Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Back in Punta Arenas

We are pack in Punta Arenas, Chile now. We docked about 8:00 this morning. Now that we're back in Chile, the work is not over! Today Uffe, Dave, and I spent much of our time in the warehouse packing samples for shipment home.

The samples have to stay at -20°C during the whole trip back to the U.S. We pack them in special insulated boxes with a lot of "blue ice", which are special ice packs that stay very cold. Here, Uffe and Dave are helping our lab tech Cindy pack a box of soil samples. You can see all of the blue ice that is on top. The blue ice is already -20°C, so Dave has to wear gloves to handle it.

Once the samples are packed in the boxes with the blue ice, we add a lot of labels to the outside. There are labels with the destination address, of course, but also our collection permits, information about the samples, and safety information. Plus, there are stickers telling the cargo handlers that the samples need to stay frozen and handled with care. Here, Dave is about halfway through adding labels:

We have a total of five of these boxes with our soils that need to stay frozen. We also have several more boxes that are not frozen, as well as all of our cargo. It's all packed up and ready to head back to the U.S.!

From here, our group is splitting up. Uffe is going back to Australia soon, Connor and Kelli are going back to the U.S. soon. Dave and I are staying in Chile for about another week. I will get home shortly before all of my samples do!

It has been a GREAT research trip. We got a lot done, more than we thought we would, and we worked with a lot of great people. Tonight, we all went out and celebrated a successful cruise. We ate dinner at a restaurant in Punta Arenas, which was a very welcome change compared to the food we've been eating on the ship! Unfortunately, I forgot to take a group photo...

Monday, March 21, 2016

Drake Passage, Take 2

The Drake Passage is the body of water between the southern tip of South America (called Cape Horn) and the northern tip of Antarctica (essentially, at our northern-most sampling sites). To remind you of the geography here: The southern tip of South America is a large island called Tierra del Fuego. The Strait of Magellan passes between mainland South America and Tierra del Fuego, and the very southern tip of Tierra del Fuego is called Cape Horn. So, Cape Horn is the southern-most point of South America, and the Drake Passage flows below it (between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula), connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. 


The Drake Passage is named after Sir Francis Drake, a sea captain during the Elizabethan Era in the 1500s who circumnavigated the world in one journey. There are rumors that Drake discovered this passage during his journey by accident. The story is that his ships were trying to get through the Strait of Magellan (because that was the known passage between the Atlantic and Pacific), but they were blow too far south by a bad storm and discovered that the continent ended and the oceans were connected by this Passage. It’s possible that it happened this way, but some argue that it’s not likely (and there are no accurate historical accounts to prove it happened). So, naming the passage after Sir Francis Drake might be a misnomer!

The Drake Passage is famous for having very rough seas. This is because of a mixture of ocean currents and wind. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current, or ACC, is an ocean current that flows clockwise around Antarctica. Because Antarctica is a nice, round continent and there are no major chunks of land in the ocean surrounding it (just little islands), there is a clear path for the current to move in a circle around Antarctica. That makes it a very strong current, in fact the strongest one on the planet!

In the Drake Passage, the cold-water ACC meets with the warmer currents from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. These different currents don’t mix together neatly, and the water gets famously rough here in the Drake where they come together. There are also some very strong westerly winds (that is, winds coming from the west) that make it very windy, in addition to the choppy mixing of ocean currents.

Some days are choppier and windier than other, of course. When we crossed the Drake at the beginning of our trip, the conditions were on the bad side. We had fairly large waves and very high winds (around 40 to 50 knots, sometimes even up to 60 knots). Worse conditions have certainly been reported for the Drake, but we had 2-3 days of constant wind and waves. It made for a very tough few days! This time, the weather was better. Winds were only around 30-40 knots, and while we had some big waves, it was just occasional. We didn’t have two solid days of rough seas. We fared much better this time! Last time, all of us spent most of the time laying in our bunks. This time, we were all up and moving around more, eating most of our meals like normal.

