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Tuesday
Nov302010

Palmer Research Station: Full of Cool Science, and Wicked Winds

Greetings from Palmer Research Station, where I arrived on the LM Gould Monday afternoon--in tact, without any signs of seasickness. Although I did wonder if the teeter-totter gyrations of the boat would hurl me and my bunkbed into the ocean.

The station is a nondescript (shall we say post-industrial construction site architecture?) cluster of functional buildings on a modest plot of rocky outcropping. But it boasts the most stunning backyard and frontyard views I've ever seen: icebergs and small rocky islands in the foreground, and the majestic Marr Glacier towering behind the station. See the photo of Monday night's psychedelic sunset glow on the glacier. I gazed at the glacier from the deck of the one bar here while getting to know some of the members of this Palmer "family." At least it feels like they're all relatives. Many return year after year for months at a time.

It was a rare calm and semi-clear day and night. Tuesday was more typical. 45-mph gusts might whisk the white caps into my dorm room any minute. The snow petrels don't seem to mind as they dance over the frothy waves offshore.

My brain is fried after a long but educational day. It began with tent and stove setup training (tomorrow, if the wind dies down, we'll learn how to drive a Zodiac so we can easily visit scientists at their field sites). Then we--myself and the two other journalists here-- got an orientation of the station (highlight: 4-star-caliber chef, who will likely send me home 5-10 pounds heavier), the science labs, and the waste-disposal system (recyclables are shipped to the U.S.; food and other waste are shipped to Chile, where they're tossed in a landfill; human sewage is essentially osterized and piped right into the ocean not far offshore). As if I needed another reason not to swim in the freezing Arctic waters here. Such are the tradeoffs of doing ecological research in such a faraway place, where you can't incinerate waste nor can you bury it in the ice or rock.

Then we stalked some scientists, starting with Jennifer Blum, a field biologist and penguin expert. She works with William Fraser, a pioneer among penguin researchers. We sat in her wind-faded pinkish-red weather port office as 35-mph gusts tested the mettle of the structure.  Blum said the number of breeding pairs of Adelie penguins, which look like they’re donning tuxedos, around Palmer station has plummeted from 15,000 in the 1970s to less than 3,000 currently. Although it’s not totally clear how many of them have died or moved south, researchers see the decline as linked to the loss of sea ice. Adelies depend more than other species on sea ice—both to nest and to dine on krill, which tend to live under the sea ice. The population of the shrimp-like krill in this area of the western peninsula have plunged by 80 percent in the past 30 years. Experts like Fraser and Blum blame the disappearance of winter sea ice.

The Antarctic Peninsula is known as the “banana belt” of the continent because it’s much warmer and than most of the mainland. Austral summer temperature averages about 35 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with around zero degrees on much of the mainland. What draws many researchers like Blum to Palmer is the peninsula’s unique, and to many alarming, distinction; this is where warming is accelerating the fastest.  The average midwinter temperature here has risen by 11 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950. That’s five times faster than the global average, and faster than mainland Antarctica. As a result, ice cover has decreased by 40 percent since 1950. If this trend persists, the seawater may not freeze here by mid-century. Particularly disturbing is that fact that the mean stretch of sea ice cover along the western peninsula has dropped by 40 percent since the early 1980s. And the average amount of time the sea ice exists each year has dipped by 80 days.

For penguins at least, the picture is not so, well, black and white.  Adelie colonies are doing fine on other parts of Antarctica. And the number of another local penguin species, the gentoo, are on the rise on the western peninsula, partly, scientists believe, because they aren’t as picky eaters as the Adelies.  Over the next few days I hope to join Blum and her team as they count penguin eggs and breeding pairs, and tag (or un-tag) penguins with satellite telemeters and radio transmitters, which are used to track how and where they forage and what they’re eating. Blum said the penguins sometimes whack her with their wings when she tags them, but then they waddle off unfazed. I think I’ll stay close to her if I tag them; she looks svelte and no-nonsense.

 

 

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Reader Comments (3)

Amazing Susie - just logged on (curtesy of Michele). Certainly a once - in - a - lifetime experience. Bridget

December 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBridget

Hi Susie,

Your blog is fascinating and I am learning so much from them. Glad to know there's a scientist there with my last name! Looking forward to reading more. Happy Chanukah from NYC.

Caroline

December 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCaroline Blum

Suz,

The family watched Walk of the Penguins in your honor. Stay warm! Love your posts and photos.

Mark

December 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark

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