest’ atop the station’s back building to absorb the last of a rare sunny day and its picturesque finale.  Do you see Ruth up there?  Notice how the windows of the building in the photo at right reflect the sunset.  Notice too the rising full moon and the pastel hues the glacier are reflecting back.  Whew!  What a spectacular night! 

    How could I not venture out on such a calm night!  After a brief recline, I scooted down horizontal on the platform. Snuggling into bed I zipped up my bag to my neck and the bivy most of the way, leaving my face exposed so I can star gaze.  Pillow puffed clouds had drifted in covering most of the sky. 

    The four stars I most wanted to see were playing hide and seek.  Finally, all were in view at once – my first (overdue!) sighting of the Southern Cross this year.  Usually, I make the initial sighting of this special southern hemisphere constellation in Santiago or Punta Arenas Chile.  It was cloudy during my travel in Chile, now I sadly think Chile is in chaos in the aftermath of the earthquake.  By choice, I am sleeping outside.  I wonder how many in Chile are doing so because they have no other choice.  I vow to follow-up on a message a longtime Palmer family member sent urging donations of help to our southern friends through an Oregon based agency Mercy Corps or the American Red Cross.   

    I allowed myself to drift asleep to the sounds of white noise Antarctica: Hero Inlet lapping on the rocks just below my room, the snap, crackle and pop of floating ice chunks, the occasional rumbles of the glacier up inlet, the flit-flit of bird wings and elephant seals grunting and snoring.  Ahh – polar pastoral.  Hours later, a brightening eastern sky and pink light re-exposing the majesty of Humphries Heights heralds a new day.  Stretching up and unzipping out of my warm bed, I look forward to the adventures to come before I return to this simple room.


    posted on 03/04/10 by Maggie
    Last comment on 03/09/10
  7. The Antarctic Peninsula - Bellwether of climate change

    The resounding crack of yet another huge chunk of the Marr Glacier falling into neighboring Arthur Harbor is a sound that Chuck, Maggie, Ruth, Kate and I are growing far too accustomed to here at Palmer Station.  The glacier is rapidly retreating. Take for example the lovely Marr Glacier ice arch that perched on Amsler Island next to the station.  Three years ago, Maggie and Chuck sat on their zodiac for a great photo portrait with the arch framed behind them (see photo).  A year later the ice arch collapsed (see photos), and this year, remarkably, there is no ice arch left whatsoever! (see photo).

    The Antarctic Peninsula, stretching some 1000 km in length, is now the most rapidly warming region of our planet.  Mid-winter air temperatures gathered over the past sixty years, just thirty miles down the coast at the Ukrainian Vernadsky Station, show a consistent trend of an increase of one degree centigrade per decade.  A six degree centigrade, or ten degree Fahrenheit, increase over sixty years is unprecedented.   The temperature of the sea is also rising, at a much slower rate, but small incremental increases have large consequences. 

    The ice, in its myriad forms, is reacting to the warming air and sea temperatures.  Glaciers, such as the Marr Glacier, are receding very rapidly.  Moreover, the large ice sheets surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula are beginning to disintegrate.  The most famous break out to date was the Larsen B ice shelf on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula that disintegrated over six weeks in 2002.  Essentially, a chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island floated out to sea.  More recently, in 2009, the Wilkins Ice Shelf, a Connecticut- sized piece of ice located on the lower western Antarctic Peninsula collapsed.  All told, there have been nine major ice sheet break-outs in the past 30 years on the Antarctic Peninsula.   Fortunately, these ice sheet break-outs do not contribute to sea level rise as the ice rests on seawater (just like ice in a glass of water does not raise the level of water in the glass after melting).  However, in an insidious twist, the disintegration of the ice sheets releases land-locked glacial ice that had been previously barricaded by the ice sheets.  Last week, a glaciologist visiting us here at Palmer Station told us at his evening science lecture that when released by disintegrating ice sheets, glaciers along the Antarctic Peninsula flow up to five times more rapidly into the sea.  Unfortunately, glacial ice that was land-bound that enters the sea contributes directly to global sea level rise as it melts.  Our glaciologist colleague told us that if the glaciers of Antarctica and Greenland continue to flow into the sea at the rates they are currently measuring, that by the end of the century global sea level may be as much as one meter higher than had been predicted.  This is food for thought, and especially not good news for undeveloped, low-lying, countries.