It’s hard to get a good picture to show you the waves, because you have to catch it at just the right moment. Plus, it’s hard to stand outside on deck in heavy seas! This is the best I could do. (And remember, this is from today, the much nicer trip across the Drake compared to when we were last here.)

video

We still have another day or two of sailing before we are back in Punta Arenas. We are just now able to see Argentina in the horizon.

(Note: Maps from Wikimedia)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

It’s not all field work…

We left Palmer yesterday morning, after picking up cargo and some passengers. We headed back up to Livingston Island, where there is a field camp at Cape Shirreff. We have to pick up some scientists who have been living and working there and take them back to Punta Arenas with us. Since the field camp is closing for the season, there was a lot of cargo to load onto the ship! We pitched in to help with the loading and unloading.

There isn’t a pier at Cape Shirreff, so everything had to ferried across on the zodiacs. First, the zodiacs carried some of us from the LMG over to the camp to help load gear into cargo bags. Uffe, Dave, and Kelli went with that group. Here’s that group waiting to get on the zodiacs and head for shore in the background:


They loaded the gear onto the zodiacs, and the MT’s were driving the zodiacs back and forth to deliver it all to the LMG. Here’s Mike and Branson bringing us a load. A crane pulls the cargo bag out of the zodiac and puts it on the back deck of the LMG.


Connor and I were on “deck duty” here on the LMG. We helped load all of that cargo into a mill van that will hold it all the way back to Punta Arenas. Here we are in the mill van, along with Cindy who also was on deck duty:


It was sweaty work! We were feeling pretty tough at the end of it:


From here, we head back to Punta Arenas. It will take a few days re-crossing the Drake Passage back to South America. The weather reports are that it won’t be too bad for the rest of today, but then a low pressure system moves in and we’ll have rough seas again. At least this time we know how to prepare. I have two water bottles full of water and a stash of apples and nuts. That way, I can just lay in my cabin without having to get up to get food and water. We’ll all hunker down again for a couple days until we arrive back in the Strait of Magellan. We’ll see if I can write any blog posts during the transit…

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Happy Saint Patrick's Day

Happy Saint Patrick's Day from Palmer Station!

We're done with field work, so we've been using our time to wrap things up in the lab. First, we had to process the samples we collected at Berthelot Island. We had help in the lab this time from Garcon, the traveling alligator. (Since he helped collect the samples, he wanted to see what we did in the lab, too.)

A while ago I told you about some of the lab work that we do. Here, Garcon is helping us weigh out the soils to extract the organisms in the soil. You've already seen the cans we use to get microarthropods like collembola and mites. That method only works well for the tiny invertebrates that live in the air around plant and soil. There are other types of invertebrates that live in the water in soil, such as nematodes and tardigrades. They rely on the water to move around, so if the soil dries out in the funnels under a light bulb, they can't move to fall into our vials of ethanol.  Instead, we have to use water to get them out of the soil. This is usually done using a setup called "Baermann funnels", but just like with everything else in the lab, we have to modify it to work on a ship on the ocean. We wrap some soil in a tissue, then put that tissue on a screen surrounded by water. The invertebrates leave the soil and float in the water outside the soil, then drop down to the bottom of the dish. After three days, we remove the soil and use a pipet to suck up the nematodes, rotifers, and tardigrades to put in vials that we send home to look at under a microscope. We were worried about the dishes of water spilling, because the ship rocks in the waves. Our MT Tom made us this great rack that's fastened to the lab bench, so we were able to run loads of samples all season!

While we're finishing in the lab, the crew are loading cargo and some people from Palmer Station are moving onto the boat to go home. We leave Palmer tomorrow morning to head north.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Yesterday we arrived back at Palmer Station. We'll be taking on some cargo and people that need to get back to Punta Arenas with us. While we are here, we had hoped to sample on some nearby islands called the Stepping Stones. The weather has been awful! As soon as we got here, the barometric pressure dropped, the temperatures dipped below freezing, the wind picked up, and it started to snow a bit. So, of course we asked our MT's to go out in the zodiacs to sample! MT Tom was the only one willing to go out in the yucky weather with us, and he dropped us off at Stepping Stones 2 miles away from the station. We tried to sample soil, but the ground was frozen solid! We had to return back to the LMG unsuccessful.

