(L)ab work in the north

Hello from 68 degrees north!

I’m spending the summer at Toolik Field Station, working for the Lakes Ecology component of the Arctic Long Term Ecological Research site (LTER). I’ll be spending summer solstice above the Arctic Circle, which means it’s definitely time to revive this blog.

Toolik is located on Alaska’s North Slope, in the foothills of the Brooks Range. The North Slope has been glaciated multiple times, creating kettle ponds that dot the landscape today. The project I’m working for studies the chemistry and biology of these lakes, particularly how they are changing as they age over time, and as climate changes.

Fog Lake

Ice remains on one of the Fog Lakes, a kettle pond created by glacial retreat.

I have several friends who have worked at Toolik, so I’ve heard for years about the delicious food and sauna on the lake. Having only been here for about four days so far, I can already recommend both; I just ate a peanut butter bar and teared up a little because the first bite was so good. This is definitely the land of the midnight sun–the sun is high around the clock, and won’t set until a month after summer solstice, on July 21st. (Curious about how the timing of sunrise and sunset change seasonally at your home? Check out this awesome link.)

The rest of the team and I arrived after a nine-hour drive up the Dalton Highway, known in Alaska as the “Haul Road.” It was incredible. Every second took me further north than I had ever been. After we left the boreal forest near Fairbanks and crossed the Yukon River, the views soon turned to tundra in the foreground with mountains in the distance, which is my favorite type of landscape. We saw a swan, several ground squirrels, and a snowshoe hare, the last of which had turned brown for better summer camouflage on the tundra.

Crossing the Arctic Circle

My colleague Kyle and I celebrate crossing the Arctic Circle on the drive north.

So far, we’ve mostly been unpacking the lab and getting prepped for the field season. There is still ice on Toolik Lake, so on Friday we rowed to the ice edge, hauled the boats onto the ice, loaded our instruments and bottles into sleds, and sampled through an auger hole. I had never sampled through ice before, and it was a blast, if a little chilly.

Today, we drove about twenty minutes north to the “Fog Lakes,” which will be another staple of our summer sampling. The four lakes we hiked to were also still covered with ice, so we just took surface samples from the shore. With the warm days we’ve been having (I’m wearing a tank top and shorts as I write this!), the ice will be gone soon, and we’ll delve into our full sampling routine. Happy summer, everyone!

(L)ab work

(L)ab work: It turns out that an ab workout is the perfect compliment to making a chemical solution.


Science communication in Antarctica

One of the greatest privileges of living at Palmer Station is the chance to meet the huge variety of researchers and technicians that pass through. During a given season, Palmer may host everyone from soil ecologists to whale biologists, giving the community the opportunity to learn about different corners of the world of polar science.

Every Tuesday night at 8 pm, the main event on station is a “science talk.” Recent highlights have included an overview of oceanographic robots and the different modes of research they enable, a lecture about how the decline of Western Antarctic Peninsula annual sea ice impacts local penguin populations, and even a slideshow of pictures taken at Palmer and its surroundings during the 1970s.

In early February, we had one of the most exciting talks yet. The party aboard a visiting yacht included Eric Lander, one of the main brains behind the Human Genome Project, and involved in other cutting-edge genomics research, such as the recent findings about schizophrenia. The group toured station, joined us for dinner, and, in a fun reversal of the norm, we all crowded into the lounge where for a talk about genomics.

Lander was so well-spoken and personable that, for me, his lecture crystallized the immense power of scientists who can communicate well about their work. Not only did he make complex ideas accessible to his entire audience, but he built relationships with us as individuals, drawing connections to research on station he had learned about less than an hour before, during dinner. I imagine these tools have been instrumental in helping him build a network through his career, one that has both spurred new ideas and inspired financial donation.

I usually think of science communication as a media-centric field, populated by newspaper articles and documentaries, but Lander’s talk underscored the power of dialogue about science between individuals, and reminded me that human relationships must be an integral part of science communication.


Hello again from 65° South!