    The ecological consequences of these changes in the ice on the Antarctic Peninsula are profound, especially when considering the annual sea ice.  A wide variety of organisms have complex ecologies that are intimately tied to the patterns of the annual sea ice.  Diatoms, little plant cells called phytoplankton, use the sea ice as a residence during the winter months, and then bloom in the sea in the spring.  Krill, the little shrimp-like animals that comprise the backbone of the food chains of Antarctica, depend on the diatoms for food, and also as juveniles graze on microalgae that grows on the undersurface of the annual sea ice.  With a 40% reduction in the annual sea ice both in its extent and duration, work conducted by the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research program currently directed by Dr. Hugh Ducklow, indicates that diatom and krill populations have now declined significantly on the western coast of the northern half of the peninsula. 

    Adelie penguins have become the poster child of climate warming on the Antarctic Peninsula.  Bill Fraser, a world authority on penguins, has followed Adelies near Palmer Station for 35 years.  When he started counting them, there were 14,000 breeding pairs near Palmer, now the numbers have plummeted to just three or four thousand pairs left, a 70% decline over just 35 years.  Why are they disappearing?  It seems that there are two reasons.  First, as the air temperatures are rising, the air is becoming more humid, and as such it is snowing more, and later, each year.  The Adelie are genetically hard wired to lay their eggs at a certain time in the spring, and now, tragically, later snow events are burying their eggs in slushy snow, suffocating them outright.  Secondly, Adelie depend on rich offshore krill grounds for their foraging, and as such, have traditionally used the annual sea ice as a platform to better reach these regions.  Now, they must swim much further to their food, wasting critical energy stores.  As the Adelie penguins depart or die off in this region, they are being replaced by smaller numbers of warmer-climate sub-antarctic species of penguins, including the chinstrap and the gentoo.  Paleontological evidence indicates that these species have never lived in this region of the Antarctic Peninsula before.  Warmer temperatures are transforming a formerly true Antarctic ecosystem into a more temperate, sub-antarctic, environment. 

    The Antarctic Peninsula is the “canary in the coal mine” or the “bellwether” of the dramatic ecological regime shifts we are likely to see down the road in temperate and tropical regions of our planet.  Similar to the Arctic, the Antarctic and its wildlife are highly sensitive to even small increases in air and sea temperatures.  They are responding accordingly.  We, humankind, need to heed the warning signs that are evident everywhere one looks along the northern half of the Antarctic Peninsula. 



    posted on 03/02/10 by Jim McClintock
    Last comment on 03/04/10
  8. The Forests of Antarctica

    Don’t ever let anyone tell you that there are no forests in Antarctica. There are! The forests are forests of large brown macroalgae, also called seaweeds, here along the western Antarctic Peninsula.  Pretty much every dive we make at Palmer Station is a dive into a forest, or at least it starts and ends that way. 

    The biggest “trees” in the forest are four species: Desmarestia menziesii, Desmarestia anceps, Himantothallus grandifolius, and Cystosphaera jacquinotii. Over on the right side of this post you can see still photographs I’ve taken of some of these. But still photos don’t really convey the extent of these forests. Videos do not completely do so either, but come closer.

    One new thing we are doing this season here on UAB in Antarctica is putting up videos from our stay here. If you click on the YouTube link that is below the photos on the right you’ll be taken to our UAB in Antarctica YouTube Channel. We’ll try to post short, informal videos of our life here regularly. But we also have two videos there that are a little longer and have information on the undersea life.

    If you click on the following link to The Forests of Antarctica it will take you to a new page or tab with the video on the macroalgae.  There you will see more still photographs along with underwater video of all four of the main, large brown seaweeds that dominate these communities.

    There are three types of macroalgae and they are color coded: brown, red, and green.  The difference in color is because they have different types of pigments which capture light and channel it to a pigment they all share, chlorophyll a. Special chlorophyll a molecules bound to special proteins are able to pass the energy from the light to other proteins. These other proteins use it to take carbon from carbon dioxide molecules in the water and convert them into sugars.

    The plants then use the energy stored in the sugar and the carbons connected into the sugars themselves to grow. So instead of getting energy and carbon-based molecules for growth from eating other things like animals do, like plants, macroalgae capture their own energy from sunlight. I like to say that algae and plants suntan for a living. Good work if you can get it.

    Brown macroalgae dominate the undersea forests here in terms of covering the bottom. In many places, nearly 100% of the bottom is covered by them as you can see in the video.  The biomass, or total weight, of all the macroalgae in these locations is comparable to what you would find in a giant kelp forest off the coast of California. When I said these are forests, I wasn’t joking!

    Even though brown algae are the kings in terms of biomass, red algae are the kings in terms of numbers of species.  There are more species of red macroalgae here than there are browns, so they are very important in terms of the biodiversity of the area.  They can be numerically dominant at some places too, although in my experience mostly in very shallow waters. They are often the most abundant macroalgae growing in deeper waters on vertical walls where we also find lots of bottom-dwelling invertebrate animals.

    In very deep water – water too deep for us to dive to the bottom in and also too deep for enough sunlight to penetrate to allow the macroalgae to grow – the invertebrate animals take over. If we go to deep (30-40 m, or 100-130 feet) depths  on vertical walls the macroalgae do not grow quite as well as otherwise so the animals can grow there with them without getting smothered. We will have another post later on about these animals, but if you would like to see video on them, just click on the YouTube channel link on the right and select the “Invertebrates at Palmer Station” video.

    I’m a phycologist, which means that I am a scientist who studies algae (“phycos” is the Greek word for algae). These rich macroalgal forests at Palmer Station are a wonderful place to me! We’ll look forward to telling you about ways these forests are unique compared to undersea communities in other parts of the world in upcoming posts.

    posted on 02/28/10 by Chuck
    Last comment on 06/03/10
  9. And in the beginning there was diving

     My expectations for ice diving were founded on all of the stories from others who had been to Palmer Station.  The complexity and abundance of dive gear we brought down was daunting in comparison to all other dive work I have done.  I have to admit that I was slightly apprehensive and wary of the sea here before entering the water for the first time.  My biggest fears were not so much the cold, but my restricted functionality in all the gear I’d be wearing and the leopard seal. Previous to this I’ve simply worn a wetsuit or bikini when working underwater. You’re very flexible and the water is inherently warmer. The apex predator has always been a fish, more instinctual and less playful. Working in areas with seals before, I know they enjoy holding onto your fins and tank, playing hide and seek, and stealing your gear. A leopard seal is a horse of a different color, with its huge head and teeth. When this beast gets playful with you, I think you want to get out of town.

    Just a bit about the gear: In a dry suit all the air come straight up to your shoulders once you get in the water, it’s a bit like being in a tight inner tube. Underneath the rubber body-shaped bag you’re in, you wear a fluffy suit that is reminiscent of a down sleeping bag. Underneath this sleeping bag you are wearing polypropylene long underwear and heavy socks. Other gear worn for ice diving includes heavy weight belts, a buoyancy compensator and tank, ankle weights, fins and mask, dry suit gloves with hand warmers, and collection gear. As you can imagine, no matter how cold it is outside, suiting up is a very hot experience and getting into that cold Antarctic water is in actuality a relief. To descend you tilt your left arm up and air comes out of a dump valve on your shoulder. This allows you to sink down to depth, where you re-inflate your suit/dump air in order to maintain neutral buoyancy. Voila, dive gear run down.