On Stepping Stones, there are a lot of giant petrels. Petrels are sea birds that are sort of related to gulls and skuas, and they look a lot like albatrosses (but they're in a different family). Giant petrels are the largest petrel species. Their wingspan is 3-4 feet. It was neat to be around such big birds, and we even got to see some babies! Giant petrels are scavengers, so they'll eat just about anything they can find like dead penguins and seals, but they aren't aggressive scavengers like skuas. They didn't bother us and we tried not to bother them! The two fluffy petrels on the ground are the juveniles, and we didn't want to accidentally scare them into trying to fly in the cold wind. It's best to let them stay on their nests where it's safe (even though they're bigger than the nest, at this point!).

The weather got even worse today, with 50 knot winds and quite a lot of rain. The weather forecast is for it to stay like this up until we leave, so we probably won't get to go back to Stepping Stones to sample. That means that yesterday's attempted sampling trip was probably the last one of the season. Here's the group selfie we took on the way back when we realized it might be our last zodiac trip:
Dave, Connor, MT Tom, Kelli, Uffe and Becky
From here, we have to spend a couple more days at Palmer dealing with cargo, then we begin the journey back north to Punta Arenas, which will take us about a week. Even though we are probably done collecting samples, we still have a lot of lab work and packing to keep us busy!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Back at Palmer Station

We traveled to Cape Evensen, which is an extra site that we added to our trip. Because we were so far ahead of schedule, we got permission to go even farther south to sample in a small gap in our overall gradient. Cape Evensen is at 66°S, so just below the Antarctic Circle.

The weather was nice enough while we were there. Since it had snowed the day before, though, we found that it was difficult to find any sampling sites. We saw moss in several locations, but not in large enough patches to sample. We won't sample beneath a plant if it means the whole patch would be taken, because that is too destructive. Plus, a lot of them were on the sides of sheer cliffs, and we could not get to them! The one place where we had record of previous scientists sampling was completely covered by snow, so we couldn't get to it. So, it was disappointing not to be able to sample, but we did get to see a lot of great scenery while we traveled the coastline trying to find something. Plus, Cape Evensen is on the mainland of the Antarctic continent, whereas our other sampling sites have all been islands just off the coast of Antarctica. Connor and Kelli got to set foot on the continent for the first time!

We then traveled back north to the Berthelot Islands in the hopes that some of the snow had melted. We were in luck! The day was sunny and just above freezing. The snow was melting pretty quickly. We spent the day scoping out potential sampling sites, and found one that would work. We decided to wait to sample until the next day, to give it the best chance to melt. That night, we had the most beautiful sunset, with a crescent moon, and that night the sky was so clear that we could see every star. The Chief Mate even turned out a bunch of the flood lights for a while so that we could see better.

The following day we sampled on Berthelot Island as we planned, except clouds had come back into the sky and everything was pretty frozen! It was a very icy and slippery sampling, but we did it! We even had help from Garcon, the traveling Alligator from Lafourche Public Library in Galliano, Louisiana!

After sampling at Berthelot, we headed back up to Palmer Station where we will be picking up some cargo, as well as a few people who are returning to the U.S. along with us. That's where we currently sit!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Ship life



Since we can’t do science today, I thought I’d tell you a bit about life on the LMG. We live and work on the research vessel. I’ve told you a bit about our lab work. What about our living environment? There are about 20 staterooms on the vessel, each that have two bunk beds. (A stateroom is just the marine term for a dorm room, really.) Because we’re not very crowded, each of us has our own room. Here’s a photo of mine:


We have plenty of cupboard space for our clothes and gear, and a little cubby and light next to our bed for reading. I sleep on the top bunk so that I can look out of the porthole. On top of the cupboard you see the reflection from the life preserver and emersion suit if we have to abandon ship. The curtains on the bunks let you shut out light if you have a roommate who is still awake.

Each stateroom also has a bathroom. It’s not fancy, but it works!


