Category Archives: Mission Blog
True to its name, Project CONVERGE brought together people from all over the world to study the food web at Palmer Station. But now our month on the ice is over, and it’s time for us to go back home; in other words, it’s time for CONVERGE to diverge.
As we said our goodbyes to our friends at Palmer and to the incredible scenery surrounding it, we couldn’t help but notice some signs of the passing time. Icebergs were smaller; the thick cap of winter snow on the glacier had melted away to bare ice; and it was actually starting to get dark at night. Click through the slideshow to see more signs of the changing season:
Most of the Project CONVERGE team is now back home. Down in Punta Arenas, Chile, the Laurence M. Gould is already loading up a new set of scientists and preparing to head back across the Drake Passage to Palmer Station again. We’ve had an unforgettable time on our Antarctic expedition, and we hope you’ve been able to share with us an idea of what it’s like to live and work among the penguins, seals, whales, and icebergs.
Thank you for reading this blog and being a part of this project. The questions you sent in, the ones you asked during the video calls, and the ones that you’re investigating on your own, have made you an important part of Project CONVERGE, too. We’re looking forward to meeting as many of you as possible during our science symposium in April. Until then, stay warm and don’t let the penguins bite!
(Note: thanks for bearing with us for a few days while we fixed a technical difficulty.)
The blog was quiet last week because we were on the Laurence M. Gould, sailing across the Drake Passage back to Punta Arenas, Chile. After spending 31 days at Palmer Station, about half the Project CONVERGE team are on their way home. Back at Palmer, the radar stations and the gliders are still gathering data for us. The krill and penguin teams, plus one stalwart member of the glider team, will remain at Palmer until the Gould’s next visit, on March 11.
Fieldwork is only one part of the scientific method (granted, it’s often the most fun part). “Now the project shifts focus from logistics—how do we collect the data—to how we analyze the data,” Dr. Josh Kohut said. During the last month the scientists have had just enough time to look at trends in the data and decide how to adjust their sampling. There’s a lot of work left to do before they can really understand what the data say about their hypotheses. Click through the slideshow to see some of the ideas they’ll be exploring:
As an example of the ways the scientists will be combining data when they get back, here’s a graph of chlorophyll readings that caught Dr. Oliver’s eye. This was recorded by a glider in early January during a single dive from the surface down to 100 meters (330 feet). To read it, imagine you’re a glider diving from the top of the graph straight down to the bottom. Pretend the green line is your chlorophyll meter—the farther it goes to the right, the more chlorophyll is in the water. The amount of chlorophyll is a fairly good measure of the amount of phytoplankton.
From the graph it’s pretty clear that there’s a small amount of chlorophyll in most of the water, but a huge amount at roughly 7 meters (23 feet) deep. The glider data shows this thin layer over most of the region for most of the month of January, Dr. Oliver said. The depth changes from place to place, as if the phytoplankton sank to a specific level and then stayed there. As Dr. Oliver put it, “There’s a layer of thick green soup under Palmer Station that everybody’s eating.”
Dr. Oliver wonders if this density layer is helping to concentrate phytoplankton in addition to, or possibly even more than, the effect of convergences at the surface. But to know how important this is to the big picture, he needs to add in results from krill surveys and penguin tracks. He also needs to analyze the whole set of glider tracks, not just this single plot from one hour of one day. It’s this sort of painstaking office work that will occupy the scientists during the next stage of the project.
At the moment, the data the scientists are heading home with is like an enormous pile of spaghetti. The image at left shows a snapshot of the radar data with the tracks of the gliders, the path of the krill team’s echosounders, and the tracks of the tagged penguins laid on top. Each one of those dots represents a separate set of data, like a plate of noodles, that needs to be untangled, straightened out, and then recombined to answer the specific questions the scientists come up with.
They’ll be starting that untangling process this spring. Then they’ll get together in June to plan out the full analyses that, in a year or so, will give them formal answers to the questions they came down here with.
We’ll be back tomorrow with one more post about Palmer Station. Thanks to everyone for following along with us on our long expedition.
The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming places on Earth. Around Palmer Station, the average winter temperature has risen by more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years. That might sound slow in human terms, but in terms of the rate the Earth normally goes through big changes, climate change is moving like a racecar coming around a curve.
Because the Palmer area is warming so fast, people who have worked at Palmer Station for many years have had a front-row seat for these changes. Even now, clear signs of the recent warming are all around. Today we went out with Donna Fraser of the Project CONVERGE penguin team. She’s been coming to Antarctica for 25 years—click through the slideshow to see some of the examples she showed us:
Our time at Palmer Station is drawing to a close. Tomorrow, the ship that brought us here, the Laurence M. Gould, will tie up once again at our dock. There will be a frenzy of activity as the scientists pack up all of their gear, move out of their rooms, do the last of their laundry, and have their last meals in the Palmer galley. The Palmer staff and the Gould crew will spend the day loading crates of gear onto the ship, and we’ll depart on Tuesday morning.