    Our first dive in Antarctica was in the harbor, next to the boat “parking lot”. We dove down and I got to see the benthos for the first time. I was shocked at first by the temperature, seemingly warm in comparison to my expectations, and then by the comfort I felt down there. We are currently experiencing a phytoplankton bloom, perhaps mixed in with glacial melt. During my first dive the visibility was restricted to approximately five feet, even at sixty feet.  In this situation you are very happy that your buddy is wearing a red suit so you can pick him out of the soup-like surroundings (pea soup to be exact). Since then the visibility has been the best at 68 feet at another site, but even still it was 10 feet give or take.  I’ve done four dives so far, scouting sites for my experiment and doing collections for the chemists. It’s nice to see forests of algae again, although here it is very different from the Pacific. Weedy Desmarestia species cover the bottom like brown mermaid hair and there is an absence of fish and large invertebrates that I would normally expect. Also, the only encounter we have had with a seal has been while I am boating on the water, not swimming in it. I am excited to ‘back in the saddle’ diving, and to begin my experiment (which should be shortly weather allowing). Most of all water conditions can only get better, and that is going to be one fine day.


    posted on 02/25/10 by Kate
    Last comment on 03/18/10
  10. Boating 101: A burrito and survival suit adventure

    Hi everyone, from Palmer Station!

    It is hard to describe how wonderful it is here. I have been especially awed by my first glimpses of Antarctic wildlife- and I didn’t have to wait long to see Antarctic fauna- as I was unpacking in my room, an Adélie penguin walked down the road outside my window!

    Kate and I have been busy learning about life here, setting up our lab space and dive equipment, meeting everyone on station, and of course seeing our first Antarctic seals, penguins, seaweeds, and marine invertebrates. However, one of our first priorities was a boating course. Everyone at Palmer Station takes this course before they are able to use the station zodiacs, and most people on station enjoy getting out in the boats to take recreational trips to the nearby islands or to see the beautiful scenery and wildlife from the water.

    Our first morning at Palmer Station, we met with Ryan, the boat operations manager. Before we could learn about boating, we had to learn how to use the camp stoves and set up the tents that are stored in survival caches located on every island in safe zodiac boating distance off Anvers Island. These caches are placed on the islands in case a boating group is unable to return to the station, primarily due to weather. The weather here can change rapidly. Storms can arrive with little warning, and winds can rise from 20 to 60 knots in less than 10 minutes. Although we are careful to check the forecast before we plan our trips, I’m sure everyone understands how weather can surprise you. So it’s very important to know how to use the survival gear in the caches in case what we intend to be a short boating or dive trip turns into several hours or a night spent on one of the islands.

    We then talked about what to do in a person overboard situation. The water temperature here stays pretty constant between -1 and 1° C. The first minute or two in water this cold is an extreme shock to the body. Immersed in water this cold, a person has only about 10 minutes during which they are capable of purposeful movement. Around 10 minutes after immersion, hypothermia sets in as blood is pumped away from the extremities to the core in an attempt to keep the vital organs warm enough for metabolism. It’s extremely important to get the person back into the boat as soon as possible. However, haste can lead to accidents, and running someone over with the zodiac is not helpful. Therefore, it’s best to take it slow approach in the zodiac to your overboard person and remember that the person has at least those 10 minutes before hypothermia causes serious problems. All the boats are equipped with warm “space blankets” and sleeping bags, and though she did not actually go overboard, we practiced wrapping Kate up like a burrito, which we would do after removing wet clothing in order to re-establish her body heat.

    Then we were ready for the really fun part (not that a Kate burrito is not fun!): learning to drive the zodiacs. It can be slow going if there is a lot of brash ice in the water, but the day of our boating course the water was clear, and we could take the zodiac up to top speed as we navigated throughout the small islands around the station. I had never driven a boat before, and working the tiller of a zodiac is honestly one of the most fun things I have gotten to do in a long time. I really can’t wait to get some more practice! We also spent time learning to land the zodiac, tie it up, and deploy the sea anchor.