The toilets are a bit unique. They flush by water pressure created by gravity. Instead of a normal flusher like you have on your toilet at home, we have a handle that opens the pipe. That drops a bunch of water from above to flush out anything in the toilet. It works… most of the time! If anyone doesn’t close their handle all the way, it ruins the water pressure and everyone has a problem flushing.


Because I’m the Chief Scientist on this cruise, I have a special stateroom that includes an office. You can see me drying my gloves over the heater to the right. There’s a pillow on the couch, because that’s where I recline when the seas are rough. All of the furniture is bolted to the floor or walls, except the two office chairs, and all of the doors and drawers have latches on them to prevent things from sliding around when the boat rolls and pitches on the waves. When we were crossing the Drake Passage, Uffe was sitting in the chair under the porthole and flew right out of it! He ended up sitting on the floor, without spilling a single drop of his cup of tea.


We all eat downstairs in the galley. Everything is bolted to the floor or table, otherwise we’d have a big mess! Condiments are all in the trays, and the AB’s just made plexiglass mug holders (the clear boxes with wooden frames) to hold our drinks. The screen on the far left tells us our speed, position and heading, wind speed and weather information, and next destination.


There are also places to recreate on the boat. The lounge is the main place for that. There’s a bunch of comfy sofas, a big TV for watching movies, a table where we play board games, and bookshelves with lots to read. (Those are Ethernet cables hanging down, so that we can plug in our laptops.)


There’s also a sauna (but it’s not very nice, and so far nobody has bothered to turn it on), and a gym with a few pieces of exercise equipment. My favorite recreational activity is the giant crossword puzzles that our Electronics Technician, Branson, puts up on the wall. He puts up the NY Times Sunday puzzles, which are the hardest, and we all work on them together. Pretty much everyone who walks by will stop to try at least one clue, so we finish them in a day or two. (And if you zoom in on the photo enough, you see that it actually says “Where is our next puzzle?” because Branson hasn’t changed it since yesterday. Someone is antsy for a new puzzle to work on!)


Tomorrow we’ll wake up at our southern-most sampling site for this year, Cape Evensen. Hopefully there’s less snow on the ground there!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Beautiful Antarctica

We’ve been moving right along with our sampling. Our original schedule was to sample five locations, with two additional sites that we could sample if we had time. We’re so far ahead of schedule that we’ve already sampled six of those sites, and we’re on our way to the seventh. Since we’re doing so well, we asked permission to sample sites even further south, so that’s where we’ll be headed next!

One of the fun things about this field season is that we get to sample at so many different places from north to south. Each island is different, so we never get bored even though our sampling routine is a bit repetitive. Plus, traveling between islands has allowed us to sail through some beautiful places! Here are some photos of what we’ve seen recently. This will hopefully give you an idea of the amazing diversity of ecosystems here along the Antarctic Peninsula.

Becky, Kelli, and Connor at the base of our sampling site on King George Island. Look at all of that grass and moss!


Columnar basalt from old volcanic activity at Byers Peninsula on Livingston Island (another one of our recent sampling sites).


A beautiful sunset over the ocean.


It was very hard to find a spot for sampling plant cover on Spert Island because of these steep rocky cliffs. We had to circle the entire island in zodiacs, but we eventually found a great spot tucked away in a secret nook!


A few of us in a zodiac next to an iceberg as we circled Spert Island to find a good sampling site.


Passing through the Lemaire Passage. We headed straight ahead into that small opening! (It’s actually wider than it looks. Those mountains are very big, but far away.)


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Seals galore


Our research is about soil and the microscopic organisms living in it, but we also get to see a lot of bigger animals that live in Antarctica. We’ve seen whales, dolphins, seals, and lots of different birds. We’ve seen a few different species of seal, but mostly elephant seals and fur seals. Anyone who followed my blog last year knows all about elephant seals, because there are a LOT of them at Rothera Station. This is the first year I’ve worked around a lot of fur seals.

Fur seals are more closely related to sea lions than they are to other seals. They have external ears and can walk on all fours, like sea lions. The Antarctic fur seal is one of two species that live in Antarctica. Its scientific name is Arctocephalus gazella, and it is also known as the Kerguelen fur seal. They live on rocky or sandy beaches along the Antarctic Peninsula and nearby islands, including all of the places we’ve sampled so far. Here’s a great photo that our lab technician Cindy took at Signy Island:


Antarctic fur seals are dark brown, and have what we call sexual dimorphism. That means that the males and females look different from each other. Males are much bigger than females, weighing a few hundred pounds (anywhere from 200 to over 400 lbs), and they get a silver-streaked mane.

Fur seals eat mostly krill during the summer (right now), with occasional fish or squid. They will go out to feed for several days, following the krill up and down in the water column. The rest of the time they mostly lie around on the beaches. We usually see them lying around lazily, but sometimes they’re also playing in the water, which is fun to watch! 


We are here in Antarctica right at the end of their breeding season. Fur seals breed in groups, where a dominant male can mate with around a dozen or more females. Females are pregnant for just over a year, and pups are born during the following summer. About a week after they’re born, they are left alone in groups while the mothers go out to feed. The mothers return to feed them about two days out of each week, and they are weaned after four months, leaving the colonies in late summer (right about now).

Because of their dense fur, they were hunted for their pelts. In many places, they were hunted to local extinction. (Local extinction means almost completely gone from that particular area, but still living in other places so not totally extinct. It means the population is overall smaller, living in fewer habitats, and therefore more at risk of going extinct altogether.) So many Antarctic fur seals were hunted that they went locally extinct over most of their range, but a small population remained and expanded once the fur seal became a protected species and hunting stopped.


Fur seals are much more aggressive than other seals I’ve worked around, and they’ve been known to charge at people. They can move pretty fast, despite being over 6 feet long and weighing hundreds of pounds! We try to stay as far from them as possible, because we’re not allowed to disturb the wildlife (and don’t want to be chased!), but many of the beaches we land on are covered with a lot of them. Mostly they just snort at us, just like the elephant seals do, but the other day while we were walking to our sampling site on King George Island, one charged at us. We ran! Kelli ran the fastest, because she does NOT like fur seals. I still like them better than elephant seals, though, because they’re less noisy.

(Source: Stonehouse, B. Encyclopedia of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans. Learn more about them on Wikipedia.)

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Katabatic winds



We’ve been trucking right along with our sampling! Our sampling at Elephant Island was quite a challenge. The katabatic winds coming down the cliffs made it difficult to get the zodiacs in. Katabatic winds are created by cool air masses rushing down a slope. They rush downslope because cold air is denser than warm air. The cold air is at high altitude because of the height of the island, but at the coast (where the island stops), the air is so dense that gravity causes it to rush down to sea level. (You can learn more about katabatics here.) The winds can be quite strong, sometimes reaching hurricane force! The katabatics at Elephant Island weren’t that bad, though they certainly caused very windy conditions for us. Even a mile or two offshore in the LMG, the wind was too strong to safely send a zodiac to shore because they are too light-weight and can be flipped over in 30-knot winds. Plus, we could see the winds churning up the water right at the shore, which would have prevented the zodiac from reaching the beach.

Later in the afternoon, there was a lull in the wind that gave us a window to use the zodiacs. We took just one zodiac with three of us (Becky, Uffe, and Dave) and two marine techs (nicknamed MT’s) to attempt a landing on the beach. It was a very bumpy zodiac ride over the swells! The MT’s didn’t want to bring the boat to shore because the swells would swamp it in the shallow water leading up to the beach. They had a plan that worked: They dropped the anchor a ways off shore, with a long rope attached. We let the boat ride a set of waves in closer to the beach where the three of us leapt out and waded to shore, letting the anchor line pull the boat back out to deeper water before more waves came.

The coast of Elephant Island is pretty steep, so we had to climb up a ridge to get to the plant material we wanted to sample under. 