We’ve enjoyed writing and photographing this blog immensely. While we’re on the ship, we’re going to send a wrap-up post to bring you up to date on what the scientists found at the end of their field season, and what’s next for Project CONVERGE. We’ll also do our best to answer the remaining questions that you’ve sent in—so if you’re still curious about something, please send us a comment!
Many years ago, when your trusty blog writer and photographer were little, we used to open up each new issue of National Geographic’s kids magazine and look for a feature called “What in the World?” It was a quiz game where they would show an extreme closeup of something rather ordinary—a pencil tip, or a junebug, or a flower petal—and the reader had to guess what it was.
We thought we’d play a game of “What in the World?” on the Project CONVERGE blog. Let’s see how good your memories are: Each of the first six photos in the slideshow is a closeup of one of the photos that has already appeared on the blog. As you look at each one, try to remember where you’ve seen it before, and guess which post it was in. Then keep clicking—we’ll show you the full photos in the second half of the slideshow.
Are you ready? Click through and see how many photos you can identify:
To see the photos in their original context, see the following posts. How many did you get right?
Orange Islands: Listening for Echoes of Krill
Candycane Mirrorball: This Is Life at 64 Degrees South
Urban Planning: How Gliders Work: A Look Inside the Blue Hen
Brush Strokes: Big and Bad, or Just Misunderstood? Meet the Southern Giant-Petrel
Drawn by a Ruler? Here Comes the Neighborhood
Black and White and Slightly Pink: Sights and Smells of Summer in an Adelie Penguin Colony
Much is made of Antarctica’s incredible wildlife: throngs of krill; seals piled together like rolls of carpet; regiments of penguins; whales puffing clouds into the sky. But there’s a creature arguably more incredible right outside our door here at Palmer Station. In fact, if you leave the door open by mistake, it’s likely to come inside and have a look around. It’s a bird called a snowy sheathbill, and some call it the largest land animal in Antarctica.
It hurries toward you on stout gray legs, looking like a cross between a pigeon and a chicken. It seems fearless as it walks to within a yard of you and looks up with an inquisitive black eye. Or you’ll glance up to find a pair of them waiting on the eaves of a building, as if holding on to the silent knowledge that eventually, you will drop something edible.
They’re such a constant presence here that they’re like honorary staff members, and the people who work here have developed a mixture of bemusement, tolerance, and admiration for them. Although they do wish they wouldn’t poop so much. Click through the slideshow to learn more about this singular animal and its contribution to station life:
We spend a lot of time looking at penguins down here, but they’re not the only birds around. An almost constant presence overhead is the aptly named southern giant-petrel—the biggest flying bird in Antarctica. Southern giant-petrels have six-foot wingspans and tremendous bills that look like a cross between a bottle opener and a piece of body armor.
Over the years they have developed a fearsome reputation as fierce, stinky, bloodstained, irritable scavengers. But one researcher—Donna Fraser, a member of the CONVERGE project’s birding team—has spent the last 20 years re-evaluating this myth, inventing a new, gentler way of approaching the birds, and discovering valuable information about them into the bargain. Click through the slideshow for a closer look at the lives and habits of this misunderstood seabird:
Sunday morning dawned clear and calm—only the second truly sunny day since we arrived at Palmer Station. It was a perfect opportunity for Dr. Josh Kohut to tick the second big item off his to-do list: a trip outside the boating limit to the team’s radar station on the Joubin Islands.
Three days ago we had zipped over to the Wauwerman Islands to do much the same thing, fighting a steady drizzle the whole way. The Joubin Islands are about the same distance west as the Wauwermans are to the south, but today’s trip was an altogether different experience, with wet grays replaced by stellar whites and sky blues. Click through the slideshow to see some of the sights photographer Chris Linder captured along the way:
Earlier this week the glider team pulled in the University of Delaware’s glider, nicknamed the “Blue Hen,” from the ocean. They needed to change its batteries and download one of the instrument’s data. But they didn’t want to miss what was happening out at sea, so they pulled what they call a “Nascar turnaround,” working like a pit crew to get the work done overnight.
It gave us an opportunity to look at the inside of a glider and explore how these complicated robots manage to go where they’re told and collect the data we need, practically by themselves.
