Palmer Station is tucked into a harbor on the southern end of Anvers Island. She’s a small station, just a few blue and gray buildings perched over the harbor of dark Antarctic waters. Watching over her, looming on an incomprehensible scale, millennia of encrusted snow form a glacier that covers most of the island. It only takes a little hike up the glacier to see one of the most spectacular panoramas of the hemisphere.
The view is dramatic - in the middle foreground, mountains burn pink and orange from the low-hanging afternoon sun. July is austral winter here – that means we’re in the coldest and snowiest part of the year, as well as the darkest. When the sun does make it out, it heavily rolls right along the horizon for just a few hours a day.
The colors of the mountains are offset by the deep blue and grays of the Southern Ocean which is full of waiting icebergs like tall ships in harbor. About center in the panorama are the few tiny buildings of palmer station, which are completely dwarfed by the icebergs sitting next to them, those tinted in an even more impressive marine blue.
Then, to the right of the picture is the edge of the glacier we’re sitting on, which butts into the ocean and looks just like a postcard.
How did we get here?
I’m documenting my travels through Antarctica as part of an early career training course taking place in Palmer Station, Antarctica…in the middle of the Antarctic Winter.
15 Students, our instructor, and our TA, are holing up against the cold and darkness to learn how science is conducted in the most remote place on earth. I’m cataloging our journey through written and auditory journalism in collaboration with an ongoing podcast project I help run known as DIYbio.fm. This stories are being produced on sight in the field: in snow, on boats, in remote research stations, so it won’t be that studio quality sound you’re used to. But you’re going to hear the voices and sounds of the experience as they really are. Over the next few weeks, you’ll be hearing interviews, history, and hopefully some new knowledge as we capture the science, the sights, the stories of the people and the places – right where it all happens, at the bottom of the world.
(As a disclaimer, none of this production is associated with the program’s organizing institution, nor my home institution. This is a project in DIY journalism, and in no way reflects the opinions or party lines of the US Antarctic Program. A second disclaimer- by the time this audio is being published, DIYbio.fm won’t be ready yet – so don’t go looking for it. I’ll be sure to let you know when it’s ready).
So back to that question: how did we get here?
The simple answer: by ship.
So let me introduce you to the US Antarctic Fleet. Or, more specifically, the icebreakers of the National Science Foundation’s US Antarctic Program.
The elder sister is the R/V Nathaniel B Palmer, built in 1992, and her companion ship is the R/V Gould. Those letters at the beginning of the ships names, they stand for “Research Vessel”. Sometimes you’ll see the letters “ARSV”, which stands for Antarctic Resupply and Survey Vessel. That name says it all: these ships are responsible for ferrying crew, scientists, and supplies around the Southern Ocean and Antarctica for science and logistics. They bring the fresh vegetables into station, and collect the samples along the way, carry people to and fro.
The eponym of the R/V Gould is Laurence McKinley Gould, an American geologist who known for his exploits at both poles. The Gould is especially important to Palmer Station. Unlike McMurdo or South Pole which are frequently accessed by plane, Palmer is almost exclusively serviced by the R/V Gould. And if you’ve been on station for a month, the Gould is probably a welcome sight – if not for fresh faces of new scientists and support staff, then for the coveted ripe fruits exported from Chile. Trust me, it’s a cause for celebration.
I’m fascinated by icebreakers, in part because they are playing piece in an intense political arena. On the other side of the world, in the Arctic Ocean, the comparative strengths of nations’ ice capable fleets are at the center of an international power struggle. Russia, for example, has 40 icebreakers, while the US count sits a staggering…three.
Yeah. That’s right.
Technically, neither the Gould nor the Palmer qualify for this statistic, as they’re actually only “ice-strengthened” and “ice-capable” ships. They can’t crush through as much sea ice as a true icebreaker. And if I had all the time, I’d like to give more research to this topic, I would love to tell you about the variety of hulls and shapes and architectures of icebreakers, but at some point, I have to do my day job, too.
But those three icebreakers, they all belong to the US Coast Guard, and go by the moniker of the USCGC Healy, the Polar Star, and the Polar Sea. Only two of these are actually operational, and right now, the Healy is up in the Chukchi Sea, just north of Alaska, on a science mission. The Healy is an Arctic ship by and large, and rarely if ever ventures south – that territory is covered mostly by the NSF vessels.