On New Year’s Eve, I began the long flight from Fairbanks, Alaska (65° North latitude) to Punta Arenas (53° South latitude). Two days into January, I boarded the research vessel and began the transit down to Palmer Station with the 24th annual Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) oceanographic cruise of the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) region. During the cruise, research groups specializing in areas such as trace metals, whales, sea birds, phytoplankton, and microbes, spend about a month driving transects in the WAP region, collecting samples at points along these transects. Every year, the same points, called “stations” are sampled, building a data set that allows for analysis across decades. The cruise is an exciting, fast-paced part of the summer season, and during the few days I was with the ship, I had a blast getting to know the scientists aboard.

Every year, before science can begin, first the ship must cross the the traditionally-rough Drake Passage. The Drake was kind to us (a relatively flat state people exaggerate with the name “Drake Lake”), and we filled the days of transit with movies, walks on deck, visits to the bridge, and a high-stakes night of bingo. I was one of the lucky winners, and my box of prizes included a “Wayne’s World” trucker’s hat, a bag of pickles, and a used toothbrush.

Heading south felt very different than last year, when I came down in October 2014. Last season was full of the adrenaline bursts of first experiences: the first tumultuous day in the Drake, the first penguins, the first view of Palmer. So far, this season has been characterized by contentment. While I may not be buzzing with excitement as often, I’m constantly reminded of how happy I am to be here.

One day in January did have me buzzing with excitement. As a group I was part of headed out “rec boating” (boating for fun), the whale researchers announced over the radio that they had spotted a pod of orcas. We jetted off to the location they’d mentioned and idled, everyone scouting the water. Though no orcas were in sight, we spotted two humpbacks, and as we watched them, distracted, five orcas in a perfect line rose out of the ocean about 500 feet in front of us. They were the first I’d ever seen, and it was thrilling.

Though this summer has had an unusual number of orca sightings, whales as a whole have been much scarcer in the Palmer area this year. On the cruise, too, researchers have been finding fewer whales than expected. However, the ability to track humpbacks with satellite tags sheds some light on where the whales are congregating.

In part, the dearth of whales along the cruise track can be attributed to the incredible amount of sea ice. The ice cover the ship has encountered is far greater than anything in the last 15 years of LTER cruises, and every science group has felt its effects, whether in terms of ship operations or interesting data. The Palmer area, too, has had an anomalous ice year, with a late sea ice retreat, and a large amount of “fast” ice in the harbor. Throughout January, over twenty icebergs were constantly visible from station, moving, shifting, and breaking to create brash ice.

There’s a lot more to write about, and I will soon. Until then, I hope everyone is having a great start to 2016!

Bad Moon Rising

At Palmer, much of the research and work undertaken involves boating, and so  the weather forecast is the local equivalent of a gossip column–“Have you seen Passage yet today? Something big is about to roll in.”

The last few weeks have brought us some of our windiest weather of the season. Bad weather days are always part frustrating, as they can stymie sampling we’ve already prepared for, and part thrilling–everyone likes to watch a good squall develop, casting that characteristic flat yet bright light, fluffing up whitecaps in the harbor, and exhaling winds that will drain your coffee cup as you walk between buildings. Since my arrival in October, our record gust has been 69 kts, or almost 80 mph.

Along with some foul weather, a lot of wonderful things have happened lately. Last Friday, we celebrated Conor’s birthday with a polar plunge, creating a “vortex” in the hot tub (everyone runs in the same direction until the water is forced into a whirlpool and sweeps everyone in circles), and pumpkin pie. Saturday, we celebrated Valentine’s Day with an 80’s-themed dance party. On Tuesday, we woke up to dense fog shrouding station and the surrounding islands, but the weather surprised us by turning for the better, and we had the rare and wonderful experience of sampling under blue skies.

Often, during the work day, I feel like I could be in any lab anywhere in the world, and I don’t realize and appreciate where I am. Last week, I went to a nearby island with the bird researchers to help them weigh penguin fledglings.That day, standing on an Antarctic beach, looking at a group of penguins so young they couldn’t even swim properly, three sleeping elephant seals, numerous raucous fur seals, and clear skies dotted by icebergs, I felt so lucky to be here.

Today brought another wonderful Antarctica moment: while we were water sampling at Station B, the local iceberg flipped onto its side, and a house-sized chunk calved off. We all stood for a stunned moment, then snapped into action as the resulting wave began to move in our direction, and we hastily motored away to calm water.

Even if a bad moon is gonna rise, this is a pretty good place to be.

Visitors to Palmer

During the summer season, besides the cruise ships that travel the western Antarctic Peninsula, Palmer also receives visits by chartered yachts (which, this year, have to clear an Ebola exam first). Because the yachts carry so many fewer people, we’re able to interact with the passengers and crew much more. Two stopped by station recently, and were a lot of fun in different ways.

After it became known that the baseline price of the first yacht was a quarter million dollars per week, rumors began flying as to who the four passengers aboard could be. The rumors grew wilder and more numerous as the ship grew nearer, and included:

– Beyonce and Jay-Z
– The entire cast of Game of Thrones, bearing Season 5 on DVD
– Tammilee Webb (whose Abs of Steel fitness video is, for an admiring few, the prelude to lunch three days per week)
– Tom Cruise
– Obama and his family
– Shakira (to perform with Beyonce and Jay-Z)
– A couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary by taking the trip to Antarctica they’d dreamed of and saved for their entire married life, along with their grandchildren

In reality, the passengers we all eagerly tried to glimpse as they toured station were just two nice, normal-looking couples; as is often the case, anticipation was the most fun part.

A few days later, the yacht Ice Bird anchored in Arthur Harbor to pick up a guide and two clients who had spent two days trekking across Mt. Remmie, an unnamed peak, and the Marr Ice Piedmont. In the way that everyone immediately knows everything that happens on station, it was common knowledge the moment their tiny silhouettes appeared on the horizon of the Piedmont, eerily outside our flagged safe route up the glacier.

Excited to meet the trekkers, Conor, Mark (co-lead of the Glacier Search and Rescue team), and I formed the most informal welcome party possible. We met the group in the rocky “backyard” of station and led them to the galley, where they warmed up, drank hot chocolate, ate cookies, and showed gorgeous pictures from their trip. One even had a video in which a gentoo chick hatches from its egg and begins to groggily take in the world, before being stopped by its parent pushing it back inside the egg’s fragments! I later told the story to one of the penguin researchers, who had never seen or heard of a penguin behaving that way.

The yacht sent a zodiac to pick up the trekkers, and to deliver a letter to one of the IT specialists, whose wife is working on South Georgia Island, another popular stop for ships. He wrote a letter back, and Conor and I added a postcard and bar of chocolate to be delivered to Port Lockroy, whose employees had sent us greetings on a recent cruise ship. The travel of mail here, and willingness of people to do one another favors, is wonderful.

We’ve had a lull in visits since (besides our first Antarctic Fur Seal of the summer!), and instead have received visits from a series of passing fronts. Today has been our stormiest yet, with wind gusts above forty knots: perfect for catching up on non-sampling work, sitting by the fire, and, for the Ocean Search and Rescue team, some intense bad-weather training. Stay cozy!

The New Year and the Visit of the Not-Orcas

Last Tuesday, I was in the gym, when the station doctor ran through crying, “Whales in Arthur Harbor! Possibly orcas!”

Still in shorts, I scrambled with almost all 44 members of station over boulders to Gamage Point, the tip of Anvers Island that extends furthest into the harbor; we were all united by some instinctive desire to be as close to the whales as possible. As we scanned for spouts, the shout came, “look, a leopard!,” and a moment later, a leopard seal swam right up to the rock on which one of the waste management specialists perched. Leopard seals don’t tend to act aggressively towards humans, but their combination of curiosity, mass, and sharp teeth makes them quite dangerous. This seal decided we weren’t very interesting and dove out of sight, allowing us to turn our attention back to the whales. For twenty minutes, we watched them spout and breach, even swimming into Hero Inlet, which is only seventeen meters deep.

The white belly of one whale made us think it may be an orca, a species that has been seen in the area in past years, but not yet this season. The whale researchers set us straight later, and it turns out our friend is actually a humpback with unusual markings. Dozens of humpbacks have been frequenting Arthur Harbor and the surrounding area lately, delighting everyone. Check out the new pictures on the Photo page!

