With sea ice in full retreat, a start to sampling

While it prevented LTER scientists from getting into the field until mid-December, the persistent sea ice was no obstacle for an elephant seal that climbed up onto the rocks surrounding the station on Dec. 12.

Charismatic megafauna: Indisputably charismatic. While the persistent sea ice prevented LTER scientists from getting on the water until mid-December, it was no obstacle for an elephant seal who climbed up onto the rocks surrounding the station on Dec. 12.

After a long and inexcusable absence from this space, greetings again from 64º south. Some milestones have passed since my last update on Nov. 18. We’ve celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah, each with good cheer and sustenance worthy of the best holiday gatherings stateside. For those USAP veterans who call this remote place home, the celebrations were that much more meaningful.

Christmas Day saw the scheduled arrival in Arthur Harbor of at least two Minke whales. Station lore holds that the season’s first whales always show up on Christmas Day; after fulfilling their contractual obligation with a brief show of breaching and splashing, this year’s travelers quickly moved on in search of food.

Sunset from atop the glacier on Dec. 21. The solstice brought just 135 minutes of official nightfall to Palmer Station.

Sunset from atop the glacier on Dec. 21. The solstice brought just 135 minutes of official nightfall to Palmer Station.

On Dec. 21, the Summer Solstice brought Palmer its longest day of the year. Just 135 minutes of official nightfall separated sunset, which occurred shortly after midnight, from the sun’s appearance on the horizon again at 2:22 a.m. Something between dawn and twilight persisted in the intervening hours — more than enough light for skiing up on the glacier or for a midnight walk through the moraine and glacial outwash that litters the station’s backyard.

A Nov. 30 image from the RadarSat-2 satellite showed the extent of the sea ice that lingered for months to the south and west of Anvers Island. In this false-color image, sea ice is white, while land masses and terrestrial ice have a blueish tint.

A Nov. 30 image from the RadarSat-2 satellite showed the extent of the sea ice that lingered for months to the south and west of Anvers Island. In this false-color image, sea ice is white, while land masses and terrestrial ice have a blueish tint. Station scientists and ship personnel use these images for scientific planning and navigational awareness.

And, for the scientists of the Palmer LTER study, the holidays ushered in another highly-anticipated event: The retreat of an anomalously persistent cover of sea ice to the south and west of Anvers Island,  which had prevented us from sampling for nearly three months. After a few days of favorable winds (see my earlier post, here), the morning of Dec. 27 finally brought the open water that allows us to collect samples for the first time at both of the study’s offshore sampling stations.

The stations — “B” and “E” — are two of the roughly 20 predesignated scientific sampling locations that dot the waters adjacent to Palmer Station. The LTER study collects samples at these two particular stations because they are ecosystem endmembers; samples from the two locations capture the major elements that shape the unique marine ecosystem surrounding Anvers Island. (The term endmember was originally used in geology and geochemistry to describe a mineral or rock representing one end of a series having a range of composition; today, biogeochemists and other earth scientists use the term to describe the two or more extremes of any system that can be characterized by mixing of elements with distinct properties.)

Samples collected at Station E capture the direct influence on the ecosystem of the Southern Ocean and Amundsen Sea. Station E is roughly 3 miles from shore, seaward of the small rocky islands that surround Palmer Station. The water depth at Station E is somewhere around 120 meters, and the salinity of the water is nearly 35, that of average ocean water.

In comparison, Station B is less than a half-mile from the nearest point of land, and fresh glacial meltwater typically lowers the salinity there to around 32 or 33. In the spring, runoff from nearby penguin colonies can increase the concentration at Station B of certain dissolved nutrients. And, “B” is shallower, with a depth of about 60 meters.

Antarctic sea ice extent in 2013 (bottom) and in 2011 (top). Relative to the trend established in the past 30 years, the 2013 sea ice cover on the West Antarctic Peninsula was anomalously extensive. The orange line shows the median ice extent surrounding the continent over the past few decades. While the extent and duration of the sea ice cover on the Peninsula has decreased dramatically over the past few decades, ice surrounding the continent as a whole has increased slightly.

Antarctic sea ice extent in 2013 (bottom) and in 2011 (top). Relative to the past 30 years, 2013 sea ice cover on the West Antarctic Peninsula was anomalously extensive. The orange line shows the median ice extent surrounding the continent over the past few decades. While the extent and duration of sea ice cover on the Peninsula has decreased dramatically over the past few decades, ice surrounding the continent as a whole has increased slightly.

At each site, we apply the bread-and-butter techniques of modern oceanography, combining the collection water samples from several depths in the water column with profiles of temperature, salinity, and the water’s optical properties using electronic instruments. By measuring certain properties of the water collected at the different depths, we can compare the two distinct but often overlapping populations of microbes that make their living at the two stations.

We divide up the water we collect for dozens of different types of analysis. On a normal day, for example, we set aside some of the water to measure the different pigments produced by the various algae at the two sites, chlorophyll being just one of many pigments used in photosynthesis. Another subsample is used to determine  the concentration in the water of dissolved organic carbon, or DOC, the billions of dissolved organic compounds that are suspended in every milliliter of seawater.

I had hoped to begin writing about the LTER sampling effort in late October or early November, the time when LTER sampling crews have traditionally begun their work in years past. But as I’ve described in this space throughout the spring, the uncharacteristic lateness of this year’s sea ice retreat — and the anomalously broad extent of the ice pack along the Peninsula for much of the winter — prevented us from conducting any real sampling.

