Explore UAB

UAB in Antarctica

As you probably know, April 22nd is Earth Day.  This celebration of our environment, its fragility, and humanity’s dire need for its long-term protection started with hugely successful rallies and events in the United States on 22 April 1970. It continues now in a large number of countries around the world.

The tradition of observing Earth Day at Palmer does not date back quite that far, but the Earth Day ideal of living with minimal disruption of nature is very much in line with how we live here in Antarctica. We work very hard at having a minimal impact on this pristine environment in order that it may remain this wonderful natural laboratory for scientific study long into the future. So it is not surprising that in recent years, participating in some Earth Day activities has been important to those of us who live and work at Palmer Station.

For quite a number of years all our trash has been shipped out to the United States or Chile. McMurdo Station, our much larger sister station on the other side of the continent, ships a majority of its waste to recycling facilities back in the United States.  Palmer is too tiny for that to work efficiently, but all wastes that are not the result of something having been eaten or ground-up forms of something which could have been eaten go north by ship.

Antarctic explorers were not always as conscious of nature and of having a minimal impact on it as we are now.  Even here, when I first started coming to Palmer in the 1980s there was a dump behind the station. All that material was dug up and shipped out years ago. And every year the station has days when everyone goes out and picks up any lose trash that may have been inadvertently dropped or blown away from station to help keep the area clear of litter.

One place around the station that is impossible for most people to clean up is underwater and there is still a lot of junk lying on the seafloor around the station pier. Some of it dates back to the construction of the pier itself but a lot are things that were accidentally dropped from the Laurence M. Gould (or its predecessor ships the Polar Duke and Hero), by people using the Zodiac boats, or during the periodic maintenance that the pier has undergone in the many years it has been here. 

Our dive team has been participating in the station’s Earth Day activities each of the last three years we’ve been here (2003, 2004, and now) by picking up underwater debris around the station pier and Zodiac dock. This year it involved not just all of us in the scientific field team but help from eight of the station support staff.

We put two teams of divers in the water. Maggie, Craig, and Bill suited up in the dive locker and walked down to the pier in all their dive gear except fins. Alan and I helped steady them as they stepped across the icy rocks at the shoreline. Then at the shoreline they sat down side by side and put on their fins. Soon, they were off on their dive.

At that point, Philip and I went up to the dive locker to get ready ourselves. Sara Russell, the station’s digital network engineer and one of the support staff who was helping with the dive, helped us get into our gear. Alan stayed at the pier as head tender to watch after the divers who were already in the water.

Soon, Philip and I were ready and were helped into the water by Sara, Alan, and station manager Eric Pohlman. Philip and I started our dive under the Zodiac docking area and found a number of small parts, ropes, and other gear that had fallen out of boats. Then we headed over to the area off the pier where heavier objects can be found. We crossed underwater paths with the other dive team a couple of times before they ended their dive.

Each of us went into the water with a large mesh “catch” bag to put the things we found in it. These would get heavy pretty quickly and we would then drag them across the bottom to the edge of the pier. Boating Coordinator Ryan Wallace had rigged three ropes off different parts of the pier that had large clips at the bottom. These went into the water with empty bags attaced.

During the dive, we would drag bags full of the junk to the ropes, clip them off, and take the empty bag from the clip. The support folks on the pier were standing by the three ropes and watching our bubbles. When they saw us come over to a rope and then swim away they would haul up our “catch,” deposit it in a pile on the pier, and then send the emptied bag back down on the rope for the next diver to reuse. It was a very efficient system.

We found pretty much all the types of things I described above. Some may have been left over from the pier construction and a lot was clearly from repairs that had been done on the pier. And there were clearly things that had been dropped accidentally. Often around the pier we find things like radios and cameras (we joke that you can still hear the echo of the scream from person who dropped them).

Although we found a radio dropped by a former station manager on one of our earlier dives this year, we did not find anything like that on our Earth Day dive. Bill did come across a pile of old Coke bottles, though. They had obviously been in the water for a long time and most were covered in a type of red macroalga (seaweed) that grows as a crust on rocks (or Coke bottles) and is very common in the communities here. And what our haul otherwise lacked in novelty we certainly made up for in bulk. All totaled, we collected approximately 250 pounds of junk.

All that junk is already packed up for shipment out of Antarctica. So our human impact on this beautiful environment will soon be just a little bit less than it was before our dive. Happy Earth Day!