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.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On the airwaves

A couple of people have written is to say that they heard me on their local radio station. Yep, that was me. I chatted with hosts at KBCO of Boulder CO on Monday morning, KFOG of San Francisco on this morning and will talk with WCBS of NY on Friday. Each of the conversations has been quick and light, talking about Palmer station and climate of the West Antarctic Peninsula. Thanks to my friend Michael Aisner of Boulder for setting these up ! If anyone has ideas of other locals stations I should talk to, give me a shout.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ocean Station Obama

While we are back at the station, our USAP research vessel LM Gould is out at sea on the annual Long Term Ecological Research cruise to collect environmental and climatological data. Today they made the news with their innaugural celebration. Let me know if you are interested and I'll talk more about what the LTER project is doing in future posts.

Washington Post

Antarctic Climate Researchers Hold Distant Inaugural Celebration

By Juliet Eilperin

In what may well be the furthest-flung celebration of Barack Obama's
inauguration, scientists aboard the U.S. research vessel Laurence M
Gould held a commemoration 10,000 miles from Washington D.C. off

The researchers, who are spending three days at sea examining signs of
climate change, decided to call the temporary study area they have
established "Ocean Station Obama."

Doug Martinson, an oceanographer at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty
Earth Observatory and the cruise's chief scientist, said they named the
station after the 44th president and his incoming administration "to
recognize their vital interest in the problem of climate change."

"The setting of our study, in an area of rapidly changing climate and
ecology, is an appropriate spot and moment in our history to dedicate
this sampling station to the events taking place in Washington,"
Martinson said in a statement. "In doing so, we hope to bring ocean
sciences and climate change research to the public's attention."

The three-day cruise is a part of a seven-week oceanographic expedition
known as the Palmer, Antarctica Long-Term Ecological Research Project
(PAL-LTER), which has surveyed a section of the western Antarctic
Peninsula each year since 1993.

The peninsula has warmed nearly 11 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950,
leaving the area with 90 fewer days of sea ice cover compared to 1978.
The warming has particularly hurt an Adelie penguin colony near Palmer
Station, which has declined by 80 percent since 1975.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Arctocephalus gazella to you, Water Dog to me

On Monday I was landing on nearby Jacob's Island when I heard a bit of a bark behind me. Knowing that only the smallest seals in the area, the Antarctic Fur Seals, bark, I was excited. Both common sense and the Antarctic Conservation Act prevents humans from getting too close to animals down here so I moved off a bit and landed further down the cove. After getting settled on land, I approached the young male from about 50 feet away and he sat for this nice photo shoot.

Fur seals like my friend here are distinguished by true seals by the presence of external ears and their ability to bring their rear flippers underneath their bodies to walk on all four limbs. They are most closely related to sea lions and are not-too-distant relatives to otters, bears, raccoons and dogs.

The trade in fur seal pelts was responsible for much of the exploration of the Southern Ocean and sub-Antarctic islands. Within 4 years of their discovery on the South Shetland Islands in 1819, the population there was decimated and by 1900 the species was feared to be extinct. Only one small colony is known to have survived, on Bird Island near South Georgia. Today there are at least 4 million Antarctic Fur Seals, 95% of whom live on South Georgia Island. They are pretty rare around Palmer but increasing as the area becomes ice-free. The males weigh about 450 lbs and live about 25 years, the females weigh about 150 lbs and live 35 years or more.

Just by noticing my presence, this fellow gets counted as pretty nervous by local standards. The e-seals generally won't lift their heads until you practically trip over them. However, after watching me for a few minutes, he settled back down and was still there, scratching his back against his rock, when we left a few hours later.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Game Time

I was asked, "what sports are popular at Palmer station ?". Well, now that the snow has cleared from the backyard, Frisbee golf is played by a few people. But far and away, the sport of choice is Kubb (pronounced "Koob"). Not familiar with it ? No surprise. The equipment required is really simple although the rules can be a little complex.

In essence, team members take turns throwing sticks at larger sticks. That might sound like its on the edge of safety already. An additional and important part of the game however is the energetic taunting and dancing mean to distract the opposing team at each throw. Depending of whose playing and how wound-up they are, it can get quite rowdy :)

Lore suggests that Koobs originated with the Vikings and that our lab manager learned it from some Norwegian deckhands on a passing ship.

I'll get some action video of it up sometime.

To start playing Kubb yourself, polish up your Swedish and blink ute this website: http://www.vmkubb.com/index.asp.

Friday, January 9, 2009

T plus 4 months

This is going to be a different sort of blog entry today - no pictures or long-winded descriptions of wildlife. Just me, being introspective.

For years I said I wanted to work in Antarctica. Sometimes at dinners with friends, and always on New Years Resolutions lists, the word "Antarctica". I didn't have any clear motivations for the desire apart from the "wow" factor of being someplace few people go. A couple of years passed. Then, last summer, the realization that I was getting too old, too quickly. Couldn't put it off. I found myself a position at a station I had never heard of, in a part of Antarctica I didn't know existed and couldn't find on a map. Finagled a leave of absence, found friends to housesit. Left my dog, my big city, my blackberry for 7 months without an exit strategy, working a job I didn't know and living in conditions I had no clear idea of. Excited yes ? Certain of anything else ? No.

7 months - long enough to count but not an eternity. Now I'm past the midway mark and in the downhill slide towards home. I left California September 9th and will leave "the ice" about April 9th.

