Feb 23: Stormy Weather

For the past couple days we’ve been in the middle of a bad weather system with sustained winds around 30-40 knots and gusts reaching 70 knots (80 mph)…

We’ve been lucky with having relatively good weather since we arrived at Palmer Station in early February. Although the weather hasn’t been perfect—with most days being overcast and sometimes rainy—we’ve usually been able to go out on the Zodiacs to do our sampling.

Normally calm water near Palmer Station the day after a storm where sustained winds were 30-40 knots, gusting to 70 knots.  Photo by Lori Price.
Normally calm water near Palmer Station the day after a storm where sustained winds were 30-40 knots, gusting to 70 knots. Photo by Lori Price.

For safety reasons, we aren’t allowed to use the Zodiacs when the winds get above 20 knots (23 mph). Although we aren’t forbidden to go out when it’s raining if the winds are low enough, it makes sampling pretty cold and miserable. However, for the past couple days we’ve been in the middle of a bad weather system with sustained winds around 30-40 knots and gusts reaching 70 knots (80 mph). Needless to say, everyone stayed inside and did a lot of much-needed lab work and data processing. When I had to go outside to walk between the two main buildings I was getting blown around by the wind. It’s a good thing there are railings on the walkways!!

The Zodiacs that we use stay in the water at all times and between sampling trips they are parked in the “parking lot” right outside of the main laboratory building, securely tied to the rocks by bow and stern lines. Last night, however, because the waters got so rough with the high winds, the lines became tangled and started shredding. This morning, the support staff, with the help of some scientists, made a heroic rescue of the Zodiacs, getting them all out of the water safely. I guess we won’t be sampling for a while!!

The winds are calming down a bit and the barometric pressure is rising, so hopefully tomorrow will be a bit nicer and we can get back out on the water.   These past couple of days have been nice though, because we’re forced to take it easy and catch up on some important lab and computer work.

Feb 15: Life at Palmer Station

There are no janitors here, so everyone makes weekly contributions to the maintenance and upkeep of the station, which is unusual in a lot of the larger research stations. It’s a nice thing to do because even though it cuts into the time that science devotes to work, it gives every one a sense of responsibility and ownership for the space in which we all live and work.

Greetings from Palmer Station Antarctica! We’ve been here for about a week now and it was a hurried transition. The end of the cruise crept up on the people who are now staying here. It was rough to realize you only have two days to organize and collect everything you might need for science until April.

Adelie Penguins colony with Palmer Station and the R/V Laurence M. Gould in the background. Picture by Grace Saba.
Adelie Penguins colony with Palmer Station and the R/V Laurence M. Gould in the background. Picture by Grace Saba.

Palmer Station is located on Anvers Island at 64.77°S and 64.05°W.  The station and the icebreaker R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP) were both named for the American seal hunter and explorer of the same name. He is recognized as the first American to see the Antarctic Peninsula at the age of 22, while searching for new seal rookeries to hunt south of Cape Horn.

The population on station is currently 35 people, which includes the Raytheon support staff and all of the science groups. The population will peak in about a week when 7 scientific divers arrive on the Laurence M. Gould, along with some resupplies for the station.

There are 2 main buildings, Bio and GWR, which stands for Garage, Warehouse and Recreation. The Bio building houses the galley, the science labs, and a floor of rooms. GWR houses another floor of rooms, the station lounge, DVD and book collection, the store, garage, warehouse, and gym.

According to the USAP website, Palmer Station has an average summer temperature of 36°F, an average winter temperature of 14°F, and winds that can reach up to 70 knots. The winter sea ice around the station has declined so much that it is now the only Antarctic research base that is routinely accessed during the winter.

For all the work, I have to say I’ve been really enjoying my time here. It’s a much slower paced lifestyle than the cruise. Everyone still works very hard, but with station stays sometimes lasting into the 7-month range, people make more of an effort to preserve their afternoon personal time. It’s easy to push hard for one month on the boat, you just start to loose your energy towards the end, but sustaining that pace for multiple months isn’t healthy and everyone tries to turn the station into more of a home or a community.

There’s a white board in the galley that acts as a sort of activities message board that notifies every one of meetings and work responsibilities, but also acts as an invitation to afternoon movies or games of cards. There are no janitors here, so everyone makes weekly contributions to the maintenance and upkeep of the station, which is unusual in a lot of the larger research stations. It’s a nice thing to do because even though it cuts into the time that science devotes to work, it gives every one a sense of responsibility and ownership for the space in which we all live and work. Safety and efficiency are also high priorities and the science support here move mountains to make sure we’re able to do the work we have planned.

