Saturday, February 27, 2016

First day sampling

Today we made it to our first sampling site!

 As you read in an earlier post, we are looking at soil biodiversity at many stops all along the entire Antarctic Peninsula. Today's stop is at Biscoe Point on Anvers Island, one of the most southern of our sampling sites this year (and about halfway down the entire gradient we're sampling).

 When we sample at a site, we collect soil from under five different types of plant cover: grass, moss, lichen, algae, and bare soil. We want to know how the plants influence what lives in the soil. A lot of people don't think these types of plants would grow somewhere as harsh as Antarctica, but they do! You can see in this photo all of the lush, green plants we found at Biscoe Point!

At the bottom of the photo, you can see a lot of moss (the greener stuff) with tufts of grass growing in it (the browner puffs). Uffe is up on a terrace towards the back sampling grass, and Connor is in the center of the photo sampling under algae.

We take a small sample of the plant material to extract the invertebrates that live in the plants themselves. Then we carefully remove more of the plant material to expose soil. We carefully clean our tools to kill foreign microbes, then scoop a little bit of soil into tubes for microbial analyses, and then more soil into a plastic bag for all of the other biological and chemical analyses that we'll run. We then carefully put the plant material back over the remaining soil to cover up our work and leave as little damage as possible. We did that a total of 70 times! We now have 70 plant samples and 70 soil samples in the lab on the LMG ready to be processed.

There is also a colony of Gentoo penguins that lives at Biscoe Point. We sample away from the rookery, but we walked by a few on-lookers on the way back to the boat. The scruffy looking penguins are the juveniles that are molting into their adult plumage.

Biscoe Point is near Palmer Station, which is where we're docked for the night. We were able to visit the station and meet some of the scientists working here. (And, I got a note from my friend Magen who was here just a few days ago on a National Geographic cruise!)

Tomorrow, we have a lot of lab work to do, while the LMG carries us back to the top of the Peninsula to sample our northern-most site! Here's hoping it's a smoother ride than coming down...

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Data Recovery

We finally made it through the Drake Passage! It was a rough ride, so I’m glad it’s over. Today, we were helping out another project.

Over a year ago, a group of scientists dropped moorings into the ocean to measure sea temperature. They are concerned that temperature change will allow an invasive crab to move into Antarctica from the deep ocean. The crab could have a BIG impact, because it would be a new predator in the ecosystem! The deep ocean crab hasn’t been able to live in Antarctica because the temperature is too cold and magnesium levels in the water are too high. But, with global climate change, the water has been changing. Over a year ago, the scientists dropped temperature sensors into the ocean that were anchored into the ocean floor. Temperature probes measured the sea temperature at certain depths over the course of the past year. Since we were in the area (and Maggie, one of the scientists in their group, is on the LMG right now), we stopped at each of the moorings to pick up the data loggers.

First, we had to hover the boat in just the right spot so that the computers on the LMG can “talk” to the receiver attached to the mooring. Once we made the link, the technician on the LMG pressed a button to release the data loggers from the moorings. The data loggers gradually floated to the surface attached to yellow buoys. Once it floated to the top, we had to find them floating on the water. All of the people on board were scattered around the bridge and decks to find the buoys when they popped up. (Whoever spotted it first won a candy bar!) I was up on the bridge with the Captain, First Mate, and a couple other scientists.

It’s hard to notice a small yellow buoy on open water. In the photo below, can you see it? It’s there! (Hint: it’s over on the right side of the photo.) Now picture trying to find it floating among white-caps on the waves, ice bergs, and birds!

Once it was spotted, the captain would steer the boat close to the buoy and someone on deck would hook it with a grappling hook and pull it on board. The data loggers are just small silver cylinders attached to the big buoy.

We collected the buoys from three different moorings off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Now, Maggie has the data loggers carrying over a year’s worth of sea temperature data. She will send them back to the scientists in the U.S., who will look at the data to see how it influences the spread of the crab species. Curious? You can learn more about their research project at: There’s a video you can watch on their homepage that tells you all about it!

Now, we are on our way to Biscoe Point on Anvers Island, which will be our first sampling site!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Drake Passage

After about a day of calm sailing out of the Strait of Magellan, we entered the Drake Passage. Boy, has it been quite a ride! Winds have averaged about 30-40 knots (roughly 35-45 mph), with frequent gusts up to 50 knots! Waves have been around 10 feet. So, while it certainly could be worse, it’s been quite a trip! It takes a lot of effort to walk anywhere on the boat, and anything not secured has been flying around! Last night Uffe flew right out of the chair he was sitting in, and I gave up trying to eat with a plate in the galley and just stick to fruit that I can hold in my hand. Most of us have hunkered down in our bunks to wait it out (except Connor, who has been busily studying and doing his homework for classes back at ASU! I’m impressed that he is able to read and write through this, because I have a hard time just staying upright in a chair!)

I tried to get some pictures through my porthole to show what it’s like, but the photos don’t really do it justice.

We were followed for a while by some albatross and petrels. I stood out on the deck to watch the albatross before the weather got bad, but now we’re not allowed out on deck at all. I don’t have much desire to go out there anyway, since with wind chill it’s -20°C right now!

