Traveling to the End of the Earth

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Hi again!  So in my last (and first) blog post I was getting ready to leave GMRI.  What I did not say was that I was headed to Antarctica to do research for a couple months!  Even though I'm not technically in the EMLab anymore, I'll still be writing some posts about Antarctica and what I'm doing down here. 


Whenever I told someone I was going to Antarctica this winter (well, Antarctic summer) there were 2 really common questions I got: 1) how do you even get to Antarctica?,  and 2) why are you going there?  Before I answer these, a very brief Antarctic geography lesson...


The part of Antarctica I'm in is called the Antarctic Peninsula.  If you look at a world map, directly south of the tip of South America is a long, skinny piece of Antarctica- that's the Antarctic Peninsula! 


So why am I here?  Well, while climate change is happening worldwide it's occurring fastest in the Antarctic Peninsula region.  Winter temperatures have risen over 12ºF and summer temperatures around 7ºF since 1950.  This means winter temperatures have averaged an increase of 2ºF a decade  in the last 60 years.  A lot of climate change research is trying to study how ecosystems might respond to the changes in their environment.  Since climate change has progressed farther along in the Antarctic Peninsula region than in the rest of the world, studying this area might be able to give us an idea of how other systems could respond in the future.  There's a very large ongoing project involving many labs from different institutions that is studying changes in the marine ecosystem along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula.  The lab I'm working in focuses on the role of microbes, which are responsible for nutrient cycling in marine systems and form the base of the food web. 


And finally, how do you get here?  Specifically, "here" is Palmer Station- the American research station located on the Antarctic Peninsula (the U.S. also has 2 stations in other areas- the McMurdo and South Pole Stations and other countries also have stations on the peninsula).  Getting from the U.S. to Palmer takes a full week, largely because the only way in and out of Palmer is by ship.  So first we fly to Punta Arenas, Chile, which is at the tip of South America.  In Punta Arenas we picked up our "Extreme Cold Weather" (ECW) gear.  All the gear specific to working in the Antarctic region is owned by the program and kept in a warehouse in Chile, so picking up what you need before you leave Punta Arenas is very important!  By the time I left I was armed with 4 types of jackets, 4 types of pants, 2 types of boots, 6 pairs of gloves, 1 pair of mittens, a neck gaiter, a pair of goggles, a hat, and 2 pairs of really thick wool socks!


From Punta Arenas it's 4 days by boat to Palmer Station.  We took the R/V L.M. Gould- a 230 ft long icebreaker. 


The L.M. Gould docked in Punta Arenas.

This trip also requires crossing the Drake passage, which is typically considered the roughest seas in the world.  Having said that, the roughness is really variable, sometimes it's not so bad and other times, well...  We hit a storm crossing last week.  We encountered 30+ foot waves, with the boat rolling to an angle of 30 degrees at times.  It was particularly rough during the night and a lot of people were coming off their mattresses and catching air as the ship rolled back and forth! 


The reward for getting past the Drake passage was the scenery on the last day of the trip before we reached Palmer!  On both sides of the ship there was amazing ice and mountains.  We also spotted penguins several times, seals and whales! 


Some of the ice, snow and mountains along the way!


Palmer Station- there was lots of ice floating around in the area in front of the station.

1 Comment

Love the post, especially the info on warming near the Peninsula. Hope you're extra thick socks keep you warm.

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This page contains a single entry by Pam Moriarty published on December 10, 2011 10:16 PM.

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