To fly, a glider needs a few basic abilities: it needs to be able to control its buoyancy so that it can either sink or rise; it needs to know where it is and where it’s going; it needs to be able to call home for new instructions; and it needs to be able to collect data. And it has to do all this with only a small allowance of space, weight, and battery power. Click through the slideshow to see how gliders manage it:
The stream of data that comes back from the gliders every hour or so is what allows the CONVERGE team to be adaptive in their sampling. With a research ship or an instrument fixed on the seafloor, it’s difficult to change your plans as you get more information. But changing a glider’s plans is as simple as uploading a new instruction file.
Over the last couple of weeks the team has settled on a sampling plan they’re calling the “iron cross.” Each of the three gliders takes a different part of the cross (see the map), and together they reveal what the waters of the Palmer Deep are doing. The Blue Hen (blue on the map) flies to the center of the cross and just goes up and down in the same spot. The glider from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (green), flies a straight line along the length of the Palmer Deep canyon. The Rutgers RU05 glider (red), flies across the canyon.
RU05 goes at right angles to the Alaska glider, and those two gliders cross at the spot where the Blue Hen is working. Altogether, this gives the scientists a way to separate out ways the water conditions could changing.
Here’s an example of the data they’re collecting, and why it helps to have data from more than one glider. This graph shows one round trip of the Alaska glider from the northeast end of its route, down to the southwest end, and back. The dashed line shows where the glider turned around—the two parts are different lengths because it took longer to fly out to the dashed line than to fly back. That’s because it was fighting the current in the left section of the graph; then it turned around and rode with the current.
The graph shows the temperature of the water as the glider flew up and down on its way. Do you see any differences? First of all, it’s interesting that the water is warmer at the surface and at the bottom (orange colors), and coldest in the middle (blue colors). This is because the sun has warmed the waters at the surface; the middle waters are still cold from winter; and the deepest waters represent a deep current that has brought in warmer water underneath it all. Layering of different water types is a very common feature in the ocean.
Now look at the left and right edges of the graph. Remember that the glider was doing a round trip, so these two parts of the graph represent the same patch of water at the northeast end of its route. On the left side compared to the right side, there’s less warm water at the surface and the colder middle water doesn’t extend as deep.
This is an interesting development, but it leaves the scientists with a problem: did the water change in temperature between the glider’s first pass and its second pass? Or did a current carry in different water, with a different temperature (as well as other characteristics) and push the original water out of the way? With only one glider taking measurements, it would be hard to figure this out. But with three gliders working the same stretch of water from different angles, they’re much more likely to be able to put together the answer.
Huge thanks to Laura Palmara for putting the map and data plot together for this post.
Ever since January 15, Dr. Josh Kohut has spent each evening looking hopefully at the weather forecast. He needs one day of calm winds to do some radar maintenance at the Wauwerman Islands. Though they’re only 10 miles away—closer than a drive to my favorite dinner spot back home—they lie across a stretch of water that’s open to ocean swells and high winds.
On Thursday morning, a calm, gray sea lapped at the boat dock. A steady drizzle was the only sour note, but that’s what foul weather gear is for. With a storm system likely to move into the region the next day, Dr. Kohut, marine technician Rosemary McGuire, penguin team leader Shawn Farry, and station manager Rebecca Shoop decided we should take advantage of the good seas.
Dr. Kohut wanted to finish three tasks on this trip: download data files and replace a hard drive; shore up the building foundation after the ice melt of summer; and make a calibration run to check the radar antenna. But we also needed to be ready to turn around if conditions deteriorated. Click through the slideshow to see whether we got everything done:
We’re still trying to get to the Wauwerman Islands to do some work on the radar station there, but once again today the weather did not quite cooperate. In the meantime, life goes on at the station. Boats go in and out of the water; radios crackle with check-ins and location updates; people gather in the galley for hot, home-cooked meals.
Palmer Station operates like a small town or a big family. There’s lots of science work to do, and plenty of possibilities for fun in between the work. The 44 people here work together to get things done and then get together in groups for games, projects, hikes, music, and more—or set off with a radio and some snowshoes for some solitude on a glacier hike. Click through the slideshow for more scenes of life as usual on Palmer Station:
This morning we woke up to find an Antarctic fur seal napping on the rocks about a hundred yards from our front door. It was a welcome surprise—we had seen fur seals on our visit to Livingston Island on January 1, but this was their first visit to Palmer this season. They tend to show up at Palmer each year during late summer, and their appearance is a sign of the season moving on.
Photographer Chris Linder rushed out to catch the furry animal on film, although he didn’t really need to rush. It was still in pretty much the same spot tonight at 9:00 p.m. We’ve now seen the five main Antarctic seal species within just a few miles of Palmer Station—and the main thing we’ve noticed is these animals are good at lounging. Their lives may be hectic under the water, but once they “haul out” on rock or ice, it’s mainly snoring and the occasional scratch of the head. Click through the slideshow to get introduced to each of the five seal species:
Here’s a short recording of the group of southern elephant seals that were napping in photo #6 in the slideshow. The background hiss is the sound of the seals breathing in and out as they sleep. From time to time you’ll hear abrupt snorting sounds that are either rude or humorous depending on your point of view.