We’ve been moving at a steady 10 knots (about 11.5 mph) since we left Punta Arenas. If you’d like to watch the boat’s movement, you can look at these two websites that track us (and other boats in the area):

Tomorrow we’re expected to hit our first stop, which is a point at the base of the Drake Passage. A couple years ago, some other scientists anchored some moorings that have been measuring sea temperature. We’re going to pick up the data loggers for them, since we’re passing by, then move on to the first sampling point for our soil research. Hopefully the water will smooth out before then so that we are able to get our gear together and prepare!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Under Way

We are at sea!

Yesterday, we stowed all of our gear on board our ship, the Laurence M. Gould (or LMG for short). This will be our home for the next month!

Here is the LMG in port at Punta Arenas. You can see the crane towards the back working hard, unloading the gear from the previous research project and loading gear for ours:

The LMG is named after Laurence McKinley Gould, an early polar scientist and geologist. He came to Antarctica on Admiral Byrd’s famous first expedition. He died in 1995 at a ripe 99 years old! Two years later, the LMG was built and named after him. It’s 230 feet long, and specially designed for Antarctic research. It can break through 1 foot of ice, and has laboratories and dive and boating facilities, as well as a galley (dining hall), dorm rooms, and everything else we need to live on board.

This morning, we set sail. We stood out on deck watching the men work to complete loading and remove our moorings, and then away we went! Here’s the view of Punta Arenas as we sailed away. Do you see the yellow and blue building in the middle? That’s the warehouse for the U.S. Antarctic Program and the pier that we left from.

As we were leaving Punta Arenas, a pod of Commerson’s dolphins followed us!

We are currently in the Strait of Magellan, at the southern tip of Chile and Argentina. South America is to the north of us, and Tierra del Fuego is to the south. Tomorrow, we will be out in the Drake Passage, which is the waterway between South America and Antarctica, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It is famous for being very rough waters, with high winds and big waves, and a lot of people get sea sick. The journey will depend a lot on weather, but we could be in for a very rocky ride for the next 3-4 days! We’ll see what tomorrow brings…

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Punta Arenas

We made it to Punta Arenas, Chile! This is a port town at the southern tip of Chile, along the Strait of Magellan. This is where we get on the research vessel to head down to Antarctica. You can see our boat, the Lawrence M. Gould, there at the dock. It's the orange one, which is far less fancy than the cruise ship that it's next to. You can also see some shags and gulls on the beach:

All five of our team members are finally together! Here in Punta Arenas, we get all of our gear and load everything onto the vessel. Then, we have a little bit of time to explore the town. In the town square, there is a statue of Magellan. It is traditional to rub his toe for good luck before beginning a journey. Now that the group is all together, here we are rubbing the toe. Certainly, this will help us have a smooth journey across the Drake Passage and down to Antarctica!
So this is our team! In the photo there is Uffe, me, Connor, Kelli, and Dave. We're ready to set sail tomorrow!

Thursday, February 18, 2016


Connor and I begin the journey south today! We will fly from Phoenix (where Arizona State University is) to Punta Arenas, Chile. In Chile, we will be outfitted with our gear and get everything loaded onto the ship. Next time I post will probably be from Chile!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Get ready... Get set...

It’s almost time to start our next field season! Our field season begins when we fly south on February 18. That’s just a couple of weeks away!

This year, we will complete our “latitudinal gradient” along the Antarctic Peninsula. For this project, we are exploring the diversity of soil biological communities along the entire Antarctic Peninsula. We will discover what species live in all of the places we visit. We will also compare who lives at each site with the plants and soil chemistry to understand how the environment influences the soil biology. That way, we can predict what will happen to the soil biology as the environment changes.

The entire latitudinal gradient will cover 10-12 sites along the entire length of the Peninsula. Last year, we were based at Rothera Station, about halfway down the Peninsula, to visit the southern sites. This year, we will visit the northern half of the Peninsula. Here’s our plan:

The red tacks are islands we definitely plan to sample. The yellow tacks are places we hope to sample if we have time. But, of course, with Antarctic field work, the plan can always change at the last minute if the weather doesn’t cooperate!

This season will be very exciting for me, because I’ve actually never been this far north in Antarctica! I’m usually much further south where conditions are harsher, but the northern part of the Peninsula looks more like a lush tundra, rather than a polar desert. I will see more wildlife than I have been able to see before, and that will be very fun!

This is also the first year that our research will be based on the research vessel. Normally, marine scientists work on the ships so that they can sample ocean water, and we soil ecologists work from field camps on land. But the ship is the best way for us to travel between the islands, so we’ll be living like marine scientists for a season! We’ll be traveling and working on a vessel called the Laurence M. Gould, which is named after a geologist that traveled to Antarctica back in the 1929. You can read all about the ship here, here, and here.

So, on the 18th, I begin my journey by flying to Punta Arenas, Chile. I’m flying down with one of my students, Connor. In Punta Arenas, we will meet up with the rest of our research team: Uffe (who you might remember from last year), Dave, and Kelli. I’ll keep you posted!