Tag Archives | Torgersen Island

The Kind of Change You Can’t Say No To

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:

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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!

Sights and Smells of Summer in an Adelie Penguin Colony

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:

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Learning the Landmarks

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.

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Try This: Use These Maps to Find Landmarks

map of landmarks around the Palmer Station boating areaThe 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.
map of Palmer Station area showing Joubin and Wauwerman Islands

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.

Palmer Station locator map showing Drake Passage and Tierra del Fuego

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.

How to Follow a Penguin Out to Sea and Back

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:

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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.

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