Ice bound

16 08 2008
Arthur Harbor

Arthur Harbor - Click to see animation

The sea ice in the little cove called Arthur Harbor in front of Palmer Station has been packed in and freezing for about five days now. For scenery’s sake, this is good news; I’ve never had the opportunity to sit in one place long enough to watch an ocean freeze over, and the process by which it happens is quite marvelous. Indeed, the ocean does not freeze over uniformly–top to bottom–like the small lakes that I knew well during the cold days of my youth in Illinois. No, the ocean is dynamic, the winds are strong, and the waves can be large. Additionally, around here it seems that there’s always a reservoir of glacier ice tucked into some nook or cranny just waiting for the wind to shift. When it does, the larger pieces wobble and bob, spin in circles, and dip themselves like waxing candles beneath the surface of the swell as they slowly pack into the dead end of a glacier face or a frozen coastline. Alongside these bergy bits (the scientific term, no joke) each infinitesimally small crystal of frozen ocean has a part to play, and one-by one they begin to mingle. When the air turns cold enough an alliance is formed, and a slight slushy sheen becomes palm-sized pancakes. Unlike the griddle, once formed two pancakes aren’t destined to stay separate entities; If one adds just a touch of ocean swell or a gust of frosty wind to keep their edges rubbing, ten disks become five, and five become two. At last, when the rolling of the waves is sufficiently dampened by the nearly rigid crust, large floes unite–all around–and the surface becomes solid.

A newly-frozen ocean is a beautiful sight but, unfortunately, good news for scenery is bad news for fishing. The first day that the ice started to move into the harbor, when it was soft and the Zodiak (small boat) could still push through the chunks with only a little protest, we put down two fish traps and a long-line baited with thirty hooks.  We were not wrong to do so, we would appease our curiosity of what could be caught right off of station and, undoubtedly, there were equivalent odds for the ice to blow out by the next day or for it to stay for five. Now, all we can do is wait for the winds to change or the weather to warm, for our Zodiaks can make no progress through a nearly solid surface. Until a change of fate, we’ll make do with the willing subjects already in our aquaria, and break the mood with jesting comments: “What do you expect? It’s a harsh continent.”

We’ve been at Palmer Station full-time for nearly two weeks now. I miss the rocking of the ship, the changing scenery and the excitement of bringing up trawl nets full of mysterious creatures, but the station is as cozy a place as one could imagine finding in Antarctica…or America for that matter.  We’ve been spoiled with an abundance of delicious food, and more-than-adequate facilities to do our research. The odds and ends of scientific equipment that have accumulated here is almost incredible for such a small outpost, and nearly any chemical, implement, or consumable item can be found with a little rummaging around through parked steel shipping containers. The staff are cheerful, and when they’re not busy with station-critical tasks (like making toilet paper holders with magazine racks attached), they’re eager to help in any way they can. Ironically, despite the surfeit of alcoholic beverages in the store, we’re short on pure ethanol for science use, and progress on a few of our projects has been hindered by the scarcity of this chemical.

On days when we can’t leave the station on the Zodiaks to fish (or on Sundays–to sight see), we’re plenty busy with experiments, extractions, and collections. Despite the good facilities, scientific research on station is logically limited to a few major categories:

The first category is experiments and observations with live organisms, fish or invertebrates, that can’t be accomplished at home for obvious reasons. For example, Kevin B. is working on thermal tolerance assays with Notothenia coriiceps, the watch-where-you-put-your-fingers bulldog  of the Antarctic fishes. Kevin warms them up slowly over a few hours until they’re visibly stressed, at which point he dumps them back into a refreshing -1 °C (30 °F) aquarium for them to recover. For cold-adapted fishes,they can tolerate surprisingly warm temperatures for a short time at least, and the means by which they do this is an intriguing line of research. Also in experimental work, Art has been pursuing two main questions: Which fish have which antifreeze, how much, in what fluids–and ultimately–how does this affect how much ice they can handle and thus where they can live? His second main project aims to understand the the fate of internalized ice that enters a fish when it bathes, drinks, or eats in ice-laden waters.  The answer to this question has been elusive for some time now, and the complexities involved in counting ice crystals, or even measuring the presence or absence of sub-microscopic ice crystals for that matter, inside a living fish is daunting at best.

The other major task that we all partake in here involves collecting tissue samples and specimens, blood, and guts, extracting DNA and RNA, and freezing it all away for detailed investigations at our facilities back home. Chris takes this part very seriously, as the majority of her research is on the molecular side of things. Live fishes are important to her because they have high-quality biological molecules un-degraded by long storage or handling.  From these molecules, notably DNA and RNA extracted and archived under exacting conditions, she’s been able to pull together some really fabulous insight into the evolution of these fishes and especially their antifreeze proteins. Chris is renowned for her diligent dissections and collections on the ship and on station, draggingon long into the night, and her “I’m not going to waste this fish” attitude.

