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.

Underway, destination Antarctica

IMG_0841It felt good to be underway again. After taking in lines late on October 4, we pulled away from the pier in Punta Arenas and began making our way south aboard the Laurence M. Gould. Our four-day transit would first take us slightly northeast through the Strait of Magellan, before turning almost due south toward Antarctica. (Author’s note: I’ve posted some more images here from the transit south.)

LMG_shiptrack

The Gould’s track from Punta Arenas to Palmer Station.

While transiting the Strait, the Gould was required to embark a pilot, a local Chilean ship captain intimately familiar with the tides, currents, and hazards of the Strait whose job it was to conn the vessel while in the country’s waters. (Pilotage, a practice dating back hundreds of years, is compulsory in most similar waterways around the world, including in much of the United States.) Through the Strait and then down along the east coast of southern Argentina, the ride remained fairly smooth. Prevailing weather in this corner of the ocean this time of year is often out of the northwest, giving us a fine lee on the east side of the continent.

By late in the day on Saturday (Oct. 5), our luck had changed. Once past Cape Horn and in the Drake Passage, we were at the full mercy of the Southern Ocean. The conversation at the bar the night before we departed Punta Arenas had centered around a recurring debate among those who sail these waters: Would we find ourselves in a “Drake Lake,” or would it be the rough “Drake Shake” for which this transit is infamous. By Saturday night, with steady north winds creeping up above 40 knots and seas building to 15 or 20 feet, those who were still up and about agreed the water beneath us was no lake. Then again, it wasn’t the hellish ride I had been told to expect.

Inset

Detail, showing our route through the inside passage.

For those of us without assigned jobs aboard ship, fending off boredom during the rough transit was a challenge. When not eating or sleeping, some passed the time reading. Others took in an endless stream of movies on the big-screen television in the ship’s lounge. (A

n eight-hour movie marathon on Oct. 6 featured back-to-back screenings of the three newest installments of the Batman franchise.) Many of us also took time to send some basic (i.e., text only) e-mail messages via the ship’s INMARSAT satellite link. While connectivity at sea can be slow and cumbersome, it’s still quite a luxury to have access to e-mail underway — particularly at such a high latitude, and in one of the most remote regions of the world’s oceans.

From the moment I quit the active duty Coast Guard in 2009 and began sailing as a scientist, these “dead head” transits have always bothered me: I still hate being at sea without a specific purpose. In the Coast Guard, I stood a navigation watch on two cutters, the Forward and the Penobscot Bay; for two four-hour shifts a day, for nearly four years, I was responsible for navigation and operations at sea. I have very few regrets about getting out to go back to graduate school, but I do miss shiphandling. Having no responsibility for operation of the ships I sail on now as a civilian, makes me feel just a little bit useless when there’s no science going on. This is one of many reasons I haven’t been — and will probably never go — on a pleasure cruise.

My experience so being, I ultimately gravitated, as I always do, to the ship’s bridge. There, I met the captain and crew of the Gould, a cadre of skilled mariners who brought to their jobs a striking diversity of professional marine experience. The captain, Ernie, is a 20-year veteran of the Edison Chouest polar operations fleet; he is a rabid Dallas Cowboys fan and can’t be found much of anywhere aboard ship without either a Lone Star ball cap or bomber jacket. Drew, the chief mate, is Cal Maritime graduate who tried his hand at managing a stevedoring company before he returned to sea aboard the Gould two years ago. (Before that, he had sailed as mate on a series of tankers and freight ships.) Josh, a Texas A&M graduate, is one of the ship’s engineers; this is his first trip south of 45 degrees south latitude.

And this was Steve’s last trip as a merchant mariner. After 28 years in the Navy submarine fleet, Steve had applied for his merchant marine license and sailed a number of container ships, freight carriers, and supply ships before coming to work for Edison Chouest aboard the Gould. In less than a month, he would be hanging up his license “for good,” he said, to retire with his wife to a small town in South Korea. (I imagine he’ll have a difficult transition back to life ashore: Steve’s “master, oceans unlimited” license, shorthand for master of vessels of any gross tons upon oceans, signifies he possess the highest possible rating one can achieve as a U.S. merchant mariner)

The big question on the bridge — and too among the passengers — was when we might see the first signs of sea ice or icebergs. Depending on the time of year and the prevailing weather for the weeks prior, the Gould had seen ice on past transits as far north as 58 or 60ºS. (Older navigation charts show a dashed line labeled “maximum extent of sea ice” that extends even further to the north, but anthropogenic climate change has reduced mean annual sea ice cover in this sector of the ocean so dramatically that those old approximations are now almost completely inaccurate.)

IMG_0745

Sea surface temperatures began to drop as we made our way south.