It turns out this anomalous year has been as frustrating for us in the field as it has been a source of keen scientific interest among the many scientists back in the U.S. who conduct field work at Palmer Station.

Climatically, this year is a certain anomaly: West Antarctica, and the Peninsula in particular, remain among the fastest winter-warming locations on earth. (See, for example, a plot in this earlier post showing the dramatic decline over the past few decades in annual sea ice cover.) For whatever reason — the cause will be a source of scientific inquiry and debate over the next few years — the 2013 sea ice retreat defied the trend.

Austin Melillo, a geology student at Rutgers University, helps deploy the LTER CTD (conductivity, temperature, and depth) package amid sea ice at Station B.

Science, finally underway. Austin Melillo, a geology student at Rutgers University, helps deploy the LTER CTD (conductivity, temperature, and depth) package amid sea ice at Station B.

From the dining room here at Palmer Station, taking in the frozen sea day after day for nearly three months, I found it difficult to remember this was still a region of intense climatic change. Trends and anomalies in climate do not lend themselves to the standards and measures of human lives. We think on the timescales of months and seasons, comparing this year to the last and the next year to this one. Our human memories are short, and changes in climate occur over time intervals that often defy our comprehension.

As a scientist, I try to remember this. And I remind myself that the data we collect over the next few months as part of the LTER study may help to elucidate the causes and effects of the massive changes here in West Antarctica. Rationally, I know this year was an exception to an alarming trend. And yet, like all scientists, I am certainly human: It was difficult to look out at all the ice — more than anyone had seen in twenty years, yet an amount that used to be normal here 50 years ago — and remember that I was staring at an anomaly.

More to come from Palmer Station and the Laurence M. Gould. In the meantime, a few more images from the past month on station:

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Exceptionally calm water and remnants of the sea ice pack greeted us on our first trip to Station E.

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A leopard seal hauled out on an ice floe.

A leopard seal hauled out on an ice floe.

An enormous iceberg lingered just a few hundred yards from Station E as we collected water samples on Dec. 27.

This enormous iceberg lingered just a few hundred yards from Station E as we collected water samples on Dec. 27.

Bedfellows on a frozen continent: Science and the U.S. sea services

A ship's plaque bearing the coat of arms of the Coast Guard Cutter Glacier commemorates one of many visits by the icebreaker to Palmer Station during the 1970s and 1980s.

A ship’s plaque bearing the coat of arms of the Coast Guard Cutter Glacier commemorates one of many visits by the icebreaker to Palmer Station during the 1970s and 1980s. The plaque hangs in the station lounge with many others.

The nautical mementos that ring the walls of the Palmer Station lounge attest to a once robust partnership between Antarctic science and the U.S. sea services. A fading Coast Guard ensign bears the names of crewmembers who ventured ashore in 1984 from the now-decommissioned Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea. A ship’s plaque embossed with the coat of arms of the Coast Guard Cutter Glacier proudly commemorates one of the icebreaker’s many visits to Arthur Harbor in the 1970s and 1980s. (On the seal, Glacier sails in the foreground as a penguin on an ice floe holds a banner bearing the ship’s motto — “Follow Me” — in its beak.) And a yellowing photograph of the CGC Polar Star, the only American heavy icebreaker still in operation and sister ship to the decommissioned Polar Sea, hangs on the opposite wall.

A small boat crew from the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea left this Coast Guard ensign during a visit in 1984. The leaving during a port call of a ship's plaque or other memento is in keeping with old nautical tradition.

A small boat crew from the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea left this Coast Guard ensign at Palmer during a visit in 1984. The “gifting” during a port call of a ship’s plaque or other memento is a nautical tradition.

These objects speak not just of the individual ships on which they arrived and of the crewmembers who left them, but of the U.S. sea services’ historical support of exploration and scientific discovery in Antarctica. Palmer Station, for example, owes its very existence to two Coast Guard cutters and a team of Navy Seabees.

To observe Veterans Day aboard Palmer Station in 2013 — as roughly 40 men and women did last week — is to both remember and celebrate the services’ past efforts here and to reflect on the much-diminished role that sailors and Coast Guardsmen play in Antarctica today.

In many ways, the military is no longer needed in Antarctica to the extent that it once was: Scientists, and the American taxpayers who fund the majority of those scientists’ research here, are served incredibly well by a capable contractor who manages the various stations and associated logistics. And the U.S. military does continue to provide some critical support for science on the Frozen Continent: The U.S. Air Force and New York Air National Guard now provide almost all airlift support for both McMurdo Station and the South Pole, for example.

But the fact remains: The end of the Cold War, combined with a lack of willingness in Congress to spend many millions of tax dollars on new icebreakers, has reduced the sea services’ financial and logistical investment in Antarctic science to a fraction of its former strength. While the decline of this vigorous partnership is a story worthy of books many times the length of this post, I have nevertheless endeavored to tell a bit of it here.

One thing is certain: The few men and women of the sea services who continue to stand the watch in the Antarctic today can take comfort in the fact that their duty is rooted in a long and storied history.

The Coast Guard Cutter Westwind at anchor in Arthur Harbor in winter 1967, after arriving on January 8 with a team of Navy Seabees. After transferring the team and several tons of gear ashore, the Westwind stayed on station as construction began on Palmer Station. Photo from the Palmer Station history pages at palmerstation.com.

The Coast Guard Cutter Westwind at anchor in Arthur Harbor in winter 1967, after arriving on January 8 with a team of Navy Seabees. After transferring the team and several tons of gear ashore, the Westwind stayed on station as construction began on Palmer Station. National Science Foundation photo by W. Austin, from May/June 1967 edition of the Antarctic Journal, via the Palmer Station history pages at palmerstation.com.