    To wrap up our boating course, we practiced a real man overboard situation. I got to put on a full survival suit and jump into the water! It was relaxing to float in the icy cold water, protected by my waterproof suit, bobbing up and down with the waves and watching the clouds move as Kate and Ryan looped around to pick me up. I didn’t want to get out! Here is a tip though, if you are ever in the same situation: the wrists of the survival suit do NOT seal like our dry suits do, so keep your hands out of the water if possible. Trying to swim is not a good idea if you don’t have to ?. When icy water started trickling up my sleeve, I was not opposed to being dragged back into the zodiac…

    It’s time to get back to work. We have a full day of diving and research ahead of us. There is a lot of brash ice today, but otherwise it’s a beautiful day for a dive and for a boat ride!

    posted on 02/23/10 by Ruth McDowell
    Last comment on 05/28/10
  11. A Sweet Crossing

    Valentine’s Day, a Sunday, dawned gray and foggy as we steamed into the Drake Passage and I hoped my 34th (!) crossing of these waters would be smooth. Spin an upside globe around at the latitude lines south of the continents South America, Africa, Australia and all that your finger will trace over is ocean. The lack of land masses to buffer wind and waves at these latitudes gives rise to the nickname ‘furious fifties’ for these waters. Hence, I have experienced a full range of Drake temperaments from its benign lake-lapping mode to its full on rage of fury slamming steel blue crests at and over the three storied ships on which I have sailed. We all must have sufficiently rubbed that statue’s toe in Punta Arenas as our sail through these notorious waters were in general quite tolerable – the Drake was a real sweetheart!

    The Gould was rocking and rolling a tad above gently so decks were closed to promenading and sightseeing. Not that there was much to see as the majority of the time the LMG teetered port to starboard (left to right in landlubber terms) in a dense fog. Neither fog nor seas deterred the ship’s cook from the traditional Sunday barbeque. Out on one of the decks in a protected spot, Ramsey flipped burgers and grilled steaks, chicken and lamb. The ship smelled like a summer cookout! The barbequed booty was transferred to the small cafeteria style lunch line where hungry sailors selected their favorites plus sides. A slight uphill or downhill walk depending upon the ship roll of the moment led to one of several long tables where diners plopped into swivel stools that are bolted in place. Rubbery placemats acted as skid mats to keep laden plates from sliding to and fro as the ship merrily rolled along in the Drake.

    Unlike previous trips, this year we had no science gear to prepare during the crossing. I divided my time between watching the fog on the bridge, knitting, reading and doing work on the computer. Kate and Ruth read, played board games and cards. Chuck and Jim tapped busily away on their laptops. Highlights of each day were our meals in the galley and I preceded each with either a walk on the ship’s treadmill or a ride on the stationary bike since the decks are closed. I like to think over the years of doing this I have walked across the Drake.

    Monday night following (a yummy!) dinner I noticed the monitor that records sea surface temperature dramatically dropped from the day’s unwavering 4° C to 1.8° C. We have arrived in Antarctica!! This continent is surrounded by ocean which is essentially the border. No passport check or immigration control at the Polar Front – just colder, deep blue water as the welcome sign. Cool- I am back “on the ice” though still on water.

    After (another great) dinner Tuesday I was on the bridge as the fog started to lift and a rare small break in the clouds brought light to a glimpse of terrestrial Antarctica – Smith Island. We were cheated the full glory of this impressive island’s sheer cliffed edges soaring up to the sky but Ruth and Kate were awed with this Antarctic teaser and the reality of where they were started to sink in. Fog again soon shrouded the ship and just as I was about to leave the bridge a humpback whale sounded immediately along the starboard bridge wing, slipping back into its polar den before anyone else saw my personal greeter.

    Brighter than normal reflections striking the porthole (my alarm clock) over my bunk signaled Wednesday morning, the brightest so far of our voyage. In fact for a short time we were able to marvel at the dramatic vista of the broad Gerlache Strait that runs between the mountain/glacier studded Peninsula to the east and the similarly adorned island chain to the west. We cruised by numerous icebergs, spyed whale spouts in the distance and delighted in gymnastics of porpoising penguins. As we approached the Neumayer Channel and its acclaimed stunning scenery heightened by its narrowness, clouds again foiled our viewing.

    Curiously, our most notable observations in this stretch of water was how many other ships were plying the waters around us. The Dutch triple masted Europa, a smaller double masted vessel plus the large tourist vessel MV Lyubov were anchored at Port Lockroy on Wiencke Island where the British Antarctic Survey maintains a small station. Perhaps the Russian research vessel Professor Multanovskiy that we encountered earlier in the Gerlache was heading there. Additionally, the LMG shared radio communications with nearby USAP sister ship Nathaniel B. Palmer. Busy place for such a remote location!

