Monday, January 19, 2015

Now that I'm home... some videos!

I made it back to Phoenix, Arizona last week according to schedule. It was a long journey, taking about 25 hours total. When I got home, I came down with a cold! (This is funny, since I was going from a cold place to a much warmer place. Night-time temperatures in Phoenix are warmer than day-time temperatures at Rothera!)

Now that I'm back home and have fast internet, I want to share some video clips with you that I wasn't able to upload from Rothera Station.

First, some wildlife! There were a lot of elephant seals around Rothera. Most of them are juvenile males, and they spent a lot of time bickering with each other (practicing for when they're adults that will want to rule a beach). When they weren't scuffling with each other, they were lying around looking lazy! Here's a video of some of their behavior. Be sure your sound is on so that you can hear them.

And some tinier wildlife! This is a video Uffe took when he found a crowd of springtails in a puddle. They're doing what's called "rafting". They hold onto each other in a bundle and float on water. We were often surprised by how many springtails we found at the sites!

A lot of our sampling sites were on nearby islands, and we took a boat to visit those sampling sites. Here's what it's like to be on a boat in Marguerite Bay, Antarctica:

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Back in Punta Arenas, Chile

After almost two months at Rothera Station, we have begun the journey back home. We flew from Rothera back to Punta Arenas, Chile.

While we are here, we are returning the cold-weather clothing to the U.S. Antarctic Program headquarters. We are also enjoying meals made out of fresh food, especially fruit and vegetables!

Soon, we will continue our journey home, and I will spend about 24 hours flying back to the U.S.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Wrapping up the Field Season

We've been spending a lot of time on the microscopes looking at our samples. We are interested in the invertebrates living in the soil. At Rothera, we've only been able to look at the larger invertebrates, such as Springtails and mites. The smaller invertebrates (the nematodes and rotifers) require higher power microscopes, so we will look at those from our labs at home.

Here's some of what we've seen:
Collembola, also known as Springtails
We've found a LOT of springtails. Many of the samples from the islands near Rothera have thousands of springtails in them! Here's what we saw in the field:
Springtails "rafting" in a puddle of water

There are also a lot of mites in the samples, but they are not nearly as numerous as the springtails.
Oribatid mites
Other than microscope work, for the past few days, Uffe and I have been packing up to leave. We are scheduled to leave Rothera in two days! We have carefully packed up our samples and science gear to be shipped home. The lab has been cleared out and cleaned up, and we've put away all of our field gear. The end of our season is near! On Thursday, we will hopefully be boarding the Dash 7 to return to Punta Arenas and begin our journey home.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Shackleton’s Endurance

People have been coming to the Antarctic for over 100 years. I get to fly down on airplanes and live in heated buildings with electricity, telephones, and internet. 100 years ago, though, it was a lot tougher! The people that were first exploring the continent dealt with amazing challenges, often facing death, in the name of science and knowledge. They traveled to the Antarctica not on airplanes, but on ships sailing from their home countries. These ships were usually very thick and capable of handling the ice around Antarctica, but they did not have the modern metals and motors that we use in ice-breaker ships today! The ships were wooden and powered by sails and steam.

One of the famous men that led many of these expeditions was named Ernest Shackleton. One of his most famous journeys was along the Antarctic Peninsula, just on the other side of where I am now. Shackleton and his team of explorers traveled to Antarctica from Great Britain on a ship called the Endurance in 1914. What they endured is an incredible story!
The Endurance stuck in winter ice, from PBS
Their goal was to sail as far south as they could through the ice to reach land. They were then planning to march across Antarctica from the coast, through the South Pole, to the other side of the continent. It would have been the first Antarctic traverse ever.