Donna Fraser remembers the day in 1993 when her team found the first gentoo penguin nests ever recorded at Biscoe Point. Fourteen pairs had set up a tiny colony on the rocky headland, which lies just 8 miles from Palmer Station. Gentoos are Fraser’s favorite penguin, and her response was, “Awesome, we’ve got gentoos in our study area!” But as much as she likes them personally—“I think gentoos just make everything right with the world,” she told me—it’s been a shock to see how drastically Adelie penguins have declined while gentoos have increased in the last 20 years.
Fraser and other penguin scientists are still researching the details of this switch, but the root cause is clear. The climate around Palmer Station has become more suitable for gentoos and less suitable for Adelies—and in geological terms it’s happened quickly. Click through the slideshow to explore the gentoo arrival in more detail:
My descriptions of penguin sounds weren’t so good, but fortunately I also have recordings from a couple of the nearby colonies. Listen to them below—and then if you can think of a good way to describe the sounds, write it in the comments. We’d love to hear your descriptions.
Here’s the gentle sound of a gentoo penguin colony from Biscoe Point, recorded on Jan. 12:
And here’s the harsher sound of an Adelie penguin colony from Torgersen Island, recorded on Jan. 10:
***Mt. Shackleton was named for the great British explorer Ernest Shackleton, who nearly reached the South Pole in 1908 and who sailed into the Weddell Sea in 1914 on a ship called the Endurance. The penguin team’s Shawn Farry reminded us that today was the 100th anniversary of the day that the Endurance became trapped in sea ice, forcing Shackleton and his men to camp out on the sea ice for the winter—and that’s just the beginning of one of the greatest survival stories in Antarctic history.
The scientists spent Sunday doing maintenance on a glider, checking giant-petrel and skua nests, looking for whales, and counting krill for as long as the choppy water and the sharp south winds allowed. Dr. Josh Kohut and Dr. Matt Oliver looked nervously at the changing iceberg landscape outside our front door. Winds and currents keep reshuffling the bergs, and the team really doesn’t want to hit one with their glider.
Photographer Chris Linder has a lot less anxiety when he looks at ice. He’s photographed ice of all sizes, at all times of day, and from pretty much every angle. We thought this quiet Sunday was a fine time to show you some of what he’s seen. Click through the slideshow to explore:
In calm winds this morning we loaded the zodiacs with the safety gear we had assembled yesterday. But even as we put on our flotation suits and boarded the boats, the sky was graying and a strengthening breeze was creasing the sea. By about 10:30 a.m. it was clear it wasn’t a good day to try reaching the Wauwerman Islands.
Instead, photographer Chris Linder and I went to the Adelie penguin colony on Torgersen Island. By the afternoon the gray clouds had blown past us and we were treated to brilliant sunshine and the sight of Adelie penguins in the full swing of raising their chicks. This year, unusually deep snow in the early summer had the penguin team worried about the Adelies, which normally require bare rock in order to lay their eggs.
But somehow, the penguins kept their eggs warm even on the snow, and the Torgersen colonies are now full of plump gray chicks. Click through the slideshow for a look at how they raise their young:
In yesterday’s post, the glider team took a calculated risk and brought glider RU05 into the shallow waters near shore. We made a big deal about how dangerous this was—how the waters near shore are full of obstacles like rocks, islands, icebergs, and squirrelly currents. But we also said that everything went fine and the glider team was already planning more. If it sounded like maybe shallow water wasn’t so dangerous to gliders after all, then today’s post is for you.
Late yesterday evening, glider RU05 dove to the bottom of the sea as usual, but it never came up. When Dr. Josh Kohut woke up this morning, he had a text from the glider pilots in New Jersey: RU05 has not checked in for more than 8 hours. Something was keeping it underwater.
We spent the rest of the day figuring out what had gone wrong. Click through the slideshow to see what happened to the glider and how the team fixed it:
This evening, glider pilot Dave Aragon looked at the glider’s data files and made this schematic showing what he thinks happened. The glider was doing its normal job, repeatedly diving to the bottom and rising to the surface, and measuring the water along the way. The zigzag black line shows the glider’s actual path. Aragon thinks the glider did fine but may have flown into a patch of kelp (a type of very large seaweed). The thick kelp stems got tangled in the glider and didn’t let it go until 12 hours later, when it dropped its emergency weight.
This is one of the hard parts of working with gliders. They may be sophisticated machines, but they can’t see in front of them, they have limited battery life and limited maneuverability, and once they go below the surface they can’t contact the glider pilots for help. If it gets caught underwater, there’s a very real chance the scientists will never see it again. Today, we were lucky.
“Off New Jersey the shallows don’t really present a danger to the gliders,” Dr. Kohut said. “Here with all the kelp and the rock it’s much more hazardous. But I’m still happy we sent the glider in close to shore because we got all that very nice data to go along with Kim [Bernard]’s transect.” From now on they will be a little more careful around shallow water, though. “Before this, we knew we needed to avoid islands,” he said. “Now we’ve expanded our definition of an island to include water up to 20 meters deep.”
Antarctica is a lot less dangerous than it used to be, when people like Ernest Shackleton explored it in the early twentieth century. But it’s still cold, windy, powerful, and very far from help. The U.S. Antarctic Program takes great precautions to keep people safe. At Palmer Station, where almost all the work is done from small inflatable zodiac boats, we do almost all our work within a safe boating limit that extends about 2.5 miles from the station.
Within that limit are islands, glaciers, penguin colonies, giant-petrel nests, cormorant cliffs, leopard seals, whales, krill, and more—pretty much everything scientists are interested in studying. But occasionally we need to go outside that 2.5-mile limit. For example, in the next few days we will need to journey to the Wauwerman Islands, south of here, to do some maintenance on a radar site.
In this post, we’ll acquaint you with a few of the landmarks we’ll be referring to, both within and outside the boating limit. Click through the slideshow to see them, and use the maps below the slideshow to see where those landmarks are in relation to each other.
Try This: Use These Maps to Find Landmarks
The Boating Limit and Its Landmarks
On this chart you can see the roughly 2.5-mile boating limit (thin red line) surrounding Palmer Station. Look back at the slideshow and try to match Loudwater Cove, Station E, the Outcast Islands, and Cormorant Island to the points on the map. It takes about 20 minutes in smooth ocean conditions to make it from the boating limit back to Palmer Station. With Antarctica’s fierce, changeable weather, it’s risky to go outside the limit.
The Bigger Picture
To see where we’re headed in the Wauwerman Islands, we need to zoom out a little bit. (This map is from Google Earth—the imagery is a patchwork of satellite photos and maps; that’s why the backgrounds don’t match.) When we leave Palmer Station for the Wauwermans, we’ll be headed to the red dot south of Palmer Station. At a later date, we’ll also need to take a trip to the radar site in the Joubin Islands to the west. Each site is about 10 miles away from Palmer Station, and we’ll wait for really calm weather before we attempt to go that far.
The Wide View
It can be hard to keep straight exactly where along the Antarctic Peninsula we are. In case you’re having trouble, here’s a reminder of where in the world we are (also from Google Earth). We’re near the end of the Antarctic Peninsula, at the southern end of a fairly large island called Anvers Island. We’re about 700 miles from the tip of South America.
Map credit (top map):
United States Antarctic Program. 2013. Antarctic Specially Managed Area No. 7: Palmer Station Arthur Harbor. Environmental Research & Assessment for the United States Antarctic Program and the US National Science Foundation, Office of Polar Programs, Washington, DC.
The gliders have been out on their own for more than a week. In that time they’ve traveled far out to sea, but today the team decided to turn one of them around and bring it almost all the way back home. Being close to shore is actually more dangerous for a glider than being in deep water, but they thought it would be worth the risk to meet up with the krill team’s echosounder and combine the two instruments’ strengths.
Click through the slideshow to learn about the glider’s travels—then check below for a quick look at what the two instruments found together:
This graph helps show how two instruments combine to create a better picture of what’s going on under the water’s surface. To read it, imagine that the glider is flying from left to right on the graph. As it moves slowly along this 1.5-mile track, it dives from the top of the graph to the bottom and measures chlorophyll levels. That gives an estimate of the amount of phytoplankton in the water, and phytoplankton are the main food of krill.
Now imagine the krill team driving their zodiac along the same route. The boat moves along the top of the graph (the surface of the water), and the echosounder detects patches of krill below it. Interestingly, the glider found a fairly high concentration of chlorophyll high in the water on the left side of the graph. The krill team found a patch of krill in deeper water beneath it, but not anywhere else.
“That’s pretty neat to find,” Dr. Kohut said, “that the only place on the whole transect there was krill was underneath the patch of chlorophyll.” The krill may have been resting during the day before swimming up to eat phytoplankton later in the day, Dr. Oliver said, or they may have been feeding on organic material as it drifted downward from the phytoplankton patch.
What’s really interesting about this find is that it couldn’t have happened without putting the two instruments—glider and echosounder—together. If the glider had been on its own, it would have noticed the phytoplankton, but we couldn’t have known whether krill were around to feed on it. On the other hand, if we’d had only the findings from the echosounder we’d have known there were krill around but we wouldn’t know why.