    The Neumayer Channel intersects with the Bismarck Strait, the watery road to Palmer Station. As if leading the way at that moment an Antarctic tern flew across our bow port to starboard. The mate on the bridge changed course at the intersection about 90 degrees to starboard following that seabird. Would you agree that it’s a right tern?

    Soon Palmer Station was in view and another season at my deep south home was about to begin. Life is sweet………

    posted on 02/21/10 by Maggie Amsler
    Last comment on 02/27/10
  12. Punta Arenas, Chile

    Flying into Punta Arenas, Chile, on the exposed, southern tip of Chile, is often a seat-belt tightening enterprise. Known for its high winds, the pilot loops around such that the plane is directed into the prevailing wind, and takes a general aim for the air strip. Kate, Ruth, Chuck and Maggie, all seated in front of me were likely thinking what I was thinking, “I hope this pilot knows these Punta winds!”. The tires squeal and bounce as we touch down, and the pilot quickly teases the plane down once again, fighting to secure us to the tarmac before the winds return us aloft.

    This was Kate and Ruth’s first visit to the Port City of Punta Arenas, Chile. So it was fun to see it anew through their eyes. Many of the buildings are painted in pastel colors, and there is a touch of European architecture in the stately government and military buildings, the catholic churches, and some of the elegant homes of past land owners and shipping magnates.

    Our first task was for Chuck and Ruth to drop off our hand-carried algal samples at the ship, where they could be secured in a refrigerated incubator for the transit to Palmer Station. This accomplished, they joined us to check into our hotel. The Hotel Noriega is an old mansion that was converted into a hotel and sits majestically on the corner of the town square. Handsomely landscaped, the square is home most days to an artisan market. But its greatest claim to fame is its imposing statue of Magellan, with several Fuegans (indigenous people in the region before European colonization) sitting as his feet. One of the Fuegans sits such that his foot projects outward from the square concrete base of the statue, within easy reach, and it has become a ritual for those heading to sea to rub his foot to ensure a safe return to Punta Arenas.

    The following morning, Kate, Ruth and I headed off to be given our National Science Foundation United States Antarctic Program (USAP) clothing issue at the USAP warehouse at the base of the city dock. The three of us headed across the town square, stopping at the statue for a photo of Kate and Ruth dutifully rubbing the Fuegan’s foot (I rubbed it too!), and then walked on, downhill, to the waterfront, weaving our way through shops, restaurants, and warehouses. At the clothing warehouse, we ran into Chuck and Maggie who had just completed their clothing issue, and took a moment for a photo of everyone posing with the mannequin dressed in standard issue U.S. Antarctic garb.

    Soon, Kate, Ruth and I were each issued a cloth satchel containing our standard issue clothing for working on the Antarctic Peninsula. Inside the bag were socks, goggles, boots, rain pants, wind pants, long underwear, a red parka, fleece jacket, caps and gloves. And as Chuck, Maggie and I had been to Palmer many times before we knew to have Kate and Ruth also check out some addition items including fisherman gloves and plastic sea boots (both for working in the zodiac boats), and extra cold weather gear including a balaclava and a warm ear-covering red cap called amusingly enough, a Yazoo Cap! I encouraged Kate and Ruth to be sure and try everything on to make sure it fit. This was their only chance to trade something back in for a better fit. You definitely don’t want to be working in the field in Antarctica and not have everything you need clothing wise – nor something that is not a good fit. There is no local Target store nearby to make an exchange.

    Our clothing satchels stuffed to the hilt and stowed for transport to the ship, we walked back to the hotel to gather our personal luggage together for pick-up and transport to our ship, the RV Gould. Later in the afternoon we attended a meeting aboard ship and were assigned our cabins for the voyage. A final group dinner in town at the popular restaurant “La Luna” provided a wonderful backdrop to celebrate our pending departure and two of our birthdays simultaneously, Maggie’s and my own! No, we are not divulging our respective ages (but I will admit I am older).

    In the morning we had time for one last walk about town and then set sail at noon for Antarctica. As I am writing this, we are approaching the northern end of the Antarctica Peninsula, having enjoyed a reasonably smooth crossing of the Drake Passage (yesterday a bit bumpy – today a wonderful flat “Lake Drake”!). No whale sightings yet, but we have seen lots of black browed albatross, storm petrels, giant petrels, and more recently, cape petrels, all following our ship. This is always a marvelous way to be welcomed back to Antarctica! And in the case of Kate and Ruth, welcomed to Antarctica!

    posted on 02/19/10 by Jim
    Last comment on 03/07/10
  13. Preparing for Palmer: Getting There

    How do we get to Palmer Station? Well, if you have ever been to a big international airport like the one in Atlanta and looked at the Departures board, you might recall never seeing a destination marked “Antarctica.” It isn’t quite that easy.

    Our trip will start at the Birmingham airport where we arrive with multiple bags including not only our clothes for four months, but also dive gear and other equipment that we needed here at home so could not ship down to Antarctica ahead of time. You don’t want to be in line behind us at the airport!

    From Birmingham, as we usually do, this year we will fly first to Dallas Texas. After a fairly long layover there, we will get on an international flight to the capital city of Chile, Santiago.

    In Santiago, we will be met by an agent contracted by the National Science Foundation. For many years, this has been a wonderful man named Jimmy Videla. On the right there is a photo of Jimmy standing between Jim and Maggie from our 2007 trip through Santiago on our way to Palmer Station. Jimmy and his crew help us get ourselves and all of our gear to our next flight, which will take us to the port city of Punta Arenas. It takes over 24 hours of sitting in airports and on airplanes between the time we take off from Birmingham and arrive in Punta Arenas.

    Punta Arenas is in southern-most Chile on the Strait of Magellan. There we will board the US research ship Laurence M. Gould, which to the right you can see tied up at the Punta Arenas pier in a photo from one of our previous trips.

    Punta Arenas has a central square that is a hub of activity. At its very center is a large statue of Ferdinand Magellan. Around the base the statue are other figures including a Fuegan, one of the indigenous peoples who lived in this region before European colonization. The Fuegan’s foot drapes down low enough to touch, and lore has it that if you rub the big toe you will be assured of a safe return to Punta Arenas. On the right you can see photos of Maggie and me doing just that.

    We will spend a full day and two nights in Punta Arenas so that we can be issued special cold weather clothing for Antarctica. Then on 13 February we are scheduled to sail on the Laurence M. Gould through the Strait of Magellan, out into the South Atlantic Ocean, and then into the Southern Ocean on our way to Palmer Station. From that point until we arrive at Palmer Station you should be able to track our progress at this Ship Tracking Web Site.

    That’s where the true adventure begins. Maggie, Jim, Kate, Ruth, and I all look forward to taking you on that adventure with us over the next few months. We will be out of internet contact until we arrive at Palmer Station on 18 February. We cannot wait to tell you about our travels south when we get there.

    posted on 02/03/10 by Chuck
  14. Preparing for Palmer: Scientific Supplies and Equipment

    Here in Birmingham, if we run out of some laboratory supplies at UAB, we just put in an order with a supply company. For many things, we will have what we need in a few days or at most a week. Things are not that easy in Antarctica.

    For Antarctica, we have to plan ahead for all our supply and equipment needs months before we leave for “the ice.” Some standard laboratory items are ordered through the company that the National Science Foundation contracts to run Palmer Station. For other, more specialized items, we need to order them ourselves and ship them down.

    For the things ordered through the contractor, we have to provide them with a detailed list of what we need many months ahead of time. Normally this list is due in mid-April for our field season that starts ten months later in the middle of the following February. This list is very detailed right down to the number of boxes of laboratory wipes (kind of like Kleenex) or number (and size) of laboratory flasks that we will need. It helps that we have done this many times before, but it is so important that Jim, Maggie, and I spend a great deal of time making our list and checking it (more than) twice.

