Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Leaving with the change in seasons

The change has been surprising fast. In January we were enjoying 22 hours of daylight and warm temperatures above freezing.

Then, in February we started getting sunset before bedtime. Growing earlier by 6 minutes every day, the sunset was soon happening at dinnertime.

Now, the seasons seem to be moving quickly. Snow we had a week ago is still on the ground and wind whips the harbor into small whitecaps. 1000 miles away at the tip of South America, our ship the LM Gould is waiting to cross the Drake Passage and bring the winter crew in. Days of a strong low pressure system have driven waves to 14 meters. This is extreme weather, even for the southern ocean. The ship is waiting and will cross when weather calms down in a few days.

Its a pleasure for me to feel the change of seasons. But it also marks my departure. When the Gould arrives, I will train my replacement and then leave, departing by April 6th. I arrived to station in early spring and I'm leaving, nearly 7 months later, in late Fall. Its been an extreme privilege to be immersed in the environment during this time. It will also be a pleasure to return home and tell more people about what I saw down here.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Re(m)olting Affair

The messiness of raising chicks over with, the penguins here can return to fattening up for winter. Or, almost. The last thing on their summer itinerary is a new set of feathers.

Most of the adelies on Torgerson look miserable. Huddled on the beach, silently looking at the water. And looking very very itchy. But, somehow, the Gentoo who decided to molt underneath my dorm window, managed to make it through with aplomb looking stylish the whole time.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Long Term Ecological Research Cruise

Last week we received some happy visitors to station. These were the researchers and students of the annual Long Term Ecological Research (LTER)
Science Cruise. LTER is a scientific partnership that brings together scientists in a number of different disciplines together to understand the peninsula region of Antarctica. Most of the work is open ocean - the ships stops at about 100 predetermined ocean locations to study the water chemistry and biology of the ocean column and bottom. Another part of the work involved dropping seabird researchers on islands (including previously unstudied islands) to survey and study the populations of animals.

The work aboard ship was extremely demanding. Researchers and assistants worked around the clock in 12 hour shifts for 32 days. The reward was a fantastically productive study session with several firsts: cooperation between the ship and the British station Rothera in deploying underwater gliders, confirmation of Adelie populations in a predicted (but previously uncontacted) spot.

You can see more pictures of their cruise in the photo gallery.

We were happy to have the battle-weary but still energetic crew stop at Palmer at the end of their cruise. They will be leaving several researchers with us to continue their work here and taking others home.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Am I supposed to swim now ?

After weeks of awkward teenager-hood, Adelie chicks on the local islands have their adult feathers. Well, mostly; since the down on their heads seems to be the last to go so some youngsters are still sporting some fetching hairstyles.

In response to their chick's near adulthood, adults are leaving the breeding colony, heading out to forage for themselves. Fledgling chicks, who a few weeks ago were gathered in creches up among the nests, are now gathered along the beaches. Watching the fledglings, one can almost feel their dilemma - "I'm hungry, and my hormones tell me to dive into that water,... but is it safe ? Is there another option ?"

These gatherings of fledglings along the beach are the signal the seabird researchers at Palmer have been waiting for. Measuring tapes and scales at the ready, they leap into the annual penguin roundup. Its a fun time for the station population because we get a chance to help. The goal is to count all the fledgling chicks and record weights and sizes for a subset of those chicks. This information is valuable in understanding long and short term trends in the penguin populations.

Here are some views of a recent morning on the roundup. The chief job of the volunteer is to hold the chicks tight -- these are strong birds ! Although they complain and struggle a bit when we first pick them up, the chicks seem to quickly forgive us. The interruption to their morning seems minimal and after being measured they resume watching the sea and planning their dive in.

In most cases, this is the last we will see of the fledglings for several years. Excepting a few precocious youngsters who come to practice, penguins stay away from the colony until they are ready to breed in 2 or 3 years. Usually they will return to the island on which they hatched and nest on the margins of the colony.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Ying and Yang of an Antarctic Shipwreck

0Yesterday I boated by a curious crescent of metal sticking out of the water, about 30 feet long, and I thought I would tell you a story about it. Its a story that remembers an event 20 years ago today, in 1989, not a great year for the coastal environment.

I start by telling you the usual things. The Bahia Paraiso was a shiny and impressive ship owned by the Argentine Navy and used to supply their Antarctic bases. At nearly 500 feet long, she carried a crew of several hundred souls and 2 helicopters. In January 1989 she was carrying 250,000 gallons of fuel oil bound for the stations as well as 150 paying tourists. After visiting Palmer station that morning, she was on the approach out through an area marked "Dangerous ledges and pinnacles". Apparently though, that marking didn't appear on the Argentine charts and the ship's captain ignored advice that he take another route. Only a mile from station, one of those rock pinnacles near beautiful DeLaca Island rose up and bit the ship. She immediately lost power. As the story goes, Ted DaLaca, ironically the polar scientist for whom the beautiful island had been named, was watching from the galley windows when he saw the boat grind to a stop and begin to list. Leaning back towards the cook he hollered "we'll have another 300 for lunch".

Thus began the rescue operation. Using our few zodiacs, Palmer folks cycled to and from the shipwreck, pulling liferafts of people to station. Luckily for all involved the weather stayed calm, averting injuries or fatalities. An emergency bulletin to ships in the area had the tourists evacuated quickly, leaving the station only awash in the 300 Argentine sailors, camped out in tents and and in life rafts pulled ashore.

The people saved, thought turned immediately to the oil spill in progress. A oil skimmer boat was flown in, arriving 9 days after the shipwreck, but was largely unable to recover any oil. A second effort, 2 years later was significantly more successful.