VIMS post-doc Kim Bernard takes a break from zooplankton sampling off of a Zodiac near Palmer Station. Photo by Kate Ruck;.
VIMS post-doc Kim Bernard takes a break from zooplankton sampling off of a Zodiac near Palmer Station. Photo by Kate Ruck;.

Most of the fieldwork at Palmer Station happens from Zodiacs, heavy-duty rubber rafts with 40-75 horsepower outboards. The boating limit is restricted to about 2 miles offshore, for safety purposes. This distance equates to about a 10-minute top speed Zodiac ride, which is the maximum amount of time that the Ocean Search and Rescue team (OSAR) feels comfortable leaving you in the water.

I’ve never had any previous boating experience, so they set you up with a day-long intensive Zodiac tutorial with the boating coordinator on station. They teach you how to drive, how to land, how to get in and out of the “parking lot,” the man-overboard drill, and boating safety. Then they give your group its own Zodiac and basically cut you loose. It’s been a lot of fun trying to get familiar with everything. Ice conditions are low and the weather has been overcast and wet but mild. Perfect for beginners.

Transitioning to this new platform has been tricky. You learn how much you’ve taken the monster capabilities of the huge research ships for granted when you’re trying to do the same types of science out of a 10-foot boat with a platform winch. For example collecting water for one of Lori’s dilution experiments would take 2 CTDs and about 30 minutes on the Gould. Now it takes an hour and a half trip on the Zodiac with 3 separate casts of 3 Niskin bottles that are tethered together and deployed on a small winch called a davit. We’re slowly working out methods that will serve us for the rest of our stay here. Efficiency will come and we’re all sure it’s going to be a productive stay.

Feb 4: We’re Done! (With the cruise)

We do net tows in the middle of the sea ice, at a station further south than the L.M. Gould has ever been before!

Post by VIMS graduate student Lori Price

After our visit at Rothera we headed south to get the birders to Charcot Island to sample the small penguin population there and to do our third and final Process Study.

This southern part of the grid is exciting for us because for the first time we run into a lot of sea ice. After a few attempts getting through the sea ice, the birders were successful in getting their diet samples from the penguins. We then headed even further south where the satellite tracks told us the penguins were feeding and sampled a station at a location that is further south than the L.M. Gould has ever been before!

Sea ice at the final Process Study station south of Charcot Island. Photo by Kuan Huang.
Sea ice at the final Process Study station south of Charcot Island. Photo by Kuan Huang.

We did net tows in the middle of the sea ice, which is always an interesting experience. Three years ago the net got caught on a small ice floe and rocketed out of the water, completely destroying the entire net and steel frame. We vowed not to do that again this year. All of our net tows in the ice went fairly smoothly—I think we only caught ice in two of the tows. The second mishap ripped the net, which was replaced relatively easily. All in all, it was a successful ice-towing experience. We seem to be improving every year!

After finishing the third Process Study in the ice we headed back north, hit a few stations on the way, deployed some moorings (those pieces of equipment that stay in the water all year, collecting information on currents and water temperature) and basically finished most science operations.

Prospect Point. Photo by Will Daniels.
Prospect Point. Photo by Will Daniels.

The day before arriving back at Palmer Station we went to Prospect Point, a beautiful area where we can get off the ship and actually set foot on the Antarctic Continent (up until then we had only been on islands). There is a population of penguins on small islands in that area so while everyone else was stretching their legs Joe, Kim, Kate and myself got to help the birders sample some of the penguins! We helped hold the penguins while they took measurements of their bills and flippers and helped diet sample the adults. It was really fun learning how to work with and hold penguins properly. They are surprisingly strong and heavy, like little balls of pure muscle.

Finally, all of the science for the cruise was officially completed and we headed back to Palmer Station. Usually this is a very relaxing time because all we have left to do is pack everything up, which we can do during our 5-day trip across the Drake Passage. However, this year Kim, Kate and myself are staying at Palmer Station for another two months to continue our work, so things were a bit crazy and stressful trying to separate out all of the gear we needed for station from everything else that could stay on the ship.

We arrived on station Feb. 4 and spent the entire day moving personal and lab gear from the ship to station. That evening we had a little party to say goodbye to all of the ship folks, complete with a polar plunge and record-setting number of people in the hot tub on station. The ship left the next morning after all of our goodbyes and we did a proper polar plunge off of the dock where the ship had been.

