Tag Archives | zodiacs

Safety First in the Outer Islands

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:

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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.

Robot Splashdown Over the Palmer Deep

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:
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glider positions, january 6All 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.

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