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.

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Illustration by Katie Peek

Antarctic Marine Living Resources (AMLR) 

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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?

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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?

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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.

PHOTOJOURNAL: THE DAILY LIVES OF THE MAASAI PEOPLE IN MOSHI, TANZANIA

By Rebecca Benest
Staff Writer

While living in Tanzania over the summer and working at a grassroots organization to prevent HIV/AIDS, I was given the opportunity to go to a Maasai village and learn about their culture and lifestyle. The Maasai are semi-nomadic peoples in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. They are inhabitants of some of the national parks that are common stops on Safari tours, and are well-known for their distinctive culture, dress and language. Although there are some aspects of their culture that have been Westernized, partially with the encouragement of the Tanzanian government, they still retain a large part of their culture and their population continues to grow as an indigenous group.

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As part of the opening ceremony and dance, the Maasai men slowly walked into a cordoned area that was once a corral for their cows. They typically wear very traditional clothing during the ceremony, which is still significant in Maasai tribes. However, many of the younger Maasai dress in Western clothing when they go into town.

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This is their dancing ceremony. While the women sing, the men take turns stomping rhythmically and jumping in the middle of the circle (at seemingly shocking heights). Afterwards, all the children are given a chance to get involved and try jumping while the women continue to sing and stomp to the rhythm.

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They also showed us a traditional fire-making ceremony. Although this is not used as often anymore, especially as items such as matches become more prevalent, it is a ritual still used in ceremonies. By grinding a stick into a plate of wood, a spark is lighted, which they turn into a full flame with dry grasses. Because the ceremony took quite a while, the men in this photo would take turns grinding the stick.

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The woman in this photo, although she might’ve been the mother of the baby she’s holding, probably wasn’t. The Maasai women tend to take a more collaborative approach to childcare, meaning that the women all helped with the children, and the children didn’t seem to prefer their “real mother” over the other women. The older children also were very active in helping to take care of younger children and babies.

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This woman exhibits two of the cultural practices common among the Maasai. First is the piercing and stretching of the earlobes, which I saw among all of the women. They stretch the ears with wood, among other materials, and hang jewelry through the holes. The second is the circular mark on her cheek. This is made with wooden branding when the Maasai are still children; women receive a circle, whereas men receive two lines on their lower forehead. Although it objectively seems painful, she said the pain passes quickly and she doesn’t remember it; however, the practice is quickly falling out of use.

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The medicine man of the tribe took us around their land to show us the various trees and plants used for a wide variety of medicines. They were used for everything from remedies for malaria to paste made from a specific plant to give men more “energy”.

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This is one of several mud huts in which all of the families live. Inside the house are three rooms, with an additional room that can be completely sealed off where they keep and take care of baby goats. The beds are also made of the same mud as the walls, with blankets lying on top.

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The Maasai children were very involved in the rituals showed to us by their elders. They wore more Western clothing, as opposed to the more traditional robes, although this may be a transition that comes with age. They were very interactive and enjoyed holding our hands, singing and dancing with us. Between our limited Swahili and their limited Swahili (their first language is Kimaasai), they were very excited to hear our names and tell us all they knew about “Obamaland”.

All images by Rebecca Benest, Prospect Staff Writer.

TAIWAN: FROM SUNRISE AT ALI MOUNTAIN TO SUNSET IN KENTING

Dome of Light in Kaohsiung, Taiwan

By Kirstie Yu
Staff Writer

My previous photojournal invited the reader to traverse Taiwan through its cuisine. There is so much else Taiwan has to offer, including impressive architecture, wondrous nature, and many simply unforgettable sights. I wanted to capture Taiwan’s most enticing tourist spots outside of its capital Taipei in this sequel.

Ali Mountain (阿里山)

Alishan National Scenic Area (阿里山國家風景區) in central Taiwan is best known for its cloud sea and sunrise, which we woke up at 3 a.m. to catch. Although the sunrise usually attracts throngs of tourists, we were fortunate enough to arrive slightly before a typhoon warning closed off the mountain road. We were thus able to watch the sunrise from a perfect vantage point without having to fight too many other tourists for the best viewing spot.