As Drew, the chief mate noted, the best single way to predict the appearance of sea ice is water temperature. (Icebergs are a bit more unpredictable.) While pure water freezes at 0ºC, seawater of average ocean salinity (S=35) freezes somewhere between -1.8 and -1.9ºC. Practically speaking, this means sea surface temperatures must generally be at least this cold to support sea ice formation. Of course, one might find sea ice on top of warmer waters — but it won’t last long! As sea ice develops and thickens, it progresses through a series of forms; these forms bear the strange names (grease, frazil, suga, pancake, etc.) given to them by generations of mariners who have sailed for hundreds of years upon frozen seas.

The sight of "first ice" at night under the Gould's ice lights.

The sight of “first ice” at night under the Gould’s ice lights.

Aboard the Gould, we hit sea ice on Oct. 7 at 62º46’S — some “suga” and a few small floes at first, then building into a solid expanse of pancake ice as far as the eye (or the ship’s ice lights, it being nighttime) could see. The water temperature was around -1.65ºC, while the air temperature was 0ºC. Given the sea temperature, Drew concluded that this ice had not likely formed were we first encountered it, but had been carried north by prevailing winds or currents. The ship forged on through the night, the sound of ice scraping against the hull a rough lullaby.

When day broke on Oct. 8, we found ourselves in the inside passage of the Gerlache Strait, a narrow body of water between the Antarctic Peninsula itself and the thousands of rocky, snow- and icebound islands that lie to the Peninsula’s west. Amid clouds and fog, the mountains to the west jutted straight out of the cold sea, as if a great god had sawed off the very tops of the Andes and cast them into the water. (This impression was somewhat accurate, geologically speaking: The islands are the southernmost extent of the same orogeny that formed the Andes.) A few flocks of penguins were sighted, along with several species of seabirds, including petrels, gulls, and the occasional albatross. Seals hauled themselves out small floes and icebergs as we steamed past.

A view of Palmer Station from the ship, upon our arrival.

A view of Palmer Station from the ship, upon our arrival.

At around 5:30 p.m., we rounded a spit of land known as Bonaparte Point and beheld Palmer Station. We had arrived at the small research community that would become our new home. Nestled on a rocky shoreline at the foot of the Marr Ice Piedmont, Palmer is on Anvers Island, a rocky, snowy, and ice-covered piece of land discovered in 1832 by John Biscoe. The anticipation that had been mounting for weeks — especially for those of us who had never before deployed to the ice — had come to an end.

Southbound, part 2: Embarkation

Most of the gear had been shipped, and I’d purchased a few extra pairs of long underwear. And after some anticipation, plane tickets in hand, I arrived at the airport in Boston on the morning of October 1. I had four bags to checkone enormous duffel bag of personal items and three crates of scientific gear we had been unable to ship to Port Hueneme in time to be sent to the station by sea.

Research equipment and plenty of warm clothes await shipment at the Logan Airport baggage counter.

Research equipment and plenty of warm clothes await shipment at the Logan Airport baggage counter.

The silver trunk weighed 90 lbs., but paying the American Airlines overweight and excess baggage fees was far less expensive than it would have been had we shipped the items overnight via a carrier such as FedEx or UPS.

With bags checked, I boarded a first flight to Dallas-Fort Worth, and then a 10-hour flight to Santiago, Chile. In Santiago, I met the dozen or so other scientists and support personnel with whom I would travel the rest of the way to Antarctica. Jimmie, a 30-year veteran contractor to the Antarctic Program, immediately met us at our gate and helped us navigate our way through immigration and customs. (All USAP participants travel through either Chile or New Zealand to get to their destinations on the cold continent, and are therefore subject for at least a few days to the laws of one or the other country.) We learned there were a few things with which Jimmie could not assist, including violations (however accidental) of Chile’s extraordinarily strict policy against importation of live animal or plant products. One undeclared banana, it turns out, will net you a tidy fine — payable on the spot — of US $350.

A domestic flight on LAN Express took us from Santiago to Punta Arenas.

A domestic flight on LAN Express took us from Santiago to Punta Arenas.

Once through customs, we re-checked our bags through for our domestic flight to Punta Arenas, a port city 2,269 km (1410 mi) to the south. The flight route from Santiago to Punta Arenas parallels the western slope of the Andes, and the scenery is spectacular. From my seat on the airplane, I took in the serrated, tooth-like peaks of these young mountains, the southern vertebrae of the geological spine of the Americas. (The Andes, formed in the Mesozoic and Tertiary periods of roughly 100 Ma, are very new land compared with the uplifted, age-worn roots of ancient mountains I explored as an adolescent in New York’s Adirondacks.)

