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Monday
Dec062010

Palmer Station: Swimming in Science, Mystery and Sleeplessness 

It would appear that I’ve been delinquent. I have no excuse, after all, for not writing since I arrived a week ago at Palmer Station, located toward the northern tip of the crooked finger of Antarctica’s western peninsula. After all, the sun hardly sets, so who needs to sleep? In fact, it’s damn hard to sleep, not only because you’re swathed in the most stunning sunsets most nights (officially it sets now at 11:20 p.m., but it really just dips coyly behind the mountainous Wauwermann Islands  for a short while, offering a starless, pre-twilight hue until it pops back up again a few inches to the left).

In fact I got about two hours sleep last night/this morning, attempting to write a blog (for OnEarth magazine: www.onearth.org/author/smoran) and prerecord an interview for Tuesday’s (tomorrow) radio show in Boulder (tune in to KGNU's “How On Earth” science show, at 8:35 – 9:00 a.m. MT) to hear my interview with Alex Culley, a microbial oceanographer, who’ll intrigue you with tales of the mysterious and possibly critical role viruses play in the marine food web and the impact climate change is having on everything—from the invisible microbes to the charismatic Adelie penguins and giant humpback whales.

 Also, follow my and two other journalists’ meanderings –- and fabulous bird and other photos--on the blog of Chris Neill, a senior scientist at Marine Biological Laboratory. He’s our principle investigator and science tutor (or task master) during this MBL-funded science journalism fellowship. (http://palmerstation.wordpress.com/

The highlight of my week so far: rolling overboard from a Zodiac on Saturday to learn how to be rescued from the 32-degrees Fah (give or take a degree) Southern Ocean off of Palmer.  I could feel coolness, but not the cold, of the frigid water that I bobbed in. But when water licked my ear and trickled down my neck thanks to having forgotten to tightly zip the face wrap, let’s say that was refreshing!

 

For this entry, I’ll mostly let the photos speak for themselves. They’re a collage of the serious and funny life I'm tasting here for 16 days. I'm stalking scientists as they conduct an audacious ocean acidification experiment. I'm studying how a warming climate is changing the composition of phytoplankton and other critical foodstuffs of the Southern Ocean. And I hope to soon count Adelie, gentoo and chinstrap penguins to look for evidence of change in their numbers (some on the decline, some on the rise--sort of) and eating habits.

 

Here are some photos taken today on Torgersen Island near Palmer. (Which could be the chinstrap?)

 

Adelies nesting.

 

And here's the Adelie penguin, guarding its egg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And a lumbering Southern elephant seal, seemingly oblivious of the human visitors.

Permanent redeye, or overworked?

The scatologist in me loved coming across Kaycee Ducklow in a bird lab as she was dissecting the poop of skua (a bully of a gull-like bird that steals and eats penguin eggs right from under nesting adults). She picked out fish ear bones, technically called an otoliths, which grow in onion-like layers. The bones are used like tree rings to decipher the age of fish.

 Kelsey Ducklow, a recent graduate from University of Virginia who’s here studying penguins and other birds. She’s picking out a fish ear bone.

 And I can tell already that I’ll miss the people here perhaps as much as the Marr Ice Piedmont glacier in our backyard—the frequent roaring sound of its calving (it’s a bitter-sweet feelin, as the glacier has receded dramatically in the last couple decades), as well as it’s ever-changing hue. Only 40-plus people live here, in two buildings (though some folks camp on the glacier). It feels like co-housing, and makes me all the more tempted to live more like this (then again, I’m not living here for six months). It feels like my family vacation at Monterey Dunes over Thanksgiving: 25-ish of us packed into three condos on the beach for four days. At Palmer you can find grad students huddled in a lab downstairs at 4 a.m. filtering water, or running sample solutions.  You’ll also find people letting loose in the bar, or the outside hottub, or in the lounge watching True Blood, a Kung Fu movie (a weekly Sunday afternoon tradition) or another movie while munching on home-made popcorn.

 Work and play side by side. The hottub sits next to a pool carrying CO2-injected seawater for an ocean acidification experiment.

 

This beloved luxury, the hottub, somehow has escaped me. Not for long, I hope.

 

 

 

 

Some homegirls of Palmer. Science is a serious business.

 And then there’s the escape from lab and field work too—like the mustache party (some tradition, apparently) last Saturday. Researchers letting loose at the mustache party. You should see the warehouse here at Palmer-chock full of costume wigs, body paint, cowboy hats, pink lace bras, crayons--plenty to pick from.

And finally, something on the whiteboard in the vestibule downstairs. It illustrates the quirky-brainy-heartful spirit of Palmer. Or just spring-to-summer fever.

Stay tuned for more to come. But first, sleep. Note: As I write I'm looking out the window onto Arthur Harbor, which is filling up with elegant puzzle chunks of brash ice that's flowing with the current from Marr glacier.  A Southern elephant seal has caught a free ride on one of the chunks and is slowly but steadily drifting westward...into the sunset.

 

 

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Reader Comments (8)

Loved these photos, Sue, especially the one of you taking a dip in the freezing ocean! By the look on your face (what we can see of it!), it seems like the photographer may have caught you just at the moment when that bit of frigid water dribbled int through your face wrap. What an incredible experience you are having -can't wait to hear (and read) all about it!

December 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChafrlene

I have been missing your posts.
Just amazing to think of the beauty and mystery surrounding you.
The photos tell alot.
Thanks for sharing.
Keep up trucking.....

December 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTherese Moran

You look a bit like a human crouton, waiting for a particularly large and hungry sea lion to take a bite. Sounds like an incredible trip. I'm gonna start an annual mustache party in Oakland! Soak in every moment! (which, you're clearly doing, yah!) Marko

December 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Loved the photo of you in the ocean!

December 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDana

I love your posts and pictures. My favorite penguin is the chinstrap. Cute!!

December 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

The couple sitting in the living room watching TV in the evening. Suddenly the wife's stomach guru, husband WenShengDao: "the wife are you hungry?" His wife was moved nodded. Husband a little love to say: "wife, you go to sleep hungry. Sit quite a waste of energy!"

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