The short term devastation was pronounced. Compared to the crude oil that would spill out of the Exxon Valdez just two months later, the arctic diesel that spilled out was much more toxic but evaporated much quicker without leaving a tar along the shore. Impact to the bird life in the area differed according to species. The spill occurred in the middle of their breeding season and immediately resulted in huge die-off of the krill that form the base of their diet. Gastropods were also hit hard with 50% observed mortality within weeks. Limpets are the mainstay of Kelp Gulls which need them to raise chicks successfully. Limpets and other gastropods in the area grow very slowly, so this single event may have decreased the amount of some food items available over a long period of time.

Although virtually all penguins were exposed to the oil, fuel adult birds seem to have been killed. The chicks were hit worse with an observed mortality of 16% to Adelie penguins and virtually 100% to Skua and Cormorants.

In the years since the wreck, the populations of penguins and many other birds seems to have recovered. Cormorants and Gulls remain tremendously affected however. In the case of the Cormorants, the population of nesting pairs declined 75% in the years immediately following the wreck and have never recovered.

And despite the recovery efforts, a small sheen of oil is still present today, coating the surface above part of the wreck. Despite a number of smaller spills, the Bahia is considered the worst environmental disaster to be visited on Antarctica.

So where in is the yang part ?

Its in what is growing beneath the surface. The structure of the ship creates lots of surface area that ice can’t form on. As a result, algae and animals species occur in great abundance on the wreck that only appear at greater depth, or barely at all, elsewhere in the area.

So the wreck has become a valuable collection spot and is regularly visited by scientists and film crews. However, I think we’d all rather get the intact ecosystem back.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Warming in Antarctica

Most of the data collection I do here are climate measurements. This gives me a chance to see up close how much the peninsula of Antarctica is warming. The change I can see is dramatic and one of the roles I enjoy is talking to cruise ship passengers about it. I have two links for you today. The first concerns the now imminent breakup of the Wilkens Ice Shelf.

A little more on Wilkens. It is a broad area of fast sea conected to the peninsula. It's pretty young, apparently in place for several hundreds or thousands of years. Unlike the smaller Larsen B Ice Shelf whose breakup was very publicized in 2001-2002, Wilkens isn't holding back flowing glaciers so its collapse won't increase sea level. However, its breakup will mean huge habitat loss to krill and species that on them such as Adelie penguins.

Early on Larsen was identified as susceptible to breakup as temperatures increase. In 1993 Professor David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey predicted that the northern part of the floating plate of ice was likely to be lost within the next 30 years if climate warming continued on the peninsula at the same rate. Events on the ground have proceeded much faster than his predictions and last March disintegration began. After several events last summer, the remaining sheet of over 5000 square miles (about the size of Connecticut) is now being held to the peninsula bya bridge only 500m wide at its narrowest. Breakup of that bridge will almost certaibly happen in the next weeks or months.

Meanwhile, evidence for warming of the continent itself is also piling up and that's link 2. Although there is still disagreement, an article in Nature this week gives new evidence that Antarctica is warming in step with the rest of the planet, with rates ranging from +1.1 degrees F / decade on the body of the peninsula (where Palmer is located, and those are the rates we measure) to 0.2 degrees F / decade on the continent proper.

The difficulty in understanding whether Antarctica is warming and how fast is mostly due to the difficulty in installing weather stations in the interior of the continent. Also, Antarctica is a complex story with a huge forces such as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), the seasonal antarctic stratospheric vortex and the ozone hole all playing major roles in the climate of the region. Please let me know if you would like to hear more about these topics and I'd be pleased to share what I am learning.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The next 3 weeks: More of a Chick's Life

Entry 1: Eating and Growing
Dec 28th: The chicks are essentially engaged in an eating contest. Before summer dwindles and the sea ice returns they must be big enough and fast enough to fend for themselves. Occasionally, the marathon-paced eating (they are gaining the equivalent of their hatch weight every day) overcomes a chick's ability to stand and it tumbles over, belly first onto its nest.

Even the bird researchers here admit it - at times the chicks appear to have silly grins on their faces.

Although most nests on the interior of the colonies still have two chicks, a few little birds are missing. Most of these have been victim to the South Polar Skua. A pair of Skua is nested close to the penguins on Torgerson and feed their own chicks on return from hunting. A small number of viable-looking and well-protected chicks have also died - apparently as confusingly to the parents as to us watchers.

Entry 2: Muddy and wet !
Jan 7: On this morning I can smell the colony long before I get to it. It's a fact that doesn't come across in television or movies - penguins stink ! Our bird researchers have their own tent to change clothes and shower in for a reason.

I land amid light rain and return to the five nests I am watching most closely. At all of them the chicks are incredibly mobile and active. They flap wet wings and pace on muddy feet. The chicks don't go far though - to do so is to risk ostracism and death. In time, a few more weeks, the chicks and parents will recognize each other by smell. This ability isn't developed yet and chicks who wander from their nest at this stage will be treated as intruders and pecked by any adult they approach.

At one of the five nests I always check out both chicks are missing. Have they gotten lost ? I guess that the one sad and bedraggled kiddo below belonged to the nest once. Its now shunned and pecked by the adults I watch.

Entry 3: Awkward adolescent
Jan 13th: The chicks are now a month old and some of their babyish ways are beginning to drop away. They still can't defend or feed themselves but are starting to adopt adult postures and vocalizations. The little chick bodies, all bulging stomach and floppy wings are being replaced with a straight spine and cartilage. The oldest ones are just beginning to molt. In adults the yearly molt is supposedly uncomfortable and the birds are irritable while they wait on land for the molt to complete. The chicks however seem oblivious to any itchiness. Maybe they're proud of this next step towards the sea.