The view from the plane to Punta Arenas. Courtesy Austin Melillo.

The view from the plane to Punta Arenas. Courtesy Austin Melillo.

From nearly 35,000 feet, the sight of this new earth rolling away beneath me was a reminder that full comprehension of the natural environment so often depends on one having a perspective appropriate to the system of interest. The true breadth and enormity of this 5,000-mile long mountain range and the gargantuan, serpentine glaciers that surged between its peaks below were comprehensible only from my macroscopic vantage in that airplane.

In science, this rule of perspective is ubiquitous: In the same way that the true nature of the Andes was only comprehensible from an airplane that permitted a field of view extending hundreds of miles in every direction, the biological and chemical systems that I will be studying over the next four months are comprehensible only with microscopes and mass spectrometers that give order to living cells of lengths of micrometers and chemical compounds on orders of angstroms. That one can understand of a natural system only with the proper perspective is as true for a casual observer of geology in an airplane as for a phytoplankton ecologist or chemical oceanographer at a research station in Antarctica.

Photo7

The USAP warehouse in Punta Arenas.

Photo8

Two happy southbound USAP participants receive their ECW gear issue in Punta Arenas.

We had roughly two days ashore in Punta Arenas before we began the four-day transit to Antarctica. It was early spring, and the ski area in the hills in back of town had, to my disappointment, closed for the season just that Sunday prior. At a warehouse leased by the Antarctic Program, the other personnel headed for the ice and I were issued our “ECW” — emergency cold weather — clothing. I was instructed by Tina, a USAP veteran and member of Oscar Schofield’s research group at Rutgers University, to try on every piece of gear that had been issued to me — sometimes, they don’t get the sizes quite right.

Other activities ashore in Punta Arenas included a few last early morning runs along the water (I was joined by Jo, a USAP doctor who was also headed to the station) and a required pilgrimage to rub the foot of a statue of Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer for whom the Strait of Magellan is named.

Magellan’s ship completed the first circumnavigation of the globe in 1522. In 1519 he rounded South America through the channel of water that bears his name; the passage separates Tierra del Fuego and other islands from mainland South America. Rubbing the foot of Magellan is supposed to ensure fair weather in advance of one’s crossing of the notorious Drake Passage, the 430-nautical mile wide reach of the Southern Ocean that lies between South America and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Magellan’s name also persists in the names of countless tourist shops, restaurants, banks, and other places of business throughout Punta Arenas.

The weather in Punta Arenas reminded me of early March on Cape Cod, in New England. A steady wind blew as temperatures hovered in the low 40’s (ºF). A cold rain turned to sleet and then back into cold rain again. I hope that the weather, and the muted grayness of the sky, would serve as an appropriate acclimatization for the journey ahead.

Southbound, part 1: How do you get there?

How do you get there?

That’s the first question I had. And, in the weeks leading up to my deployment, I found that was the primary question many of my fellow graduate students and oceanographers had for me, even the scientists I know who perform most of their research at sea. (In referencing the transportation of personnel and supplies to the Antarctic, the U.S. Antarctic Program uses the same word — “deployment” — to describe mobilization for an operation abroad as does the military. This is not an accident: Though mobilizing for science and not war, the logistical, challenges associated with getting everything that’s required to this remote place are in many ways very similar.)

A research trip to Antarctica begins long before laboratory equipment is packed into shipping containers and the scientists, cooks, and ironworkers bound for the station step aboard their planes in the United States. The process really begins as an idea — that is, as a research question or hypothesis that coalesces in the mind of a curious scientist. Because of its unique nature, research in Antarctica is managed and organized by the U.S. government through the appropriately-named U.S. Antarctic Program (“USAP”), a taxpayer-funded construct of the National Science Foundation.

A note on how research “on the ice” is funded (you should skip the next two paragraphs if you’d rather just read about long plane trips and boat rides): USAP receives its funding from the research grants of U.S. scientists, who compete, as in other areas of science, on the intellectual merit of their ideas for limited government support. My advisor, for example, currently receives funding from the National Science Foundation, the U.S., Office of Naval Research, and a private grant-maker, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. At Palmer Station, most of the research is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation to the Palmer Station Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) study group, a collaboration of more than 10 scientists who are conducting a long-term study of the biological, physical, and chemical properties of the marine environment around the site. The lead investigator on the Palmer LTER study is Dr. Hugh Ducklow, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who is largely sponsoring my time at the station.