Although the cruise is over, our blog will continue with our stories of science and everything else from Palmer Station where Kim, Kate and I will call home for the next two months.

Jan 31: Rothera Station

VIMS researchers aboard the Laurence M. Gould visit the U.K.’s Rothera Station and earn their first-ever victory in the annual soccer match.

Post by VIMS graduate student Kate Ruck

Rothera is a well-known British Antarctic station on Adelaide Island in Marguerite Bay and acts as headquarters for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS, for short), which is an active partner in LTER. For decades now they have been carefully maintaining long-term environmental data sets that are a huge contribution to our knowledge of the area.

The Gould makes a stop at Rothera about mid-way through our cruise every year to help maintain this international endeavor. It’s a welcome break in our now efficient routine and a definite highlight for all on the boat.

The morning starts with a passenger transfer where the American scientists are left on station and the British scientists take charge of the boat to sample waters around Marguerite Bay. They don’t have access to a boat as large as the Gould and are limited by how far out into the bay that they can sample from their small, rubber zodiacs.

Walkabout near Rothera Station.
The scientists and crew from the Gould take their 'walkabout' near Rothera station. Picture by Kuan Huang.

The U.S. scientists are treated to tea and snacks and a tour of station. Rothera is situated in a pretty sweet spot. They have a large glacier on one side of the station that provides access to the mountains further inland and also allows for recreation, providing the perfect place for summer skiing and snowboarding.

The other side of the station is ringed with shoreline that draws wildlife out of the water to bask in the sunshine. Our morning ashore starts with a ‘walkabout’ that includes views of ample wildlife (mainly skuas and weddell, crabeater and elephant seals), giant icebergs floating in the bay, and a stop by the memorial to the few, unfortunate people who have lost their lives while working down South.

After the walkabout, the Brits generously allow us to roam freely around the station. Some people relax in the lounge or library, use the rare access to the Internet, chat with other station workers in the galley, or wander back to the trail around station. We linger until the boat gets back to dock and we can change clothes for the upcoming festivities.

One highlight of the Rothera visit is our barely friendly annual soccer match. The Brits rarely get any outside competition and the LTER is one of their few recurring Antarctic visitors, so quite a rivalry has been built up over the years. The match takes place on the apron of the airplane hangar right before dinner. The apron is a gravel lot where they prepare airplanes for flight and is not ideal for what promises to be a contact game, but it’s the largest stretch of open, flat space on the whole base.

The U.S. soccer team after their historic win.
The U.S. soccer team after their historic win. Picture by Lihini Aluwhihare.

Trash talking begins promptly on our arrival, with the Brits casually mentioning how they’ve been practicing for about 3 weeks now. We counter with entirely fictional accounts of the new first mate that left semi-pro status in the U.S. to experience the beauty and wonder of Antarctica. But, in reality, no one expects it to be much of a competition. With their innate enthusiasm for U.K.’s national sport and their mostly male team the Brits have a long history of easy victory. In fact, LTER has not won a single game since the tradition’s inception. Until this year! Throwing off the conventional rules of the sport, each team was allowed 17 people on the field and we Americans managed a goal about midway and then tenaciously held on to the lead for victory! Needless to say, we were completely ecstatic. Our South African post-doc Kim Bernard had brought down her vuvuzela from home and we trumpeted our way back to the boat to get ready for dinner and then the party that the station hosts.

The party, affectionately dubbed “Gould Night’” by the Brits, is an event that’s highly anticipated at Rothera Station. The Brits put a lot of effort into the party. They transform their garage into a dance hall, complete with sound system, a stage, and lighting. They also black out all the windows to give it a dance hall ambiance by warding off the late night sun. There’s usually a station band that performs for the first half of the night and then a DJ that takes over until the end of the party. The opportunity to relax and dance is very welcome to the scientists and crew of the Gould. We’ve been running the boat 24 hours a day for about three weeks now and while everything has gone smoothly so far, the constant work and the routine nature of stations are beginning to wear everyone down. The one day ashore re-energizes everyone to push through to the end of the cruise.The party lasts until the wee hours of the morning, usually about a half hour before the boat prepares for departure at 6 am.

The next few weeks promise to be busy ones as we continue south on our sampling grid, to the colder, ice laden waters that have been less affected by the rapid regional warming and are more representative of the historic Antarctic ecosystem.