From the beginning, the U.S. sea services — the Navy and later, too, the Coast Guard — figured prominently in the history of American exploration and scientific discovery on the Frozen Continent. Many of the earliest American explorers to sail upon the Southern Ocean or travel across Antarctica were Naval officers: Men like Charles Wilkes and Richard E. Byrd earned themselves revered places in the annals of U.S. exploring history alongside civilian mariners like Nathaniel Palmer.

Navy Seabees from

Using special “jet set” explosives, Navy Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 6 conduct underwater blasting in January 1967 to excavate a trench for Palmer Station’s seawater intake. Official Coast Guard photo from the Antarctic Journal, via the Palmer Station history pages at palmerstation.com.

While the terms of the Antarctic Treaty prohibit “any measures of a military nature” south of 60°S latitude, the treaty does “not prevent the use of military personnel or equipment for scientific research or for any other peaceful purpose.” It is under this second clause that the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard — and, today, the U.S. Air Force — have supported various U.S. scientific operations here.

The current McMurdo Station, the largest research facility in Antarctica and the logistics hub for most U.S. operations on the continent, was originally called Naval Air Facility McMurdo upon its establishment in 1956. (Long before the U.S. established its permanent presence at McMurdo, the British had occupied the site through the efforts of explorers James Clark Ross and, later, Robert Falcon Scott, both of whom were British naval officers.) And it was the Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 6, with support from the USS Edisto and Coast Guard icebreakers Eastwind and Westwind, who constructed the first buildings and pier for Palmer Station in the late 1960s.

One need not read far into the first official Palmer Station operations report (full version of the document here) to understand how critical the Navy and Coast Guard support had been:

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An except from the first official Palmer Station operations report, dated June 20, 1967. Link to the full report here.

The remainder of the 48-page report, and subsequent annual reports like it through the late 1980s, note the critical services the Navy and Coast Guard provided at Palmer Station with the U.S. icebreaker fleet. The Wind-class icebreakers, Glacier, and later the Polar Star and Polar Sea, were Palmer’s link to the rest of the world, serving as platforms for research at sea in addition to fulfilling resupply, construction, and personnel transport missions.

In the 1970s and 1980s, management, operation, and, finally, the resupply of Palmer Station by sea were gradually civilianized: The military personnel assigned to Palmer were replaced by civilian government contractors and Coast Guard icebreakers were supplanted by ice-strengthened civilian research vessels. (For at least a few years, a Navy corpsman continued to provide overwinter medical services at Palmer, even after the rest of the former Navy positions had been civilianized.)

The Polar Star and Polar Sea continued to provide icebreaking and resupply support at McMurdo until the mid-2000s, when an increasing number of equipment failures aboard the two aging cutters began to render them increasingly unreliable. Beginning in 2006-2007, the National Science Foundation began contracting a series of foreign icebreakers (the Swedish Oden and then the Russian Vladimir Ignatyuk) to perform the critical resupply escort mission. In 2011, when Sweden pulled its support of the Oden on short notice, the U.S. nearly missed the short window of good weather necessary to deliver critical fuel and supplies to McMurdo.

Today, the U.S. icebreaker fleet stands at its smallest size in nearly 75 years. (An office at Coast Guard Headquarters maintains this nation-by-nation chart of the world’s heavy icebreakers.) Only the Polar Star, which just completed a $90 million retrofit that will keep it in service for another decade, is capable of breaking ice into McMurdo Station.

Without the necessary support in Congress, the Coast Guard currently has no firm plans to begin building any new ships to replace it. (The Coast Guard’s only other polar icebreaker, the 420-foot Coast Guard Cutter Healy, is a lighter-duty ship designed primarily for scientific support in Arctic waters. And, while highly capable, the two Antarctic research vessels the National Science Foundation currently contracts from Edison Chouest Offshore are only ice-strengthened. This means the two ships, the Laurence M. Gould and Nathaniel B. Palmer, are not equipped to break even half of the 21 feet of ice thickness the Polar Star can handle.)

For five scientists and support personnel who were scheduled to leave Palmer Station last week aboard the Gould, the state of the U.S. icebreaker fleet became an issue of personal concern: Due to the persistent sea ice in the waters south and west of Anvers Island, the Gould was unable to get to the station to transfer inbound supplies or pick up the outbound passengers. This isn’t, of course, a matter of life or death: The station keeps plenty of extra food and fuel on hand for situations like this one. But the delay represents a very significant inconvenience for the unlucky few who were scheduled to head north.

Circumstances like the one in which these men and women found themselves are, to be sure, a normal cost of conducting research in this harsh place. But they are also the consequence of a decades-long shift in the way science is supported here. The current arrangement is precarious, yet financially advantageous for taxpayers. Scientists, too, have not generally suffered: Research funded by the U.S. Antarctic Program generates an incredible number of new scientific findings each year.

To observe Veterans Day at the end of the world is to be grateful for the service of the sailors, airmen, and Coast Guardsmen whose efforts over more than a century have allowed U.S. science to come this far. But it is also to wonder: Might a new U.S. icebreaker — and with it, the ability to access those parts of the Southern Ocean currently inaccessible — allow us to make even greater discoveries?

While ice lingers on the sea, science keeps rolling in the air above

Twilight now persists at 64° south long after the sun has dropped below the horizon, providing ample light for a hike up and over the glacier. While sea ice on the Bismarck Strait keeps science temporarily at bay, the jagged peaks of Anvers Island’s Trojan Range show their snowy faces after several weeks of cloudy weather. Time of photo: 10:48 p.m. local time.

Greetings again from 64° south.

As I write, persistent sea ice continues to stand between most of Palmer’s scientists and their objects of study. For access to the water and the islands around the station, scientists here rely on a small fleet of Zodiac inflatable small boats. Sturdy and versatile, Palmer’s black Zodiacs are very similar to craft the Navy uses to deliver its SEAL teams to hostile shores the world over. And yet, as I’ve learned over these past three weeks, no inflatable boat can contend with the foot and a half of refrozen brash ice that currently chokes the inlet here.

Without open water, LTER scientists studying the bacteria and phytoplankton in the sea around the station can’t even get get out to nearby stations “B” or “E” to collect water samples. (There are 20 or so predesignated LTER sampling locations around Arthur Harbor; I’ve posted a chart here.) And things aren’t much better for Palmer’s recently-arrived team of penguin researchers: Most of the penguin colonies Bil Fraser and his team have been studying for the past four decades or so are on islands even further offshore.

Greg Roberts poses in Palmer's "backyard" with PAEROS, the Portable Aerosol Observing System. Roberts and Craig Corrigan, atmospheric scientists from  the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, developed the autonomous instrument package to measure aerosol particles in the surface atmosphere.

Greg Roberts poses in Palmer’s “back yard” with PAEROS, the Portable Aerosol Observing System. Roberts and Craig Corrigan, atmospheric scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, developed the autonomous PAEROS instrument package to measure aerosol particles in the surface atmosphere.

For two atmospheric scientists, however, the sea ice hasn’t been a major obstacle: Greg Roberts and Craig Corrigan, a team from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, have been finding plenty of the small particles they came to study in the air and clouds above the station. Greg and Craig brought with them to the Antarctica an autonomous package of instruments to measure aerosols — the hundreds to tens of thousands of solid and liquid particles that are suspended in every cubic centimeter of the earth’s surface-layer air. (An aerosol technically refers to a suspension of particles in any gas; usually, and in this case, the gas is air.)

The two scientists were the inaugural speakers Oct. 31 in the 2013-2014 field season’s series of weekly “science talks.” (At Palmer, a member of the science party traditionally gives a presentation on Thursday nights to the other scientists and station crewmembers about his or her research, or on some other scientific topic.) As those assembled for the presentation on Thursday learned, aerosol particles play an incredibly important role in regulating our weather and our climate, even at very low concentrations: Without aerosol particles, for example, there would be no rain anywhere on earth.

As part of their Thursday-night lecture on aerosols, Greg and Craig demonstrate cloud formation using pressurized isopropanol in a soda bottle.

As part of their Thursday-night lecture on aerosols, Greg and Craig demonstrate cloud formation using a pressurized soda bottle containing isopropanol.

Aerosols can be natural or anthropogenic: Clouds are aerosols in which billions of tiny water droplets have condensed around dust or other “seed” particles suspended in the air. (These particular aerosol particles are called cloud condensation nuclei, or CCN — one of the many parameters Greg and Craig are measuring here with their instrument.) Volcanic eruptions, anthropogenic exhaust emissions (from factories, power plants, ships, and cars, for example), and smoke from burning of biomass in forests also add to the number of particles in our air.

The ocean, it turns out, is also an important natural source of aerosol particles: When the wind drives the ocean’s waves to crest and break, sea spray (or spindrift)  breaks into tiny droplets, sending particles of sea salt into the air. In addition, certain chemical compounds produced by phytoplankton — chief among them dimethylsulfide, or DMS — are emitted from the ocean into the surrounding air. DMS can then be oxidized to a number of other sulfur-containing compounds that serve as highly effective cloud condensation nuclei.

PAEROS weathers a coastal storm that brought sustained winds of 50 knots. Photo courtesy Greg Roberts.

PAEROS weathers a coastal storm that brought sustained winds of 50 knots. Photo courtesy Greg Roberts.

To identify the various sources of aerosols and obtain information about the particles’ physical properties, Greg and Craig have incorporated several different instruments into their Portable Aerosol Observing System, or PAEROS. The instruments within the package measure everything from the total number of particles in each volume of air to the size distribution of the particles (how many particles of what size are present) and whether those particles serve as cloud condensation nuclei, or CCN. The instrument also records several meteorological parameters, including rainfall and wind velocity and direction.

While PAEROS is autonomously measuring and recording data on the many terrestrial sources of aerosols in the air here — including those both natural and anthropogenic — Greg and Craig are equally as interested in capturing data on the various sea salt, sulfur, and organic compounds that come from the sea and are transformed into cloud condensation nuclei above the ocean. DMS, for example, is produced in the surface layer of the ocean through a complex series of metabolic processes in phytoplankton. Sea salt comes from breaking waves, and organic aerosol particles are thought to be generated by the bursting of bubbles at the ocean’s surface.

In a 1987 paper in the journal Nature, Charlton et al. described a complex feedback loop involving phytoplankton DMS production and cloud formation over the oceans.

The original “CLAW hypothesis” paper. In a 1987 article in the journal Nature, Charlton et al. described a complex feedback loop involving phytoplankton DMS production and cloud formation over the oceans.

The relationship between DMS production and cloud formation was the basis for the “CLAW hypothesis,” a complex feedback loop described in 1987 through which phytoplankton could regulate their environment through increased DMS-based cloud formation. (The concept was formally described by Charlson et al. in a 1987 paper in the journal Nature; it takes its name from the first letters of each of the paper’s authors’ last names.)