All in all, the pace of life at Palmer has picked up with the new year. On January first, I boarded the Holland America cruise ship Zaandam with a group of eleven others, in order to be part of two question and answer presentations. We left for the ship at 5:30 am and spent a dizzying day aboard. Highlights included eating fresh fruit and drinking Earl Grey, both of which had been missed at station for weeks, passing through the gorgeous Lemaire Channel, seeing small children, and meeting people from all over the world. Even though the new scenery and change of pace were welcome, it felt great to see a zodiac pulling alongside the ship to take us home that afternoon.

The next day, the Gould arrived, bringing with it fresh food, mail, and a boatload of scientists ready for the annual Long Term Ecological Research cruise. This cruise, which returns to many of the same sites every year, collects data about phytoplankton, penguins, whales, bacteria, seals, zooplankton, and more, which the scientists then spin into a fantastically comprehensive picture of the Western Antarctic Peninsula. We spent the weekend in a constant stream of activity, offloading and onloading cargo, preparing labs for the cruise, and welcoming new members of the community. After sending the Gould off last Monday morning, we’ve settled into a routine again, albeit a very different one, including plums, new personnel, and bountiful whales. 2015 is off to a great start here, and I hope it is for you too!

Holidays on ice, at the height of summer

Things to do when you’re iced in:

  1. Finish all non-sampling work for the next month.
  2. Really commit to the NYT crossword puzzle.
  3. Make a gingerbread model of Palmer Station.
  4. Help the carpenter epoxy new pipes for the fuel line.
  5. Call the Cafe Shirreff field camp for the daily communications check.
  6. Look online for jobs.
  7. Catch up on the news.
  8. Mess up your secret holiday craft project.
  9. Tell yourself every day that you’ll go to the gym, but don’t actually go.
  10. Shoot a horror movie scene.

With the solstice occurring last week, we’re really at the height of summer, making it all the more surprising that the sea ice returned and stuck around so long. Below is a figure* showing annual sea ice extent from the Palmer Station/Anvers Island study area (far left), as well as study areas further south (middle and right). Check out the “D” for December, and you can see how rare extensive sea ice cover is at this time of year.

Though not depicted on the figure, during summer 2013, Palmer saw an extremely late sea ice retreat, without all the open water we had this November–it will be interesting to see these “anomalies” in a long-term context.

Sea Ice Graph

For now, at least, the sea ice surrounding station has retreated, and we have resumed sampling, seeing a distinct drop in productivity of the local bacteria and phytoplankton communities. It makes sense: after being starved of sunlight by ice cover for ten days, it will take a while for their populations to rebound.

In other news, happy holidays! I was amazed to find, on the first night of Chanukah, a beautiful menorah constructed about eight years ago by the station maintenance specialist, Ben. When I asked what inspired him to build the menorah, he confessed, “The Jewish girl on station was cute.”

A few days later, on Solstice, the ice began breaking up, and we celebrated by polar plunging (jumping into the ocean, or in this case lowering yourself in between floes), and then engaging in what we’ve taken to calling a “civilized plunge,” in which you take a dip in a tank filled with fresh seawater right next to the hot tub. One advantage to the civilized plunge is that it’s much more conducive to sitting than the swaying shore. Working up from 30 seconds, my record time is currently two minutes in the tank, and I’m not sure I’m interested in beating it. Being in the water isn’t as bad, it turns out, as warming back up, when you can really tell that human bodies aren’t made for such cold water.

For Christmas, we had our second two-day weekend of the summer season, the highlight of which was a white elephant gift exchange with incredible handmade projects: cutting boards, picture frames, earrings, mittens and scarves, a travel cribbage board, caramels, and more. We also had visits from many animals: what we termed the “Christmas whales,” humpbacks that breached in front of station during lunch, one leopard seal that haunted the floating dock for twenty minutes as we watched from the boathouse deck, another that popped up between our Zodiac and the penguin researcher we were trying to pick up, and a Chinstrap penguin that hopped up onto the pontoon of Bruiser during our Christmas Day sampling.