    We also have to tell the contractor how many boxes of equipment and supplies we will be shipping down ourselves. We send them to the contractor’s central freight facility in California and the contractor puts them into shipping containers headed to Palmer. Most of those needed to be in California in early December. For some things like frozen chemicals that needed to be shipped to Chile (where we will get on a ship to Antarctica) by air, we did not have to get them to California until mid-January.

    April, December, and January. Those are a long time ahead of when we arrive at Palmer Station on 17 or 18 February. But with excellent help from hard-working folks at the contractor, we will see all of the equipment and supplies when we sail into Palmer and begin our research.

    Back here in Birmingham, we have the kind assistance of an excellent staff at the Birmingham News. Check out their story on our expedition!:

    University of Alabama at Birmingham team to study Antarctica's nature

    posted on 02/03/10 by Chuck
  15. Preparing for Palmer: Dive Training

    As you might imagine, SCUBA diving in the icy waters at Palmer Station is an activity that takes a great deal of preparation. It requires a lot of time and energy on the days of the dives. We will be telling you much more about that later on when we are posting from Palmer. But it also requires many hours of preparation here in Birmingham, long before we head to the “really deep south.”

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) and UAB both take dive safety and training very, very seriously. I am on the NSF Office of Polar Programs board called the Scientific Diving Control Board that is responsible for overseeing scientific diving in Antarctica. I am also on a Diving Control Board at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL), near Mobile, Alabama, which oversees all scientific diving at UAB. All of us who will be diving at Palmer need to meet specific criteria of both of these safety boards.

    Diving through the DISL/UAB program is further overseen by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS). (Are you tired of acronyms yet?) To become a diver in our program, first you have to be certified as a recreational SCUBA diver. Then you have to pass a physical exam and complete 100 hours of scientific dive training. Ruth was a certified recreational diver but not a scientific diver when she enrolled here at UAB in August as a new graduate student. Much of her time last fall was taken up with this 100 hours of training and now she is a certified Scientific Diver through our program. That was a lot of time and work!

    Kate was in the scientific dive program at the University of California at Santa Cruz where she got her undergraduate degree and had worked for several years. That program also operates under AAUS rules so transferring her to our dive program here was fairly easy. And of course, Maggie and I have been diving here at UAB for many years.

    To dive with the United States Antarctic Program, you need to have scientific diver status as we all do through DISL and UAB. On top of that you must have completed your initial, recreational diver certification over one year ago. You must have at least 50 lifetime SCUBA dives of which at least 15 must have been using a dry suit like we use to keep us warm in Antarctica.

    You must also have completed at least 10 dry suit dives in the year before going to Antarctica. This is important in order to maintain your proficiency with dry suits since diving with them is quite different than diving with a wet suit. Since our team was not in Antarctica last year, even though Maggie and I have made hundreds of dry suit dives we each needed to make 10 more last fall as did Kate. She has made some dry suit dives in the past but not this last year. And Ruth needed at least the 15 lifetime minimum number of dry suit dives.

    Fortunately, we have a great dive training facility here in the Birmingham area. Alabama Blue Water Adventures in Pelham is a wonderful training facility. When the weather cooled off this fall (so we would not roast in the heavy suits), Maggie, Ruth, Kate, and I started going out there one day every week or so to refresh our dry suit diving training. Jim came too some days to help out on the surface.

    The photos on the left show Maggie, Kate, and Ruth at Alabama Blue Water Adventures during one of our dry suit dive training days. In some of the photos, Ruth is acting as a dive tender for Maggie and Kate. Some of our heavy, Antarctic dive gear is almost if not impossible to put on by yourself. So someone has to help on the surface and the term for that person is the dive tender.

    The hardest thing for a diver to put onto themselves are the heavy, dry suit gloves we use in Antarctica. The tender always has to do that for the diver. Occasionally, particularly when we have been working especially long and hard, a diver will get a bit silly and, in his or her best Elvis voice, start singing “Glove me tender…” But as you might imagine, we try to discourage that.

    posted on 02/03/10 by Chuck
    Last comment on 03/19/10

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