Given their many sources, aerosol particles are ubiquitous: Air in a polluted city might contain concentrations as high as 50,000 particles per cm3, Greg and Craig’s data show that even the air in a place as devoid of human activity as Antarctica can contain concentrations of 100 to several thousand particles per cm3.

Because the “signal background” here in Antarctica is so low — i.e., there are normally very few natural or anthropogenic aerosols in the “clean” air above the Peninsula here — the PAEROS instruments can detect very subtle changes in the types and distribution of particles that might be missed if the instrument were deployed almost anywhere else in the world.

But even here in Antarctica, PAEROS can find evidence of anthropogenic material in the air: One of the instruments can discern particles containing “black carbon” — complex, dark-colored graphitic compounds that are produced through the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass — from other types of particles. Against the very low aerosol background here at Palmer, even the soot from a single passing ship’s smokestacks was enough to register a signal on the instrument. (Greg and Craig have seen almost no black carbon when winds are blowing clean air off the Antarctic continent to the south; when winds blow from the north, however, they can detect small anthropogenic signals in the air coming off South America.)

A brief shift in the weather brought northeast winds — and, very briefly, open water — to Arthur Harbor. In the absence of much biological activity, the water remains extraordinarily clear.

A brief shift in the weather brought northeast winds — and, very briefly, open water — to Arthur Harbor. In the absence of much biological activity, the water remains extraordinarily clear.

Greg and Craig will both depart Palmer in the next few weeks, but PAEROS will continue to record data on black carbon and other aerosol sources here until the field season ends in March. It looks increasingly likely that one of those other sources — phytoplankton DMS production — will elude the two scientists, at least personally. Both had hoped to be present to see what PAEROS was measuring when the first bloom of phytoplankton occurred this spring. With the sea ice still firmly in place, however, the season’s first bloom is still a few weeks or months away. Once the phytoplankton starting doing their thing, Greg and Craig will have to check in remotely from California to see exactly what PAEROS is saying.

Much more science to come from down here at Palmer.

Stay tuned,

Jamie

A few images below from the past two weeks on station:

Spring days bring a twilight that last for hours. Greg makes his way up the glacier toward the rising moon.

Spring days bring a twilight that lasts for hours. Greg makes his way up the glacier toward the rising moon.

Mount Agamemnon (to Palmer's east) glows in the long spring twilight.

Mount William (to Palmer’s east) glows in the long spring twilight.

Lenticular clouds hover over the Marr Ice Piedmont.

Lenticular clouds hover over the Marr Ice Piedmont.

Two hours after sunset. The lights of the Laurence M. Gould, hove to in the ice, are visible on the horizon.

Two hours after sunset. The lights of the Laurence M. Gould, hove to in the ice, are visible on the horizon.

Greg Roberts and Oliver Ho preparing to put in a few turns on their snowboards.

Greg Roberts and Oliver Ho preparing to put in a few turns on their snowboards.

Fallout, continued

A quick update on public research funding. Dust of the post-government shutdown variety — not the aeolian sort about which chemical oceanographers get excited — continues to settle on science in Antarctica. In a statement released this week by the National Science Foundation, the agency identifies several planned (and already funded) Antarctic research projects which were cancelled altogether as a result of the lapse in funding. The good news for those few of us on this side of the continent: Because Palmer Station is served by a unique logistical operation in Chile, research planned here for later in the season will be largely spared. Several investigators who had planned to conduct field campaigns via the McMurdo logistics hub weren’t so lucky. The USAP had to cancel or defer a number of logistical commitments, including:

  • most of the support for NASA’s Long-Duration Balloon facility
  • a camp on Mt. Erebus, atop the world’s southernmost active volcano
  • a field camp for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide project
  • and an over-ice traverse to support portions of the Whillians Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project

I can only imagine how the hard-working scientists who won grants to conduct these research efforts felt when they got the news. Let us all hope this doesn’t happen again anytime soon.

More from Palmer Station tomorrow.

Hunkered down, awaiting science

Sunset over the waters of the Bismarck Strait on Oct. 27. While each spring day brings more daylight to the Peninsula, the sea around the station remains icebound.

The sun sets on Oct. 27 over Palmer Station and the waters of the Bismarck Strait. While each spring day brings more daylight to the Peninsula, the sea around the station remains icebound.

By the hard numbers, it’s springtime in Antarctica. Each passing day brings more sun to the sky: Sunrise this morning was at 4:56 a.m. and sunset at 9:03 p.m., giving Peninsula residents over 16 official hours of daylight. Daily high temperatures have been rising slowly over the past month. And, despite almost nightly snowfall accumulations, several bird species — creatures both flightless and flying — are returning to take up residence for the breeding season.

The first penguins have returned to their spring rookeries Torgersen Island, one of the many rocky islets offshore of Palmer Station.

The first penguins have returned to their spring rookeries on Torgersen Island, one of the many rocky islets offshore of Palmer Station.

For scientists of the Palmer LTER study, however, spring has yet to arrive. After a brief clearing of sea ice that coincided almost cruelly with the now-infamous government shutdown, the ocean adjacent to the station has been solidly icebound for nearly two weeks. The sea ice — not particularly thick, but stretching in every direction, as far as the eye can see — has prevented us from launching any sort of boat to make measurements at our study sites in the waters off the Peninsula.

To be clear: The absence of new posts these past few days doesn’t mean there isn’t anything notable happening here at Palmer Station. Two groups of scientists — a pair of microbiologists from Brown University and a team of atmospheric scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography — have been working busily on their respective research projects. (In my next post this week, I’ll introduce you to Greg and Craig, the two scientists from Scripps.)

