Archive for the ‘Antarctic Blog’ Category

Swimming in the Arctic Ocean

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

This afternoon (1800 local time) we deployed RU07 into the Arctic Ocean. Working with the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) as a part of the NORUS program. Peter and John from NORUS helped with the deployment which went quite smooth. We tried to deploy a Norwegian-owned glider two days ago but ran into a warning I hadn't seen before. Being the cautious person I am, we pulled our Norwegian glider, Freyja, back on board and brought her home. Following today's successful deployment,  we'll be putting Freyja in the water on Thursday. So, by the end of the week we should have two gliders in the water. I happened to have my cell phone with me so I snapped a couple of pictures.  It was odd having full cell coverage during the deployment - I just don't associate survival suit deployments with 5-bar cell phone coverage. The first pic is RU07 just before beginning the mission. The second pic is me in a survival suit for the first time since January when I deployed RU05 in Antarctica. It feels good to be back in the cold putting another robot in the water...

RU07 in the Arctic Ocean with Svalbard in the background.

RU07 in the Arctic Ocean with Svalbard in the background.

Satisfied after deploying RU07.

Satisfied after deploying RU07.

LTER 0809 Ends

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

Elizabeth and I have moved our last bags onto the LM Gould (the boat we sailed on for the month of January). In about an hour we are going to have a "cross town dinner" before we board the Gould and begin sailing northward. Leaving Palmer Station after having been here for just under 5 months is not the easisest thing to do.

It has been great to see signs of winter slowly overtake the summer. Since the equinox a few weeks ago, we have had longer nights than days. And with the nights getting longer this means we are experiencing more cooling than heating. As a result, a bite has come back to the air, the temperatures rarely get above freezing, and as a consequence the ground  has frozen solid. When the ground finally froze around Palmer Station, it makes travel easier because the mud also froze solid. And, any small bit of snow is sticking to the ground again. This place really looks much better when its covered with snow.

The Gould at Palmer Station

It took us the better part of the past 10 days to pack up our lab, organize samples to be sent home, plan our upcoming travels, and get our personal gear sorted and packed. The Palmer Station winter-overs are now on station running the show and those us from the summer - or science - season have handed off our chores and duties to the new arrivals. Of course, there isn't anyone for Elizabeth and I to hand off duties to, but for the contract employees on station all of the jobs have been transferred to allow the station to be maintained and to function through the winter. It will be odd to return in October and see the same faces that jut arrived. Indeed, a couple of the faces that just arrived, watched us walk into station for our first time back in October. Anyways, we've had an incredible season down here together and we are definitely sad to leave. As I begin analyzing and sorting through the data in the coming months, I'll keep posting here so people can get a sense of the scale and time frame for projects of this size. In summary though, things move slow - just like the Gould.

photo: Alden Strong

photo: Alden Strong

RU05 Deployed and Recovered

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

Today we tried to deploy RU05 for an end of season survey of the slope of the nearby penguin foraging zone. The water was calm and we enlisted two other scientists on station , Christian and Rebecca, along with our boating coordinator Ryan to help deploy the glider. The deployment went well but after about an hour the glider operation center at Rutgers University in New Jersey was seeing some funny data. It turns out that both of the pressure sensors are acting funny. SInce we couldn't trust either sensor, we had to pull RU05 out of the water about an hour after we put in. I'll try to troubleshoot the issue and see what I can find. Hopefully we can put RU05 back in the water for one more late-season survey.

There aren’t any children at Palmer Station

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

Yesterday, Elizabeth and I invited Andrew McDonnell to sit down for a video conference with an enthusiastic group of students from Jane Long Elementary School in Texas. Logistically the whole situation was a breeze. One of our IT gurus here at Palmer, Jeff, did the work to get us online with Debra Helbert's classes. I think it helps that Jane Long Elementary had the same videoconferencing hardware as Palmer Station. So, as one would expect when everybody has the same hardware - it just worked. It was breathtaking the first moment we saw the projection of the kids from Jane Long. The three of us started laughing because we were suddenly transported into the middle of about 50 elementary school kids despite being more than 6,000 miles away. One thing Palmer does not have is children. Elizabeth and I haven't seen kids since a tour ship outreach session back in December. I think all three of us agreed that we had forgotten how curious kids are. They are natural scientists, asking tons of questions.


left to right: Andrew, Elizabeth, Alex, students at Jane Long Elementary. Photo: Paul Queior

The whole effort was seamless and incredibly fun. I think outreach with young kids really helps scientists such as Andrew and I reevaluate how we talk about our research and forces us to recognize the context of our work in the bigger picture. Explaining ourselves to adults is easy because we can start rambling with bigger words and obscure references and adults will nod politely. But with kids, while they may not verbally express their confusion their body language serves as proxy for honestly assessing their level of engagement in the conversation. We could tell when we were losing them because the wiggles and squirming would begin propagating through the crowd cross-legged youngsters. We usually brought them back into the fold by asking them a question (regarding daylight or the seasons for example) that would allow them to consider how Antarctica is different from Texas.