Together, with the work done while here in Antarctica, and with countless (endless) hours in the lab back home, progress is made towards understanding what these fishes are all about. These fishes, the Notothenioids, are a special case: In very few other lineages of animals is the evolution of a single novel molecule, an antifreeze protein, so intimately tied to their diversification and ultimate dominance over an ecological realm–the Southern Ocean. As such, when Art uses his knowledge of the ecology and oceanography to find fishes with high or low concentrations of one or more of the antifreezes in their fluids, Chris attacks the question at the root: Do they have the gene for antifreeze? Is it functional? How has it evolved differently in this lineage? Are they making the protein? In which tissues? Together then, Art and Chris work together to decipher which fishes live where, why, and how–and ultimately, they help to make inroads into understanding the process of evolution as it applies to all life.

The one really wonderful thing about doing science somewhere remote like this, somewhere with lots of unknowns, is that if you keep your eyes peeled and your senses sharp it is quite possible–even easy–to discover something completely unknown to mankind.  In this light, besides helping with any and all of the above, I have my own special project, the result of just this kind of observation in  a previous season. This side project revolves around invertebrates’ adaptations to life in the Southern Ocean, and I’m taking advantage of the opportunity to collect the trawl spoils (the invertebrate bycatch), and to run some tests. I won’t divulge the specific aims of this project here, because it is cutting-edge, uncharted territory (as I see it), and I’d like to keep it that way while I work on it. Nevertheless, the pictures of me with my trademark grin and spineless beasts in hand should tell you that it’s going well.

The photographs below are from the last few days of fishing on the LMG before it left for Punta Arenas and life on station following that. Last weekend, a few hours of good weather permitted a short boat trip to the Old Palmer Station site, and to breathtaking views of a disintegrating glacier face.

See the new Q & A page page by clicking the link in the navigation bar at the top.


Palmer Station, Antarctica

Check out some videos here:

Ice in the intertidal, Boating in Ice.

For me, only half of some of the photos show up when I click on the thumbnail. If you click on the large image after that, you’ll get the whole thing. I’m not sure what the problem is. – p

Fish your heart out

29 07 2008

The catch of the day

I’ve been waiting for a chance to write this post for over a week now, but life on a fishing cruise such as this is tiring, time-consuming, and busy. We made it to Palmer station on July 17th, over a week ago, unloaded cargo, and headed out (not so) bright and early the next morning. We tasted a little piece of paradise that is Palmer Station…and that little bit was very much appreciated. If McMurdo Station is the Holiday Inn of the Antarctic, Palmer Station is surely the quaint little bed & breakfast getaway off the main tourist track. The station is run by 20 people, there are only five small buildings, the delicious food is served in a galley heated by a cozy wood-burning stove, there’s a bar/lounge area (a BYOB thing) with nice leather couches and a wall full of movies, a very well-equipped gym, a fleet of Zodiacs (beefy rubber inflatable boats with outboard motors) that can be used for science and recreational use, and a much-advertised fish tank converted into a hot tub (yes, for people). On top of this and perhaps most importantly, are relatively well-stocked labs, a good-sized aquarium room, and helpful support staff. I understand now why the Antarctic scientists and staff alike dream of working in the slow-paced Utopian society that is Palmer station. Our group will spend more time on Station in the coming weeks and I’ll write more about the station then, but for now our goal is to catch fishes so our maritime way-of-life continues.

We’ve been on three fishing trips so far, lasting 3-4 days each. As you can imagine, a fishing trip in the Antarctic is much different than the kind of fishing you might be familiar with. Although there’s ample opportunity in this part of Antarctica to use a rod and reel from shore, and weather-permitting from zodiac, the majority of our fish are caught either in traps or in trawls. Both of these methods are borrowed from commercial fisheries technology, but scaled down to science size. Traps are made from big, heavy rings of steel and lined with a woven mesh that keeps fish inside after they’ve come to inspect the bait. The Otter trawl that we use is about eighteen-feet wide at the mouth, about 30 feet long, and has two metal doors (or wings) at the front end that help keep the net open while it’s being dragged along or near the bottom. Both methods have the potential to catch a lot of fish if used in the right place at the right time…unfortunately for us we’re not in one of these places.

In essence, a fishing trip aboard the LMG (our ship) is an exercise in extremes. While the traps are in the water (usually 24hours), or a trawl is being dragged (about 2 hours) one can be extremely bored. But, as soon as the traps or trawl comes to the deck and the catch is dumped, one is extremely busy as the fish are hurriedly collected in buckets, identified and sorted, counted, and samples are taken from those that are in less-than-optimal condition. While preparing and baiting the traps and in taking them apart after use, one’s hands can become extremely cold and wet. After three days of trawling every two hours around-the-clock, being rocked along in crashing waves and winter storms, drinking too much cheap coffee, and finding few spare moments for a restless nap, one is extremely tired. In the end, an aquarium full of fantastical creatures from the Antarctic deep, available for one to delve into the secrets of survival in this “extreme” environment, is extremely rewarding.

Too much has happened in the past week and a half for me to give a detailed description of it all. Therefore, here’s a little log of what we’ve been doing, how the weather has been, and what we’ve seen. There’s a map in the pictures below that shows our ship’s track since this adventure began in Punta Arenas, Chile. Many other pictures with descriptions should give you an idea of the life I’m living here.

July 18th – 20th: Dallman Bay (8 hours northeast by ship) to trap and trawl in about 150m of water. Dallman bay is exposed to the open Sothern Ocean, but we had pretty good weather. We dropped traps and trawled along the north side, with a spectacular view of ice covered mountains, glaciers, and occasional pack and pancake ice. Trawls brought up many fishes that I personally haven’t seen before, all notothenioids. The most amazing thing was that our trawls were regularly bringing up kelps and other seaweeds from 150m (~450ft)!!. The water here is so clear and there’s so much sun during the austral summer that the seaweeds can survive much deeper than I’m accustomed to. In the greenish-brown Oregon coast water, seaweeds aren’t likely to survive below 50ft. We caught a lot of icefish, family Channichthyidae. These fishes are the only adult vertebrates to completely lack hemoglobin. That means that their blood, gills, liver, spleen, kidneys etc. are an icy white. No red, nowhere.Creepy.

July 21nd: Back in Palmer Station to drop off fishes and re-supply with laboratory materials, and scientific equipment. One restless night and out fishing again the next morning.

July 22nd – 25th: To near Hugo Island to Trap and Trawl in about 600m of water (10 hours west, by ship). The diversity here was quite high. Circumpolar deep water intrudes onto the continental shelf here, and it’s a little bit warmer than the surface waters (2°C vs. -1°C). This small difference in temperature means that deep-sea fishes that aren’t particularly adapted to the Antarctic climate can survive here too, and you get an interesting mixture of Antarctic and globally-distributed deep-water fishes. We caught three species of hard-to-find dragonfishes, and a bucketful of eelpouts (slimy eel-shaped bottom dwelling fishes) among many other more common notothenioids. The invertebrate bycatch was amazing (see picture of the tank, below).

July 26th – 28th: To the Neumayer Channel and the Bismark Straight (2 hours east by ship) for trapping and hook-and-line fishing from zodiacs. We dropped traps and then we were hit with a whopper of a winter storm. We couldn’t find a calm anchorage and the snow was blowing so hard it was hard to see the water from the bridge. We spent the night slowly moving about fighting the 50-knot (57mph) winds, continuously monitoring the radar for icebergs. Four inches of snow fell on deck, but a lucky break in the weather (the eye of the storm passing over us) allowed us to get out to fish from our zodiacs near an old whaling station (now maintained as a museum by the British) called Port Lockroy. To get off the ship and to put some distance between us and the two ever-rumbling 6000hp diesel engines was a fabulous treat. Winds were calm, Gentoo penguins were swimming about, and the fishing (4 fish landed) wasn’t that bad (by Antarctic winter standards).

July 29th: Back at Palmer station for a day or two. The galley greeted us and the ship’s crew with twenty-five delicious, homemade pizzas with fresh vegetables and pesto etc. My coffee this morning (from a fancy espresso machine on station) didn’t taste like the liquid tar I’m used to having on the ship. Another winter storm is moving through. We had 55-knot winds last night and the ship kept her engines running in case it would break free from the moorings. New snow all over station and many freshly calved icebergs in Arthur Harbor (the bay in front of the station) today.

The Passage

16 07 2008

I awoke this morning to a muted reflection of the sun off of a calm sea
surface. My bunk has a small porthole near where one’s feet should be
and, naturally, I’ve been sleeping with my head at this end so that I can
peak out and see the mood of the ocean, the color of the sky, or the
brightness of the stars. I felt well rested, indicating that the swells
had subsided during the night, and I surely hadn’t had to wedge a leg and
an arm tightly between the mattress and the cold wall in order to keep me
from rolling around. The sea surface was covered with a thin layer of
pancake ice: dinner-plate sized, flat disks with upturned edges resulting
from constant collisions with their neighbors.  I dressed and stepped out
of a hatch. The air, at about -1°C bit my cheeks a little bit. The cape
petrel, our airborne companions throughout the past two days in warmer
waters, with plumage to match the brown and snow-capped mountains of
South America’s southern extremes had been mostly replaced with the
suitably-disguised, pure white Antarctic snow petrel, ever flying in
irregular spirals around the ship. I felt a little exhilaration, and
smiled inside and out. I’m back in the Antarctic.