Now, we have a big week ahead, with two cruise ship visits Thursday and Friday, the Gould arriving Saturday for a frenzied 24-hour port call, and of course, the beginning of 2015. Happy almost-New Year!

* Figure Source:
Ducklow, H.W., W.R. Fraser, M.P. Meredith, S.E. Stammerjohn, S.C. Doney, D.G. Martinson,
S.F. Sailley, O.M. Schofield, D.K. Steinberg, H.J. Venables, and C.D. Amsler. 2013. West
Antarctic Peninsula: An ice-dependent coastal marine ecosystem in transition.
Oceanography 26(3):190–203, http://dx.doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2013.62.

Return of the Sea Ice

How quickly things change: last Monday, Team Bruiser had its fastest sampling day yet, clocking in at about 3.5 hours, including half an hour slow travel through brash ice. Approaching the pier at 11:45 am, we cheered “Home for lunch! Home for lunch!,” in celebration of accomplishing what had been our goal since the beginning of sampling season.

On Thursday, we were home even earlier, but only because the sea ice had again advanced so close that we could only reach the close-to-home Station B, and not Station E, located about three miles away. During the two hours we spent on the water, the ice grew visibly nearer, and by that evening, it had choked the station, turning the water white again.

We’ve been “iced in” since, and, if the forecast is right, may be until next Wednesday, when the winds are expected to shift to the NE, the direction that pushes ice out of the harbor. Though everyone is feeling a little cooped-up, there are silver linings: the conditions have given me and Conor time to prepare for the month-long research cruise beginning in early January, and relax from what can sometimes feel like an overwhelming pace. Also, now that it’s later in the summer, there are more leopard seals in the area, and we see many of them lounging on the ice near station every day.

The Gould soldiered north through the ice yesterday morning, taking with it thirteen people from station, including two scientists, whose research Conor and I will help carry out until reinforcements come in January and February. Work aside, it was sad to see everyone go, especially those I traveled to Palmer with, and met upon first arriving. We said goodbye well Tuesday night with a jam session in the carpentry shop. Due to my huge volume of musical talent, my role is typically to play the tambourine, try fervently to pluck a simple chord progression on the bass, which no one here really knows how to play, or, as on Tuesday, hold the cymbal. The vibrations running down my arm kept me laughing all night, and only made the drummers play harder.

Lately, Palmer is getting creative in other media, too: many people are working on secret craft projects for the holiday gift exchange, as well as not-so-secret movies for the Antarctic Peninsula International Film Festival. The A.P.I.F.F. has meant lots of searching for costumes (how do you have someone play the President of the United States when there may not be a suit within a thousand miles?), trying to rhyme “bowling shirts” with “white board,”  and, best of all, the constant discovery that your colleagues have talents you never imagined.

Happy almost-holidays and winter solstice to all!

Thanksgiving and Alaska come to Palmer

A couple weeks after getting here, when my cohort had settled in and knew where to find and how to do most things as needed day-to-day, I decided that presently things would calm down, and that soon I would have nothing new to say in a blog post.

What the last month has shown me is that life will never become completely routine here. Sometimes a day is about big things, like the crew of HBO VICE visiting, or going to a new island for the first time, but the little things have a way of feeling every bit as significant: getting a new espresso machine that required multiple lessons, demonstrations, and interventions before the whole station became proficient and had thoroughly debated the difference between a latte and cappuccino; the station-wide obsession with the New York Times crossword puzzle, and the daily collaboration that results. Some days are about the unexpected: it is delightful to know I never could have anticipated I would try  waldorf salad, mead, and perogies for the first time in Antarctica; I never imagined before coming here I would walk with my eyes closed when I forgot my sunglasses, because the reflection of the sun off the snow truly is blinding.

This last week was chock-full of big things, little things, and unexpected things. On Tuesday, the Bruiser team sampled for the second time at both stations, and Conor and I set a new record by finishing our processing before midnight. On Wednesday, the National Geographic Explorer came for a visit, and invited us aboard for a Q&A session and a concert with their onboard band, the Spice Boys. I was thrilled to meet a few Alaskans, including two Fairbanksans who know my parents, one of whom has even been to my house! I also enjoyed talking with two people who work at Port Lockroy, a British station used for whaling between 1911 and 1931, research until 1962, and, beginning in 1996, a museum. During the summer season, when cruise ships come to visit, five people live there and take care of everything from building maintenance to cooking. Palmer, in comparison, is a luxurious hotel.

