Friday, August 8, 2008

Why go to Antarctica ?

Soon I'll be making a life change. I've decided to quit my usual life as an engineer and move to Antarctica for seven months. As you probably know, no one lives permanently in Antarctica; the scientists and support personnel who visit stay for a year or less at a time. In the summer the population of the continent is about 4,000 people and in the winter it is usually much less than 1,000.

Picking up and moving to Antarctica may seem a little strange. Its an extreme and cold continent, far from the comforts of home. I'll have to leave my house and my dog and my job behind me. So, why do I want to go there ?

The first reason is the adventure of seeing and living in a beautiful place. I love remote places, far from cities and Antarctica is probably the most remote place on earth. In fact, living in Antarctica has been compared to living on the moon.

But the biggest reason I am going is to be part of the community of science that studies Antarctica and the changes taking place there. Antarctic life is stunning and unique by any measure. Fish swimming in the icy South Polar Ocean have evolved antifreeze chemicals that keep their blood from freezing. It is an unique foodweb in which phytoplankton and krill that feed whales, seals, penguins and seabirds.

Although it is perfectly adapted to the cold, the Antarctic foodweb is much more fragile to changes in climate and environment. In recent years the Antarctic ozone hole has reduced phytoplankton stocks by 15% and is damaging the DNA of ice fish species. Illegal and unregulated fishing is another problem, one that threatens seabirds as well as fishes. By and far the most complex threat to the Antarctica ecosystem is the warming and melting of the continent. The warming observed is uneven, with some places like South Pole holding steady. At the margins though, Antarctica is melting. West Antarctica and the peninsula today are the fastest warming places on earth. And when ice shelves melt or disappear, the ice-dependent species that live on them are hurt as well. But the factors that link environmental changes to the are complex and scientists are just beginning to understand them. This is important work and I want to be a part of it. This is what is drawing me to Antarctica. I truly believe that understanding and then reversing human impacts to the environment is possible and crucial.

Once I arrive in Antarctica, I'll be staying at Palmer station, the smallest US base. Palmer is situated on Anvers Island, just off the peninsula of Antarctica. It houses a maximum of 45 people. I'm very excited to be going and I'll be writing more as I get closer to deployment.