As crossings of the Drake Passage go, ours was relatively tame. The
ninety-six hour voyage from Punta Arenas to Palmer Station is about 85%
finished now, and if the seas stay calm we’ll be in Palmer Station
tomorrow morning. We’ve had two days of rocking and rolling in four to
six-foot swells, but nothing broke, water never came above the main deck,
and only a small fraction of the population  aboard (2-3 of about 30) got
sea-sick. We’ve been making our maximum speed, about 10.5 knots, nearly
the entire time. As such, there’s not all that much to report. I’ve been
keeping busy alternating between spending time on the bridge (the
“cockpit” of a ship) talking about ships and sailing with the crew, and
computer work—though this is relatively difficult to maintain for long
periods because of the constant motion of the ship.

This voyage to the Antarctic has already been very different that my last
two. Flying from New Zealand to McMurdo station is merely five hours of
moderate discomfort in the back of a military cargo jet, a sack lunch, and
a touchdown into a bitter chill; I would generally sleep through the whole
thing. A shipboard crossing is different in that you feel every wave,
current, and wind separating Antarctica from the rest of the warmer world.
On the data monitors scattered throughout the ship I’ve watched as the air
temperature and sea surface temperature dropped slowly at first, and then,
this time around 57° South latitude, the water abruptly dropped about 2°C.
This transition marked our crossing of the Antarctic Convergence
(Antarctic Polar Front): the oceanographers’ and ecologists definition of
the northern boundary to this polar region.  About midnight last night we
passed south of 60°S, the northern limit to the political boundary
of the Antarctic designated by the international Antarctic Treaty, and we
turned on our searchlights as per the rules.

This afternoon we saw Smith Island, the first of the Antarctic islands on
our route and the most western of the South Shetland Islands. Although
this 6,000-foot glacier-covered island was sixty miles away when we first
spotted it, the clarity of the air and the featurelessness of the horizon
led me to guess that it was no more than 5 miles distant. Distances are
always deceiving in the Antarctic. A fog rolled in and daylight faded
around 3pm. In the dark tonight we sail through steep and narrow channels,
near glaciers, and alongside whales for sure. If ice conditions permit it
we’ll be at Palmer station in the morning.


Aboard R/V LM Gould

63° 14.519S, 61° 40.146W

Here we go

12 07 2008

I arrived in Chile just under two weeks ago, just as the days in Eugene were getting hot and sunny—and I, delicate flower that I am (thanks Katie), was starting to suffer. By a strange twist of fate my parents are here with me, since my dad is finishing up a fellowship that allowed him to work at a University in Valparaiso, Chile for 5 months. That our paths intersected like this is a special treat for us all, since this is probably the only time my parents will see me off on an adventure to the Antarctic. I joined them and my sister (on vacation) in Valparaiso and spent a few days hanging around their apartment (recovering from my first year of graduate school) and exploring the area. Lucky for me, Valparaiso has approximately the same climate as San Francisco, and I was relieved to be greeted by fog, a little rain, and cool temperatures of the austral winter. Valparaiso seems to be a pretty amazing place, and there’s a lot to write about it, but my intent is to write mostly about our expedition to the Antarctic.

From Valparaiso we went inland to Santiago and took a flight down to the “most austral city in the world”: Punta Arenas, Chile-about latitude 53°S. The flight over southern Chile was breathtaking. Peeking through the clouds were the massive Andes Mountains covered with glaciers and even ice fields reminiscent of the Antarctic continent. From the left side of the plane my parents saw the famous Torres del Paine national park which we later visited on a day trip from Puerto Natales (see the picture).  This most-austral city has a pretty mild climate, and a few days of -5°C (25°F) with icy roads and sidewalks has just today given way to above-freezing temperatures, fog, and a little snow in the mountains.

Our science group moved aboard our ship today, the R/V Lawrence M. Gould. This ship is one of two icebreaker research vessels that the US has dedicated mostly to Antarctic science. The other larger ship, the R/V Nathanial B. Palmer, was here in port for a few days before heading south to the Antarctic Peninsula area as well.  We plan to set out tomorrow, Sunday, bright and early and head north out of the Strait of Magellan. From there we have a 4-5 day trip across the Drake Passage, about one thousand miles, to the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Our destination is Palmer Station on the southern end of Anvers Island. The crossing of this passage is notoriously rough, and many scientists have been known to spend the entire week holed up in their bunks fighting seasickness. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) flows west to east around the Antarctic continent unimpeded by land masses, except for the constriction south of South America. This constriction is what we’ll be crossing.  The weather promises strong (at least 35knot) winds from the east and waves to match.

I won’t have web access from the ship, but we do have a satellite email service. From there I hope to post and update sometime during the crossing…after the adventure really begins. Stay tuned!

Punta Arenas, Chile