The Endurance just before sinking, from Wikipedia
However, the Endurance got stuck in the ice. This often happens to boats traveling around Antarctica. The ice moves around on the tides and with the winds. (You’ve heard me talk about it blowing in and out of the bay near Rothera Station, blocking our boats.) If the pieces of ice wedge in too tightly, the boat cannot keep pushing through. If winter sets in, everything freezes solid, and the boat has to sit there until summer when it melts! Unfortunately, the Endurance got stuck, and the ice surrounding it kept getting squeezed together until it crushed their ship. The Endurance sank, and left the men stranded on the ice out on the ocean with nothing but their three smaller life boats (which were useless at the time, because of all the ice) and as much food and survival gear as they could carry.

Their goal then became to march across the ice towards land. They marched across ice, which was breaking apart beneath them, pulling their boats, food, tents… everything they needed to survive. At first they used their sled dogs to help pull their gear, but they slowly lost their dogs (to illness, fatigue, and human hunger.)
Man-hauling the life boats, from CoolAntarctica

Eventually they made it to the point where the ice was ending and they could use their boats. Their life boats were small, powered only by sails and rowing, and did not offer much protection from bad weather. They were not meant for long journeys through Antarctica! The best they could do in these boats was get themselves to an uninhabited island called Elephant Island (named for the elephant seals that lived there). Nobody knew they were there, but they needed to be rescued as soon as possible, because they were frostbitten, starved, sick, and running out of food. The only way to get help was to send a small party of people on one of the boats to the nearest whaling colony on South Georgia Island, across 800 miles of open Antarctic ocean during the winter! Only six of the explorers went on one of the life boats, called the James Caird. The rest of the crew remained on Elephant Island to wait out the winter, using the other two overturned life boats as shelter.

The men aborard the James Caird from Wikipedia
Amazingly, Shackleton and the few men who went on the James Caird made it through the 2-week journey through storms and the open ocean to South Georgia. However, because of the weather, the only place they could land on South Georgia was on the opposite side from where the colony was! They had to walk across the island, which was covered with glaciers and crevasses, and generally considered un-crossable by the whalers living in the colony. But they had no choice. They marched across, and miraculously arrived at the whaling station a few days later.

From there, they were able to use a whaling vessel to get them to Punta Arenas, Chile. The Chilean government lent them a ship that was able, after many attempts, to get to Elephant Island and rescue the starving, weather-beaten crew. The most amazing part of the story is not just that they were able to endure such harsh conditions and misadventures, but that not one single member of the Endurance’s crew died during the adventure. (Ironically, after returning home from such a death-defying journey, many of them enlisted in the army to fight in World War I, which was breaking out as they were leaving Great Britain, and several died on battlefields.)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year!

Welcome to 2015!

We had a great New Year's Eve. Our day began by visiting Leonie Island, which was our final sampling site. It's a very lush island, with a lot of healthy grass, moss, and algae. It provided great samples! In the picture below, you see the brown tufts of hairgrass, and the green carpets of moss and algae.
Two skuas at our sampling site on Leonie Island.
There are only two flowering plants in Antarctica, and they are both only found along the Peninsula. (Moss is a plant, but it's a bryophyte, not a flowering plant.) There's the hairgrass, which I've mentioned before. The second one is a pearlwort. We've sampled hairgrass from the other islands we've visited, but Leonie is the only place where we've found pearlwort this far south. We found the pearlwort, but not in large enough patches to be able to sample. (We don't sample if it mean we'd have to collect the entire plant, because that's too destructive to the environment.)
Antarctic pearlwort, Colobanthus quitensis
After a successful day of sampling in beautiful weather, we ended the day with a station celebration of the New Year. We had a BBQ down on the wharf, and ended the evening up on the hill where we rang in the New Year at midnight. Since we have 24 hours of daylight here, it was of course still light out at midnight. Here is the view from the hill at midnight. It was my first view of Antarctica in 2015!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ship Relief

It has been a busy time on base these past few days. We have a big ship in port, called the James Clark Ross.
This ship brings in relief supplies for the base, including loads of food, barrels of fuel, and science equipment. It’s the main way that most cargo gets to base from the UK, since the planes can’t carry a lot at once.