Among the waters that the Gould and Palmer traverse is an infamous straight of ocean sheathing the tip of South America from butting into the Antarctic continent: The Drake Passage. These waters are known as some of the roughest in the world, and they’re a necessary crossing point if you want to access Palmer Station.
If you look at a map of the region, it might be easy to see why this little stretch of water connecting the Pacific to the Atlantic is a cataclysm of mal de mar for even the most experienced sailors. This part of the sea is a funnel for the otherwise unimpeded flow of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, also known as the ACC. The ACC is unique among global ocean currents because it travels the entire circumference of the planet with running into any pesky continents. Long fetches of open water can allow the winds running through the Drake to gather all their might and concentrate it onto a tiny way-fearing ship.
But sometimes, you get lucky. Fortunately for us, this was the case. Sure we had some bigger swells that sent dishes flying across the galley table, or woke up for you sleep at night – but all in all? The fury of the ocean was well-contained, and that made for a beautiful crossing.
If you haven’t experience the open ocean before, it’s almost an indescribable wonder. In no other context could overwhelmingly uniform view be so incredible and fascinating, in part because its not nearly as uniform as it looks. Every swell, every wave catches the light and dances against the air in a unique way. On gray days, the ocean is frothing adversary, swelling in your heart a feeling of courage. On calm days, the sun shines through thin cascades of water as the waves crest, and the ship churns an unworldly pure baby blue of bubbles into sea. And the ocean is alive from the the tiniest bacteria to the biggest whales, dazzling arrays of geometric phytoplankton in delicate glass houses and graceful dolphins, colored in an hourglass of black and white like you’ve never seen before. And from land, it’s all out of sight, hidden beneath the surface. Being aboard a ship is an enviable reminder of why oceanographers do what we do.
On our journey across the drake, we certainly took the opportunity to do a lot of things that we oceanographers like to do. In particular, we sought out a way to see how the Antarctic environment changes the diversity of marine life.
Remember the ACC - that current that travels around Antarctica, unimpeded by land? Where the ACC hits the warmer waters of the South Atlantic is a known as the Polar Front, and it’s associated with a dramatic drop in temperature. This is also known as the Antarctic Convergence, and it creates a strong demarcation for biological and physical processes alike.
When the colder, Antarctic water from the south hits the warmer Atlantic Water, its sinks because its denser, which causes nutrient-rich water to rush up from the deep and take its place in a process known as upwelling. These nutrient rich waters support massive blooms of algae and other photosynthetic organisms known as phytoplankton.
To sample the life in this region, we employed a few standard oceanographic instruments and techniques. The primary instrument is known as a CTD, which stand for conductivity, temperature, and depth. Conductivity, which measures how well charges pass through the water, tells us how salty it is, while temperature and depth (derived from pressure) give us a profile of the basic water properties. Typically, a set of bottles is attached to the outside of the CTD, so water can be sampled at different depths as the temperature and salinity are read in real time.
To see the biodiversity of the region, we performed several trawls and tows. Trawls and tows entail dragging a net behind the ship at varying depths to capture what’s in the water. These nets can be made of the finest mesh or act more like a broad sieve, capturing anything from fish to phytoplankton.
We caught plenty of both, as well as a lot of other wriggling, swimming, darting things. Our most common haul were krill and amphipods – little shrimp the size of your thumb nail or smaller, mostly delicately translucent and painted with faint red speckles. They swim in a way that enhances their delicacy – smoothly contracting their legs in swift pulses to glide from one end of a petri dish enclosure to another. They share their cage with salps, gelatinous tubes that look more like an alien than invertebrate, their red and yellow stomachs – just pinpoint sized filters at the end of a vacuum - betraying their presence.
The little guys, all the salps and amphipods, phytoplankton and bacteria – got taken with us as we steamed south, and when we finally arrived at Palmer Station, the team broke off to look at their favorite organisms. For now, though, the lab is a-flurry with activity as we set up our equipment, our instruments, and prepare to investigate the life around our new home at the bottom of the world.