SCIENCE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD: WINTER IN ANTARCTICA

By Clifford Hoang
VP Finance and CEO

This summer, I was fortunate to be one of a small but growing number of international scientists to spend months at a stretch on the world’s most remote continent: Antarctica. As a science team member in NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division (AERD), our mission is to conduct research to fulfill NOAA’s mandate of providing scientific advice that supports interests related to resource management by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), of which the U.S. is a key member.

antarctica_research_2014_web_corrected (1)

Illustration by Katie Peek

Antarctic Marine Living Resources (AMLR) 

DSCF3466

My journey to the bottom of the world began at one of the most southern cities in the world, Punta Arenas, Chile. It’s a small but cozy port city, with all points of interest within reasonable walking distance. At the entrance to the largest pier in Punta Arenas there hangs a banner around a humpback whale’s tail, which appropriately reads, “Gateway to Antarctica”. The far end of the pier docks the Nathaniel B. Palmer, a 308-foot icebreaker-equipped research vessel that will carry the AMLR team across the treacherous Drake Passage to the research area along the West Antarctic Peninsula.  We are in search of a two-inch crustacean species called Euphasia superba, generally referred to as krill.

Why krill?

DSCF5925

Krill set up the marine Antarctic food web. They represent the primary food source for a wide variety of animals including penguins, seals, whales, fish, and sea birds. Humans, too, rely on this food source approximated to be between 100 and 500 million tons. More comprehensive regional studies reveal that the krill population is subject to considerable fluctuations from year to year, linked to changing climate. After three decades of study, the question of how krill behave in the winter remains largely unresolved. Our work will advance understandings of krill patterns during bleak winters and help the United States manage the Antarctic krill fisheries.

Crossing the Drake

DSCF3649

To those prone to motion sickness, the Drake Passage is unforgiving. The trek to the southern continent took approximately three days–sailing from Punta Arenas through the Strait of Magellan (Estrecho de Magallanes) to the tail of the South American continent takes a day alone. The Drake boasted waves that rocked our vessel upwards 20 degrees from normal. While crossing the Drake Passage, we deployed expendable Bathythemographs (XBT) and surface drifters, instruments that collect various kinds of oceanographic data including temperature and salinity. Data in this region is scarce, and understandably so. Researchers have developed a network of autonomous instruments (e.g. Argo Floats, Global Drifter Program) to sidestep the dangers involved with collecting data in such inaccessible regions.

Frozen Breakfast

pancakes_a

I captured this image on the first morning nearing the end of our long voyage across the Drake Passage. I was on the back deck, just beginning to drop an XBT into the ocean for a temperature profile when a single white conglomerate floats across my line of sight. Having just dropped the instrument into the water, I anxiously waited for the radio call that the instrument reached a depth of 750 meters before I could cut the copper wire and see what was happening at the front of the vessel.  As the vessel continued on its course, more clusters of these icy chunks appeared. When I finally received the signal to cut the line, I dashed directly towards the ship’s bridge and found myself mesmerized by a vast calm sea covered in pancake ice!

Tip of the Iceberg

icebergs_a

longtableberg

It’s difficult to imagine the entirety of these majestic figures. Mind-bending even. Only a small fraction of an iceberg’s mass protrudes from the sea surface. Unlike sea ice which originate from freezing seawater at the surface, icebergs are masses of ice that formed on land and are detached from the terminus of a glacier or ice shelf and float in the open water.

Sunrise in Admiralty Bay

AdmiraltyBaySunrise_Antarctica

Working the graveyard shift (12 a.m. to 12 p.m.) certainly had its perks. While I wasn’t awake to catch a single sunset at the bottom of the world, the sunrises were more than enough to make up for them. The sky and ocean would emanate a flaring intensity of red from the rising sun. From the west coast, the sunrises I’ve witnessed always crept up from behind a range of mountains. Watching the sun appear as a yolk on one side of the ocean was a new experience to me.

Penguin Isle

DSCF5074

DSCF5150

AMLR2014_8-23_-1762

To map the distribution of krill–which like to hide under the sea ice–we employed acoustic sounding equipment. Like with most research equipment, the data collected is only as valid as what the instrument is calibrated to. On the morning of this sunrise, we positioned ourselves in the calm waters nearby Penguin Island to calibrate the acoustic gear. In sum, the process consumed five hours of our day. Believe me, time passed in a blink of an eye! To the surprise of many, there were, indeed, penguin colonies living around Penguin Island. These adorable flightless birds topped the lists of many for “sights to see in Antarctica”.

Breaking Ice

DSCF5627

Compared to previous AMLR research cruises, this cruise had gone absolutely flawlessly. We were reaching all of the stations on our grid in record time–the ice we encountered until this point was too young or thin to put up a fight against our mighty icebreaker. This was one of the rare instances where we were forced to break ice to arrive at our next net tow station. Forced to fire up all four of the vessel’s engines, the engineering crew couldn’t wait to get out of the ice. I quite enjoyed this new and exciting experience. The unfamiliar sounds of crushing ice effortlessly drowned out the groans resonating from the overworked diesel engines.

 

Aside from taking in the sights, there are plenty of other ways scientists and crew spent their time.

Ice hockey

4S8A7460

Leave it to the crew to make even the most menial, unimaginative tasks entertaining! Interested in a little exercise, beautiful views, and helping the crew clear the back deck of residual ice chunks? Look no further.

Disco party anyone?

DSCF5520

There’s a long-standing tradition on these research cruises where we celebrate Hump Day, the midpoint of the month-long cruise. Following the installment of the disco ball, the Zooplankton team held once-a-tow (every four hours) spontaneous dance parties to inspire a bit of fun and boost morale amidst long 12-hour shifts.

Antarctica was the last place on earth where I expected to spend my summer. It is undeniably one of the most remote and beautiful places in the Southern Hemisphere, if not the world. However, this experience helped me put into perspective that winter is rapidly coming to an end in Antarctica. Summers are becoming longer and winters are more confined, threatening the seasonal cycles that these fragile ecosystems have grown accustomed to. Climate change is, by far, the most pressing issue facing the world today. It is not an issue pertaining to any one particular country but rather, it is an issue that transcends national borders and geographic boundaries. While the implications of warming oceans remain unclear, in the coming decades and century, sea ice is expected to continue rapidly changing. These alterations will have major impacts on both the physical and biological environment at the global and regional levels.

To view more photographs from his time in Antarctica, check out Clifford’s album.

All photographs by Clifford Hoang, VP Finance and CEO.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s