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.

Author: David Malmquist

David Malmquist is the Director of Communications at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary.