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.

 

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