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.

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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