In the end, we need to thank Andrew because he arrived at Palmer Station on the Gould at 7:30 am. The video conference was scheduled for 11:30 am. On such short notice he was eager to take time away from processing his particle trap data to help contaminate young minds with dreams of polar science. The whole event would not have happened if we had not encountered a social worker from the school on one of the tour ships visiting Palmer in December. The students at her school, and the scientists at Palmer, are lucky that she went home and decided that her experience in the Antarctic was worth sharing with the kids. We are also deeply indebted to our IT guru Jeff and our station manager Eric for their help making everything happen. It was a last minute gig and it came together quite well. When I return next year, I will definitely be doing much more of these types of interactive outreach activities.

Charcot Island Penguins – an update

Saturday, March 7th, 2009
Charcot Island

Map Source: Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty

In this post and this one too, I repeatedly comment that the LTER cruise "discovered" a penguin colony on Charcot Island, beneath the northwest buttress of Mount Monique. I was basing these statements on a map we were using on the ship. I am not quite sure where that map came from or when it was made, but it showed a probable adelie colony on the north coast of Charcot Island beneath Mt. Martine (near Cheeseman Island). As a result, when we (LTER scientists) documented penguins beneath Mount Monique, we thought that we had found another adelie colony. Well, it turns out that the map from the ship was inaccurate.
In fact, the Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty has recieved an ASPA (Antarctic Specially Protected Area) proposal from the British Antarctic Survey, available online here, to protect Charcot Island because of its isolation and relatively few visits by people. In the ASPA proposal, an adelie colony of about 60 individuals was observed in 1976 is shown to have been in the location we observed adelies during our 2009 LTER cruise in January. It would logically follow then, the adelie colony observed on the 2009 LTER cruise was the same colony observed by the BAS more than 30 years earlier.

Map Source: Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty

Map Source: Sectretariat of the Antarctic Treaty

The map provided in the ASPA proposal (above) seems to correlate well with what was observed on our cruise. Furthermore, although I don't know for certain, I seem to recall that we observed fewer than the 60 adelies (as counted in 1976) in the colony this year. If this is true, this would indicate that perhaps the decline of adelie populations isn't due to migration to other foraging areas, but rather due to a reduction in breeding or perhaps something else? I am not a penguin expert, so this is all speculation, but the story is quite intriguing. My girlfriend Elizabeth covers this a bit more in our personal blog, So Civilized.

Its also worth noting that the above mentioned ASPA proposal which appears to have been written in 2006 indicates that all previous reports indicate the island has not been approached from the ocean. If this is true, this would make Kristen and Rick the first people to gain access to Charcot Island by boat. Despite the success of such an endeavor undoubtedly being the result of the rapid warming here in the western Antarctic Peninsula, this is pretty cool for them. So, a benefit to the melting ice of the Antarctic is access to more of land - great. Let the drilling begin...

Surprise visit by Orrin Pilkey

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

This afternoon, Palmer Station received the Corinthian II. After tours of the station, the passengers on the ship gathered in the galley for some brownies and hot drinks with the Palmerites (those of us living on station). Fortunately for me, our HPLC behaved well today which allowed me to head up to the galley to mingle with our guests. As I exited the lab I passed a couple of guests and thought that one of them looked familiar. Once in the galley, I heard someone mention that a geologist from Duke University was among our guests. I instantly recognized the familiar face as Orrin Pilkey. In November 2007 I had the pleasure of inviting Dr. Pilkey to the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers, where he presented a seminar titled Barrier Islands and Why Mathematical Models Don't work. During his visit to Rutgers, Dr. Pilkey also spent quite a bit of time meeting with grad students and putting up with our questions. Of course, once I re-introduced myself to him in the galley here at Palmer, we both found it fascinating that our paths should cross so unexpectedly. From what I understand, he was a naturalist on the ship helping provide insight for a group of Duke Alumni. Knowing his breadth of knowledge and understanding of the earth system, I am sure the alumni are grateful.

Outreach at Palmer Station

Friday, February 20th, 2009

(This post was edited on 23 February for clarity and objectivity.)

At Palmer Station public outreach presentations are given by the station manager and lab supervisor to cruise ships. The current presentation lasts 1 hour. During that hour, 70 slides (including intro and thank you slides) are presented to the audience:

  • USAP General Science & Info - 12 slides
  • Logistics & Support - 24 slides
  • Palmer Science - 26 slides
  • Artists & Writers - 6 slides

The goal of this presentation is to communicate the what, how, and why of Palmer Station. The what and the why are science while the how is logistics. As I am discovering, trying to communicate all of this information in a brief yet informative manner is difficult and requires many different people to work together. This is particularly true because several different interests must be represented (government, contractor, scientists, etc.) as we all play important roles in the US Antarctic Program.