A lot of science involves thinking of questions you want the answers to, and then figuring out how to get them. Many times, it requires finding a way to see something the naked eye can’t see—things that are too big, too small, too fast, too far away, or otherwise hidden from view.
That’s the problem with understanding how penguins feed their chicks. The bustling colonies around Palmer hold thousands of penguins. They’re nearly identical, and they disappear underwater when they go out to feed. To solve the problem, the CONVERGE penguin team attaches satellite transmitters to a couple of dozen penguins each season. The data that comes back tells them how far the penguins have swum and how deeply and how often they’ve dived. It’s a glimpse of the answer to the question, and every transmitter helps expand that glimpse.
In the last few days we’ve gone along with the penguin team to see how they put transmitters on penguins and how they retrieve them. Click through the slideshow to see what we learned:
The satellite transmitters send data to a satellite frequently whenever a penguin is not diving. The scientists can access the location data each day, even before they have retrieved the tags from the birds. So far this year, they’re finding that the penguins are making short trips and foraging within a few miles of their colonies, Fraser told me. Adelie penguins are capable of swimming much farther than that, so this perhaps indicates that they’re finding plenty of krill in the region near Palmer Station. The penguin team shares their detailed results with the other CONVERGE scientists so that they can decide the best places to sample for krill and to have their gliders investigate. We’ll check back in with those teams tomorrow to see what they’ve found.
Just before suppertime on Friday evening the krill team sent out a radio broadcast: they’d spotted five humpback whales feeding just off Outcast Island. The two whale biologists at Palmer Station grabbed their orange float coats and asked if we wanted to come along. What happened over the next three hours was well worth missing dinner.
The team studies whales and dolphins by sampling minute amounts of their skin and blubber. The work entails following enormous creatures in very small boats over a cold, deep ocean. It reminded me of the old tales of whaling, except thankfully we weren’t trying to kill whales—we were trying to learn more about their population size, diet, and genetics. Click through the slideshow to learn more about humpback whales and how the team studies them:
Dr. Read and Swaim are part of a four-person team studying whales along the Antarctic Peninsula. The other two, project leader Dr. Ari Friedlaender of Oregon State University and Dr. David Johnston of Duke, are to the south of us on the Laurence M. Gould, the ship that brought us here. Humpback whales were severely overhunted in the early twentieth century, and this research will help scientists understand how the whales are recovering. It’s illegal to hunt or harass whales, and the scientists on the team have to get two sets of permits in order to be allowed to do their research. The restrictions help make sure the research doesn’t harm the whales. Over the past 15 years, tens of thousands of whales and dolphins have been safely sampled by researchers using these methods. We’ll take a closer look at how the sampling procedure works in an upcoming post.
Yesterday, while we were out searching for krill with Dr. Kim Bernard, we saw lots of gentoo penguins, quite a few Adelies, and several chinstraps. They were doing the same thing we were—looking for krill—although I think they were better than us at finding them. They were certainly better at catching them.
Penguins are a big part of project CONVERGE because, ultimately, we want to know whether tides and convergence zones help to bring krill together into patches that penguins use as feeding grounds. To do that, there’s a whole penguin team of four people that spend all day, every day studying where penguins go, how they raise their chicks, and what they eat.
We went out with the team today and got an introduction to the three penguin species that live in the Palmer Station area. Click through the slideshow to meet the penguins and the penguin scientists, too:
Today we went out to search for krill with Dr. Kim Bernard of Oregon State University and Shenandoah Raycroft, her assistant. Krill are an important stepping stone in Antarctic food chains because they eat tiny phytoplankton and then become food for almost all the large Antarctic animals including penguins, seals, and whales. Dr. Bernard and Raycroft use a machine called an echosounder to detect krill in the waters around Palmer Station.
Dr. Bernard set out to sample two areas based on tips she’d received from the radar team and the penguin team. The penguin team had noticed Adelie penguins were staying close to their colony on Torgersen Island, possibly meaning there were krill in those waters. The radar team had noticed an area of light currents near Cormorant Island that might also hold krill. This ability to quickly see data in the field and respond to what it’s telling them is called adaptive sampling, and it’s a major strength of the CONVERGE project.
Read through the slideshow to find out more about how Dr. Bernard’s team measures krill, and then check the bottom of the post to see some of their results:
After the team got back to Palmer Station they analyzed the data they had collected. The result was a plot like the one below that shows the readings that the echosounder recorded. The graph shows time on the horizontal axis and depth on the vertical axis.
To read the graph, you just have to imagine yourself in a boat sailing across the top of the image. The echosounder is sensing what’s beneath it—brighter colors mean the echo was louder, which means the object was more dense. That’s why the water appears white (no color) and the rocky seafloor appears red (the brightest color). Those two blue clouds are more dense than water and less dense than rock—they’re groups of krill.