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We took the first train of the day to the sunrise viewing location. The Alishan Forest Railway is a 53-mile network that was originally constructed by Japanese colonialists in 1912 to transport wood down the mountain. The trains themselves are famous as well, and there is even an Alishan Forest Railway Garage Park (阿里山森林鐵路車庫園區) for retired trains in the city of Chiayi (嘉義) at the base of the mountain.

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Xitou (溪頭)

Also in central Taiwan, the Xitou Nature Education Area (溪頭自然教育園區) was established for research purposes for the National Taiwan University (國立臺灣大學). President Chiang Kai-Shek famously posed for a photo with college students on the bamboo bridge at University Pond (大學池) within the recreational area. I found the bridge itself to actually be quite steep.

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Within the Forest Recreation Park (森林遊樂區) are many unique natural creations, including a tree in the shape of a heart (pictured below) and a 3,000-year-old cypress tree called Shen Mu (神木) or “God Tree.”

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Within Xitou is a small Japanese-inspired Monster Village (妖怪村) built in 2011 that has eccentric monster statues, red lanterns and hidden secrets throughout. The village, which contains a wide array of themed souvenir shops and restaurants, is eerily pretty when the lanterns are lit up at night.

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Jiufen (九份)

Jiufen, only an hour away from the heart of Taipei by bus or train, attracted attention in the late 1800s due to the discovery of gold in the region. With the vibrant and bustling Jiufen Old Street (九份老街) and hillside town speckled with houses, it is not hard to understand why director Hayao Miyazaki drew inspiration from this town for his film “Spirited Away.”

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Yilan (宜蘭)

The Lanyang Museum (蘭陽博物館) showcases the geography and history of Yilan county in northeast Taiwan through its Mountains Level, Plains Level, and Ocean Level permanent exhibitions, as well as other special exhibitions featuring the culture of Yilan. Inspired by the cuesta rock formations in the region, the architecture mimics a rock or mountain rising from the earth.

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Tainan (台南)

In southern Tainan, remnants of Dutch and Japanese rule in Taiwan still remain in the form of preserved architecture. Fort Zeelandia (熱蘭遮城) was built in the early 1600s by Dutch settlers and still stands today as a museum filled with history about Dutch rule in Taiwan. It was fascinating to see something so European in Taiwan.

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Formerly a warehouse owned by British trading company Tait & Company established in 1967, the Anping Treehouse (安平樹屋) has since been taken over by banyan trees that have turned the warehouse into a fairytale-like building due to years of neglect. Roots and branches snake along every wall, and trails and stairs were built in 2004 to allow visitors to explore every inch of the mysterious building.

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Kaohsiung (高雄)

Public transportation is extremely convenient, accessible, and cost-friendly in Taiwan. Taiwan’s transportation includes the MRT (mass rapid transit) a.k.a. metro system in Taipei City and Kaohsiung, train, HSR (high-speed rail) that runs from Taipei in the north all the way to Kaohsiung in the south), city bus (a low-cost comprehensive bus network), Taiwan Tourist Shuttle, and taxis galore. Formosa Boulevard Station (美麗島站) is the central station where Kaohsiung MRT’s two lines meet, and it houses the Dome of Light (光之穹頂), the largest glass work in the world.

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Kenting (墾丁)

Kenting’s unbridled natural beauty and year-round tropical weather always attracts visitors to Maobitou Scenic Area (貓鼻頭), the southwestern-most tip of Taiwan, and Cape Eluanbi (鵝鑾鼻), the southeastern-most tip. I saw the bluest cerulean ocean water I’ve seen in my life at Maobitou, which means “cat’s nose.”

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Eluanbi Lighthouse is called “The Light of East Asia” because it is supposedly the brightest lighthouse in Asia, or at least in Taiwan. Eluanbi means “goose’s beak.”

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The Kenting Night Market (墾丁大街) bustles with life after dark with locals and tourists alike eager to snack on traditional Taiwanese food, win prizes in a variety of games, and buy souvenirs from the numerous vendors after a long day at the beach.

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Finally, one cannot leave Kenting without going to Guanshan (關山), a seaside hill that was named one of the top sunset spots by CNN last year. I have been to Guanshan to see the sunset twice, and the colors and aura of the sunset are never the same each time. Pictures do not do the sunset justice, so this definitely must be seen in person when visiting Taiwan.

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All images by Kirstie Yu, Prospect Staff Writer