From my perspective, as a scientist, working at Palmer Station presents a unique opportunity to reach out to the public. In my time here, since October, I have had more public interaction than in my previous 6 years of PhD. study combined. This is exhilarating to say the least. Truly, Palmer scientists are in a unique position because they are speaking to a captive audience that feels they are - at that moment - physically on the front lines of the science being discussed. Plus, the lack of personal commitments for scientists on station that would otherwise inhibit such public interactions back at home, allows us to dedicate our focus towards our research and towards our responsibility to communicate with the public. Given the current combination of folks on station and the high level of excitement surrounding the recent LTER cruise, the time seems right to collaborate with one another. To this end, we are already beginning to include preliminary results from our recent LTER cruise into the outreach presentation. And although the end of the season is rapidly approaching, this collaborative effort between support staff and scientists will benefit the outreach efforts into next season as well.

Blurry picture of half of the audience in the auditorium aboard a cruise ship visiting Palmer Station.

Blurry picture of half of the audience in the auditorium aboard a cruise ship visiting Palmer Station.

HPLC Samples – now we’re getting nerdy

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

Sorry for the long interlude between posts. Although we have been pretty busy since our arrival back at station, I need to get some thoughts out more frequently than I have been.

We have started running our pigment samples on the High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) machine. The software used to run the HPLC is a beast - poorly written and difficult to work with. These are samples that we have been collecting since we arrived at Palmer in October and the samples we collected while we were on the cruise. The samples are pigments that have been trapped on a filter. After Elizabeth removes the pigments from the filter using both organic solvents and some physical mashing of the filters, the isolated pigments are run through the HPLC. By "run" I mean that the pigments are injected into a thin tube and separated out over time. Different pigments pass out from the tube and different times. We can identify the pigments by shinning light on them as they exit the tube. The combination of how long it took for the pigment to flow out of the tube, plus how much light it absorbs helps to identify the pigments. The HPLC results are then analyzed to estimate how much of each type of pigment was present on the filter. And, since we know how much water we filtered, we can then calculate how much mass of each pigment was present in the volume of water we sampled.

At the end of the day, pigments are used to identify the phytoplankton composition of the water. Phytoplankton contain certain pigments in pretty specific ratios. So, by analyzing how much of each pigment is found in our sample, we can begin playing games with estimating what type of phytoplankton and their percent of the total phytoplankton population.

Less intense stuff for the next post...

Glad to be back at Palmer Station

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

We've been back at Palmer Station for about 10 days now and we are both pretty happy to be on terra firma. The cruise was pretty intense - working around the clock, Ocean Station Obama, joint glider operations with the British Antarctic Survey, visiting Avian, Rothera, Charcot, and Prospect Point.

Prospect Point Adelies

Since we've returned to Palmer Station, we have begun analyzing mixed pigment samples using High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) and resumed weekly sampling at stations B & E. Station life is a bit different than prior to the cruise because there are a few more grantees hanging around. In addition to Zib and I, there are also several divers including Norb Wu, and scientists - Maggie Waldron and Andrew McDonnell - working for Hugh Ducklow. Having a few other grantees about the station helps make life easier as it removes us from the magnifying glass. It also helps provides more academic (i.e. spontaneous) feel to the station where life can easily become regimented (for better or for worse) under the Raytheon schedule. Elizabeth and I have been helping Maggie and Andrew get oriented with sampling from the zodiac and finding materials around station. All in all, we are very happy to be back and are enjoying the good life and science at Palmer Station.

The Bear is in the Igloo!!!

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

The image was taken by John Loins.

When the Coastal Ocean Observation Lab (COOL) safely recovers a glider, we always call in from the field and proclaim, "The bear is in the igloo!".
On Thursday, 29 January 2009, COOL received such a call from John Withers the Rothera Research Station Base Commander. RU05 (aka RUObama) was deployed on 19 January during Ocean Station Obama. After surveying the surface waters feeding particles into Ken Buesseler's drifting sediment trap, RUObama was retasked to fly a transect of the the Adelie penguin foraging grounds south of Avian and Adelaide Islands. After surveying the foraging areas, RUObama ran a tight course through some small islands and wove up into Ryder Bay adjacent to the British Antarctic Survey's Rothera Research Station. We parked the glider about 1000 meters off the end of Rothera's runway - visible to any planes taking off or landing at the base. Two boats were subsequently sent out by BAS to recover RUObama and bring it safely back on station.
Today (Friday) we returned, at about 5pm local time, from our Charcot Island expedition to collect RUObama from Rothera. Two boats greeted us as we pulled into Ryder Bay. We used one of the cranes on the Gould to lift RUObama out of the BAS boat. Every one was smiling and soaking up the feeling of accomplishment that comes with pulling together and finding success. THere is a general sense that this joint mission will help establish a long term program between Palmer and Rothera. We showed how easy it is for researchers to coordinate high technology science despite significant distance separating the individuals. At this point, there is no reason why Palmer and Rothera shouldn't share a glider. At the beginning of the season, send batteries and a maintenance tool kit to each station. Let one of them deploy the glider and upon receipt at the other station, swap the batteries and tend to any other issues before sending it back on its way for another transect of the Western Antarctic Peninsula.
If this gets up and running, it'll provide a more resolved picture of the shelf region between the two stations and it will help foster international collaboration and good will - all in the name of science.


The image was taken by John Loins.