Dr. Bernard analyzed the group on the right and found it contained about 180 pounds of krill stretched over an area 200 feet long and 20 feet high. At less than 0.04 ounces per krill that means, very roughly, there might have been 80,000 krill or more in that one group. Even so, Dr. Bernard said that today was a relatively slow day for a krill survey.
So what does a big krill day look like? When I asked Dr. Bernard this, she pulled up a graph from Dec. 23, 2011. Here it is:
You can read this graph just like the one above—look at the huge swath of greenish-blue covering most of the right half of the image above the seafloor! The greenish color is brighter than the blue, meaning that the krill are even more densely packed in these areas. And what about that circular white patch in the middle of the cloud of krill? Dr. Bernard said whales were swimming around the boat while they did this survey. She thinks that one had come through this spot with its mouth open just before the zodiac got there.
In the end, there weren’t large groups of krill near Torgersen or Cormorant Islands today. Dr. Bernard and Dr. Kohut think this may be because of the tidal currents that are happening during this part of the month. We’ll tell you more about that possibility in a post next week. Tomorrow, we’re going to go explore some penguin colonies.
Tuesday was a day off for the staff of Palmer Station. The day was sunny and calm—perfect conditions for a favorite off-duty pastime called recreational boating. We boarded a zodiac with station staff including the carpenter, logistics supervisor, satellite communications engineer, and utility mechanic. We loaded up with sunscreen, donned sunglasses against the brilliant white light, and pulled on orange float coats for safety. Everyone had a camera at the ready, and we set off to explore icebergs and islands.
For us it was a great introduction to the animal inhabitants of Palmer Station. We saw mammals, flying birds, flightless birds, and even a small but indispensable animal that keeps the whole ecosystem ticking. Can you guess what it was? Join us on our zodiac tour in the slideshow below, and find out the answer at the end:
Because krill are at the heart of the food chain, scientists pay a lot of attention to them. Krill are also at the center of Project CONVERGE. The team wants to know whether tides and convergence zones help bring together krill into concentrations high enough to serve as feeding hotspots for penguins. Radar helps the team map the currents and convergence zones. But how do they find out where the krill are? In our next post, we’ll go out with the scientists to answer that question.
At about 1:00 p.m. today, Dr. Josh Kohut was in an inflatable boat over an underwater canyon called the Palmer Deep. The wind was light, there was a little rain, and groups of gentoo penguins were swimming by the boat to see what we were up to. We were there to deploy four gliders—or, as Dr. Kohut put it with mild amazement, “Here we are in Antarctica, sitting in a zodiac and getting ready to throw some robots in the water.”
The team’s gliders are indeed torpedo-shaped robots that will “fly” through the water measuring basic aspects such as salinity, currents, and photosynthetic activity. They’ll stay out for weeks at a time, and they’ll check in every few hours to report what they’ve found and listen for further instructions. The CONVERGE team is using them to gather data about what’s going on under the surface, much as they’re using radar to study the surface water and find convergence zones.
“We think convergence zones are concentrating the food web [phytoplankton and krill],” said Dr. Matt Oliver of the University of Delaware. “So these gliders are going to go fly through those zones and find out if that’s true.” In scientific terms, the effect of convergence zones is one of the team’s hypotheses, and the gliders provide them with a way to do what scientists do: test their hypotheses.
Gliders are delicate, heavy, complicated machines—see what it takes to safely launch a glider in the slideshow below:
All the time we were driving the zodiacs back to Palmer, the gliders were heading out along their programmed routes. By late evening, RU05 had split away from the others to follow its own route. The Alaska glider (AK03) and the University of Delaware’s Blue Hen were neck and neck, but Filipa Carvalho’s RU24 was out in front, owing to a slight difference in the way it was configured during testing.
The gliders will keep sending back data every few hours, and the CONVERGE team will get together each day to look at the results and decide on their next course of action. This almost instantaneous collection of data over such a wide area is something that has only become possible in the last 10 or 15 years. Check back over the next days and weeks to see how the team puts this potential to use.
Once we reached the Antarctic Peninsula, the ship tucked into a narrow channel called the Gerlache Strait that runs between islands to the west and the peninsula itself to the east. By taking these protected waters, the captain knew that if a storm should blow in we’d be sheltered from the worst of the wind and waves—a measure of safety well worth the few extra miles it added to our voyage.
After spending a few days out of sight of land, the passengers of the Gould spilled out on deck to watch penguins speed through the water, look for the spouts of humpback whales, and admire mountains that seemed to be directly on top of us.