On Friday, we celebrated Thanksgiving, in the grand tradition of all holidays in Antarctica falling on Fridays so as not to interfere with the work week. We got dressed up and had a fantastic dinner (including my dad’s cranberry sauce!), and enjoyed our first two-day weekend of the summer season. On Saturday, the weather was grey and windy, perfect for playing cards, scrabble, working on the crossword, and having a dance party (because why not?). On Sunday, we had gorgeously clear weather, and I took my first trip to the site of Old Palmer Station, on Amsler Island. It was incredible to see different views and walk different topography.

We returned to station and finished out the day with a polar plunge in honor of the cook’s birthday. Each time I’ve jumped in, the same two thoughts occur simultaneously: that the water isn’t as bad as I’d expected, and that I’ve never been so cold in my life. Good thing summer is on its way.

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving weekend!

Penguins and seals and cruise ships, oh my!

The last week has been a great one, packed with weather, visitors, science, and wildlife. Over the weekend, a storm system the size of the Antarctic Peninsula gusted away with Anvers Island at its fringes. Lucky for us, its 20-40 knot winds came largely from the southeast, the direction that blows ice out of Arthur Harbor!

Through lunch on Monday, the Harbor was still so iced over that there was no visible difference between the ice and snowy ground. Sometimes, when there’s nothing to distinguish water from land, I semi-wonder whether I could have made it all up–that the station is on island, that we traveled here on an ice breaker, that we’re surrounded by marine animals. But at 2 pm, I walked outside and saw, directly in front of the station, a large patch of rippling blue.

All the ice blew out by Monday evening, but the winds stayed high enough to prevent boating for several more days. Our consolation prize was to wake up Tuesday morning to a baby seal sleeping beside our Zodiac! The Bird Group, who know a great deal about the local wildlife, believe him to be a male weaned from his mother just a few days before he arrived here. Over the course of the next three days, he rolled at a leisurely pace around station, coming to rest for a day on the deck of the boathouse, presumably because of his love of and desire to be near the boating coordinator.

On Wednesday, the first cruise ship of the season came for a visit, which was exciting, exhausting, and overwhelming. We were visited by about 150 passengers and crew from countries including Poland, India, Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Canada, and England. Stationed in the dining room as a “mingler,” I met amazing people, including numerous world travelers for whom Antarctica was their seventh continent visited.

Later that night, we received another visitor to the station: a gentoo penguin! He waddled around between the Bio building and boathouse, where the seal still lay, looking fantastically busy as he leaned far forward, as if to reach his destination faster. After he dashed around for about thirty minutes, it’s likely he swam home to the Torgerson Island penguin colony, just across the harbor, for the night.

On Thursday morning, we finally woke up to winds low enough that it was time for our first real sampling excursion of the season. Frank, Nicole (the Rutgers phytoplankton group), Conor, and I checked the boat’s fuel and air, loaded our gear, and set off. As we pulled away from the boat ramp, the lab supervisor and  boating coordinator waved and took pictures, as if we were their kids who had been waiting all summer to start kindergarten, and had finally boarded the school bus. As if they were pretty sure we’d be fine, but were also a little anxious as we left the nest.

As I turned from them to face the ocean, it was dizzying to realize that the four of us, who all jokes aside, really are kids, were in our own boat, loose in the waters of Antarctica. Easing in, we started at “Station B,” the nearest of our two sampling sites, which is about a mile from Palmer. The next four hours were filled with trying to safely attach frighteningly-expensive instruments to a wire on a winch, lower them to the correct depths, get theme back on the boat, collect water, and not run into any rocks, ice, or animals. Despite all the required wrinkles (an instrument wouldn’t turn on, we drifted off Station B while we had gear in the water and couldn’t maneuver, we forgot an important piece of tubing), it was a very successful first day of sampling in that we collected all our data AND brought everyone home again.

Weather permitting, we’ll sample again tomorrow–more adventures to come!