After a brief clearing, a solid layer of sea ice has blanketed the waters off Palmer Station for more than two weeks.

After a brief clearing, a solid layer of sea ice has blanketed the waters off Palmer Station for more than two weeks.

Palmer’s support crew continues to keep station operations running smoothly. And a few special construction projects are underway. (Chief among these is the relocation of several storage vans — shipping containers used to house supplies and equipment — to a new home behind the station.)

But for the two LTER science teams present, the sight of a still-frozen sea over breakfast largely portends another day hunkered down in the station’s cozy yet very well-appointed laboratories. Thankfully, there is much to do: Equipment and sampling materials must be readied for the day the ice finally flees for good ahead of the coming summer. The precise date on which this great ice-out event will occur is a frequent subject of intense, half-informed lunch-table debate among the project’s biologists, chemists, and biogeochemists — none of whom, it’s worth noting, are meteorologists.

Unlike other regions of Antarctica, the West Antarctic Peninsula has seen a dramatic decrease since 1970 in the number of annual days with sea ice cover. Scientists are just beginning to understand the specific mechanisms through which anthropogenic activities have influenced this change. Data: Hugh Ducklow, LDEO.

Unlike other regions of Antarctica, the West Antarctic Peninsula has seen a dramatic decrease since 1970 in the number of annual days with sea ice cover. Scientists are just beginning to understand the specific mechanisms through which anthropogenic activities have influenced this change. Data: Hugh Ducklow, LDEO.

Vexing though it is, our icebound state is not unusual for this time of year: For the past decade or so, the sea ice hasn’t typically retreated off Anvers Island until late October or early November. And where the rapidly-changing ecosystem of the West Antarctic Peninsula is concerned, I feel in some strange way I should be thankful the ice hasn’t yet retreated: The average number of annual days with sea ice cover has been plummeting dramatically here as the region warms at a geologically alarming rate.

As human beings, we are creatures of the moment, geologically speaking. And so this alarming long-term trend isn’t a daily subject of conversation at the lunch table here, even among the many assembled human beings who are scientists. Instead, anxious to conduct the research for which we’ve traveled thousands of miles, we discuss what must happen in just the next few days — a geological blink of an eye — to break up this year’s ice cover.

Detail of NGA chart 29123, showing the orientation of Arthur Harbor, which surrounds Palmer Station. A full PDF version of the chart, which covers Anvers Island and part of the Bismarck Strait, is available for download here.

Detail of NGA chart 29123, showing the northeast-southwest orientation of Arthur Harbor, which surrounds Palmer Station. For nautically inclined readers, I’ve also uploaded a full PDF version of the chart, which covers Anvers Island and part of the Bismarck Strait.

The general consensus, among those who are return visitors to Palmer: It is not simply enough that temperatures warm. Any warming must be accompanied by a northeast wind that blows steadily for several days to push the frozen stuff out of Arthur Harbor, which faces to the southwest. (Anyone who has sailed aboard an icebreaker — this one, for example — will tell you that wind can be as much a factor in the movement and rafting of sea ice as the temperature.)

Unfortunately, northeast winds haven’t been the trend of late: After a flirtation last week with relative warmth and some brisk northerlies, we’ve had winds these past few days out of the west and southwest. The weather brought clearing on the horizon and an incredible sunset yesterday evening — but no hope of a sampling day today.

There is some hope in the latest weather outlook, however: Winds tonight are predicted to veer to the north and pick up to nearly 50 knots. (Meteorologists at the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWARSYSCEN) in Charleston, S.C., provide daily weather forecasts for Palmer Station and other units of the USAP.)

We’ll be battening down the hatches this afternoon and crossing our fingers for some open water tomorrow morning. Time well-spent in the lab these past weeks will ensure we’ll be ready to sample when the sea clears.

In my next post this week, I’ll introduce Greg Roberts and Craig Corrigan, two atmospheric scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who study aerosols, the very small particles and droplets of liquid that are present in our atmosphere. Greg and Craig have deployed some very sensitive instruments to measure concentrations of cloud condensation nuclei in the air above Palmer Station.

In the meantime, some photographic proof that ice on the surface of the sea doesn’t prevent scientists from enjoying time on land:

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The sun hangs low on the western horizon on Oct. 27. Sunset over the Bismarck Strait occurred at 9:03 p.m. local time.

A few minutes later...

A few minutes later. Palmer’s BIO building is in the foreground; Torgersen Island is visible across Arthur Harbor.

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Fresh tracks on a tongue of the Marr Ice Piedmont, the ice cap on Anvers Island that surrounds Palmer Station to the east and north. Station residents just call it “The Glacier.”

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Matty Hoye, a support staff member from Colorado, scouts out the notorious Anvers Island lift lines after a good run down the glacier. Meanwhile, Greg Roberts gets in some good turns.

 

Fallout

The first full day after the end of the U.S. government shutdown brought lots of activity to Palmer Station, including the departure of the Laurence M. Gould from its icebound berth.

The first full day after the end of the U.S. government shutdown brought lots of activity to Palmer Station, including the departure of the Laurence M. Gould from its icebound berth.

As the dust begins to settle on the U.S. government shutdown, we’re beginning to hear the first somber stories about scientists whose research plans were irrevocably altered or, in some particularly heartbreaking cases, altogether terminated by the 17-day lapse in federal funding. Nature has an essay here by Gretchen Hofmann, a professor of marine biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara; one of Hofmann’s graduate students missed her opportunity to deploy to the ice this season. The piece contains news of several other scientists with similar stories. In the sort-of-related-but-not category, Jonathan Eisen has some great screenshots here of various U.S. government Web sites as they appeared during the shutdown.

Here at Palmer, the first full “regular” day after the financial crisis brought the departure of the Laurence M. Gould from its berth at the Palmer pier. The day also brought lots of activity to the Bio building, which houses most of the laboratories here. All of the research groups who will be on station this spring spent several long hours setting up their equipment and supplies. Next week, I’ll introduce some of the scientists with whom my group will be working over the coming months.

A good weekend to everyone back up north,

Jamie

Back in business

A quick word from Palmer Station, with more to come: Science is (almost) rolling again down here on the ice. After a flurry of true 11th-hour political maneuvering in Washington last night — and, of course, two weeks of anguish, frustration, and uncertainty the station manager informed deployed scientists and support staff here this morning that we were “re-starting” operations. (It’s worth noting here, for readers interested in following along for the rest of the season, that “Palmer time” is currently GMT -3; that is, one hour ahead of the U.S. East Coast and 3 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time.) The National Science Foundation’s official directive to re-start operations is on the Web here.

The “inbound personnel” who have been living aboard the Laurence M. Gould for the past nine days spent the morning in various meetings and laboratory safety orientations. The sense of relief on station is palpable — members of the various science teams are excited to set up their laboratories and begin the meticulous business of sampling and data collection, while newly-arrived support personnel are eager to begin the long list of projects that lies ahead of them this summer. This afternoon, we will move into our new rooms — in one of two dormitories here on station — and take our first official meals as Palmer residents.

While the future now looms a hundred times brighter on the horizon, the mounting uncertainty wrought over the past 16 days by failure of our political system has left everyone exhausted. The weather, it seems, will give us a chance to catch our breath and gather our thoughts: After some “warm” weather last week, the sea surrounding Palmer has frozen fast. Temperatures since our arrival on Oct. 8 had remained largely at 3-4°C, enough to melt some of the accumulated winter sea ice and turn the station’s “front yard” to slush. On Tuesday, however, a passing front brought 50 knots winds and temperatures that plummeted to -12°C. Since we conduct most of our sampling in inflatable small boats, this means we won’t be on the water anytime soon.

Unlike gridlock in Washington, weather is an obstacle the LTER team faces every year down here on the Peninsula. It seems, then, that those of us already deployed to the ice are incredibly fortunate: After some twists and turns, the government shutdown won’t end up costing us all that much of our field season. No one is quite certain, however, what will happen to those scientists not-yet-deployed — men and women whose research was delayed or suspended irreversibly as a result of the events in Washington. And there’s no official word on what will happen after January 15th, when the spending agreement reached last night expires. In the meantime, I am cautiously optimistic.

A hike up the glacier in back of the station on Sunday yielded some spectacular views of the sea and islands that lie to the west. Drifting sea ice is visible in the foreground, blown toward the station by brisk west winds.

A hike up the glacier in back of the station on Sunday yielded some spectacular views of the sea and islands that lie to the west. Drifting sea ice is visible in the foreground, blown toward the station by brisk west winds.

The intervening days have afforded some small opportunities for recreation in and around the station. A hike up the glacier in back of the station (using snowshoes with instep crampons) yielded some spectacular views of the sea that surrounds the base here.

And with some winter snow still left atop the glacier ice, I also decided to accompany Greg, a scientist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, on a brief ski and snowboard tour of Palmer’s two modest ski slopes. (The two slopes are just tongues of the ice piedmont that reach down to the sea on opposite sides of the station.) Greg, who is here to study cloud-nucleating aerosols in the atmosphere above the station, schlepped it up the glacier on snowshoes and carried his snowboard. I skinned up on A/T gear I borrowed from the station’s recreation locker and then made the descent on skis. We each got only 30 or 40 turns in, but it was well worth it.

Greg, a scientist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, makes a careful descent toward Bonaparte Point.

Greg, a scientist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, makes a careful descent toward Bonaparte Point.

I’ll write more as we turn to science and regular life here on station.

All smiles after an icy descent. (Thumbs up for no broken bones!)

All smiles after an icy descent. (Thumbs up for no broken bones!)

Before I sign off, however, I want to share some sincere gratitude: The support I and other members of the science teams here have received over the past two weeks has been overwhelming. Via this blog, by email, and on Facebook, from friends and from members of the public, we’ve received an outpouring of encouragement and empathy from warmer lands to the north; thank you.

Shutdown, day 16: The view from up north

The government shutdown isn’t affecting just U.S. scientists: The Toronto Star has a story out today on how the NSF move to caretaker status is playing out in Canada. Many researchers from other nations depend on USAP infrastructure to collect their own data on the Seventh Continent. Here at Palmer, the LTER study often involves international collaborators. And the NSF makes all data collected through the study available on the Web for anyone in the world to use.

Indefinite deferral — sad news from Antarctica

The transition to "caretaker" status has resulted in almost complete shutdown of the Palmer Station laboratories.

The transition to “caretaker” status has resulted in almost complete shutdown of the Palmer Station laboratories. Equipment in this lab sits covered in protective plastic awaiting the return of scientists at some unspecified point in the future.

I haven’t written much in this space since the Gould pulled into Palmer Station five days ago. On Oct. 8 — the day we arrived — the National Science Foundation announced that it was effectively cancelling all upcoming U.S. research activities in Antarctica. Because Congress has failed to pass a budget for the federal fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, the NSF will run out of money to operate the U.S. Antarctic Program on Oct. 14. In advance of that date, contractors with Lockheed Martin, which maintains the U.S. Antarctic research stations and manages all USAP logistics, have begun transitioning Palmer to “caretaker” status.

