February 1: Charcot Island

Post from VIMS graduate student John “Jack” Conroy.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

2305 local time

64 30.81 S 66 04.56 W

This is the 25th year of Palmer Antarctic Long-Term Ecological Research (Pal LTER), but the far southern region of our study area has only been included within the past decade. There had been Adelie Penguin sightings along the southern end of the Western Antarctic Peninsula, but it was unclear where these birds were living. In 2008, the Pal LTER group went searching for southern Adelie colonies. They initially didn’t find anything, but close scrutiny of pictures from Charcot Island revealed pink splotches dotted with black and white. Black and white specks, of course, were tuxedoed Adelie penguins, and the pink came from their krill-colored poo. The LTER group realized current charts misplaced Charcot Island and proceeded to map the surrounding area. These efforts revealed a submarine canyon akin to those driving high productivity near Palmer Station and Avian Island where they had been studying penguin colonies for over two decades.

Charcot Island as we are slowly making our way out of the sea ice (Photo by Debbie Steinberg)

Adding Charcot Island to the research area made it possible to expand the hypothesis that a climate gradient along the Peninsula is driving the ecosystem. The northern region of the Antarctic Peninsula has undergone the world’s most rapid winter warming over recent decades and has transitioned from a cold, dry polar climate to a warmer, wetter conditions. Therefore, studying the ecosystem in the south informs our historic understanding of the northern region before its climate shift. However, heavy sea ice has prevented the Laurence M. Gould from making it to Charcot Island since 2013, and we were eager to venture further south this year. 

Emperor penguin on ice floe (Photo by Joe Cope)
Emperor penguin on ice floe (Photo by Joe Cope)

The ice reports were not looking great, and Captain Ernest half-joked, “We’ll make it to Charcot. The question is how we’ll get out.” Easterly winds pushed ice offshore and helped loosen up conditions near Charcot. We made it and the bird ecologists were able to census the small Adelie penguin colony on the island. All the other science groups sampled coastal waters and in the submarine canyon. We found high abundances of krill supporting the penguin population. Progress was slow for a few days as we pushed our way through sea ice, but we but we are back in the open water and on schedule. 

The scene of my murder (Photo by Tricia Thibodeau)
The scene of my murder (Photo by Tricia Thibodeau)

We are played a game called “Murder” on board. An individual holding the Queen of Spades can eliminate other people, but only if they are alone. I had a nice run as the killer but was ousted after an aggressive spree. Don’t tell anyone, but Kharis is the murderer now. The game ends at midnight.

– Jack