I was inspired to do this post because of comments left by Janice and Jeannie. Janice is a 5-time astronaut and encouraged me to talk about my life here. She says people back home are interested in the smallest things. Jeannie wondered how my cold-prone hands were holding up.

So, here goes: my thoughts on 4 months of life outside the US, in a place with 23 other people.

1. Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes
The first thing I noticed down here was that my eyes and brain have begun talking to each other differently. Even on drab days, I see aquas and blues as vivid, almost pulsingly alive. Anything that sticks through the snow seemed blindingly colorful but never comes out that way in photographs. Also, my body is eager to adjust to the smallest trend in the weather and set its thermostat according to that condition. Two or three days of wind and rain become comfortable but even a degree drop in the temperature becomes cold and I shiver all day. I've had one experience of hypothermia, which is enough. Usually those little chemical handwarmers and lots of layers of clothes do their job.

2. Community life - A close knit family ?
Some towns are probably as small as our community and many families are as big. Psychologically we are somewhat in the middle. Maybe like teams of mars astronauts will be in the future. Everyone has their job and roles are doggedly stuck to. There is no privacy - we know who wakes up early and how early, who's good at their job and who isn't, who steals cookie dough out of the freezer. We could catalog each other clothes. We rarely talk about the things we know. And there are vast gaps in the rest of our conversation - personal life off the ice for instance is mostly taboo. What we are left with is the assurance that every person is fulfilling their role and would save our life if required. And, the daily New York Times crossword. That's exciting.

3. The habits of society
The majority of people on the station, 18 of the 24, are career Antarcticans. They have been doing this seasonal work for years and live itinerantly when they are off the ice. Not a lot of people here are big consumers. Will I change when I get back ? Hard to predict. Living almost without money is comfortable here, I don't know if it will stick.

So, has it been what I expected ? I'm not sure. I think I was prepared for the experience to be anything. It has been, and is, complex. I miss my niece and nephew, I miss the freedom to go for a long walk somewhere warm or greet a stranger. But, I am wowwed to be living in a time when a member of my species is allowed to hang out in this landscape and be (even a somewhat unnatural) part of the greater system. I know I will miss this place very much in 3 more months when it is time to go.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Presenting the vascular plants of Antarctica

The Antarctic hair grass, Deschampsa antarctica

and the cushion-forming pearlwort, Colobanthus quitensis.

That's it :)

Friday, January 2, 2009

The First 10 Days: A Journal of Chick Life

Entry 1: Hatching
December 13th: This is now the land of light. The days run together together into an almost seamless summer epoch. Dawn, if you can call it that, was at 2:17 this morning and the sun won't dip below the horizon until 11:58 this evening. The space between days is filled with weak yellow and purplish light, strong enough to read a book by but somewhat milky and thick-seeming. On Torgerson Island, the Adele's long vigil on their eggs is almost over.

Underneath them, the nesting birds feel small quakes, agitations. They stand often, turning the eggs, looking for signs of progress. Still on the inside, the cramped chicks know its time to emerge and they jab hard with their eggteeth, drilling a hole to the outside world. Its hard work, the chick will expend 2 or 3 days of effort to free themselves.

The newly hatched youngster will weigh a mere 95 grams (a 40th of what they will weight in forty days) and will barely be able to hold its heads up. It will spend the first three or four days tucked completely under their parent. It won't need to eat right away; being nourished instead by a large yolk sac within its body cavity. This internal yolk is a brilliant adaptation that allows chicks to wait for a foraging parent to bring food from the sea.

Entry 2: And baby brother makes two

December 15th: At a good nest near the center of the colony, the first chick has hatched. This chick's egg was laid three days before their sibling's. During the time that their mother was producing the second egg, its parents only lightly covered the first, enough to protect it from the elements but not enough for fast embryo development. Both parents attended their nest round-the-clock, fasting and waiting for their clutch to be complete. Had something happened to the first egg, they would have replaced it with a third. In this case, all went well and the "younger" egg was laid on schedule. Their mother, depleted from her 14 days of fasting, took to the sea to hunt krill and fish. This first trip took her out to ice edge and lasted one to two weeks (usually more than twelve days). Their father, waiting his turn to eat, took his first shift on the eggs. Now the two of them fit well in his egg pouch and he made a good seal to the ground, giving them all the warmth possible. This ability for prolonged fasting which he is exercising demonstrates the hardiness of this tough animal and is unique to Adelie penguins. Assuming these parents demonstrated a typical shift change routine, his 30 days of fasting was followed by a 12 day replenishment trip, and then the parents each took a shift or two of 3-6 days. Timing their handoffs was key to their survival and their chicks.

But that is in the past. Now both chicks have hatched and their parents stay close to the nest.

Entry 3: A week old and in for rough weather
December 21st: The snow started at dawn, gentle at first and then picking up urgency, it swirled in fast, huge flakes. By late morning, twenty cm (8 inches) covered the rocks, the ground and the birds. It could have been a disaster. Had it fallen a week or so later, the chicks would have gotten soaked and cold, with many likely freezing. As it is today, the little ones are still small enough to shelter under mom or dad. This sort of spring storm isn't usual but its part of a trend. The Antarctic peninsula is getting wetter as well as warmer. But, today is a lucky day and chicks and parents look happy and healthy. Chicks tucked into the warmth, parents rise to shake off the flakes.
Posted by Picasa