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.

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