After receiving a grant award for work in Antarctica — competition for funding from most directorates of the National Science Foundation is steep; in many years, less than 10 percent of grant proposals are successful — scientists begin planning for the specific logistics that will be necessary for their research. Some of the award goes to the U.S. Antarctic Program. The USAP, though managed by the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, is really a network of support contractors who handle everything from shipping and the pre-deployment medical screening of scientists and support personnel, to science support, food service, and station maintenance. (A Lockheed Martin subsidiary, the Antarctic Support Contractor, currently provides most services; until recently, support was the responsibility of Raytheon Polar Services.)

In my case, by agreeing to assist with the LTER sampling effort, I was able to “plug in” to an existing research project by supplementing the existing resources with funding from additional sources, including grants obtained by my research advisor at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

I began preparing for my trip several months ago when I first came on board the project. With the assistance of Justin, a research assistant in my lab at WHOI, I prepared two pallets of scientific supplies — pipette tips, chemical reagents, 96-well plates, etc. — for eventual shipment to the station. We shipped the pallets by truck to Port Hueneme, California, where contractors with ASC combine all the heavy cargo that is destined for the various USAP research stations into shipping containers or airlift pallets. (Cargo to Palmer goes mostly by sea in shipping containers, while cargo bound for the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station or McMurdo Station often travels by air.)

With cargo and supplies on their way, I began the physical qualification, or “PQ” process. In many ways, the physical and dental examinations I received — and the voluminous stack of forms I had to submit — were very similar to those to which I have to submit annually in the Coast Guard. Once “PQ’ed,” the ASC booked plane tickets for me from the nearest major airport (Boston, in my case) to Punta Arenas, Chile. And then, busy with existing work in the lab back in Woods Hole, I waited.

The story continues in my next update.

Point of Departure

The Nathaniel B. Palmer (left) and Laurence M. Gould (right), at their pier in Punta Arenas, Chile. The "LMG" and "NBP" are the two chartered research vessels of the U.S. Antarctic Program.

The Nathaniel B. Palmer (left) and Laurence M. Gould (right), at their pier in Punta Arenas, Chile. The “LMG” and “NBP” are the two chartered research vessels of the U.S. Antarctic Program.

The Laurence M. Gould leaves for Antarctica in 25 minutes, and I’m trying to reconcile my current situation with the largely incongruous activities of the weekend prior to my departure. Now as psychologically distant as their physical location, these undertakings included two seasonal activities appropriate to early fall in the Northeastern United States: In a small town in upstate New York, I assisted with preparations for the slaughter of four dozen chickens, while in in the very warm waters of Vineyard Sound, Massachusetts, I fished at dusk one evening for bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix). T-shirts and shorts made comfortable early fall attire for these outdoor activities: Sea surface temperatures back home in Massachusetts hovered somewhere in the vicinity of 21°C, or 70°F, while air temperatures remained a seasonally normal 65°F or so.

The LMG's flow-through seawater system, with data shown here for Punta Arenas, Chile.

The LMG’s flow-through seawater system, with data shown here for Punta Arenas, Chile.

Now, just four days later and 6,625 miles to the south in Punta Arenas, Chile, the Gould’s real-time flow-through water monitoring system indicates the water here at the pier (latitude 53°S) is just shy of a frigid 4°C. Scientifically, that’s 10,663 kilometers (or 5,758 nautical miles) almost exactly due south of life of a week ago; I find am just as far away psychologically as I join a group of scientists and support staff from across the United States on a four-day voyage to Palmer Station.

“Palmer” — and aboard the Gould — is where I will spend the next four and half months carrying out research as part of the Palmer Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) study. Once we arrive, I will be living and working (as scientists say, “doing science”) at one of the three permanent U.S. research stations on Antarctica. I will be one of between 50 and 60 researchers and support staff who keep the station running on behalf of U.S. taxpayers for the sole purpose of scientific research. In addition to my work on the LTER study, I will also be conducting a series of my own experiments and collecting samples for my own research project. (For some basic information now on both scientific endeavors, see About the Project. As the weeks go on, I’ll also be writing much more about our research at Palmer, starting from a fundamental point of departure for those with a limited or no background in marine science.)

The voyage from Punta Arenas (the southernmost major port in Chile) will take us roughly four days. We’ll travel out to sea via the Strait of Magellan, then down the east coast of Argentina and across the notorious Drake Passage. Once within sight of Antarctica, we’ll take the “inside passage” to get to Palmer Station — that is, a route between the mainland of the Antarctic Peninsula and the archipelago of islands that unfolds for hundreds of miles along the Peninsula’s western side.

In the coming months, I hope you’ll join me here on the Internet as I share some unsolicited thoughts about science, life in the field, and work on the earth’s cold seventh continent. As long as the satellite link remains open, I’m also excited to answer your questions about the research we’ll be performing, or about any aspect of life on station or at sea. I promise to answer every honest inquiry with an honest answer.

Until next time.