Unloading all the cargo is a big job! There is now constant traffic of cranes and tractors moving cargo containers around base, and most people have been pulled away from their regular duties to help. 
The wharf is busy with unloading the ship ("ship relief", as it's called), so we can’t use the small boats to get to our remaining field site. Since we can’t do our sampling, we pitch in to help unload. Over the past couple of days, I have moved a LOT of food from the shipping containers into the storage rooms and freezers around base. It has been quite a workout for my arm muscles!

Hopefully, the ship will be unloaded and away from the wharf on Wednesday, so that we can get to our final field site.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

What we can learn from the Larsen Ice Shelf

The Larsen Ice Shelf is a huge piece of ice that sits on the other side of the Antarctic Peninsula from Rothera Station. It is divided into sections, which are named, from north to south (left to right, in the map), the Larsen A, B, and C.
Back in 2002, a large piece of the Larsen B broke off into the ocean. The piece that broke off was 1,250 square miles, about the size of Rhode Island! It broke apart and fell into the ocean over a course of about a month. (You can see the satellite images of its breakup on NASA’s website.) The loss of the Larsen B was a huge event, because it was the loss of a LOT of ice over a relatively short period of time.
Satellite image of the Larsen B breakup from NASA's website
The Larsen B section of ice was mostly covering the ocean (but connected to ice on the land). Because it was already floating, the amount of water in the ice did not add new water to the ocean when it broke off. That means it did not cause any rise in overall sea level. Think about it… When the ice melts in your glass of water, the glass doesn’t get more full of water. That’s because the ice was already taking up space while it was a frozen cube. Whether the water in the glass is frozen or liquid, it’s still part of the overall level of water in the glass, so when it melts, the water level doesn’t change. But, if you add new ice cubes to your glass, the water level would rise because you added more water (frozen water) that wasn’t already there. The remaining ice on the Larsen Ice Shelf is “grounded ice”, meaning it covers land, not water. If it breaks off, it would add new water to the ocean and cause sea level rise.

Many of the scientists working from Rothera Station study the Larsen Ice Shelf. Some of them study why the Larsen B section broke off. (Scientists think it was caused by higher temperatures creating many pools of meltwater on the surface. The meltwater leaks into cracks and crevasses in the ice, to then act like wedges that deepen the cracks and break the ice into pieces.) The scientists I met study what that break-off means for the ice that remains. Is the remaining ice less stable now that it’s lost a huge chunk of itself? They have put GPS stations around the ice so that they can track the speed of its movement. It’s important to know if the rest of the Larsen Ice Shelf is stable, because its breaking would contribute to sea level rise.

I also met scientists who study what that loss of ice means for the rock and earth beneath the section that broke off. Ice is very heavy and can actually squash the rock and earth beneath it. We don’t usually think of rock and being squishy enough to be mashed down by ice, but the ice is that heavy! It can squash rock! When large pieces of ice disappear, the rock beneath it can re-expand now that the weight is no longer pushing it down. (Think about pushing down on a sponge with your hand. When you remove your hand, the sponge re-expands.) That happens pretty quickly after the ice is gone. Even after that re-expansion, the ground will continue expanding because the magma in the mantle is able to flow back in to the crust to keep pushing up on the earth. (Think again about pushing down on a sponge with your hand, but think about pushing it down in a bowl of water. When you move your hand, it would not only re-expand because the weight of your hand is gone, but it would also start to soak up water to expand even bigger.) Scientists are using radar and GPS to measure that ground expansion after the Larsen B fell off. Most of the expansion they’ve measured so far is actually from the mantle flowing back in, which surprised them, because they expected that part would happens much more slowly.

The Larsen B receives a lot of attention, but it was not the first or last of the ice shelves to break apart. There have been many other examples of major ice shelves breaking up over recent years, including the Wilkins Ice Shelf. Loss of ice is expected to continue of warming continues in this area.