The RUcold team has been spending the last week or so getting settled in here at Palmer Station. We’ve weathered plenty of storms, said goodbye to some friends on the R/V Laurence M. Gould (LMG) , who brought us down here and started making some new ones on station. Just about everything here seems to be dictated by the weather, winds can jump drastically in minutes and recede just as quickly. It took about 2 or 3 days ( they can seem to run together at times) to offload the LMG and another few days to unpack. Setting up a lab in Antarctica is by no means an easy task. The logistics and organization involved are mind boggling. At one point there was next to no walking room in our lab. I think Kaycee almost drowned in pipette tips at one point. Saying goodbye to the LMG was bittersweet. As it pulled away from the pier it seemed surreal that we were now essentially stranded on the southernmost continent of the world, all in the name of science.
The feeling only lasted a few seconds at best. It’s a tradition that as any ship leaves the pier at Palmer, all the newly dropped off (and usually a few other salty tenants) leap from the pier into the frigid Antarctic waters for a quick Polar Plunge. As weather windows are hard to come by I was scheduled to start boating training at this time and hadn’t planned on participating, which I had very very mixed feelings about at the time. Fortunately, like I mentioned earlier, the weather has a hand in every facet of life here. The winds happened to rise to about 25 knots minutes before the polar plunge and all boating activities were suspended. Lilly Glass, the boating coordinator quickly ran up to me and Alice, a member of the microbial biology group from Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and informed us “boating is cancelled, there’s still time! JUMP!!!” We both quickly stripped off non-essential clothing and threw ourselves into the icy waters below. I had heard many stories of what this would feel like and had a lot of apprehension coming up to the moment. To me it wasn’t necessarily painful, but it was like an instant numbness washed over my body. Climbing the ice covered metal ladder back up to the pier may have been the most difficult aspect of the whole event. After a quick sprint through the snow Alice and I were joining the rest of the group in the outdoor hot tub, which has an amazing view of the glacier and bay behind station.
Post-polar-plunge things have started to get into a bit of a routine. We’ve had a number of meetings regarding station life, gotten used to doing dishes and cleaning with the rest of the 30 or so inhabitants here at Palmer. I’ve been spending most of my time reassembling our optical equipment, particularly the AC-9 and Spear. The AC-9 pulls water through a dark housing and shoots a light from one end into another. Across this path light attenuation and absorption is measured at multiple wavelengths. By knowing the optical properties of seawater we can say something about the material in that water whether it’s from different pigments in phytoplankton or other particles scattering light. The Spear is so-named because well it looks like a giant spear with wings at the end, I’m sure I’ll have pictures of it later. Mounted on the Spear we have an upward looking light attenuation sensor, a downward looking sensor as well as an optical backscatter and conductivity, temperature and depth sensor. We can measure a host of water properties from theses sensors including salinity, density, temperature, fluorescence (from chlorophyll in phytoplankton) and light properties similar to the AC-9. There will be more later about how these properties are important for studying the oceans and Antarctica in particular.
While here we’ve had ample opportunity to see some of the wildlife. Penguins are truly amazing creatures in the water, and equally hilarious creatures on land. Two VERY large elephant seals were lounging on a nearby island during our groups boating training and we’ve all had many seabird sightings. The first leopard seal sighting was today during Garz’s boating training session. I can’t wait to see my first one, though I hope it’s not too up close and personal. Also as the last part of our boating training we did man overboard drills. Kaycee volunteered to be the helpless victim and suited up into a gumby (survival) suit. We have plenty of photo evidence of her hugging a large chunk of ice while waiting for Garz and I to scoop her from the water. I’ll be sure to get the pictures from Lilly and post them later on.
The only word that seems to accurately describe working here is ‘surreal.’ I cannot believe I’m here right now, and I’m genuinely amazed to be doing work here. I hope there’s plenty more to post here in the next few months, we’d love to hear your comments and questions, science or life-in-Antarctica related!