Click through the slideshow to travel with us down the Gerlache Strait to Palmer Station:
On New Year’s Day we finished crossing the Drake Passage, saw our first icebergs, and made a quick side trip to a place called Livingston Island. We were taking food, supplies, and one person to a small group of five Americans and one Chilean who are studying the island’s seals and penguins. They met us at the beach, and station manager Mike Goebel greeted us wearing a Santa hat and carrying a candy-striped ski pole. They’d been living on the island for two months, since the Gould dropped them off on Halloween. Their neighbors are the Antarctic wildlife: fur seals, chinstrap and gentoo penguins, a few other seabirds, and the whales blowing just offshore.
Cape Shireff on Livingston Island is at about 62 degrees 22 minutes south latitude, 60 degrees 50 minutes west latitude—have a look for it on a world map. When we left the island we set our course for Palmer Station, which is at about 64 degrees south, 64 degrees west. We’re sailing through a narrow channel between steep, snow-laden mountains. Icebergs are all around us, and chinstrap penguins are standing on them. We’ll be at Palmer in about a day—depending on how many humpbacks the whale biologists find along the way for us to study.
There are two sets of scientists on this voyage to Antarctica. One set will spend six weeks on the ship studying the waters, the plankton, and the whales off the Antarctic Peninsula. They do this voyage every year, collecting a long-term data set that shows us how the region is changing.
We’re in the other set—our work takes place at Palmer Station, and we’re just hitching a ride on the Gould. We’re like commuters riding the subway to a job, except our subway is a 230-foot icebreaker and our commute is 600 miles long. We act like subway commuters: we pack ourselves into whatever spare space is available; we do prep work and planning so we’re ready to begin as soon as we reach Palmer Station; and we spend our spare time admiring the scenery outside.
Read on about our commute from South America to the Antarctic Peninsula in this slideshow:
Note #1: See an example of a radar map of the surface currents at Palmer Station in the very first post on this blog.
Although the winter holidays aren’t quite over yet, the CONVERGE mission to Palmer Station, Antarctica, has begun. On the day after Christmas, some 32 scientists, postdoctoral fellows, and students said goodbye to their families, left North America, and flew down the entire length of South America. Now we’re all at the skinny tip of the continent, in Punta Arenas, Chile, on the shores of the Strait of Magellan.
Across the water lies Tierra del Fuego; beyond it is Cape Horn; and beyond that is the Drake Passage and Antarctica. We’ll be there in about five days. Now is the time to buy last-minute supplies like sunscreen, chocolate, and seasickness medicine; to try on our Extreme Cold Weather gear to make sure it fits; and to fit all of our gear and supplies onto the ship that will take us across to Antarctica.
Read more about the preparations in our slideshow:
We’re now cruising slowly eastward through the Strait of Magellan. We’ll cross into Argentine waters and then turn south toward the Drake Passage, one of the most fearsome stretches of ocean on Earth. So far the forecast looks like fairly good weather, and the scientists are looking forward to seeing dolphins, penguins, whales, albatrosses, and other wildlife. While we’re at sea we’ll have little contact with the outside world—but we’ll transmit updates via a satellite connection to let you know how we’re doing and what we’re seeing.
Our main research mission—and our daily blog—will kick off just after Christmas. But the science team has already put in a ton of effort (actually it was about 8 tons of effort, as you’ll see in the slideshow). Scientists and technicians from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, spent several weeks in November setting up radar locations on two small, snowbound islands near Palmer Station. These solar- and wind-powered stations will scan the horizon and generate detailed maps of the ocean’s surface currents for us. That’s crucial information that will help the rest of the science team piece together why the penguins forage where they do, and where their food is.
So how do you build a radar station on an uninhabited island with no power? Find out in this photo gallery:
After two weeks of solid work, the team had the two radar stations (plus one at Palmer Station itself) up and running by November 15. They spent the next couple of days calibrating their system. By November 16, Dr. Josh Kohut was logging into the radar systems all the way from his office at Rutgers University in New Jersey, in between donuts. He analyzed the data and produced these colorful maps of surface currents in the vicinity of Palmer Station. (The small red dots mark the locations of the radar stations.)
The brighter colors indicate faster-moving water. The scientists (and many of the students who follow along on this blog) will use these maps to figure out where and when krill might accumulate, creating possible feeding grounds for penguins. And that’s what the rest of the group will be studying when they arrive in January.
Hank Statscewich, Dr. Peter Winsor, and the rest of the installation team boarded the Gould and returned to Punta Arenas, Chile, soon after; they’re now back home in Alaska. Meanwhile, Dr. Kim Bernard, Shenandoah Raycroft, and Megan Cimino have arrived at Palmer Station, and we’ll check in with them soon.
(Thanks to Hank Statscewich for his descriptions of the work, and to Peter Winsor for the photographs.)