The MT’s waited for us out in the boat while we sampled, but called us back down when they felt the wind was picking up too much again. Luckily, we were almost done! They then redid their anchoring trick to pick us back up. We waded back to the boat, jumped in when the time was right, then pull-pull-pulled on the line to the anchor, through the waves, until we got the boat to water deep enough to put the motor back in the water and zoom off. It was an adventure and we got a bit wet, but it was a lot of fun! We are so impressed with the skill of our amazing MT’s Mike and Garrett, and we all returned to the LMG dripping with seawater but laughing.

After our sampling at Elephant Island, we moved south to Admiralty Bay in King George Island. It was a pretty chilly day, and it snowed on us a little bit. After sampling, we had the chance to visit the Polish research station on Admiralty Bay, called Arctowski Station (named after a Polish scientist who worked in Antarctica). They were very nice hosts who welcomed us with hot drinks and sweets while we talked about our various science projects. Here we are posing in front of the station with some of the LMG crew and a couple of the Polish scientists we met:


Now we’re headed south to Livingston Island for our next sampling site. We’re well ahead of schedule!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Following the footsteps of Shackleton


Antarctica is the most remote continent on the planet, but people have been coming here for over 200 years. The earliest visitors were whalers who set up stations at some of the sub-Antarctic islands and sailed their ships through the Antarctic waters to hunt whales. Then, explorers started visiting the continent in various attempts to discover new lands, make scientific discoveries, and earn the glory of being the first to reach the South Pole. There are some amazing stories about the adventure and hardships faced by these early explorers! 

One of those famous explorers is Ernest Shackleton. He made several attempts to reach the South Pole, and one of those was from here on the Peninsula. His team attempted to sail as far south as they could in the Weddell Sea, and then trek south across ice and land to reach the South Pole. However, their boat became trapped in ice, was crushed, and slowly sank. The had plenty of time to abandon the ship and grab the gear they wanted and were living on the ice shelf over the Weddell Seal. When their boat finally sank, they had to haul all of their gear across the frozen ice to find help. They didn’t have pack animals, so this was all done by man-hauling. They man-hauled all of the food, gear, and three life boats! They walked as far as they could before the ice started breaking up, which left them on Elephant Island. There, they fixed up one of their life boats (a boat named the James Caird) using parts from a second life boat. A few of the men, including Shackleton, sailed in the small, repaired life boat in the open seas all the way to South Georgia Island where there was a whaling station, which helped them arrange rescue from mainland Chile. The third life boat was flipped upside down to make a shelter for the men remaining on Elephant Island until a ship from Chile came to get them over a year later. The men spent four months on Elephant Island, surviving in an overturned boat. Amazingly, everyone survived!

As you know from my last blog post, Elephant Island is one of our sampling sites. We had a chance to visit the site where the men built their camp 100 years ago while waiting for rescue. There isn’t anything remaining from that adventure except a statue that the Chileans built to honor the captain of the Chilean ship that eventually rescued them.



It’s a very dramatic site, but rather bleak in comparison to the other areas we’ve visited. It’s very rocky without much vegetation (but there were a lot of chinstrap penguins and fur seals!).  Plus, we were there on a very foggy day which added to the mysterious feeling. I sure wouldn’t want to spend two winters living there!


It was very special to be able to see a site with so much historical significance. It’s always amazing to think about how they handled the crazy and unpredictable conditions in Antarctica without all of the modern technology that we use to travel here. So much has changed in 100 years (yet in other ways, much is still the same). 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Two more sites



A couple days ago we made it to our second sampling site: Signy Island. Signy is at the top of our transect, all the way up at 60°S. It is a very beautiful place!

The British Antarctic Survey has a research base on Signy Island, and we started with a visit to the scientists living there. 


Then, the five of us hiked up the hill behind the base to look for a sampling site. We actually had a hard time finding a good spot, because while there’s a TON of green stuff, it’s mostly moss. We had to look for a while before we found an area that had a lot of grass.


After sampling, we spent the next day processing the samples in the lab while we sailed to our next site at Elephant Island. We currently sit just off the south shore of Elephant Island waiting for the wind to die down. The LMG can’t sail right up next to the islands, because the water gets too shallow. We have to take zodiacs (small boats) from the LMG to the islands. The zodiacs are light enough that wind this strong can flip them over! So here we wait…