No new scientific activities (experiments, data collection, etc.) will be started. All “nonessential” personnel — a group that includes me and the rest of the LTER team — will be leaving Palmer on Oct. 17 for a one-way trip back to the United States.

Boxes for our project remain unpacked and will stay on station awaiting our eventual (we hope) return.

Boxes for our project remain unpacked and will stay on station awaiting our eventual (we hope) return.

This decision was foisted on the NSF and other agencies by a small group of conservative Republicans in Congress, who are using the budget-making process to voice their objections to the Affordable Care Act. These elected officials’ callousness and intransigence — and the effect their obstructionism is having throughout the government — is maddening, frustrating, and thoroughly depressing.

Though I was reluctant to do so, I’ve shared my story with a few reporters in hopes of inspiring readers to contact their members of Congress. (You can contact your Congressman here.) Science has an article for which I was interviewed here; another post on ScienceInsider summarizes the many other effects the shutdown is having on U.S. scientific research. The Albany Times Union — the major newspaper that serves my childhood hometown in upstate New York — carries another version of the story.

Sean O'Neill and Monica Stegman, part of a research team from Brown University and the Marine Biological Laboratory, inventory their equipment as they prepare for the premature end of their experiments.

Sean O’Neill and Monica Stegman, part of a research team from Brown University and the Marine Biological Laboratory, inventory their equipment as they prepare for the premature end of their experiments.

Sebastian, my partner on the LTER project here, shared some of his own thoughts and concerns with Scientific American. Hugh Ducklow, the LTER study’s lead scientist, talked to the Associated Press here about why the loss of an entire field season would be tragic for the ongoing project.

Rather than re-word the many thoughts I’ve already put to paper over the past week, I am re-posting here an essay I drafted this week and submitted (unsuccessfully) to several newspapers. Please share your thoughts with me.

Hostages in Antarctica
James R. Collins, MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography

The announcement Wednesday morning was clear: For all but essential personnel, it would be a very short stay in Antarctica. Bewilderment and anger hung like a smothering blanket of wet snow over the heads of the 40 or so scientists and support personnel assembled in the all-hands lounge here at Palmer Station, one of the three permanent U.S. research bases on Antarctica. Although we were 7,190 miles from the epicenter of dysfunction in Washington, D.C., the station manager told us that the lack of a federal budget had forced the National Science Foundation to put all U.S. Antarctic Program research facilities into “caretaker” status, effective immediately.

The impact was obvious to everyone in the room: Because Congress has failed to pass a budget to fund most functions of our democracy, no official U.S. research will be conducted this austral summer on the West Antarctica Peninsula, a region that is among the fastest warming and most rapidly changing places on earth. In consultation with the White House, program managers at the $7 billion NSF had decided that continuing any non-essential operations in the absence of a signed federal budget or continuing resolution would put the agency in violation of the Antideficiency Act. Congress passed this act in 1884 to ensure no money would be disbursed from the Treasury unless it was backed by lawful appropriation. Scientific research, the sole purpose of the research bases on this vast and rapidly changing continent, is not considered essential.

The spiteful, infantile, and democratically perverse obstructionism that is being forced on the country by a small number of senators and congressmen will have very real and devastating consequences. Unless an agreement is reached, thousands of support personnel, both here and at the two larger U.S. Antarctic Program stations, will lose their jobs, given one-way tickets back to the United States. The hard-working scientists who nearly two decades ago established the Long Term Ecological Research study at Palmer — an effort that has yielded an invaluable, irreplaceable, and (until now) continuous scientific baseline against which to evaluate future changes to the ecosystem here — will likely get to watch as their government, through its inaction, coldly shuts the study down for the first time in its history.

Many millions of dollars in federal grant money that has already been spent to move equipment, food, and cargo into place for this current field season will go to waste. These grants were funded by U.S. taxpayers — the same weary taxpayers who will be asked to ante up again to put things back into place if and when Congress finally emerges with an agreement. Lead investigators will be forced to terminate their employment of new research assistants they had hired for the project, many of them aspiring scientists for whom this will be the first, bitter taste of what it is like to be a researcher in a dysfunctional republic that was once, but should no longer be, heralded for the way it holds in esteem scientific discovery.

I, and almost all of the other scientists and support staff here, will suffer in other ways. Many of the contractors will return to their homes without jobs. Since my studies as a graduate student are funded in part through a fellowship from the Environmental Protection Agency — an agency itself in almost complete lockdown — I will very likely not receive any living stipend this month to make rent payments back home.

Though I am a veteran of the Armed Forces and I continue to serve today in the Coast Guard Reserve, I believe I am owed nothing by my country or by my government. I serve voluntarily because I am proud to be an American citizen, and because I believe each of us has obligation to give back in some way to our democracy. I am still, and will always be, proud to represent the United States — as a scientist, citizen, and member of the military.

And yet, on Wednesday morning, I could not help but feel that a small group of elected officials in Congress had made hostages of us at the hands of our own government, here at the end of the earth. Please, it is time to let us go.

I sincerely hope we’ll be able to salvage some of the remainder of the field season, if Congress does eventually pass a budget. Please check back in this space for updates; I hope we’ll be talking science the next time we meet.

A note on this post, though it should go without saying: Opinions are my own and do not represent the views of the National Science Foundation, U.S. Antarctic Program, Environmental Protection Agency, or U.S. Coast Guard.